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Spirogyra Butterfly Garden in San Jose

Destination: San Jose

There are so many things to love about San Jose -- live theater, music in the streets, fine dining -- but peace and quiet can be hard to find in such a loud, vibrant city. So when I heard about the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden, located in San Jose's Guadalupe neighborhood, I was intrigued. It sounded like a peaceful retreat from the city's growing concrete jungle.

I caught a bus to Guadalupe and got off at El Pueblo shopping center, a locale known best for late night dancing and wild parties. It was hard to believe that one of San Jose's last remaining forested areas was only a few blocks south, but as soon as I saw the garden's unassuming sign and towering trees, I knew I was in for a treat.

The entrance was graced by a small gift shop, a ticket counter and an informative 18-minute video (on constant loop), as well as a friendly employee who answered my questions with a smile. The Mariposario Spyrogyra, or Spirogyra Butterfly Garden, was created as a "green oasis," where both animals and people could find refuge from urban sprawl.

Only self-guided tours are available at the gardens and may take anywhere between 30 minutes and several hours. Armed with a map and mini-field guide, I ducked through black netting and entered a quiet world of colorful butterflies, sunbathing turtles, buzzing hummingbirds and peaceful reflection. Though not large, the butterfly garden surrounded me both physically and emotionally. It was so easy to forget that I was in the middle of San Jose, a city of nearly one million people.

Costa Rica is home to more than 1,200 butterfly species and 12,000 moth species, and more than 30 are represented here, in addition to five hummingbird species. In fact, many butterflies are bred here, while others drift in from around the city, attracted by the bright colors of flowering plants outside the garden's netted areas. Far from an expert in Costa Rican butterfly species, I referred back to my field guide often, easily identifying several of the colorful insects flitting and flying around me.

I was struck most by the garden's tranquility and sense of seclusion -- I was joined by only one other visitor -- and the park was virtually free from street noise. In fact, the adjacent Simon Bolivar Zoo served as the park's soundtrack, with the occasional wildcat roar or babbling brook riding in on the breeze. A small waterfall decorated the garden's center, and I sat down on a bench to drink in the sights and sounds around me.

After enjoying the butterflies, I crossed onto the Contemplation Path, a green paradise of towering trees, rustic trails and shy wildlife. The front desk employee had told me that visitors may spot the occasional sloth or monkey in the trees, but I didn't see any on my walk. I kept my eyes focused on the path ahead, and crept my way over stones and fallen logs. Though I saw giant government buildings towering in the distance, I couldn't shake the feeling of being in a mountaintop jungle -- oaks and pines surrounded me, and the only sound was of chirping birds.

By the time I had finished the contemplative loop, I knew I'd fallen down the rabbit hole into Costa Rica's version of Burnett's secret garden: a place where smog, stress and noise didn't seem to exist. Though not as large or popular as other butterfly gardens in the Central Valley, the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden is a wonderful alternative to the city's museums and churches, a hidden oasis amid the urban sprawl of San Jose.

Spirogyra Butterfly Garden in San Jose in Pictures