By Susan Mahr

January 4 & 5, 2018

Thursday January 4

This was the smallest group we’ve ever had, with only four participants. Kathy, from Tucson, came on a redeye, arriving early in the morning, while everyone else got in late afternoon on the same flight. Nancy, from Houston, and Beverly, from Fort Atkinson, WI, were on their regularly scheduled flight, joined by Joanne, from Milwaukee, who had her original flight through Newark cancelled the day before because of the “Bomb Cyclone” heading for the Northeast US, dropping lots of snow and disrupting travel. They had a little time to walk around the beautiful gardens behind the Hotel Bougainvillea despite the strong, blustery wind and occasional mist from the patchy clouds.

We met in the restaurant at 6:00 to enjoy dinner together – trout, tilapia, or panini sandwich, with coconut flan for dessert for most – then retired early to get a good night’s sleep before the tour officially started the next morning.

Friday January 5

Everyone gathered for breakfast at 7:00, meeting our lovely guide Margherita and driver Edgar in the restaurant.  After a nice meal with a variety of selections from the buffet – including of tropical fruits, assorted pastries and breads, and hot dishes of scrambled eggs, gallo pinto (rice and beans), fried plantains, and more, along with juices and coffee – we got a short briefing on the tour.

We were in our large minivan for departure about 8:20, under skies thick with heavy grey clouds and only a few tiny breaks of sun. We drove the crowded streets of the metropolitan area, stopping briefly to look at a small coffee plantation with a number of Erythrina trees, then continued on through heavy traffic past smore coffee plantations. Margherita continued to tell the group about the various trees and other plants we were passing, the soccer stadium, when we left Heredia province and crossed into the province of San Jose, and answered various questions. We slowly made our way through the crowded streets, stopping frequently for traffic lights, going by the National Theater, as Margherita told about the history of the city and a little bit about the introduction of coffee and its influence on the development of the country. We were driving on a portion of the Pan American Highway as we passed the University of Costa Rica, as Margherita continued to discuss the history of the country since colonial times, independence and abolishment of the army, agricultural development, and scientific work that led to environmental protection and creation of many public and private ecological reserves or parks (about a quarter of all the land is protected) and tourism. We learned about their political system, education, nationalized medicine and more as we drove through the urban areas and eventually up into the low Ocho Mogo Mountains which divide the Central Valley. The pavement was wet, with standing puddles, and soon we ran into light rain with mist obscuring the tops of the slopes (and hiding the usual view of Irazu Volcano in the distance). As we drove through Cartago Margherita told the story of the Virgin of Los Angeles and the building of the Basilica, which we could just see the tops of a few streets away.

The clouds were low to the ground but it wasn’t raining when we arrived at Jardín Botáníco Lankester about 9:40. The director of the gardens, Mario Blanco, greeted us and told us a little about the place before leading us on an excellent tour through the gardens. This 27-acre garden, administered by the University of Costa Rica, specializes in orchids and other epiphytic plants. Costa Rica is home to about 1400 orchid species, 20% of which are endemic. The Garden cultivates more than 8,000 orchid specimens, of which more than half are native to the country. The collection of miniature orchids is one of the largest and most renowned in the world. It took us a while to get to the orchid greenhouses, as we had to stop to examine each and every plant along the way, from the non-native jade vine, to native vining Mucuna sp. with it’s large black seeds that look somewhat like a hamburger when viewed along its edge, to a variety of orchids and bromeliads, both terrestrial and epiphytic. Mario provided not only the name of all of these, but interesting information about most of them, too. Once inside the orchid house we learned about the different orchids in bloom, first the large ones in the display house – including Costa Rica’s national flower, Guariantha skinnerii that goes by the common name guaria morada, with purple cattleya-type flowers with a white throat  then walked amid the benches and racks of tiny specimens mounted on tiny blocks of wood or bark in the larger shadehouse. The miniature collection here includes more than 2000 specimens, including almost 100 species of Lepanthes, a complete collection of Costa Rican Dracula and Masdevallia, tens of species of PleurothallisStelis, and Trichosalpinx, as well as vast collections of Zygopetalinae and Oncidiinae. They even have specimens of Platystele jungermannioides, the world’s tiniest orchid. Many of them were in bloom with very tiny, cryptic flowers that would be very easy to overlook, especially in the wild. As we examined one tiny exotic bloom after another in an amazing array of bizarre shapes and interesting colors rain began to fall on the roof.

Soon we had to brave the rain (Margherita had gotten umbrellas from the lobby for those who didn’t have one) to see the rest of the gardens. We went first through the Japanese Garden, with its red arched bridge, tea house, and the bamboo collection. Then it was on to the trail through the secondary forest filled with interesting plants and one recently fallen tree covered with a variety of epiphytes and then on to admire some white blooming Amazon lily, Eucharis grandiflora. Regenerated from former cattle pasture, starting in 1973, it was planted with native species and allowed to grow naturally. We wandered through the native vegetation to emerge into the cactus and succulent area filled with plants from diverse families (cactus, agave, crassula, euphorbia and lily). Mario pointed out the native Costa Rican epiphytic cactus growing on the stone wall, as well as a vining species of Pereskia, a primitive species of cactus with regular leaves. There were also some nests of stingless bees in one of the support poles and another in a nearby tree. We moved on, stopping to admire blooming shampoo ginger (Zingiber zerumbet) under tall trees and huge specimens of the world’s largest anthurium,Anthurium salvinii, with their rosettes of huge, broad leaves several feet long and elongated purple inflorescences. On we went into the fern gallery where tall tree ferns lined the pathway that led to a mesh-shaded fernery with other types of ferns. We meandered back toward the entrance, through collections of blooming heliconias and by all kinds of bromeliads (there are 200 native bromeliad species in Costa Rica), with epiphytic ones encrusting the trees – many of the small, native Tillandsia – and beds filled with terrestrial types. Finally we were all back to the entrance, and went into reception to have a cup of coffee before moving on.

