By Susan Mahr

January 12, 2018

We had to be up early this morning to have the luggage set outside the rooms at 6:30 and down to breakfast when the restaurant opened at 7:00. It was cloudy with a heavy mist, enough to have the gutters dripping from the accumulated moisture, so there was no glorious sunrise to admire, only leaden seas blending into dark rain clouds out at the horizon. Normally this is the middle of the dry season, so rain at this time of year is very unusual. Still, a quick walk on the beach along the receding surf before breakfast was rather pleasant.

We left Tango Mar at 7:30, driving past the small golf course, some horses in a corral, and pastures with large trees and barely squeezed by a small truck driving up the narrow road as we made our way back to the main road. Originally we were going to drive up and around to get off the Nicoya Peninsula, but with the rain the roads would be in bad condition, so changed plans to take the ferry instead. Once onto the paved road we sailed over the rolling hills between patches of tropical dry forest and wet pastures, past the long crescent of sandy Playa Tambor, and on through more forest and past pastures, houses and fields. Misty clouds clung to the low mountains off in the distance, with patches of yellow-flowering trees on some of the slopes. Margherita pointed out espavel, or wild cashew (Anacardium excelsum) with its large, rounded, light green leaves. We had to stop a couple times for oncoming traffic to clear the short one-lane bridges before we could go across, but otherwise there was no traffic on the winding road. As we slowed for a little section of road construction a small troop of white-faced capuchins crossed the road on the wires. We drove by a mango plantation, a field of cassava and some papayas, people waiting at bus stops on the roadsides, and a planting of short cherimoyas with the fruits protected by small white bags.

We made it to Paquera at 8:10 and joined the queue for the 9:00 ferry about 10 minutes later.  There weren’t very many vehicles in line as we got out to go to the waiting area, but had only been there a few minutes before Margherita called us over for boarding. We sat on the ferry, with little to see, until it finally pulled away from the dock a little after 9. It was warm and humid outside on the deck, but not much to see with the hillsides around the Gulf just vague shapes in the hazy distance and few birds flying around the ship. The sun was trying to break through the dense cloud cover so it was bright out, but not sunny. Inside the air-conditioned cabin people dozed, chatted or ate snacks as we moved across the very calm water toward Puntarenas.

We pulled into the dock about 10:20, and were back in the van and on our way about 20 minutes later after pulling some drinks out of the cooler to enjoy with snacks. Skies were still completely cloudy and it was warm and humid enough that we turned on the AC as soon as we were driving, going past the long waterfront and cruise ship port (which used to be the main commercial port before that was moved a little further south to Puerto Caldera) where there was a Holland America and another smaller cruise ship docked, and tourists and locals wandering amid the restaurants, souvenir shops and street vendors. As we drove through the city, Margherita gave us a quiz, rewarding correct answers with colorful postcards. We left the urban area to drive past pastures, forest and houses as Margherita told the story of how her learning center came to be.

We went past the port of Caldera, and from there headed inland up the Highway 27 toll road into the mountains toward Orotino, an area famous for fruit production (mango, watermelon, oranges, and more). We soon left Puntarenas Province behind to enter Alajuela Province, passing some fields of melons grown on plastic. Leafless Guanacaste trees stood out above the greenery in areas of native vegetation, while the distinctive red-barked Bursera simaruba served as a living fence along many pasture edges. There were more houses and businesses and a row of produce stands offering a colorful selection of striped green watermelons, red water apple, orange and yellow citrus and other fruits and vegetables after we went through the first toll plaza. We were climbing slowly up the hills, stuck behind large trucks, through an area of deep red soils and the steep hillsides covered with native forest. There were many small balsa trees (Ochroma pyramidale) in bloom, with their distinctive upright large, tubular white flowers, and broad leaves, especially near the roadside, with buttercup tree with its sparse brilliant yellow flowers here and there. Low clouds still clung to the tops of the hillsides, but it seemed to be getting brighter the higher we went.

There were a few small sugarcane fields or pastures in the flatter areas, but mostly native vegetation on the slopes. We sped up when passing lanes were available, quickly overtaking slow-moving trucks, but then having to slow down for other trucks once the road narrowed to a single lane in each direction. After we passed the second toll booth, we left most of the balsa trees behind, and started seeing different plants in the open areas.

