Costa Rica

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Imagine the gut feel of gravity pulling down—your hands gripping the paddle down in the water, your legs braced down into the side of a big rubber boat, heart beating down in your chest, teeth clenched down until SPLASH, the boat plows a wave and sends a white spray sunbursting up over you and your crewmates. A brief pause to cheer, but you stay focused, because right now you are drifting down into another exciting rapid.

River rafting on the Pacuare River in Costa Rica

River rafting on the Pacuare River in Costa Rica

River Rafting in Costa Rica has long been a favorite destination for both the beginner and the experienced rafter. With ample annual rainfall, mountainous rainforest landscapes, and plenty of road-to-river access, the country prides itself on being a whitewater paradise. To top it off, Costa Rica has warm weather year round making it perfect for a swim during the calm intermissions between rapids.

The only thing that comes close to the thrill of sluicing through a rapid is when you take a moment to look around at the natural beauty that is Costa Rica. And from a raft on the river, you are at the beating heart of it. The turbulent water awakens the senses.

Tours depart in the early morning from San Jose. From there, you are driven to the outpost for a delicious breakfast. After breakfast, it’s to the river’s edge where your equipment is adjusted for a proper fit and you receive safety instructions and tips for basic paddling strokes. Safety is always a top concern during any tours hosted by The California Native and the guides are experienced professionals with extensive knowledge of whitewater navigation, river rescue, and first aid.

Travelers with The California Native enjoy experiencing the rapids and the rainforests on the Reventazón or Pacuare rivers.

The Reventazón River is a good place for those curious about the sport and want to ease into it. The various stretches of the river accommodate all types of people, from those who want to take a calm, relaxing, scenic float trip, to those seeking a more thrilling day in challenging Class II and III rapids.

For those who want even more excitement, the Pacuare River is a great choice. Chock full of expert-level rapids, the Pacuare is a world-famous run guaranteed to get the pulse pounding. Flowing toward the Atlantic, the 14-mile run winds through dense jungle giving you plenty of opportunities to spot parrots, toucans, monkeys, and butterflies. But be sure not to take your eyes off the water for too long, because the rapids, which in some spots can be rated up to Class V, are best viewed from inside the boat rather than out. If you do become separated from your seat, don’t panic, the guide will be quick to fish you back on board.

For those who can’t get enough, The California Native offers a 2-day option where guests are able to overnight on the Pacuare at a riverside lodge. There is no better way to relax from a day of paddling than to be lulled by the sounds of the river while looking forward to another day of rapid transit. On the second day, more rapids with names like ‘Two Mountains’ and ‘Cimmaron’ (translated from Spanish as ‘wild’) lay downstream ready to challenge you and your crew mates.

So grab your river-runner sandals, join The California Native on a Costa Rica Adventure, and come aboard!

We appreciate it when our guests share their stories with us and allow us to post them on our blog. Last week, Jean Dook who lives in Almeria, Spain, returned from our California Native adventure in Costa Rica and wrote:

We had a fantastic time. I don’t know how you do it! Every connection, transfer, and trip arrived and delivered. Never had to make a call to check anything. Now I think that this is VERY GOOD given how many things seem to go wrong when I book a flight from Spain to UK.!!!!!! I have told everyone who will listen how good you are.

It’s hard to pick out a highlight from our trip, we all loved different things, the young people loved the zip lines in Monteverde, couldn’t drag them away. (I enjoyed it too but the zip lines in Copper Canyon [are hard to beat]).

For me Tortuguero was the highlight, loved the hotel and the riviera. All guides excellent, kind, caring and very knowledgeable. All spoke good English but is was nice for me to chat in Spanish, so much easier than here in Spain where everyone talks so fast. We saw a sloth with a baby, a spider monkey crossing the river with her baby, and a large group of howlers, who were as interested in us as we were in them, and so many other wonderful things.

We changed a horse riding trip for a paddle down the river and coffee with a local family, that was a highlight for many of us. The hot springs were an unexpected success with us all, after the long trip sitting in the rain in those springs was mind blowing.

The start of my trip alone was great fun on the white water rafting, wonderful day, wish I had booked the two day trip. Great people who took care of this old lady really well. Hotel Santo Tomas was a super hotel for us all but I loved it when I was alone—it had the personal touch. I could see the Holiday Inn and was so pleased not to be there. I thought San Jose was underrated in the books—I loved it.

