Spain Tour – Tour Day 7

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By Susan Mahr

October 11, 2017

Breakfast was in a nice, but not exotic, room in the lower level, with a wide selection of standard breakfast items, plus a lot of desserts. People came and went as they chose, and we were all assembled in the entry courtyard when our guide Luis arrived promptly at 9:30. After a brief introduction to the history of the area, we set off wandering the narrow, meandering streets of the old city, learning about various buildings and other things we passed, such as the bronze markers set into the stones of the streets denoting the Jewish quarters, one of two mosques in the old city, and the old Arab bath, sis. We headed down Calleja de las Flores (“Flower Alley”), with blue flower pots hung on the whitewashed walls of the narrow street (but not much in bloom at this time of year, but still charming) and a nicely framed narrow view of the mosque-cathedral tower and ducked through the Meryan Leathercraft factory and its several courtyard patios with central fountains to the next street over.

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Spain Tour – Tour Day 6

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By Susan Mahr

October 10

Everyone went to breakfast at their leisure and were in the reception area by the appointed time of 9:20. There was a little confusion about what to do with the luggage, but it was finally determined that a taxi was coming to take the suitcases to the bus. We stood outside in the cool air under clearing skies (there had been a complete blanket of clouds earlier) until the minibus-style taxi got there. We then walked the two blocks to where Paco was already loading our bags in the back of the bus, boarded and then were on our way about 15 minutes later. We drove out of the city, stopping frequently for traffic lights, passing by Maria Luisa Park again, and going along the Guadalquivir River and out of the city.

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Spain 2017 – Tour Day 5

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By Susan Mahr

October 9

We had a free morning until 11:30, so people slept in and got to breakfast whenever they wanted. The morning meal is served in the basement; exiting the elevator was like stepping into a cave or grotto with the walls encrusted with small stones in decorative patterns and arches supporting the ceilings. We walked down a long corridor, with one section lined with what looked like small ancient olive oil jars, and on into a large room with a silver tin roof, plastic chairs that looked like crystal, reflective tiles and golden pieces on the walls and columns to make a bright, exotic-looking space without many harsh lights. The food was in a separate room, arranged on two counters on either side of the long, narrow space, with hot dishes of scrambled eggs, bacon, small sausages, mixed vegetables, an assortment of breads and pastries, fresh fruits, and more, along with large urns of fresh orange juice. Coffee was serve yourself from espresso machines that required the insertion of little pre-packaged plastic containers of different types of coffee.

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Spain 2017 – Tour Day 4

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By Susan Mahr

October 8

We were up early and everyone was downstairs by 7:00 to pick up our bagged breakfast (ham sandwich on white bread, apple, banana, orange juice, bottle of water, and a package of Oreo cookies) at reception (although a few went downstairs to the restaurant for a quick bite or package up some small items to take away). The bus arrived before the appointed time of 7:15, so we loaded up early and were on our way through the city for the 15 minute drive to Barcelona-Sants train station. Once inside we first went through security and then had to stand in line before we could head down the escalator to Platform 3 about 8:00 to board coaches 21 and 22. We found our assigned seats on the AVE train in preferred seating, with 4 of us in one car and 7 in the other.

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Spain 2017 – Tour Day 3

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By Susan Mahr

October 7

We were on our own for breakfast any time after 7:00, but had to be ready by 8:30 to meet our guide Norbert for our walking tour this morning. We headed outside to walk down the street the Hotel Cubik is on, stopping briefly to look at the music palace and silk house. He told us some of the history of Barcelona, which was the first industrialized city in Europe. There are over 4 million people in the metropolitan area. We headed off the main road to walk through the streets of the old medieval city founded by the Romans (Ciutat Vella in Catalan). One of our first stops was the Barcelona Cathedral. This gothic church was built from 1293 through the 1400s, but the façade was added in the early 20th century by a prominent businessman who wanted to make the city look more impressive for an international expo in the 1880’s. We went inside to see the vaulted ceilings and learned about the gothic and baroque chapels and alters on either side of the huge triple nave. Norbert pointed out the large white marble baptismal font where the first Native Americans brought back by Christopher Columbus were baptized. We had special access to go into the central choir stalls, with elaborately carved wooden stalls (with half seats to lean against not really sit down on) and beautifully painted coat of arms. From there we walked out through the courtyard where there is still the original gothic fountain, and outside around the corner to Plaça de Sant Felip Neri. This quiet, unadorned square with a simple fountain in the middle was the site where 30 children sheltering in the school there were killed in 1938 by Franco’s bombs.

