Lured by the myriad of national parks, wildlife refuges and biological reserves throughout Costa Rica, I had never considered visiting a garden. Costa Rica has always seemed to me a natural garden. My recent tour of the Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden near San Ramón, northwest of the capital, was an eye-opener. Little did I realize the valuable role botanical gardens can play in educating visitors and promoting conservation both within and outside their borders.
Fifteen kilometers north of San Ramón on the road to northern Costa Rica’s La Fortuna, a small green sign peeks out from the roadside indicating the Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden 300 meters ahead. At the gated entrance, a larger sign simply reads “Nectandra,” flanked by two black nectandra fruits – a favorite of the resplendent quetzal – intertwining like the yin-yang symbol.
“We’re low key here,” says Evelyne Lennette as we start our walk. Lennette is one of the four owners of the 130-hectare premontane cloud forest reserve that houses the botanical garden.
The garden is open to the public by reservation only, to manage the flow of traffic. They don’t advertise and had never received a press visit since opening in 1999.
“The focus is on the forest and not on tourism,” adds co-owner Arturo Jarquín. Their discreet nature and dedication to sustainable growth has generated curiosity over the years.
“There have been a lot of rumors about what we do,” Lennette says with a laugh. Still, that hasn’t kept neighbors from embracing them; a local family recently named their baby girl after the garden.
We continue down the manicured trail lined with bromeliads, following the property’s original hunting and gathering paths. A sturdy wooden bridge stretches over a stream, and tiny waterfalls decorate the verdant hillside and feed a small pond. Plant species are occasionally identified. In Costa Rica, where plant biodiversity is immense, it is almost frightening to imagine what the garden would look like fully signed.
“Our world is getting so synthetic; these places are little windows that allow us to see what things can look like,” Lennette says. “If we turn this into something synthetic, if we overdo it, we’ll destroy what we started out with. We won’t get the feel of the untouched forest, but we try to keep it as close as possible.”
Lennette and her husband, David, both biologists, came to Costa Rica in 1995 on a horticulture trip with Costa Rica Expeditions and The Nature Conservancy. Jarquín, a trained horticulturist, guided the group.
Impressed with Costa Rica’s rich environmental landscape as well as with their guide, the Lennettes suggested a second trip.
On the return trip, the group started in La Selva, in the northern Caribbean lowlands, traveled to Pocosol near La Fortuna and San Vito in the south, and continued all the way to Cahuita on the southern Caribbean coast.
Jarquín recalls that it was on the long stretch between San Vito and Cahuita when Evelyne Lennette asked him if there was anything beyond guiding he wanted to do.
“We decided to put our dreams together,” Lennette remembers.
There are thousands of botanical gardens around the world, and their numbers are increasing as garden tourism gains popularity. But there are not many botanical gardens in Central America. The horticulture-minded group identified this niche and further refined it by focusing on native plant species rather than importing exotic species.
“We use the forest as a botanical site,” Jarquín says.
We stroll to the visitor center, which also houses a gallery and a café. Breakfast or lunch is included in the $60 entrance fee. There are also outdoor and indoor classrooms where visiting researchers host classes. Thoughtfully planned, the trail to the visitor center and some of the offshoot trails are handicapped-accessible.
We watch a 15-minute video about the cloud forest from the perspective of an orange-kneed tarantula named Tara. “We have no vote. … We’re invisible,” Tara says as the camera pans to running water.
Because the treetops in the cloud forest are the catchments that funnel water to earth, watershed stewardship is a big part of Nectandra’s work. Nectandra is in the Río Balsa subwatershed, which is part of the larger San Carlos watershed where Nectandra operates. Nectandra’s operation is twofold: on one hand there is the Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden, and on the other is the Nectandra Institute, a U.S. 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which means U.S. citizens can give tax-deductible gifts.
“We came in as a plant might,” explains Lennette, referring to the way Nectandra has adapted to the local environment. Quantity and quality of water have emerged as recurring themes in the area, fostering an innovative approach to watershed stewardship. “We have a lot of water, but it doesn’t stay here if you don’t take care of the environment.”
The insight gave birth to a new link between the local community and Nectandra in the form of “eco-loans.” It was at this point three years ago that Jarquín and fellow co-owner Alvaro Ugalde became more active in the program. Nectandra seeks out donors for the eco-loan program to support the 2,000-plus ASADAS, or grassroots water management groups, around Costa Rica. The ASADAS compete for funds that allow them to purchase the land from which theyget their water.
To date, Nectandra has made six loans serving 10,000 people and covering 300 hectares. “It’s not a lot of land,” Lennette says. “But they are the key hectares in the community.”
The eco-loans are repaid in eco-interest, which means the community agrees to reforest, to monitor watershed management and water quality and to track the information in a logbook. When it comes to paying back the loan principal, the communities have gotten very creative. Some ASADAS have raised water bills, others have raffled cows, and one community held a beauty pageant dedicated to the Nectandra Institute.
From the visitor center we wander the trail toward the property’s viewpoint, which looks to Arenal Volcano and JuanCastroBlancoNational Park. There are a total of six trail loops, the shortest measuring 500 meters and the longest four kilometers. Moss dangles from every branch and lichens cling to every rock, the latter making tennis shoes a better choice for traction than hiking boots. As we wind around to the parking area, I can hear cars rumbling in the distance, an ominous reminder of the dangers this delicate ecosystem faces.
“(At Nectandra) we restore nature through a gardener’s hand,” Jarquín summarizes. Some people say gardening is a way of showing you believe in tomorrow. While I know little about gardening, I do have hope for the future. By visiting the Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden, I feel as though I have voted for a healthy tomorrow.
Getting There, Rates, Info
By car, take the from San José and exit at San Ramón. Follow the signs through San Ramón to the San Ramón-La Fortuna national highway. Go 15 km and find Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden’s main gate on the left.
from San José and exit at San Ramón. Follow the signs through San Ramón to the San Ramón-La Fortuna national highway. Go 15 km and find Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden’s main gate on the left.
The garden is open Tuesday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission costs $60 for foreign visitors and $25 for Costa Ricans. The entrance fee includes a guided tour and a short lecture. Discounts are available to education groups by arrangement.
Reservations are required and may be made at 2456-4111 or email@example.com. For more information, visit www.nectandra.org.