I want to go back, cannot remember when I last said that about a trip (oh yes, it was Copper Canyon) but I would like to see the same things at the end of the rainy season when the rivers will be high and everything different. I loved the rain, it’s very dry where I live. I may not find another friend to go with me, words getting around about long days and rough roads!!!!!! I live 30 minutes from a tourist beach so want something different. Costa Rica is so beautiful.

Thank you all very much and look forward to traveling with you again.

Jean Dook
Almeria, Spain

Costa Rica Rafting

An exciting day rafting down the Reventazon River in Costa Rica’s rain forest.

Arenal volcano in Costa Rica

California Native travelers pose nearby Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano.

Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest

Eerie, fog-enshrouded and peaceful, Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest is well worth visiting.

Eerie, mysterious, yet peaceful, strolling through Costa Rica‘s Monteverde cloud forest is a memorable experience. The trees are almost entirely covered by mosses, ferns, and epiphytes—plants which grow on other plants but cause no harm to their hosts. The fog enshrouded scene is brightened only by the brightly colored orchids which grow high up into the canopy.

A great number of plant and animal species, many unique to this delicate environment, live in the cloud forest—most impressive of all is the Resplendent Quetzal, which looks more like the product of a papier-maché piñata factory than a living creature. Predominately green, the Quetzal has a brilliant red breast, a helmetlike crest, and remarkably long streamers for tail feathers.

Monteverde was first settled in the 1950’s by a group of pacifist Quakers from Alabama who migrated to Costa Rica to escape serving in the military of the United States. Located high up in the mountains on Costa Rica’s continental divide, it has been internationally acclaimed for its conservation efforts.

To visit Monteverde, you must travel two hours up a 25 mile steep, unpaved road. Efforts to pave the road have been vehemently opposed by members of the community, who believe that by making access to the area a little difficult they limit visitors to those who are environmentally conscious and truly interested in what this unique area has to offer. It’s well worth the drive.

Lee at a Mayan ruin in Mexico's Yucatan.

California native founder, Lee Klein, at a Mayan ruin in Mexico's Yucatan. What a way to make a living.

This June we are celebrating our 30th Anniversary—30 years of leading fantastic trips to exotic destinations around the world.

This anniversary comes as a proud moment for our company’s founder, Lee Klein, who continues to scout new locations world-wide in search of new destinations for the active traveler. Klein, who holds an MBA in Management and a BS in International Marketing, spent more than two decades as a corporate manager and college professor until, in 1983, while climbing Ayer’s Rock in the Australian Outback, he decided to drop out of the corporate world, take off his suit and tie, and create an adventure travel company based on the lessons he taught his students on how to succeed in business: “keep the quality high, keep it affordable, and treat people the way you would like to be treated.”

Lee and Ellen on Patagonia's Perito Moreno Glacier.

Lee and Ellen Klein hiking on Patagonia's Perito Moreno Glacier.

The initial offering from The California Native was a tour billed as “The Other Los Angeles.” This day-long excursion traced the route of the San Andreas Fault from the Mojave Desert to the San Gabriel Mountains without ever leaving Los Angeles County. The tours became so popular that colleges in three California counties offered them as part of their community-education programs. From this, the company expanded its offerings to include tours to the Channel Islands, Death Valley, Yosemite, and other uniquely California destinations, as well as white-water rafting, ballooning, spelunking (caving), sailplane gliding, and other outdoor adventures. “My family has lived in Los Angeles for generations,” writes Klein in the company newsletter, “hence the name The California Native.”

California Native founder, Lee Klein, rappelling in Argentina

Lee rappelling in Argentina. Hey, this is research.

Satisfying the growing client base led to the development of The California Native’s most popular destination—Mexico’s Copper Canyon. These escorted and independent tours feature the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad (labeled as one of the most spectacular train rides in the western hemisphere) and highlight one of the most primitive indigenous cultures still subsisting in North America—the Tarahumara Indians. The California Native has become a leading source of information on this remote area and the company and it’s guides are known throughout the area for their work with the Tarahumara.

Today, The California Native offers a wide selection of tours to destinations including Costa Rica, Yucatan, Patagonia, Peru, the Galapagos, Ireland, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China, and more destinations are in the planning stages.

San Jose, Costa Rica, that is. San Jose is located in Costa Rica’s central valley and is the nation’s capital. It is the starting place for our California Native Costa Rica Adventures.