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Spain 2017 – Tour Day 2

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By Susan Mahr

October 6

We came down for breakfast any time after 7:00 and were all assembled in the lobby by 9:00 so that we could load the bus for departure with driver Ernesto only 3-4 minutes late. We headed through the city, stopping frequently for red lights in moderate traffic, to head north to the Costa Brava under partly cloudy skies. We drove on the three-lane C-32 along the coast, with sparkling water visible at times and a succession of developed areas with red tile roofed houses stacked up on the hillsides and introduced agaves, opuntia and yuccas mixed in with the native vegetation between. The traffic lightened as we left Barcelona and drove past the cities and towns of Mataró, St. Vicenç de Montalt, and Arenys, through a toll plaza, and on past more small communities, many named for saints, under a thick blanket of clouds along the coast with brighter skies inland. We started seeing a few small terraced fields with a diversity of vegetables, some on plastic or under shade cloth on the hillsides between the developed areas, but much of the undeveloped land was covered with low, very globular stone pines (Pinus pinea), a few other taller trees and gray-green shrubs. There were some large industrial buildings just before we took exit 134 to head toward Blanes on the GI-600. We slowed on the two-land road with a steady stream of vehicles as we drove into town and wound through the narrow, crowded one or two lane streets and numerous roundabouts. We took twisting, turning roads up and around a steep hillside, with stunning views of the harbor below.

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Spain 2017 – Tour Day 1

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By Susan Mahr

October 5, 2017

No one really wanted to get up in the morning, but Cindy, Mary, Susan and Dan made it down to the restaurant on the lower level by 9:00 to enjoy the extensive buffet (multiple types of cheese, sliced cured meats, a plethora of pastries, several types of juices, fruit cups, yogurt, etc.) and dishes cooked to order (eggs, pancakes, waffles, and much more). We’d agreed that anyone interested in doing the city bus tour would meet around 10:00, but by 10:20no one else had shown up in the lobby (and Tom and Janice from Colorado, Marta from Chicago, and Ina of North Carolina who had flown in that morning were not around) so the three of us walked the block and a half to the Plaça Catalunya where we could purchase tickets for the hop on-hop off bus with audio narration in many languages. We were given headphones as we boarded to plug into the consoles at each seat and different channels for about a dozen languages. There was a little seating downstairs, but most of us opted to go up to the open top for a better view. It was quite pleasant in the mild air under clear skies. We took one of the three routes to learn about the architecture, buildings, statues, parks, churches and other places of interest along the way as the bus twisted and turned along the city streets. It was quite informative – until the audio malfunctioned about 2/3 of the way through. The bus employees had us transfer to another bus after a few more stops so we could hear the rest of the tour, but were back to the beginning two stops later!

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Spain 2017 – Pre Tour

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By Susan Mahr

October 3rd

Seven of us departed the US a day early in case of travel interruptions and to make the recovery in a new time zone easier. Susan and Dan (from Wisconsin) met Mary (Missouri) in Philadelphia for their flight to Barcelona, while Cindy (Minnesota) and Linda (formerly of Kansas, now Albuquerque) who had traveled together before, and Charlene and her adult granddaughter Hannah (both Missouri) were on the same flight on a different airline. Because of the Catalan separatist referendum vote that had taken place on October 1, there was the threat of strikes in the city and we weren’t sure that the buses running from the airport to the city center and taxis would be working when we arrived, so we had arranged for private transport for each of the two groups before leaving the US.

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Coffee Time

By Susan Mahr

We were staying in an area of extensive coffee plantations, so this morning we took the Espírito Santo Coffee Tour to learn about this important crop. Our guide Ronnie first told us about the coffee fruits, which normally have two seeds, but the premium peaberry has only one (a genetic mutation that causes one seed to abort, so all resources go into a single seed so it gets bigger).

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Two Beautiful Gardens

By Susan Mahr

Our first stop of the day was at Jardín Botáníco Lankester. This garden, maintained by the University of Costa Rica, is internationally known for its collections of epiphytes, including many orchids. The orchid collection includes over 15,000 accessions from nearly 1,000 species, most of which are native to Mesoamerica. We looked at a few of these, but didn’t spend nearly as much time in the shadehouse of miniature orchids as in some past tours (see blogpost from last year’s trip for more about those). After taking pictures of the national orchid of Costa Rica, the guaria morada (Guarianthe skinneri), forced into bloom with their purple cattleya-type flowers with a white throat (normally they bloom in April), and briefly looking in the shadehouse we headed off to spend more time in the rest of this garden.

