Central America - Part 2: The Journey to San Vito

The sun was up and burning by 6 AM. We were sweating by the time we arrived at the bus station. I always over-pack. Always. My backpack was loaded with extra clothes and camera gear. Luckily we were in store for a 6 + hour bus ride. The night before didn't do much in the way of helping me catch up on sleep. Alajuela is a loud city. It seemed like none of the cars had mufflers. Every passing hour came complete with multiple car alarms as well. Despite our exhaustion, we were excited to be catching the bus to San Vito. 

We first had to catch a bus into San Jose. It was an interesting process. It was a weekday morning and we quickly got caught up in rush hour traffic. Walking was easy. It would seem that driving in this country takes a whole new set of skills that I simply do not have. There are no street signs and everyone seems to follow some unwritten Darwinian traffic code - only the strongest survive. Trucks and buses move in and out of tiny, crowded streets without hitting the cars sandwiched in between them. Motorcycles and mopeds weave their way through what little space remains. Watching this unfold was an experience unlike anything I had ever encountered. I would surely crumble under these conditions. My pampered American ways had no place on these roads. 

We managed to find the first bus. What should have been a 15 minute commute from Alajuela to San Jose was actually going to be about an hour. Luckily I found myself sitting next to a man names Carlos. His English was perfect, probably better and more formal than my own. Carlos could certainly sense how out of place I was and was kind enough to strike up a conversation. As it turns out, Carlos is a plant scientist working at an agricultural research institute in San Jose. His work centers around making Costa Rican farming more sustainable. His current project involved introducing new potato varieties from Peru into the mix to help transition away from monocultures. 

We talked for a while about his approach to this but his concerns seemed daunting. Like everywhere else in the world, Costa Rica is facing an uncertain future with climate change. Areas that once sustained certain types of farming are no longer able to do so. He made sure to point out every farm along our rout and explain to me what was obviously wrong - huge, chemical-laden coffee plantations, timber lots chock full of invasive eucalyptus trees, and almost no erosion control anywhere, which is clogging up tropical streams with an endless supply of runoff and sediments. 

I could have talked to Carlos all day, however, we had to part ways. I was lucky to have met him. We grabbed a cab to the next bus station. Yet another awkward ride ensued as the kind cab driver did his best to speak in slow, easy Spanish. Within an hour our bus had arrived. We boarded with only a handful of other people. From what I have come to understand, there are two main routs from San Jose to San Vito - one takes you through the mountains and the other takes you down the coast. With my face glued to the window, it soon became apparent that our driver was taking us through the mountains. 

Like a kid in a candy shop, the scenery had my complete attention. The combination of the size of the bus and the elevation that we had to climb meant that the ride was slow enough that I could actually do some botanizing from the window. Again, I had almost no idea what I was seeing. The only plants I was remotely able to recognize were some sort of Dicranopteris fern that covered exposed roadsides and plenty of bamboo orchids (Arundina graminifolia), a species that has naturalized throughout the tropics but was originally native to parts of Asia. The rest quickly became a green blur of tree ferns, palms, and other tropical looking trees. I couldn't wait to explore with someone who knows a thing or two about Costa Rican flora.

We actually made good time considering the length of the trip. In just under 6 hours we were walking down the main path at the Wilson Botanical Garden. Here we were to meet our friend Dave. We found him watering some cacti. Though this was technically the rainy season, they had not received any rain in over a week. Some of the plants didn't quite know what to do. We found our sleeping arrangements for the next few days and were anxious to start exploring. The main grounds of the garden were jaw droppingly gorgeous. There was more plant diversity within a stones throw than anywhere else I have ever been. Dave had some work to finish up so he gave us a map of the grounds and sent us on our way. 

Being completely new to this area, I was a bit wary of what I might encounter. Does Costa Rica have its own tropical version of poison ivy? Was I going to brush up against or touch something that would result in a rash? I asked Dave if there was anything I should avoid and he had only one response, caterpillars. "Don't touch any of the caterpillars. Some can totally ruin your day." Noted. 