Located at the center of the Americas, between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica has become one of the world’s most popular destinations for Eco-tourism due to its fantastic biodiversity—it may contain as many as 6% of the world’s plant and animal species, and its friendly people. It is a delightfully peaceful little country which constitutionally abolished its army more than sixty years ago.

From its rain forests to its volcanoes and beaches it is a wonderful country to explore and we have been introducing people to Costa Rica for more than a quarter of a century. Our Nature Explorer Tours combine the best features of a guided tour with the flexibility of independent travel. We arrange everything just for you, so you can depart on any date. The tours are designed to maximize your time exploring the natural beauty of the country. Whether you want to raft down a thrilling jungle river or relax in a hammock it is all there for you. Please join us.

California Natives rafting in Costa Rica
California Native zip lining over the canopy in a Costa Rican rainforest.
Monkey in Costa Rica rain forest

Now is the time to travel with The California Native

The economies of the world’s countries are slow. Travel and tourism are down. Hotels have plenty of space. Crowds are down. Now is the perfect time to take that trip you have been dreaming about for so long. Travel now before the crowds come back and the prices go up. Join us on a trip to one of the exotic destinations around the globe that we specialize in. Whether it’s Mexico’s fabulous Copper Canyon, the magical Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, or the rainforests of Costa Rica we are ready for your call.

Always wanted to come eyeball-to-eyeball with a flightless cormorant or a giant tortoise? Then the Galapagos is for you. How about enjoying a fantastic cruise through the Straits of Magellan, hiking on a glacier and sipping whiskey over-the-rocks of ancient glacial ice? Patagonia is the place, or travel back in time to visit the mighty empire of the Maya—the Yucatan is your destination. Perhaps you prefer to stroll or bicycle through the green hills and friendly villages of Ireland? These are just a few of the adventures that we have lined up for you.

Wherever your dream destination is, now is the best time to travel. When the times are slow it’s time to go.


Throughout Costa Rica’s plentiful rainforests, beaches and mountains, visitors are enchanted by the number and variety of butterflies. Costa Rica boasts over 1000 butterfly species, more than the entire continent of Africa.

Flitting from flower to flower the butterflies are enchanting to watch, the brilliant colors of their wings lending joy to the day. These delicate wings are covered with tiny scales which reflect light passing through them to form bright colors and patterns. They serve to identify the butterfly to members of its own species as it seeks to carry out its sole mission in life, mating. The colors of some species, such as the Monarch, which are toxic when eaten, warn predators that these butterflies are not dinner.


The male butterfly spends his short time on earth cruising around looking for a female. With his antennae he can smell her perfume (pheromones) from over a mile away. At the back of his abdomen—remember, butterflies are insects so their bodies have three sections, a head, a thorax, and an abdomen—is a set of “claspers” to grab on to his lady love. When couples mate they face in opposite directions with their abdomens locked together. The female, if startled during the conjugal act, will fly up into the air carrying aloft her attached Don Juan. During her short lifetime she will lay about 100 eggs. Some species lay their eggs in clusters while others lay each egg on a different plant.


Upon hatching, the tiny caterpillars go into the world to eat. As adult butterflies are primarily sex machines, caterpillars are primarily eating machines, munching the night away, and remaining motionless during daylight hours to camouflage themselves from predators. The growing caterpillar sheds its skin four times, then searches for the perfect spot on the underside of a leaf to attach itself and prepare for the miraculous change from a crawling eating machine to a glorious flying butterfly.

The butterfly’s life is short, varying from species to species, but averaging about three months—two weeks as an adult butterfly.

Join us on a California Native tour to beautiful Costa Rica and witness this bounty of butterflies for yourself.

“Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine!” – Johann Sebastian Bach, “The Coffee Cantata”

Costa Rica is a coffee growing paradise.

According to Greek mythology, coffee originated when Zeus’ daughter, Helena, prepared a drink that “had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories.”

Throughout history, religious leaders preached that the drinking of coffee was dangerous and the “drink of the devil,” but in the 17th Century, the Pope gave his blessing on the consumption of coffee, and in Turkey, as part of the marriage vow, the husband had to provide (till death do they part) his wife with coffee—failure to do so was grounds for divorce.

Coffee arrived in Costa Rica in the 1790’s, and one could describe the relationship between Costa Rica and coffee as a love story—they were made for each other—the rich soil, ideal climate and altitudes were perfect for growing the red berries. Costa Rica exported its first coffee to Columbia in 1820, and twenty-three years later, London became a profitable market for the rich beans, converted in the mills to “grains of gold.”

