We left the Hotel Parador soon after lunch, heading in the direction of Sarchí, the capital of Costa Rica handicrafts.
All along the road we kept seeing a large number of motorcycles heading in the other direction: it seems that there was some sort of gathering of bikers in the afternoon in Quepos. So it was no surprise when we stopped at the El Jardín service centre in Orotina and found it full of bikers. But I think I met the smallest biker of all: a tiny chihuahua with a helmet, sunglasses and a leather jacket. ¡Que lindo!
We arrived in Sarchí at lunchtime and went directly to our restaurant. It was located on the edge of a small river and of course, as soon as I finished eating, I went exploring. I saw many interesting plants: strangler figs, a huge epiphytic cactus that spanned several trees and a golden shower orchid (Oncidium sp.) in full bloom also growing as an epiphyte on a tree. I also saw a beautifully colored male Jesus Christ lizard: it seem that their coloration varies by region and this region has particularly striking shades.
Afterwards, we stopped by the Sarchí church: it reminded me of a wedding cake. I couldn’t guess what style it is, but it is very pretty. The park in front of the church is also very nice and in fact the whole village is beautiful: clean, proud and profusely decorated with colourful motifs painted on benches, walls and even garbage cans. In the park there is a huge ox cart painted with the same colourful motifs and claimed to be the largest in the world (apparently it figures in the Guinness World Book of Records). All this colour is a reference to the fact that Sarchí is the capital of handicrafts in Costa Rica. And it all began a century ago when a man named Eloy Alfaro first painted one of his oxcarts in bright colours. This caught on across the country and painted oxcarts are now a symbol of Costa Rica.
We actually went to the workshop that produced both the first painted oxcart and also the giant cart in the city park: Fabrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro. It was founded in 1920 and is still powered by a water mill that operates a variety of machines: yes, folks, no electricity required! We had a very interesting tour of the workshop and saw how the carts were made and painted. We actually watched an artist as he painted a pickup truck in typical Sarchí colours and motifs. I had assumed the motifs were done by stencil, but his guy was painting by hand.
We also learned during the tour that most of the houses in the village have a room that serves as a workshop where family members make handicrafts and souvenirs. They then bring these productions to Fabrica de carretas Eloy Alfaro and to other stores once a week and the stores buy them for resale to the public. I’ve included a photo of highly decorated chairs painted the Costa Rican way, but there were all sorts of colourful carvings and arts, from kid’s toys to murals, jewelry, leather goods, furniture, boxes, clothing, and sculptures. Traditionally too Costa Rican couples come to Sarchí to buy furniture for their new home right before their wedding. Needless to say, our group spent quite a bit on souvenirs here. It’s hard to resist when you know they are made locally and by hand, not in some factory in China.
Afterwards we went to the Else Kientzler Botanical Garden. also in Sarchí. With its 2,000 varieties of plants and 7 hectares (17 acres), it is the third largest botanical garden in Costa Rica. By pure coincidence, we were there the day of the annual flower festival, so the garden was full of visitors, many coming to buy plants for their gardens from the plant sales tables. Also, local plant clubs – orchids, bonsai and others – were present with tables and displays, plus there were workshops and performances for children and of course food stands. In short, it was quite a wonderful experience and added a local, friendlier touch to the visit.
I led our group on a tour through the botanical garden, with comments on the plants we saw: heliconias, gingers, palms, cacti and succulents, etc. In addition, there were several ponds, a large maze, flower beds, and much more.
My favourite plant in the garden is Wallichia disticha, with the particularly horrible common name of Distichous Fishtail Palm. It is a very curious palm indeed, since all the fronds in are borne in one plane rather than the usual spiral that gives palm trees their normal rather rounded top. This palm’s strange habit gives it a curiously two-dimensional form.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we headed to our last hotel of the tour: Hotel Bougainvillea in Santo Domingo, Herredia, just outside the capital, San José. This is a very attractive hotel in its own right, but the gardens are its best part. In fact, I’d say the gardens at this hotel are simply the most beautiful in the country. I will write more about them in the next blog, because we actually mostly visited it on Day 12, but I thought I’d at least share a photo of Costa Rica’s floral emblem, Guarianthe skinneri, in full bloom and growing as an epiphyte on a tree right in front of the hotel. What a welcome!