At 11:50 we pulled off the main highway for the 10-minute drive to the La Garita Orchid Garden, driving through commercial and residential areas and past many ornamental nurseries, lots of mango trees and orange-flowered Erythrina trees. At the intersection where we turned toward the garden, there was a little roadside stand where a man was selling water apple, mango, zapote, and melons.

We arrived at the Garden right about noon, under mostly cloudy skies, but with a few streaks of blue off in the distance. After we walked through the gift shop into the garden and used the restrooms, we followed owner Claudio Salas through the property to the Vanilla Café for lunch, getting slightly distracted by the beautiful orchids and other plants along the way. The group sat outside at a table under a ramada, in the warm air moderated by gusts of wind.  We started out with a choice of lemonade or piña (pineapple) juice, and then were served a small salad with a choice of balsamic dressing or a creamy carrot-ginger puree, along with a basket of bread. Next we each got a plate with a large helping of rice and a small container of pico de gallo(chopped tomatoes in marinade with cilantro) to add as desired, mixed zucchini and carrots, roasted new potatoes and grilled chicken. Dessert was a small slice of very rich lemon custard/cheesecake on a dense, sweet cookie crust. Since the evening would be very busy, we took a few minutes after the meal to thank Margherita and Edgar for everything they did to make this a special trip, with Susan presenting each of them with a thank you card containing their tip from the group.

When everyone was done eating, Claudio came over to our table to tell us of the history of his garden. An optometrist by training, he purchased the property that had once been a coffee plantation years ago as a place to grow plants he loved. As he planted more trees and accumulated more plants, especially orchids, he wanted to share this and opened the garden to the public ten years ago. He then took us on a walk through the gardens, stopping to point out and discuss a number of the plants along the way. On one of the first trees we passed there were many types of epiphytes, including many orchids and Hylocereus cactus. He showed us one of the orchid seed pods, tearing it open to show the millions of dust-like seeds inside, and told us how a specific fungus is necessary for the plants to grow in the wild, so that they are only found in certain areas and don’t spread far and wide.

As we walked around one of the small man-made ponds, Claudio pointed out several types of bamboos from China; told us about the vanilla vines – but there were no open flowers as they only bloom for 5 hours in the morning and they had already closed for the day; and told us about the split leaf philodendron growing all over the ground and up a large tree.  We saw a large fig tree (Ficus maxima), the introduced ornamental sealing wax palm (Cyrtostachys renda), and many other interesting plants. The tall Erythrina poepiggiana trees were dropping their brilliant orange flowers, forming a carpet on the path we walked along to get to the orchid display showroom, where dozens of brightly colored blooming plants were on display in a riot of red, yellow, orange, white and purple. The blooming specimens were artfully arranged in interesting groups and on various levels, as Claudio told us about some of them, such as Cattleya labiata, the national flower of Brazil.  We got a short lesson on orchid pollination, learning about the pollinia, a sticky mass of pollen which in nature would stick to the bee or other native pollinator when it tries to the get nectar, so that it would move it to the next flower it visits. When the group had had their fill of the elegant flowers, we had a little time to look at the rescued parrots and macaws in large cages and peruse the gift shop for a few minutes.

We loaded up the van and waved goodbye to Claudio at 2:30, going back to join the Highway 27 toll road again and be immersed in the cultural experience of rush hour traffic going into the city on a Friday afternoon. As we slowly made our way along the congested road, Margherita told everyone what time their transfers to the airport would be, with Kathy and Joanne going at 4:00am, Susan at 8:00, and Nancy and Bev in late morning. Soon we were passing more buildings, blooming poró trees, condominiums and gated communities, and then the malls and fancy big buildings of Escazu. We made it to the next toll booth at 3:10 and moments later took the offramp to join slow-moving traffic trying to merge onto a jam-packed road. It took several minutes to merge into the sea of vehicles, fighting for space on the two-lane road, as motorcycles zipped by, weaving in and out of the moving stream of traffic. Even though we weren’t going very quickly (sometimes coming to a standstill) this bypass was supposedly better than what we’d encounter if we drove through downtown San Jose. We were stuck in the stop and go traffic, waiting for traffic lights to change and slowing as more vehicles merged onto the road for half an hour.  As we came into the urban area we passed at least one of all of the major US fast food franchises, local restaurants, little shops and big businesses, shopping malls, big buildings, a couple of schools, and many residences behind decorative bars.