After a brief civil war in 1823, free land grants, coffee plants and small parcels of land were given to families that wanted to grow coffee. Thus, Costa Rica is said to be based on a “Coffee Democracy.”

Coffee was originally hauled from the Central Valley to the coast on the backs of mules, but by the mid-1800’s, roads were developed and oxcarts replaced the mules. Even today some farmers rely on this traditional method of transporting their goods.

The coffee industry plays such a prominent role in the existence of this nation, that there is a special branch of the government that deals solely with coffee—The Costa Rican Coffee Institute or Instituto del Café. León Cortés Castro was the institute’s first president, and in 1936, went on to become president of the country.

Today, there are approximately 50,000 coffee producers in Costa Rica and together they produce more than 170 million tons of coffee. Costa Rica’s fine, high quality coffee is known throughout the world, and is frequently used to upgrade lesser quality coffees, like those of Brazil.

Modern medicine is still undecided on the health effects of this caffeine beverage but one thing is for sure, Costa Rica has found it quite stimulating.

So join us for a cup—in Costa Rica!

Costa Rica is the perfect place for monkey watching.This year’s winter has been a harsh one across North America. From the record breaking weather to the unsure economy, it has been trying for everyone. Here at The California Native, we want to shine a little light on those cold dark days. We know that many of our fans are looking for a great escape, so we are announcing our “Jump Start to Spring” Sale on our Costa Rica vacations.

Costa Rica is just the paradise to make the winter blues go away. It has rainforests and jungles loaded with exotic animals and birds—monkeys playing in the tree tops, sloths hanging from tree limbs, basilisks (Jesus Christ lizards) walking on water, macaws flying above, and butterflies dancing everywhere.

The scenery is unbelievable. From the Caribbean to the Pacific the country has so much to offer—fiery volcanoes, lush rainforests, mysterious cloud forests, and beautiful beaches.

Looking for a little action? Costa Rica boasts some of the best whitewater rafting around, canopy tours where you can fly above the tree-tops on a zip-line, hiking, horseback riding, swimming and kayaking. Whew! Need relaxing time? Nothing like a soak in hot-springs heated by the Arenal Volcano.

Costa Rica is the perfect place to thaw out. Located in the exact center of the Americas, right next to the equator, the temperatures are warm year round. (It is tropical, so it usually rains in the late afternoon but the rain is warm and not uncomfortable.)

Hungry? On your Costa Rica vacation you will savor fantastic seafood, tropical fruit and delicious coffee—all very fresh and oh so delicious. And the people who call it home, the Ticos, are warm-hearted and friendly which really puts the icing on the cake of a perfect vacation.

Join us on one of our Costa Rica Nature Explorer Tours by September 30, 2011 and receive our “Jump start to Spring” discount. All you have to do is mention this offer when you reserve your trip to paradise and you will receive a $400 per couple discount.

Phone or email us today and start packing for a wonderful adventure.

Happy New Year 2011As we come to the end of another year, it’s time to reflect on what we have accomplished in the last year and what we are looking forward to in the new year.

Last year was quite an eventful year for The California Native. We made another exploration trip to Patagonia, sailing around Cape Horn on a wonderful expedition cruise, hiking on glaciers with crampons, and whitewater rafting through Argentina’s beautiful countryside. We also made several trips to Mexico, one at the invitation of President Calderon to attend a luncheon with him and celebrate the initialization of a campaign to promote the wonders of Mexico’s colonial cities.

For the upcoming year we will be offering new trips in Patagonia and China, as well as additional departure dates for our Copper Canyon trips. And of course we’ll continue to offer our exciting tours of Costa Rica, Peru, Galapagos, Bhutan, Myanmar and Ireland, and our other off-the-beaten-track destinations.

In Costa Rica, a 'Tico' rides his horse down the street.What in the world is a Tico? Sounds exotic. Maybe it’s something like a Piña Colada or a Cappuccino. Or maybe it’s one of those little biting pests that you find in tropical places. Wrong! A Tico is a very special group of people that inhabit one of the most beautiful, tropical and hidden paradises in the world—Costa Rica. “Tico” is simply the name commonly used to refer to the native inhabitants of Costa Rica.