Being much closer to the equator than New York, we had to get used to the sun schedule. It starts getting dark around 6 during this time of year and we didn't want to be out unsupervised after dark. We kept our musings to the immediate area near our cabin. A friend joked that going to a botanical garden in a rainforest is kind of like going to a zoo in Africa. Though it was a funny comparison, it couldn't be farther from the truth. The beauty of the Wilson Botanical Garden is that it allows you an up-close and personal look at the flora. Sure, there are paths and labels but these are a great place to familiarize yourself with some of the local species before setting off blindly into the jungle. Begonias and gesneriads carpet walls and rocks, Palms offer shade for ferns and orchids alike. Countless endemic bird, insects, and amphibians haunt these grounds. We even saw our first wild agouti. I was both overjoyed and overwhelmed. 

As if on cue, it happened. We rounded a bend and dangling off the side of a tree was an orchid in full bloom. It was Gongora armeniaca. I never really understood what it meant to be speechless until this moment. In fact, I don't think my brain could fully comprehend what it was seeing. The long inflorescence was in full bloom. Each of its strange flowers were perfect. I have seen Gongoras before as curiosities tucked in the back of orchids rooms at various botanical gardens. However, nothing comes close to seeing a species like this in situ. I was going to have to pay a lot of attention to trunks and branches if I was going to see more botanical wonders like this. 

Central America - Part 1: Costa Rica

This journey really began back in April. Grad school was coming to a close and our move to Illinois was scheduled for August. A celebration was in order. Other than a brief exploration of a Caribbean island and a few visits to Florida, I have never really experienced anything remotely tropical. Through documentaries and an obsession with houseplants that borders on hoarding, I developed a longing for the equatorial rainforests of the world. It was high time I visited some. 

We managed to find ourselves some cheap tickets into Costa Rica. My friend and horticultural mentor, Dave Janas, had taken a job at the Wilson Botanical Garden in San Vito. I could not think of a better person to introduce us to the flora and fauna of this region. With our flights set we now had something to day dream about for the next few months. 

In no time at all the day had arrived. We hopped on a plane in Buffalo, NY and in less than half a day we had landed in San Jose, Costa Rica. All we had were our backpacks and some cash. No matter how much you read and prepare there is always going to be some culture shock. This was especially true in my case. I had been to Portugal as a kid, though I hardly remember most of it. Other than Canada and the Caribbean, I have not traveled much outside of the country. I was ready for something new and challenging but very little sleep and my almost non-existent grasp on Spanish made the first few hours a bit trying. After an awkward cab ride from the airport in San Jose to our hostel in Alajuela, I needed to regroup a bit. 

After a small nap, I was ready to get my bearings. It was time to explore Alajuela a bit. We decided to grab some food and see what the parks were like in town. Getting around town proved to be a slow process - not because of transportation or any sort of infrastructure but because every garden was teaming with plants I have either never seen before or only encountered in the indoor section of a nursery or botanical garden. Poinsettias and palms were obvious favorites. They decorated most open lots. There were also a handful of mango trees dotting the city scape. When we finally arrived at the park, I could barely contain myself. 

It wasn't very big but it was packed. The ground was trampled as well. It was obvious that this was quite a popular place. Most of what was growing there were various palms and each palm was adorned with its fair share of tillandsias. It didn't take long for my ever-present search image to locate a few orchids as well. At this point you may be asking "what species?!" and to that I will say that I haven't the slightest idea. I was quickly realizing just how out of my element I was. Other than some of the more obvious plants that decorate houses and offices up north, most of what I was seeing was completely new to me. This was going to be an exciting trip. Never in my life have I been this ignorant to the plants and animals around me. If this is how the dense urban centers were going to be, I could hardly wait to run off into a real rainforest. That leg of the adventure was to begin at dawn the next day. 

We found a fruit vendor and grabbed some dinner for the evening. It consisted of some granadilla (Passiflora ligularis) and rambutans (Nephelium lappaceum). We sat on a bench and ate all the while a pair of crimson-fronted parakeets were loudly tending to something inside a hole in a dead palm. I had finally done it. I was finally about to explore one of these tropical wonderlands.