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Why Gardeners Travel; A Costa Rica Adventure

Articles: Why Gardeners Travel; A Costa Rica Adventure

Spring 2024 

In Costa Rica, it’s hard to avoid seeing people looking for birds. This past January, I joined our Pacific Horticulture group for an early morning bird walk. I didn’t bring a telephoto lens and wasn’t expecting to get any close-up pictures.

Our small tour van guided us through the cloud forest of Savegre Valley. We were surrounded by wild avocado trees (Persea spp.) and had a good chance of seeing the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), the “plumed serpent” god of Mesoamerica that dined on the fruit.

Not 200 yards up the road from the lodge, we stopped the van when we saw another guide with a couple of bird watchers pointing into the trees. Quetzals! The males have long tails and are associated with the snake god Quetzalcoatl.

**All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted.

Resplendent Quetzal (male) bird watching at Savege Lodge, Costa Rica

I noticed our tour guide, Carlos (Charly) Bolaños, was taking pictures with his smart phone through his spotting scope, and I asked him to teach me. It did not take very long to figure out I could very slowly position the lens of the phone carefully on top of the eyecup of a spotting scope. So long as the phone was locked into the infinity focus setting, the photos stayed sharp. Maybe not sharp enough for a glossy publication, but pretty darn good.

bird spotting scope - Resplendent Quetzal (male) bird watching at Savege Lodge, Costa Rica

As the morning progressed, other birdwatching groups came down the road and realized this was the spot. We all participated in what the guides called the quetzal dance—as the birds flew from one tree to another, the birdwatchers shuffled along with spotting scopes and tripods.

The quetzal dance - birdwatchers chasing Resplendent Quetzal near Savege Lodge, Costa Rica

I went to Costa Rica for the plants, having no idea that I would learn about bird photography, but now I have a new skill to bring back home to California.

As a photojournalist, I see the world through a camera and take pictures to solidify my memory. We travel to get our own insight into the places we visit, and the camera is the way I create my story.

Riotous color in the garden of Bougainvillea Hotel
Thunbergia mysorensis in gardens of Bougainvillea Hotel

We began our adventure at the Hotel Bougainvillea in Santo Domingo, just outside the capital, San José. I set out to capture the 10-acre garden that drew us to this hotel. Right away I was seeing more than the traditional travel brochure pictures of a hotel bedroom overlooking a garden.

Tommy Thomas founder of the magnificent ethnobotanic gardens of the Green Ark Foundation., Pacific Horticulture tour in Costa Rica

We spent our first morning at the Green Ark Botanical Garden, where we were met by Tommy Thomas, the founder. I wanted a picture of him in context, so I backed off a little and framed him off to the side so that we could see him addressing the group.

The Green Ark Foundation’s “mission is to educate and share knowledge about the use of plants for a better personal life, and for the well-being of the planet,” according to its website. Here was a botanic garden dedicated to farming in the tropics.

Vist our Travel Page to see upcoming tours with Pacific Horticulture — Make your own stories.

Going into this trip, I think all of us knew the narrative of Costa Rica—that it is a very green country, with lots of ecotourism and well-considered land use. At the Green Ark Botanical Garden, we found out that the narrative of ecotourism was not a marketing gimmick, it has become a marketing tool, because taking care of the land has become a way of life in Costa Rica.

We got the equivalent of a walking TED Talk on the importance of ethnobotany and local farming. Crops in Costa Rica include banana varieties other than the Cavendish, which is 99 percent of all global banana exports, and the achiote shrub (Bixa orelllana), whose seed supplies natural red dye for lipstick and sazón seasoning.

One variety of 210 bananas in the botanic garden of the Green Ark Foundation. Only one variety, Cavendish is imported to US
Bixa orellana, achiote shrub, seeds source of Annatto a natural red dye used in foods and cosmetics from achiote tree in Green Ark Botanic Garden, natural substitute for red dye number two when it was banned 50 years ago. Costa Rica

Our tour of the botanic garden was followed by a very leisurely five-course garden-to-table meal in The Ark Restaurant that would rival any in Napa Valley.

farm to table lunch for Pacific Horticulture tour at Green Ark Foundation, Costa Rica

We spent our afternoon at La Catalina Jardin Botanico with Randall Obsney, an expert of indigenous orchids of Costa Rica. Visiting this off-the-beaten-path small family business of local orchids is just the sort of nerdy off-the-wall place horticulturists love to discover.

I wanted to be sure to capture a picture of Randall himself showing off one of his orchids.

On Day Two, we set out in our small van to the tropical rainforest in Sarapiqui Valley. Elvin, our wonderful driver, knew just the place for a turnout as we crossed the Continental Divide from the Pacific side of the country to the Caribbean. This was literally his neighborhood.

Of course, the entire group wanted a photo of the beautiful Costa Rican countryside on this ridge. It was beautiful in both directions but, as it was still morning, the better photo light was looking east, making the vegetation more lively. We all piled out to the edge of a field and posed for a photo.