But why “Tico“? In the Spanish world, the diminutive, formed by dropping the final “o” or “a” and adding an “ito” or “ita” depending on the gender, is commonly used out of friendliness and familiarity. It’s much more cariñoso (affectionate) to call your amigo (friend) an amigito (little friend).

About a century ago many Costa Ricans made the mistake of forming the diminutive by adding an “ico” to the end of words. So poquito (the Spanish diminutive of the word poco, little, few) would be poquiTICO when spoken by a Costa Rican. Because of their friendly and warm-hearted manner, the people of Costa Rica commonly used the diminutive in their everyday speech patterns and thus earned the nickname “Ticos” from outsiders.

Although the Costa Rican educational system has now taught most of the Ticos the correct grammatical usage of the diminutive forms in Spanish, the term “Tico” remains to commemorate this charming affection of the past.

Costa Rica produces 20% of the world's bananas.

The banana plant is not a tree but a member of the lily family.

Remember Woody Allen’s movie Bananas? Well, take away the inept Guerrilla fighters and political assassinations and you have Costa Rica, the nicest and most peace-loving republic in Central America.

Costa Rica has rainforests, beaches, rivers, mountains, volcanoes, birds, animals, butterflies, and flowers. It also has bananas, bananas, and more bananas—in fact, Costa Rica produces about two million tons of premium bananas a year, 20% of the world’s total. For the Costa Rican economy, bananas rank second only to tourism.

Bananas are money to Costa Rica. They say “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”—neither do bananas. The banana plant is not a tree but a giant herb and a member of the lily family. It is the largest plant on earth without a woody stem, and grows as high as 25 feet in one year.

Did you ever wonder where bananas came from? Probably not, but I’ll tell you anyway. Bananas originated in Malaysia and the East Indies. Today primitive wild bananas still grow in these areas. Men have farmed bananas since pre-historic times. If you are a student of ancient Hindu, Chinese, Greek, or Roman literature, you can find references to the banana in old dusty manuscripts and scrolls. Aaachoo! Excuse Me!

In 327 B.C., for example, Alexander the Great found people eating bananas in India. An ancient Burmese legend tells us that wise men first realized that bananas could be eaten by observing the birds eating them. It makes one thankful that these same wise men failed to notice that the birds also ate worms.

When Spanish explorers came to the New World, they brought the banana with them. Friar Tomas de Berlanga planted the first banana root stocks in the Caribbean in 1516.

Three hundred years later, American sailors returning from the Caribbean brought bananas to the United States. They were officially introduced to the American public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Each banana was wrapped in foil and sold for 10 cents. Today the average American eats 29 pounds of bananas a year.

So join us on a trip to beautiful Costa Rica and while you’re there, have a banana on us!

William Walker was the greatest American FilibusterPresident of Lower California, Emperor of Nicaragua, doctor, lawyer, writer—these were some of the titles claimed by William Walker, the greatest American filibuster.

In the mid-nineteenth century, adventurers known as filibusters participated in military actions aimed at obtaining control of Latin American nations with the intent of annexing them to the United States—an expression of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was destined to control the continent. Only 5’2″ and weighing 120 pounds, Walker was a forceful and convincing speaker and a fearless fighter who commanded the respect of his men in battle.

Born in 1824 in Tennessee, Walker graduated from the University of Nashville at the age of 14 and by 19 had earned a medical degree. He practiced medicine in Philadelphia, studied law in New Orleans, and then became co-owner of a newspaper, the Crescent, where the young poet Walt Whitman worked. When the paper was sold, Walker moved on to California, where he worked as a reporter in San Francisco before setting up a law office in Marysville.

When he was 29, his freebooting nature led him to become the leader of a group plotting to detach parts of northern Mexico. Recruiting a small army, he sailed to Baja California and conquered La Paz, declaring himself president of Lower California. He then decided to extend his little empire to include Sonora, and renamed it “The Republic of Sonora.”

Marching on to the Colorado River, Walker found himself faced with harsh conditions and a high desertion rate, forcing him to retreat to California, where he surrendered to U.S. authorities on charges of violating U.S. neutrality laws.

One result of this incursion was that Mexico sold a part of Sonora to the United States—the transaction we call the Gadsden Purchase. Acquitted of criminal charges, Walker next turned his attention to Central America. Throughout this region, chaos reigned, as forces known as Democrats and Legitimists fought each other. The leader of the Democratic faction in Nicaragua invited Walker to bring an army and join the struggle against the Legitimists. In 1855, with his army of 58 Americans, later called by stateside romantics, “The Immortals,” he landed in Nicaragua.

