Every outing we have ever gone on with botanist Miguel Cházaro has been an adventure. One day our friend took us to visit a cloud forest of maple trees and giant ferns, not far from Talpa, Jalisco. The next morning we had planned to return to Guadalajara, but Cházaro said, "There's a botanical garden near here you really must see. It was started by an American and it's unique."
Well, "near here" took six hours to get to plus six hours back and we ended up reaching home at midnight. But I must admit the eminent botanist was right: the Vallarta Botanical Gardens are a must-see, no matter where you find yourself in Mexico. The place is located 24 kilometers south of Puerto Vallarta, right on Palms-to-Pines coastal highway 200.
Step out of your car and you're in the jungle. We were visiting in July and everywhere we went, hundreds of "skippers" fluttered all around us. These, explained a sign in English and Spanish, are Hisperiidae butterflies, smaller than most and given to skipping, flitting, darting and zig-zagging, from which they get their popular name. Clouds of them danced all around us as we began our tour of the Botanical Gardens, which cover an area of eight hectares, criss-crossed by pathways with exotic names like The Vanilla Trail, Jaguar Trail and Guacamaya Trail, leading to even more exotic-sounding places like The Jungle Overlook, The Swinging Bridge, Tree Fern Grotto, The Garden of Memories and The Giant Strangler Fig Tree.
And everywhere you go, every step of the way, there is lush vegetation: sensuous tropical flowers, bizarre, creeping vines and gargantuan trees which soar to amazing heights in this tropical climate. Here you will find orchids — an amazing multitude of orchids.
There are even orchids that resemble anything but orchids, plus a few that (to our great surprise) exude alluring perfumes. And of course, there was the tastiest of all orchids, Vanilla planifolia, whose vines grow abundantly there (and you can buy the beans or extract in their store).
Here, too, are cocoa pods growing before your very eyes and attached directly to the tree trunk. Each pod holds 20 to sixty seeds, the main ingredient in chocolate.
There are also rare cacti of every sort, exotic Nymphaea 'islamorada' ("Purple Island" waterlilies), Red Ginger, once exclusively reserved for Hawaiian royalty and such a huge collection of anthuriums that we wondered whether they had found all 1901 types. Along that line, the gardens have so many thousands of species that no one has even tried to count them.
All of this is thanks to Robert Price, founder of this marvelous project, who kindly took out time to chat with me at the gardens' Hacienda de Oro Restaurant over frosty glasses of incredibly refreshing and delicious drinks. One of these contained chaya and chía, while the other was a combination of iced lemon-grass tea, tapioca and ginger, sweetened with agave nectar. "Some of our visitors suspect we have spiked these two drinks with frog's eggs," quipped the curator of these gardens.
Robert Price, who was born in Savannah, Georgia, told me he came to Puerto Vallarta in 2004, planning to stay for only six months. Fortunately for us and for Mexico, someone knocked on Price's door one day, selling orchids. "Those orchids were absolutely incredible, gorgeous, says Price, and I asked the man where he had found them. 'In the mountains,' he told me... and eventually he brought me to this very place. I took one look and said to myself, 'This is where I want to stay!' "
Now all Price needed to do was to figure out how to make a living in the middle of a jungle. "Well," he says, "I noticed there were no botanical gardens along the coast and that seemed surprising to me. But I love nature and the idea of starting my own botanical garden came into my head. So I researched the internet to find out how to do it. And this is the result. I think this is what I was sent here to do."
Price's enthusiasm may be infectious. For one thing, he has managed to convince the citizens of Puerto Vallarta to beautify the place by turning it into "The City of Bougainvilleas" and at present over 300 of these flowers have been planted by the PV Garden Club toward that end.
In addition to that, it seems the gardens he created in the coastal mountains south of Puerto Vallarta have inspired a much larger and truly ambitious project called The Banderas Bay Initiative, which aims at preserving and protecting the biodiversity of 10,000 square kilometers of ocean, jungle and mountains, stretching from 2000 meters below sea level in Banderas Bay to 2260 meters above sea level at the peak of Ceboruco Volcano. This huge project is being run by Price's friend, entomologist Rick Main and Dr. Max Greig, Rector of the UDG Coastal University.
According to Main, the Banderas Bay Initiative has, in turn, inspired an even greater challenge and — in my opinion - a truly Herculean task: the cleanup of the watersheds that pollute Lake Chapala and the Santiago River.
All of this demonstrates that a little idea can go a long way, and Bob Price's dream may ultimately reach far beyond the boundaries of his botanical sanctuary. After all, says Price, "Gardens are a Civilizing Force and are perceived as places of culture."
I hope by now you will agree with me that this amazing place is well worth a 12-hour detour. I leave the final word to Susy Pint: "These gardens are the best I've seen anywhere in the world — and I've seen a lot."
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