Posted by: ktzefr | April 21, 2010

Earth Day, Costa Rica: An “Inside” Look at Trees

“We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.” ~ Annie Dillard

Earth Day.  I can’t think of any better place to get a feel for the planet than Costa Rica.  From its steamy lowland jungles to high-elevation cloud forests, the world is green and the air always filled with the scents of wet earth and exotic blooms.

A few years back…my notes from Earth Day at Bosque de Paz (Forest of Peace) in Costa Rica.


…from the bus window we get a last glimpse of the “green side” of Arenal Volcano, the colorful town of La Fortuna, the tiny yellow church with a tall bell tower.  Outside of town we slow down so two little boys on a brown horse might  cross the road.  The boy riding in back suddenly (for our entertainment, I’m sure) takes hold of the horse’s tail and yanks it straight up,  pulling it hard and taunt.  The horse startles, dances in place, and we all gasp.  But the boys hold on for dear life, and the little one looks back at us and laughs as they head up a dirt path into the hills.

We soon leave pavement behind, too, and venture onto a steep road full of ruts and stones, cross over one-lane wooden bridges, and scoot around curves that nearly make U-turns.  Our driver says we need to get to Bosque de Paz before it rains.  The rains come almost every day and the road can quickly become impassable.  At one point I look out the window and the tiny wooden bridge we’re crossing is so narrow it disappears beneath us.  But the river below is incredible, the most unusual blue, almost as if the water has been filled with dye like the mini-golf make-believe ponds at the beach.  The sky is cloudy, so I can only imagine what this blue looks like in the sun.

…another river, distinctly different.  Muddy and yellow from the volcano.  Still up and up we go, bumping around the curves and bends, ascending the mountain.  Each time we meet a car one of us has to pull off the road.  Sometimes there’s no place to go, so we back up or they back up until one of us finds a pulling-off spot.  Going forward is bad enough, but now we get a hair-raising glimpse of going backward…


…driving to Bosque de Paz, Costa Rica

At Bosque the only view is of the surrounding forest, the mist still clinging to the highest peaks as the sun tries to break through…there’s birdsong, the rush of a nearby river.  (Bosque de Paz is an 1,800 acre preserve that serves as a natural biological corridor connecting the Poas Volcano and Juan Castro Blanco National Parks.  There is a small lodge on the property.)

In the back yard…a showy display of hummingbirds.  A line of feeders backs up to the forest and birds are everywhere, oblivious to our gawking and picture taking.  There are more than 50 different species of hummingbirds in Costa Rica!  The Violet Sabrewing, at 6 inches long, is one of the largest.  It loves the cloud forest understory, as well as foraging in the lowland banana plantations , and looks like a flying gemstone.  (Double click to enlarge photos)


Violet Sabrewing Hummingbird

We hike alongside the river into so much green that it all runs together.  The palms and tree ferns stand out because they’re easily recognizable, but it takes some time to see all the shades and shapes and varieties of lesser-known plants.  Philodendrons and other vines fill the trees and dangle above our heads; tall, emergent trees soar above all the others; there’s dumb cane and elephant’s ear and lipstick plants…rattlesnake plants with flat, yellow flowers.  The red and yellow heliconias are called “lobster claws” and they hang over the trail like clusters of bananas from the banana trees.  Epiphytes — orchids, bromeliads, mistletoe — grow in the crooks of branches.


Our guide tells us that epiphytes generally do not harm the host trees, but occasionally when high rainfall allows them to grow unchecked, their combined weight can bring branches crashing to the ground.  On these slopes facing the prevailing winds the forest is often enveloped in clouds.  It’s the perfect climate to turn the sort of tropical houseplants we display in our homes into fabulous green giants.

Most philodendrons and other vines start life rooted in the ground, but they head for the sunlit treetops.  One interesting plant that grows like this is the Swiss Cheese Plant (Monstera Deliciosa).  In the wild it climbs up a tree and if the tree turns out to be too short, the cheese plant simply drops back to the forest floor and searches for another one!

Not so with the strangler fig, however.  The strangler begins its life as a vine, an epiphyte, growing high on the branches of a tree.  But the strong, woody roots grow down along the tree’s trunk, twisting and turning around it, attaching and fusing with it, before entering the ground.  The “host” tree, at the center of the fig plant, eventually dies and rots away, leaving a tall fig tree with a hollow center.

On our hike we find trees that are wrapped with these vines; some not yet damaged, others starting to rot away.  And then we come to an enormous strangler fig, the vine having completely “killed” its host.  The tree is hollow from the ground to the top.  Our guide checks to make sure there are no critters living in the tree and then lets the kids take turns going inside

A rather awkward ladder…



Looking all the way up to a round patch of sky!

Time to plant our own trees!

We cross a stream and head uphill to a large field with clusters of tall, skinny, white-barked trees.   The alder grows very fast here, our guide tells us.   They can quickly repopulate areas where trees have been cut down in the past.  We trudge through the tall weeds, following one of the property’s caretakers who makes sweeping motions with a large scythe to clear the way.  A space is then also cleared amongst the weeds for each new tree.  The clouds part and the sun shines through.


Planting alder trees in Bosque de Paz, Costa Rica

We search the field for wild raspberries, enjoy the gardens.  I try to imagine this place at night — about as dark and peaceful as it gets.  Quiet…except, perhaps, for the birds and the flow of the river and the howler monkeys and all the nocturnal creatures that inhabit this forest.

…back to the bus and the road down the mountain.  I ask about the painted oxcart in one of the sheds.


Costa Rican oxcart

Legend has it that in the early 1900s a campesino decided to decorate his oxcart wheels with colorful mandala-like designs from the ancient Moors.  The art form caught on.  Originally, each district in Costa Rica had its own special design and locals could tell where the driver lived just by looking at his cart.  People also like to say that each cart had its own distinctive chirrico, the song of the wheels, which could identify the person passing by.

It’s hard to believe that as late as the 1960s these oxcarts were the most typical mode of transportation here.  It was the only vehicle that could transport produce from the farms through the rugged Costa Rican terrain.  After crossing the Continental Divide twice now and winding our way up to the Forest of Peace, it’s still a little unsettling to gaze down at the distant valley.  As our bus hugs the cliff and inches its way back down the mountain, I’m thinking I might feel a whole lot safer in one of those oxcarts!


It’s Earth Day.  The sun has crossed the Equator.  The garden shops are open.  Plant something!



  1. This was such a wonderful story – makes one wish to visit. There are some amazing places on this earth. Everyone should have a chance to see at least part of it.

    We are so glad we took our vacation to Iceland (an amazing country) a couple years ago before some of the land has been destroyed by the volcano.

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