Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day Trip to INBioparque

Destination: Heredia

The Heredia-San Jose bus dropped me off just three blocks from INBioparque's main entrance. Heading west, I walked along the quiet and sunny Santo Domingo boulevard, mentally reviewing what I already knew about the wilderness park. I was excited: though I live in Costa Rica, it's almost impossible to see and do everything that the country has to offer. INBioparque would provide me with a general overview of Costa Rica's major ecosystems, and allow me to explore both the flora and fauna that makes each so unique.

At the front entrance, I met my private guide, Erick, and reviewed a park map. The 12-acre facility is home to re-creations of Costa Rica's rainforests, wetlands, Central Valley forest, dry forests and farmlands. Various collections -- insects, frogs and toads, tarantulas, snakes, iguanas, turtles, caimans, fish, butterflies and more -- are interspersed throughout the park, mingling with free-roaming animals and migratory birds.

As we entered the park, our first stop was at small, hermetically sealed ecosystem globes. In October 2007, INBio scientists filled them with water from various wetlands, sealed them and then left them to develop. Today, each globe is teeming with both plant and animal life: colorful flowers, buzzing insects and swimming fish live inside each micro-environment.

Erick directed me toward the Biological Research Station, a small INBio outpost located within the park's boundaries. Inside, animal and insect specimens decorated the walls, and a knowledgeable staff member answered my questions. He told me that INBio has special authorization to visit Costa Rica's national parks and protected areas, always searching for new species. To my surprise, I learned that INBio scientists discover a new species approximately every three to four days. In total, the institute has discovered more than 2,300 new species (approximately 25% of Costa Rica's total discovered species), significantly augmenting the country's scientific knowledge base.

Erick led me into INBioparque's dry forest, and I was surprised to immediately feel the section's physical effects; it was hot and had very little humidity. In addition to providing relevant facts and information, my guide was full of anecdotes and myths related to the dry forest's flora and fauna. For example, he explained that the acacia, a tall, thin tree native to the dry forest, boasts thin bark and hollow spines. Ants live within the thorns, feeding off of the tree; in turn, the ants protect the tree from predators, inflicting sharp, painful bites on any foraging animal.

As we exited the dry forest, motmots danced in the trees and a spotted fawn leapt through the bush. We crossed into the wetlands section, and immediately felt the change -- humidity surrounded us and a damp scent thickened the air. There are more than 350 wetland areas in Costa Rica -- lakes, rivers, creeks and more -- and all are very important to the country's transportation, flora and fauna, energy supplies and tourism. We peeked into the turtle and caiman habitat before moving to the artificial lagoon.

More than 200 migratory bird species pass through INBioparque on their trip south, increasing Costa Rica's total avian population to 800 plus species. After observing the roosting ducks and colorful birds, we headed below the lagoon for an underwater view. Fish swam in the murky lake water, and the small aquarium was teeming with several freshwater fish species. After a few minutes in front of the glass-walled lake environment, we walked up to see the butterflies.

The mariposario, or butterfly farm, was a black-netted tent area. Colorful butterflies flitted around, and a small glass tank held exquisite butterfly cocoons. More than 14,000 species of butterflies and moths live in Costa Rica, and INBioparque is home to several hundred of them. I wanted to stay there all day and observe the beautiful insects, but it was soon time to move on.

Our next stop was the Costa Rican rainforest, and again I felt the climate change. This time, a mist covered the trees and plants, and I was enveloped by warmth. We walked quickly through the lush forest, stopping to get a closer look at the frogs and spiders. Erick told me that the golden orb-weaver spider, a medium-sized, furry arachnid, has a web so strong that scientists are currently trying to reproduce it for use in bulletproof vests. As we exited, he pointed out a three-toed sloth lazing in the tree above, and the furry animal inclined his sweet face toward us before changing position on his lofty perch.

I lingered too long in certain areas, and it seemed that my two-hour tour had already come to an end. Erick directed me to the on-site restaurant, where I enjoyed a wonderful lunch: my plate overflowed with vegetables, rice, fruit salad, stuffed chicken in a mushroom sauce, salad and homemade iced tea. It was delicious, and I was soon ready to embark on a self-guided tour to see the rest of INBioparque.

I investigated the park's educational rooms, which combined interactive exhibits with hard facts about Costa Rican ecosystems and habitats. There, I explored the country's numerous national parks, learned about sustainable energy practices, and roamed through a mangrove swamp. Though the exhibits were fun, I was itching to get outside again, and soon made a beeline toward the farmland section.

The farm was lined with vegetables, herbs, fruits and medicinal plants, ranging from seedlings to adult plants. I walked through the crops, and soon arrived at the park's small petting zoo. An admitted animal lover, I headed through the gates -- it didn't matter that the next-oldest visitor's age was still in the single digits. Baby goats, rabbits and guinea pigs were the petting zoo's main attractions. The goats were the friendliest animals, and I sat down on the ground, surrounded by baby animals waiting for a kind pat on the head.

After playing with the goats, I walked through the rest of the farm, passing roosters, turkeys, chickens and even a docile pot-bellied pig. Emerging back into the main park, I had a quick try at the natural maze (verdict: fun, but definitely geared toward children) before finishing my tour. I returned to the park's entrance, drinking in the natural beauty around me.

As I walked back toward the bus stop, I thought about my visit to INBioparque. I had learned a great deal about Costa Rica's biodiversity, and had interacted with several of its plants and animals. For anyone new to Costa Rica, or simply interested in understanding its many ecosystems, the park is an ideal introduction to the country and its incredibly diverse flora and fauna.

Day Trip to INBioparque in Pictures