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Quetzal Quest

By Susan Mahr

This morning we headed further down the valley to Savegre Lodge where we loaded into two small 4WD vehicles for the tour into the forest on a steep, rutted dirt road full of rocks. Each vehicle had two bench seats in back along each edge, facing each other, that could accommodate up to 6 people. We bounced our way up the rugged road high into the primary forest, and after about a 10 minute ride got to a turnaround point where there were several trailheads.

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Into the Clouds

By Susan Mahr

It was warm and steamy for our option morning bird walk, where we saw a lot of different things including a double-toothed hawk that posed nicely in the dim light, a yellow-bellied elaenia perched on some wires, then a bright-rumped attila flitting in the foliage. There was a bit of a lull, then we started seeing a number of warblers and flycatchers, a yellow female summer tanager, and a brown hermit (a tiny dull-colored hummingbird). A flock of orange-chinned parakeets flew noisily overhead. A few scarlet-rumped caciques hung out for a bit, and we watched as one male offered nesting materials to a female. As we walked back the short distance to the hotel a couple of black-mandibled toucans flew into a tree above us.

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Wilson Botanic Garden

By Susan Mahr

We got up early to make the two hour drive south to spend the whole day at Wilson Botanical Garden, the most famous botanical garden in Central America. But before we ever arrived we had an excellent ornithological experience. Just as we were getting ready to move on from a quick bathroom stop where there were two impressive kapok trees (Ceiba pentandra), three scarlet macaws flew by, and then landed in a wild cashew tree across the road. We hopped back out of the bus to watch the large red, blue and yellow birds hanging in the treetop, one circling around to land in a different part or harass one of the other birds. The farm owner invited us to walk down his driveway for a better view of the colorful birds squawking at each other in the medium-sized tree. As we watched, a king vulture soared in the air behind us, obscured from view by one of the very nearby kapok trees, and an immature king vulture gave us a better view, while a large flock of orange-chinned parakeets flew over, chattering noisily.

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Relaxation & Mangroves

By Susan Mahr

The birds were singing before dawn, and the sun rose in clear skies, except for big fat clouds out over the water. Having arrived in the dark, the dramatic view over the dry forest filled with yellow-flowering trees stretching to the ocean was a surprise. It was 100 steps (plus some unpaved trails on more gentles slopes) from the lower rooms up to the open air bar/pool/dining area where we met for breakfast at 7:30. After enjoying fresh tropical fruit, pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, rice and beans and toast, people hung around the pool watching several black-mandibled toucans in the nearby cecropia trees.

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Chocolate & Crocodiles

By Susan Mahr

Most of us managed to escape the chilly weather in the US to arrive in Costa Rica, but one person had to cancel due to injury and two others are still hoping to join the tour in two days after their airport was closed because of ice. A storm moving through the area here made it excessively windy, with some rain, so we weren’t able to enjoy the beautiful gardens behind the hotel as much as if the weather had been pleasant.

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Orchids to Orchids

By Susan Mahr

On the last day of the tour, we started the day at Jardín Botáníco Lankester. This garden, maintained by the University of Costa Rica, is internationally known for its collections of epiphytes, especially orchids.  The orchid collection includes over 15,000 accessions from nearly 1,000 species, most of which are native to Mesoamerica. We saw many orchids growing on the trees outside and inside the orchid showhouse where many large species and hybrids in bloom were artfully arranged among ferns and other tropical plants.

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A Motmot Morning

By Susan Mahr

Hotel Bougainvillea where we are staying is famous for the blue-crowned motmots that reside here. Normally rather secretive birds of the forest, the motmots here will come in for food. They put out papayas, bananas and other fruit on tray feeders just outside the restaurant windows to lure in these blue jay-sized birds with long tails, as well as a variety of tanagers, clay-colored robin (the national bird of Costa Rica) and others. One made an appearance during breakfast this morning, exciting all the guests with its presence!

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A Garden of Exotics

By Susan Mahr

This morning we returned on the ferry and drove back to the Central Valley. By noon we had arrived at Jardín Botáníco Else Kientzler in the town of Sarchi. After eating a catered lunch out on the verandah of the reception building, our guide Mauricio told us the history of the gardens. It was created about 10 years ago by the German company InnovaPlant from a former coffee plantation in memory of the company owner’s mother. The 7 acres have been landscaped and planted with tropical ornamental landscape plants from around the world, and is the fifth largest botanical garden in Costa Rica. InnovaPlant produces primarily unrooted cuttings of ornamentals for export to the US.