Randall Obsney orchid collector in his garden: la Catalina Botanical Garden, Costa Rica

Our first stop on the day’s itinerary was the Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden, a truly remarkable research center to “promote the conservation and restoration of the montane cloud forest ecosystems of Costa Rica through its science programs, public education, and watershed stewardship,” according to their website.

Photographers on Pacific Horticulture tour January 2024 - Heading over Continental Divide to Caribbean side of Costa Rica

Using conservation practices within and around the watershed, they help local farmers understand the value of ecosystem preservation, because without conservation the water will not remain on the land. The work at Nectandra has little to do with ecotourism (other than hosting tours, and a delicious café) but speaks to the culture of Costa Rica and the people who live with the land.

Pacific Horticulture tour of Nectandra Institute, Evelyne Lennette giving introduction
Palicourea pilosa leaf underside purple so it can receive reflected light at Nectandra garden, Costa Rica
Tour guide Carlos (Charly) Bolaños investigating potential leaf galls while on the Nectranda Institute cloud forest tour
Jesse photographing tour members: Nancy, Fran, Ann at Nectranda Institute cloud forest tour

Here at Nectandra, because of the dense foliage of the cloud forest, it’s hard to get a photograph with a sense of composition. In this photo, notice how the silver star palm (Cryosophila warscewiczii) provides a solid anchor for the upper right corner. (See Before photo in the Nectandra gallery link in Resources.)

cloud forest foliage textures - Cryosophila warscewiczii – Silver Star Palm with palmate leaves by stream with foliage plants - Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden, Costa Rica

As we continued our drive to Selva Verde Lodge in the Sarapiqui Valley, Elvin kept a lookout for interesting sites that only a local would know. Being a horticultural group, plants and ecosystems were certainly the focus of our tour, but Costa Rica is also known for its unusual fauna, especially birds. He knew a spot where giant iguanas climb trees, and he spotted a three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus) stuck on a telephone pole. (We called animal services.)

Giant Iguana in tree; Costa Rica
3 toed sloth in costa rica on telephone pole

This is exactly the sort of serendipity we hope happens when we travel, and it sure helps to have a guide who also knows where to look. Charly, our guide for the entire trip, has a degree in botany but also seemed to know everything about Costa Rica ecology. Once we’d settled in at the lodge, he led us on a night walk. By the light of a flashlight, he saw tree frogs and lizards, and he kept them in the light just long enough for us to grab a picture.

Red-eye Tree frog at Selva Verde night walk
Anole lizard on night walk at Selva Verde night walk

On our first full day at Selva Verde Lodge, we took a rainy morning hike in the rain forest. (The packing list provided by the tour company came in handy. I think all of us were prepared.) I wanted to have a picture that told the story of wetness while still getting a feeling for what Charly was telling us. In this picture, he was explaining the ecology of rainforest trees that have a buttressing system for the roots.

Tour guide Carlos (Charly) Bolaños botanizing in the rainforest; Selva Verde Lodge in the Sarapiqui Valley

This adventure was followed by a midday visit to a chocolate farm, where we learned about the sustainable farming methods that led to a higher quality and better prices for the farmers. We also learned how to grind chocolate beans and add just the right amount of cane sugar to make our own 70 percent chocolate cream. On our way out, we nearly emptied the tiny gift shop of their chocolate bars.

That afternoon our guide, Charly, had arranged river rafting with a buddy who ran a small river rafting company. We spent a magical afternoon on the Rio Sarapiqui in the rainforest during a warm rain. Not even halfway through our trip and we are already full of adventures and stories to tell—many, like this river trip, we could not have imagined.

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To capture something of that river trip, I wanted a photo near the edge of the river, where some of the rainforest could overlap the frame to compose the photo. We were two to a raft, and my partner was skilled enough that I didn’t really need to paddle or steer. I put my camera up to my eye and watched the view as the composition slowly changed until I saw the exact photo I wanted.

rafting in the rain in the Costa Rica rainforest

We spent the next day at La Selva Research Station of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTC). Charly had met Head of Scientific Operations Orlando Vargas Ramirez during his own studies.

Charly explained that Orlando would be able to give us about 15 minutes of his time when we first arrived, then a staff member would give us a longer tour. However, once we all met, Orlando was excited to be meeting a group of plant people and gave us an hour of his time.

Orlando led us into the forest to see the vine Gnetum leyboldii, a plant which is a living connection between angiosperms and gymnosperms. The Gnetum vine was quite large and way up in the trees, making it difficult to get a picture of the plant, so I simply found an angle where he held up a piece of the “chicken bone” segmented stem with vine behind him.

Later that afternoon, on our way back to our last night at Selva Verde Lodge, we had a pleasant pontoon boat ride down the river next to OTC, looking for wildlife. Even though it was a rather quaint set up on a small dock with the local kids hanging out, I felt pampered, quietly sitting while the scenery passed by, the boat occasionally idling without the motor.

Orlando Vargas, Head of Scientific Operations at the Organization of Tropical Studies, with "chicken bone" segment of Gnetum leyboldii the bridge between angiosperms and gymnosperms.