We departed from the garden at 1:30, driving for just about 20 minutes along a circuitous route, going past the hydroelectric dam of Charrarra (and its man-made lake), saw some orange-flowering Erythrina poepiggiana blooming on the hillsides amid coffee plantations, and then through an area of plantings of chayote growing on trellises and some of the green, pear-shaped fruit for sale at roadside stands. We drove over the bridge across the chasm downstream from the dam, where roadside vendors offered fresh grilled sweet corn on either end and water hyacinth filled the end of the lake.

Then we went by some coffee plantations and turned down a bumpy dirt road to get to La Casona del Cafetal a little after 2:00 where we had lunch. We had the casado, a typical dish of rice, black beans, vegetables, salad, and a protein (beef, fish or chicken) along with juice and coffee, plus coffee flan for dessert. It was pleasantly cool as we sat on the covered patio surrounded by vines on trellises and other vegetation overlooking the lake. Spanish moss swung in the breeze in one of the large old erythrina trees off in one direction.

After the tasty meal we walked around the parking area to look at some of the landscape plants including yellow Justicia aurea, red-flowered Brazilian red cloak (Megaskepasma erythrochlamys), shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet) and pink-flowered red ginger (A. purpurea). A male Montezuma oropenola whooped his distinctive call from a palm tree, while females carried in grass strands to build their pendulous nests. We watched the birds for a while as a heavy mist began to fall.

At 3:30 we loaded back in the van to drive through the Orosi Valley back to the hotel. Margherita pointed out cecropia trees, Cordyline fruticosa (common names include ti plant and red dracaena, even though it is not a dracaena) with red-streaked leaves growing as a living fence, and other plants as we drove along winding roads past small houses, a church here or there, schools, people walking on the roadside, and patches of coffee or vegetables.  We crossed the one lane bridge over the roiling Rio Orosi that feeds into the lake we’d just driven around to drive past more coffee and some citrus trees, pink acacia or black wood (Gliricidia sepium) used as a living fence, more little houses and shops, living fences of green and white variegatedCordylines.

We drove through the town of Orosi, with it’s Colonial-style church (but not from that era; now a museum) where we stopped for a few minutes to look at the plants there. Crimson-fronted parakeets and great-tailed grackles squawked above us in the two royal palms on either side of the entrance. We slowly walked along the pathway to the church, admiring the mixture of roses, hydrangeas, purple and white Phaius orchids, red and variegated dracaena plants, and other flowers (including one very dramatic red and white amaryllis) in the beds on either side of the path. We ducked inside briefly to see the interior of the church with rustic carved wooden pews and altar, then checked out the courtyard filled with blue-flowered hydrangeas in an X pattern with a stone cross in the center. Outside the gates a street vendor sold sugarcane and peanut confections from a small cart. Margherita purchased a piece of the rich, caramelized treat to share with the group.

We continued on about 4:30 through the mainly agricultural valley, winding our way up the hillsides covered with coffee plantations, some orange-flowered poró trees, pastures and small houses under leaden skies. We followed a small pickup truck for a while with its bed filled with dark red coffee fruits as it headed to the local receiving station. Low clouds clung to the hillsides as we made our way back toward the hotel on damp roads, encountering more traffic the closer we got to the metropolitan area. We drove through the crowded streets of Cartago, standing still more than we were moving for quite a while, eventually passing the long red Iglesia de San Pablo de Oreamuno with white roof and steeples, to zig zag our way through the urban area to connect with the Pan American Highway in the dim light. It began to rain again as we made our way along the divided, multi-lane road, but soon there were breaks in the clouds up ahead.

Traffic was thick on a late Friday afternoon, but Edgar skillfully navigated this way and that along less-crowded shortcuts for a while as the sky turned an orange pink in the west as we drove through San Jose and past the University there. The distant horizon turned a deep orange with layers of purple and red-streaked clouds as we continued to make our way through the congested streets, with a blaze of concentrated fire red in one spot before the light disappeared from the sky. We sat in traffic for a long time, then Edgar took us down a steep valley with a couple of very tight hairpin turns and back up the other side to more winding streets through continuous urban areas. We finally arrived back at the hotel at 6:00 in the dark.

Margherita said goodbye for the evening (she would spend the night at home before joining us again in the morning) and we all trooped off to our rooms until meeting back at the restaurant at 7:00 for dinner. This time it was a set meal, with a choice of ensalada caprese, cream of asparagus soup, or black bean soup for starters; beef, chicken or ravioli for the main; and ice cream with strawberry sauce or coconut flan for dessert. Everyone was tired, so ready to head back to the rooms at 8:30 when we’d finished eating.

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