We finally got to Tres Rios a little before 4:00 and pulled off the main road to travel through the nice residential area of Curridabat, through the security gates of the property we would visit next, and wound up the narrow road through the coffee plantation into the residential area where Fernando and Ileana Terán live. Ileana has been interested in gardening and plants since she was young, and has long been an advocate for the protection of Costa Rica’s natural areas in general, and orchids in particular. She is a founder of the SACRO Foundation (http://sacro.or.cr/), an organization to protect these plants in their natural habitats. She hosts groups such as ours to discuss her conservation efforts and to help raise funds for their projects.

We arrived at their house about 4:05, and went up to the entertainment area to wait for our hostess Ileana (Ferdinand wasn’t home yet), who soon came over from the main house. After greeting us and time to use the bathrooms, Ileana led us on a tour of the beautiful garden. Right next to the entertainment area there is a collection of stone salt licks, pre-Columbian stone artifacts and other stone items mixed with ferns and bromeliads on the slope, with a path made with stone blocks from the old streets of San Jose. Nearby an old wooden coffee mortar and tall wooden pestles sat on the path under the overhang of the building. We then walked up steep steps through an area of many different species and cultivars of colorful terrestrial bromeliads all over the slope. At the top a flat stone walkway lined with more bromeliads, self-seeded begonias and other plants that led to another section of the garden. We stopped in front of the small greenhouse filled with a diversity of miniature orchids, to look at the native Epidendrum orchids in bloom with pink or orange flowers. Inside the miniature orchid house Ileana pointed out and explained interesting features of many of these amazing plants. We then moved from one area to the next, with Ileana telling us about the various plants, and some of the historic artifacts that are ornamental features especially in the entry area. We walked through the lush tropical vegetation along more stone paths on several levels with steps between them to see some terrestrial orchids, anthuriums, begonias, and bromeliads among other plants. Inside the large greenhouse there were all kinds of different orchids, many of which were being cultivated in or on sections of tree trunks, and many plants of the guadia morada (none in bloom).

The light was starting to fade as we made our way back to the house and assembled in the living room to watch a video on SACRO and the important work the foundation has done for orchid conservation in Costa Rica, but the video player wasn’t cooperating, so we ended up skipping that and going back to the entertainment area for dinner.

While we sat around enjoying appetizers of sangria and appetizers of really moist vegetable tamales, as well as some baked cheese pastries with or without olives, Ileana told us briefly about SACRO (Save Our Costa Rican Orchids) and its programs to preserve the national orchid through school programs and propagation for re-distribution in its native areas and the progress of the urban improvement project for Curradibat that focuses on creating green spaces in urban areas to improve happiness.

 

Susan played Costa Rican artist Manuel Obregon’s album Simbiosis combining his piano compositions and natural sounds of birds and other animals on her phone as we chatted while enjoying the appetizers, as dusk overtook the valley below and the twinkling lights of the city came on below us. After a while we got up to fill plates from the large dishes of salad, chicken enchilada casserole, rice, and baked bananas. (Ileana shared the recipe for the banana dish: slice ripe bananas lengthwise, dot with butter and layer in a baking dish, pour a can of condensed milk over the top and bake at 200F for 30-45 minutes). We all sat around one large dining table in the main area of the open entertainment building (built about 20 years ago as a place their kids could have friends over to hang out instead of getting into trouble elsewhere), enjoying the good food and interesting conversation. Dessert was a selection of dark, moist fruity Christmas cake, macadamia nougat, and individually wrapped gummy guava candies. Ileana offered coffee from their own plantation, but no one was interested this late in the day. Ileana got her guest book out for everyone to add their name and email, then passed out orchid bookmarks to each of us, and showed us some of the educational workbooks used in the schools for her happiness project.

We said our farewells and departed around 7:30, winding our way back to the main road. Edgar knew the area well, so took a lot of back roads to avoid some of the worst of the congested streets, adding a few more kilometers to the total distance of the trip of nearly 1,000 km. It took about 45 minutes to make it to Hotel Bougainvillea, where everyone said goodbye to those who would be departing early in the morning (4:00 a.m. for Kathy and Joanne) and then dispersed to our rooms for the end of a wonderful trip!

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