Cruising down the river, we saw lots of birds, we saw bats, and we saw crocodiles. We may have even seen a shadowy black panther, though very much unconfirmed. Exciting to know they live near the La Selva preserve. We saw an osprey dive and catch a fish while one of our fellow travelers, Nancy Gyes, an accomplished bird photographer, had her camera and telephoto lens ready.

Osprey with fish - Nancy Gyes bird photo in Costa Rica

The next day we headed south and crossed back across the Continental Divide into the montane cloud forest of San Gerardo de Dota in the Talamanca Mountain Range. As we headed down the narrow road in Savegre River watershed to the lodge, the view from our van was simply astonishing.

Rio Savegre watershed for the montane cloud forest of San Gerardo de Dota in the Telemaca mountain range. This iPhone photo is through the window as we drove.

I did enhance the cloud highlights a little bit with the phone app, but the beauty is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

The Savegre Lodge is surrounded by this cloud forest and owns almost 1,000 acres, including the site of the Centenary Oak (an award-winning Quercus sapotifolia). Oaks are easily my favorite trees, and I had no idea there were oaks in the tropics until settling in at a lodge in the middle of an oak cloud forest.

The next day, Charly led a hike into the cloud forest among the tall oaks. Even with a wide-angle lens, I had to back up quite a way to be sure I included the trees in relationship to the group.

Pacific Horticulture tour of Oak montane cloud forests at Savegre Lodge in Talamanca Mountain Range near San Gerardo de Dota; Costa Rica

At first glance the forest looked a little bit like an East Coast deciduous forest or even our California coastal forests in the green of winter—tall trees with lots of green understory—but immediately the plants told a different story.

Elvin on trail in Savegre Lodge cloud forest

Note how I composed this picture with one of the hikers in a red jacket a bit off center, surrounded by the lush green. I waited for him to walk right into that position before photographing the moment.

As we walked, Charly pointed out bamboo, palms, wild begonia, Bomarea (his specialty) with its distinctive resupinate leaf structure, twining African violets (such as Kohleria tigrida) and even found the root parasite Corynaea crassa—known as Peruvian Viagra.

The group did not have time to climb up the Los Robles trail to the Centenary Oak, but we had the afternoon to ourselves, so I got a Jeep ride halfway up, then climbed the trail to see this wonder at 8,563 feet.

Quercus sapotifolia (syn. Quercus bumelioides) Centenary Oak tree in Talamanca Mountain Range, Oak montane cloud forests near San Gerardo de Dota at Savegre Lodge; Costa Rica

To get this photo, I walked around and around the tree trying to find a branch pattern that separated from the surrounding forest. Then, using the widest lens, I placed my camera solidly against the base of the tree and looked straight up into the mist.

The same day that we joined other groups to do the “quetzal dance,” we went to Batsú Gardens, a nearby birdwatching preserve. The owners had birdfeeders stocked with fresh fruit, making it quite easy to get more photographs. I confess I was not great at setting up the spotting scope, but once someone helped, I got pretty good at lining up my iPhone with the eyecup.

spotting scope and Silver throated tanager Birdwatching at Batsú Gardens in Talamanca Mountains
Silver throated tanager - Birdwatching at Batsú Gardens in Talamanca Mountains
Flame color tanager at Batsú Gardens in Talamanca Mountains
Golden brow clorophonia at Batsú Gardens in Talamanca Mountains

The next day, it was time to leave the cloud forests of San Gerardo de Dota and head back home. I have left out many of our adventures: the gardens around the lodge, the meals and local food (plantain at every meal), the out-of-the-way stops such as “where the wind goes to die,” the plants in the forests, photo tips and conversations, and the howler monkeys.

On the last day, as we drove back to Hotel Bougainvillea and connections home, Charly wanted to take us to hike a small hill, a place along the Continental Divide to see both the Pacific and Caribbean oceans. However, it was cloudy, so Elvin drove the tour van up a gravel road to the highest point he could get us to—11,352 feet above sea level.

11,352 feet in Talamanca Mountain Range and cloud forests near San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica

A wonderful story just our own, a side trip to the top of the world, something I never expected to see. We travel to expand our view of the world. Thank you, Pacific Horticulture for making this happen.

And as a final tribute, when we travel, we meet people and make friends. Thank you to my fellow travelers for lifetime memories and especially thank you to Elvin and Carlos, our enthusiastic guides.

Elvin and Carlos in van during Pacific Horiculture tour of Costa Rica
Pacific Horticulture tour of Green Ark Foundation with Tommy Thomas

Pura Vida! Costa Rican term to say hello, goodbye, everything’s great, and everything’s cool.

This article was sponsored by:


The Ark Botanical Garden

Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden

More photos of our stop at Nectandra in this link including the Palicourea pilosa leaf that uses the purple underside to gather reflected light in the dense cloud forest. Who knew?! Reinforcing the reason we travel—to learn cool stuff.




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