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Dropping Out of the Clouds

By Susan Mahr

We had a little taste of what it’s like most of the time in a cloud forest this morning, with heavy mist/light rain drifting over from the cloud-shrouded mountain. Usually the mountain top is enveloped in clouds, so we felt fortunate to have had a clear but windy day to explore the Preserve, instead of having to contend with both rain and wind as was happening today. The conditions of rain in one direction and bright sun in the other were perfect to create an intense rainbow that filled the sky for us as we departed Monteverde. We returned down the mountain on the same gravel road we’d traversed previously, seeing the same dry pastures, colorful flowering trees, and small ranch houses along the way.

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Walking with Willow

By Susan Mahr

Sign at Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve.

Sign at Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve.

This morning we visited Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve with Willow Zuchowski, author of A Guide to Tropical Plants of Costa Rica. It was awesome having a world-renowned expert leading us through the forest, stopping every couple of feet to look at another plant.

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By Susan Mahr

This morning’s activity was an excursion to Tortuguero National Park. Over 77,000 acres was declared a National Park in 1970 after being protected as a turtle nesting sanctuary since 1963. The park has great biological diversity and ecosystems including tidal mangrove swamps, rainforest, beaches, and lagoons, with more than 400 species of trees and about 2,200 species of other plants. The trees here are shorter than those of non-flooded forest because of the instability caused by the wet, poorly drained soils. Along the coast the forests grade into mangrove forests, and estuary, beach and marine habitats.

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Floating to Tortuguero

By Susan Mahr

On our first day of the 2016 MG tour of Costa Rica, we left the big city of San Jose up in the mountains of the central valley, drove across the Continental Divide, and down the Atlantic slope to the Caribbean lowlands. We went from the lush rainforest of Braulio Carrillo National Park at the top of the Central Volcanic Mountain Range down to open pasture, banana plantations – stopping briefly at the edge of one field to look at the plants and bagged fruits – and other agriculture on the flat lands, to eventually arrive at the landing spot for boat transportation to our lodge in Tortuguero.

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SACRO & Our Farewell Dinner

By Susan Mahr 

Our final evening in Costa Rica was spent at the beautiful home of Ms. Ileana Terán, coffee plantation owner and founder of the SACRO Foundation, Save Our Costa Rican Orchids. Set on a hillside overlooking the city, the landscaping incorporates tropical flowering and foliage plants from around the world, and historic artifacts from Colonial times, as well as many orchids from Central America and beyond.

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A Soggy, Peaceful Day

By Susan Mahr

It was sunny when we left the Central Valley this morning, but the clouds on the mountain where we were headed to didn’t give us much optimism for the weather we’d encounter up there. Sure enough, it was foggy and raining lightly when we got to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. This nicely developed park on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide features collections of native animals of the region, the adjacent natural waterfalls, and beautifully landscaped grounds, giving visitors a chance to see many things up close that otherwise might be missed.

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By Susan Mahr

Signs at the entrance to the botanical garden and ornamental plant export company.

Else Kientzler Botanical Garden is a private garden in Sarchi with a collection of tropical plants from around the world, with over 2000 species of plants in 11 gardens and some native forest on 17 acres. It includes collections of palms, gingers, aquatic plants, bromeliads, fruit trees, tropical timber trees, ornamental plants, succulents and orchids. The garden was started in 1998 on an old coffee farm by Mr. Ludwig Kientzler, president of Innovaplant de Costa Rica, an ornamental plant export business that operates adjacent to the Garden (and you have to drive through to get to the Garden). It was officially opened in 2006, named after his mother Else, who for many years managed the family-run German company that is Innovaplant de Costa Rica’s parent company. The garden is subsidized by the German company, providing 40% of its operating expenses.

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From the Beach to the Clouds

By Susan Mahr

Today we spent a fair amount of time traveling, going through a variety of different ecosystems in a short period of time. We stared out in the humid lowlands of the southwest, heading northward. Along the way we stopped at the Tarcoles River, to walk across the bridge to see the American crocodiles in the shallow water below. There were about 40 of the large reptiles sunning on the sandy banks of the river below in the hot sun, with a few more slowly slithering through the murky water. The largest specimen known to occur here was 18 feet long. They congregate here in much larger numbers than normal partly because it is perfect habitat with shallow water and good basking and nesting sites, but also because they were (and maybe still are) being fed by local business owners to assure this as a stop for most tourists heading to Jaco and nearby beach towns.

