Monarchs and Morphos: The Alajuela Butterfly Farm
I had always heard wonderful stories from other travelers about The Butterfly Farm, located on the outskirts of Alajuela. The words magical and serene were frequently used to describe their experiences in the enclosed butterfly garden, housing some 52 species of butterflies. Although I am slightly biased when it comes to Costa Rica's wildlife (furry creatures with inquisitive personalities have always topped my list), I was eager to visit The Butterfly Farm and take part in one of their two-hour guided tours. I was hoping to get up close and personal with a morpho, the rather large and cerulean blue butterfly endemic to Costa Rica and much of Latin America.
My journey to the Farm began at the Pacifico bus station in Alajuela. After asking around to see which buses departed for La Finca de Mariposas, I was advised to take the La Guacima "Abajo" bus as it would drop me off in front of the farm's entrance. Lucky for me, the bus pulled right up and our 12 kilometer jaunt began.
There are times when I really love taking buses in Costa Rica and this was one of those days. Along the way, our driver stopped the bus and waited patiently for a passenger to hop off and buy a cup of coffee for the 40-minute ride. He later helped a woman unload her heavy grocery bags, all the while cheerfully shouting "Pura Vida!" out the window to friends and neighbors. Passengers grooved to the blaring salsa music as we chugged along. This was clearly a happy bus and the positive vibes put me in good spirits for the day.
As we neared La Guacima I noticed several houses and small stores adorned with colorful butterfly and garden murals. I wondered if this was clever advertising or simply evidence of a community's passion for butterflies. I later discovered that it was a little of both. Diego, our tour guide and head of marketing for The Butterfly Farm, explained that the farm hosts annual mural contests throughout La Guacima. As the winner receives a whopping $1000 US dollar prize, it attracts skilled artists as well as school groups and amateurs.
A bit early for my tour, Diego invited me to explore the enclosed butterfly area on my own. Once inside the garden, I felt like I had entered a different world, one that was inhabited by fairies and elves and the occasional gnome. Morphos and tiger butterflies danced around me, a couple landing on my arm and head. I followed the garden pathway and around each bend found more butterflies feeding on the nectar of flowers or slices of fresh banana. I could see their long butterfly tongues (proboscises) unrolled much like straws, drinking the sugary food. I was fortunate to have the garden all to myself for the moment, just hundreds of butterflies chasing each other in the sunlight and me.
This was not the largest butterfly garden I had ever visited in Costa Rica. In fact, it had a Mom and Pop feel about it, intimate and not brimming with throngs of tourists. As I headed toward the observation deck, I spotted a local kindergarten group on their way out, the children visibly enjoying the magic of their proximity to so many colorful, fluttering creatures.
After our group assembled and watched a twenty-minute video on butterfly metamorphosis, Diego explained that The Butterfly Farm has only been open to tourists since 1990. For over twenty-eight years it has functioned as a butterfly factory and is the leading exporter of live butterflies to 20 countries worldwide, which is understandable since over a thousand species of butterflies are native to Costa Rica (more than five percent of the earth's butterfly species). The Butterfly Farm operates as a cooperative, employing 300 families throughout the country to breed butterflies at home.
The families receive training on butterfly rearing and, when ready, transport the butterfly pupae to the farm for exportation. Local families can earn up to $2000 US dollars per month raising butterflies, which begs the question, who buys butterflies and can I raise them too? Universities, zoos, museums, conservatories and gardens all buy live butterfly pupae, shipped overnight or two-day express from the Farm.
Diego, possibly the most enthusiastic tour guide I have ever met, spoke to our group in alternating Spanish and English, although no one really seemed to be listening. We were too busy vying for spots to film or photograph the morphos and swallowtails around us. When a spotted, brown butterfly landed on my leg, Diego asked us to listen for its tell-tale sounds. The male cracker butterfly pops and crackles (much like Rice Krispies) to attract a potential mate.
Walking through the garden, we could see all four stages of the butterfly life cycle: egg, pupa, larva and adult butterfly. Employees carefully monitor butterfly eggs under leaves and small amounts of larvae (caterpillars) are allowed to stay in the garden for the duration of their one-month lifespan. These blind and deaf caterpillars are fierce eating machines and will eventually destroy all the foliage if left in the garden. Most larvae are moved to holding areas where they can enjoy their favorite plants.
One of the highlights of our tour was holding a newborn butterfly, still weak and wobbly as it had just emerged from the pupa. Its wings slightly damp, we were assured that in less than four hours the butterfly would be ready for its first flight. Guests are not allowed to touch adult butterflies, as any damage to the scales on their wings could result in early death. In an effort to display his skills as a "butterfly whisperer", Diego gently blew on an owl butterfly in mid-flight to calm it down before carefully holding it by the thorax. He explained that by blowing air on the body, the butterfly closes its tiny breathing holes (known as spiracles), in effect, holding its breath and staying still.
As our tour came to an end, we entered the souvenir shop and then the shipping area, where Butterfly Farm employees carefully sorted and packed live pupae for delivery around the world. Some were iridescent green or bright gold and silver, and looked more like earrings than baby butterflies.
A symbol of love, freedom, change or hope in many different countries, the butterfly has a universal attraction. Diego remembered a recent group to The Butterfly Farm. They were Japanese tourists who spoke neither Spanish nor English; they simply wanted to experience the magic of being surrounded by butterflies (and take lots of photos). I left the farm with a sense of happiness and a new appreciation for these remarkable creatures.
Getting There: From Alajuela, head towards the airport and follow signs to La Guacima de Alajuela and The Butterfly Farm. Most guests arrange roundtrip transportation to the farm for an additional cost (pickups can be arranged from most San Jose or Alajuela hotels).