In the heart of East Atlanta, Kara O'Brien's backyard-turned-urban-farm offers bucket list experiences available for rent on Airbnb. The "alpaca treehouse" is hidden in a towering bamboo forest, while the "llama cottage" is closer to the street. They can be rented out separately, but both offer access to the most popular attraction: the two llamas and four alpacas that live on the farm and wander among the bamboo. They are generally gentle with visitors and don't mind posing for selfies.
“It’s a place where people can come together and celebrate each other and are really happy,” O’Brien said, “and that’s something that we didn’t really expect when we started.”
O’Brien has a long-standing love of building with reclaimed materials that led to her building the secluded treehouse about 15 feet off the ground in her backyard. In 2016, she and her partner Kate Giroux turned it into an Airbnb business. Since then, the treehouse — perfectly positioned in a bamboo clearing — has become one of the most popular Airbnb listings in the world. Airbnb is an online property rental site that lets people rent their homes or properties for short or long-term stays.
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O'Brien's treehouse has become the second most "wish-listed" Airbnb in Georgia. It's second only to another urban treehouse in Buckhead, according to an Airbnb spokesman. The treehouse lists for $375 per night, while the cottage goes for $127. Both have guests booked for most days, especially on weekends.
But O’Brien said she has been most moved by the “profound connection” that has come from meeting her visitors. Some are from metro Atlanta, while others travel from all over the world to mingle with the animals and experience the treehouse. People often celebrate honeymoons, anniversaries and birthdays there.
O’Brien also remembers the people who have rented out the treehouse looking for a place to relax after undergoing cancer treatment. And then there was the guy who said his girlfriend was on the verge of breaking up with him before they stayed in the treehouse. “They left totally reconnected,” O’Brien said.
“All of these stories of connection have been very touching and profound for us,” she said.
Surrounded by the bamboo, where it feels about 10 degrees cooler than in the yard, O’Brien calls each animal by name as they follow her, seeking treats. The llamas, named Dali Llama and Llama Mia Figaro, act as the head honchos of the pack. They’re much bigger than the four alpacas: Caitlin Tastee, Elfie Fay Von Picklesprite, Paloma Piper and Sunny Shevoun.
“Hey!” O’Brien says while they flock around her, hoping for a snack. “Don’t spit!”
O’Brien bought her first alpacas in 2014, after initially getting some chickens, which she calls her “gateway livestock.” She bought them from Maryland at the relatively low cost of $150 each. She then bought Dali Llama to protect the alpacas, and “completely fell in love with her. She is amazing,” O’Brien said.
Llama Mia Figaro (known as Figgy) came later, since “there’s nothing better than just having more and more llamas.”
All of the animals were essentially rescues, O’Brien said, since they were kept in poor conditions and some had health issues before she bought them.
O'Brien also offers "Llama Alpaca Experiences," where guests who don't stay in the Airbnbs can still have a chance to mingle with the mammals. For $50, visitors can meet the llamas and alpacas, learn about their history and distinct personalities, and go on a one-hour tour of the farm. You can also catch a glimpse of the llamas around Atlanta at the Llama Pub Crawls, organized by Southeast Llama Rescue.
The treehouse came two years after the animals. When O’Brien came up with the idea to build an elevated home among the bamboo, “Everyone said it was a terrible idea,” she said. “But I’m not one to really listen to other people.”
It has all the makings of a modern, luxury Airbnb: air conditioning, a Keurig coffee maker, a bathroom, a memory foam mattress. But all the building material is reclaimed, including the front door, which used to be the back door to the Atlanta mayor’s home in Kirkwood in 1905.
“I just wanted to build something cool,” she said. “It wasn’t like, ‘We’re gonna change people’s lives with this.’ And then that happened!”
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O’Brien’s guests tell her it was on their bucket list to wake up in the treehouse, surrounded by 360 degrees of bamboo and looking down on llamas and alpacas grazing about the grounds. It’s no wonder there have been 13 weddings held at the farm.
“It feels like its been there for forever,” said O’Brien, who still works as a contractor specializing in historic renovations and reclaimed wood. “It’s like you’re in Puerto Rico, or Hawaii, or somewhere that’s just not Atlanta.”
In the distance, a rooster crows. It’s hard to remember that I-20 is less than half a mile away.