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A Spicy Morning

By Susan Mahr

This morning we visited Villa Vanilla, a small artisanal producer of vanilla and other spices. We were greeted by Giselle, who invited us over to see vanilla beans and some other spices drying on elevated racks in the hot sun. The mature beans are dried for a specific length of time before they are stored and then aged a year before sale. There were also some cacao seeds, both fresh and roasted, cardamom pods, black pepper and turmeric root drying in trays in the sun.

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Manuel’s Monkeys & More

By Susan Mahr

In the afternoon we went on a walking wildlife safari in Manuel Antonio National Park. Just a few dozen feet past the entrance Gustavo stopped and trained his scope on a two-toed sloth high in a tree not far off the trail. The shaggy ball of fur blended in pretty well among the dark shadows of the tree branches and canopy, but we could see its face reasonably well. After that first spotting we learned a little about some of the palm trees nearby and saw a chestnut-backed antbird, but quickly went on as there were reports of monkeys up ahead.

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Bats after Breakfast

By Susan Mahr

The howler monkeys started at 5am, and the scarlet macaws were squawking by 5:30, and various other birds joined in the cacophony until it got light about 6. It was warm and humid (72), while it was near zero back home. This morning we had plenty of time to relax or go exploring around the lodge before our midmorning departure. Jeff and Susan hiked out to the old farm house to look for the bats that live in it. Along the way they saw a black ant shrike, a small group of coatis, a blue morpho floating around in a clearing, and some other butterflies and insects. The wooden building was still in reasonably good shape, with long nosed bats (Rhynchonycteris naso) clustered together in large groups on the wooden rafters under the tin roof, and an unknown species of sac winged bats roosting singly on the walls of the building. There were also some huge, mottled cinnamon-brown cockroaches on the walls. Although we were warned that it would be stinky, there wasn’t a lot of guano inside and really didn’t smell much at all.

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In Another World

By Susan Mahr

What a difference a few hours of driving makes. We left chilly Trogon Lodge up in the country’s highest mountain range to head south out of the central mountain range to the hot and steamy lowlands of the Osa Peninsula in the southwestern part of the country. As we went over the highest pass on the Cerro de la Muerte, we stopped briefly on the roadside in Tapanti National Park to see some of the plants characteristic of the páramo. The páramo is the ecosystem of the regions above the treeline and below the permanent snowline in the northern Andes of South America and adjacent southern Central America. This high, tropical montane vegetation is composed mainly of rosette plants, shrubs and grasses. The weather is generally cold and humid, but it can fluctuate suddenly and dramatically. The páramo in Costa Rica is a dwarf forest, dominated by the dwarf bamboo Chusquea subtessellata, together with short trees in the genus Escallonia, and low shrubs and herbs, many of which are endemic to the mountain top.

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Rainforest Rendezvous

By Susan Mahr

Just about the only downside to being in such a remote location was the lack of TV (and until a few months ago, internet access; we found out Sunday morning that they DO have internet now; their website needs to be updated). Fortunately the fact that it was Super Bowl Sunday didn’t even come up until lunch time and no one was particularly concerned that we would miss the big game (but with a large contingent of Wisconsin residents on the this trip, I can’t imagine what we’d have done if the Green Bay Packers had been playing…maybe have to take a boat and then a taxi to get to a bar in Golfito to watch the game?). Without much connection to the outside world, this time was an opportunity to focus on something other than screens, and appreciate the incredible natural world around us.

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By Susan Mahr

Entrance to Lankester Botanical Gardens.

Entrance to Lankester Botanical Gardens.

We started off the tour this morning with a visit to the University of Costa Rica‘s Lankester Botanical Garden in Cartago, which 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.

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Paradise Found

By Susan Mahr

Most of the group chose to travel to Costa Rica a day ahead of time (for those whose flights would arrive late in the evening) so we had a day to relax and enjoy the extensive gardens behind the hotel or explore the city. Kari, Dwight, and Mary Kay arrived in midafternoon, while Susan, Cindy, Judy, John and Lila got in about 10pm, while Ian and Val were last to show up that night about 11:30pm. It wasn’t that cold when we left Wisconsin, but it was still nice to emerge from the terminal into mild conditions. There had been a few showers in the city that day, but we were lucky and it was mostly sunny on our free day before the welcome dinner.

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