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La Garita's Botanical Orchid Garden

Destination: Alajuela

We stepped over the threshold, passing from quaint gift shop into a colorful outdoor oasis. The blue sky was speckled with clouds and a bright, shining sun -- a harbinger of the beautiful day ahead. My parents, ardent nature lovers, were visiting from the States, and we had decided on a day at the Botanical Orchid Garden in La Garita, a suburb of Alajuela.

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We began at the garden's small aviary, which houses rescued birds. All but one, a sulfur-crested cockatoo, was native to Costa Rica -- and most had been kept illegally as pets. Here at the garden, the animals had safe homes, room to exercise, and a healthy diet. Scarlet macaws squawked in the background and a personable parrot hollered greetings, but it was a golden parrot that caught my eye. The medium-sized bird, also known as a lutino parrot, is very rare and the result of a genetic mutation; they lack the gene that adds blue pigment to their feathers, so instead of being green in color (blue + yellow), they're a happy yellow.

The garden was landscaped with oak, bamboo, and screwpine trees, and almost everywhere I looked, colorful flowers decorated the scenery. The aviary transitioned into a red-rock path flanked by small bushes that dripped with orchids. Pink, purple, white and peach -- the large blooms were beautiful and their scent intoxicating.

Since the weather continued to cooperate, we decided to explore the lake and bamboo forest. A winding path led us to many interesting specimens, including a massive fig tree and several bamboo species. After a leisurely five-minute walk, we arrived at the small lake.

More of a pond, the quiet waters were surrounded by huge clumps of common bamboo and heliconia. Five ducks were stationed in the center, acting guardians of this small slice of paradise. Standing beneath the trees, listening to the gentle swoosh of the bamboo, it was easy to forget our proximity to the city's hustle and bustle. I was reminded of how therapeutic a peaceful escape can be.

On a trip to the Southern Caribbean last year, I had driven through a huge bamboo tunnel -- patches of 50-foot bamboo had canopied the road, blocking out the sun and creating an astonishing visual effect. The orchid garden's bamboo forest was the same, but on a much smaller scale. The bamboo was only ten feet tall, and the path between it just large enough for our group to walk single file. I took the lead, and couldn't help but fantasize about having a backyard large enough to grow a bamboo maze. Maybe someday!

We circled back to the garden's entrance, where we inspected several orchid nurseries. Here, visitors are welcome to observe plants in all stages of development, from young sprouts to adult plants ablaze with blooms. It was already late afternoon, and we had one more stop to make.

La Garita is famous for its plant nurseries (known locally as viveros), and I was determined to buy my first tropical species. Up to this point, I had been content to tend to my homegrown vegetables and tiny yard, and had little desire to cultivate much else. But the botanical garden had turned a whim into full-fledged inspiration, and I was intent on finding an exotic plant to take home.

We stopped at one of the largest nurseries along the main road, and I browsed more than an acre of plantings. Surprisingly, I ended up choosing one of the very first plants I had spotted: a spiny heliconia topped by a pink flower that was filled with tiny fuschia and violet blooms. I found a complementary ceramic planter and marveled at the stunning plant. For just $13.50, an obsession with tropical gardening had begun.

La Garita's Botanical Orchid Garden in Pictures

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