Within a year, leading “The Immortals” and a native rebel force, he routed the Legitimists and captured Granada, their capital. His success roused concern in the other Central American countries, especially Costa Rica, which sent in a well-armed force to invade Nicaragua. Walker’s army repelled the invasion, but a poorly executed counter attack into Costa Rica failed, and a war of attrition continued, in which disease killed more soldiers on both sides than enemy bullets.

Other enemies plagued Walker. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping magnate, seeking control of the San Juan River-Lake Nicaragua route from the Caribbean to the Pacific, armed Walker’s enemies, while the British navy, attempting to thwart American influences in the region, regularly harassed efforts to supply him. In spite of these factors, Walker had himself elected president of Nicaragua. The United States briefly recognized his government but never sent him aid. Soon the other countries of Central America formed an alliance against him, and in mid 1857 he surrendered once again to a U.S. naval officer and returned to the U.S.

Landing first in New Orleans, he was greeted as a hero. He visited President Buchanan, then went on to New York, all the time seeking support for a return to Nicaragua. But support waned as returning soldiers reported military blunders and poor management.

Nevertheless he succeeded in raising another army, and returned to Nicaragua in late 1857. Again thwarted by the British navy, he abandoned his third Latin American invasion.

Still undaunted and seeking support for yet another venture, Walker wrote a book, The War in Nicaragua. Knowing that his best prospects lay in the South, he assumed a strong pro-slavery stance. This strategy proved successful, and in 1860 he once again sailed south. Unable to land in Nicaragua due to the ever-present British, he landed in Honduras, planning to march overland, but the British soon captured him and turned him over to the Hondurans. Six days later, at the age of 36, he was executed by a firing squad. The Walker saga had ended. This enigmatic man had come close to altering the history of the continent. Had he been successful, he might have brought several Central American countries into the United States as pro-southern states, altering the balance in Congress and postponing The Civil War.

Today Walker is far better known in Central America than in the United States. Costa Ricans honor Juan Santamaria, a young drummer boy who became a national hero by torching a fort in which Walker’s army was encamped, and a national park, Santa Rosa, commemorates the battle where Walker’s soldiers were expelled from Costa Rica.

Glistening orchids cling to the towering trees surrounding us in the swirling mist of the Costa Rican cloud forest. More than 1,200 species of these beautiful blooms can be found in this enticing little country which has made the orchid its national flower.

In Costa Rica, orchids are the national flower.According to legend, orchids were given their name by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who was a student of Aristotle. The rounded paired bulbs of one common Mediterranean orchid looked like male organs to him so he named the plant orchis, the Greek word for testicle. In medieval Europe, aphrodisiacal powers were attributed to the plants and their dried pulverized tubers were used in love potions. Potions made from younger, firmer tubers were believed to result in the conception of sons, while potions made from older, softer tubers resulted in daughters.

Orchids cover a full spectrum of colors and patterns, from delicate pastels to vibrant full-bodied hues, and range in size from tiny plants an inch high with flowers so small that we can barely see them, to 50 foot long vines with blossoms spanning more than a foot—some bloom only for a day while the blossoms of others last for weeks.

But what actually is an orchid and why do people find them so fascinating? We looked into the nature and history of these exotic plants and came up with some fascinating facts.

Orchids are the largest family of flowering plants (almost 30,000 wild species have been classified) and also the most diverse. Although they can be found in a wide range of habitats—one is semiaquatic and only its blossoms poke above the water surface, while another grows and blooms entirely below the ground—the greatest diversity of orchids can be found in tropical cloud forests. Most of these tropical orchids are epiphytes—air plants, which grow on the trunks and limbs of trees. Although they grow on the trees, they are not parasites and only use the tree as a place to anchor where they can receive light high above the forest floor—biologists have recorded almost fifty different orchid species growing on a single tree.

An orchid seed has no food source of its own, but each species has a symbiotic relationship with one particular fungus—without that fungus the seed cannot grow.

Just as the colors and sizes of orchids have so much variety, their scents also cover a wide range—some have no scent at all, others give off musky decaying smells, and one has the delightful scent of vanilla—in fact, it is vanilla. The vanilla plant is the only fruit produced by the orchid family that humans can eat. Centuries ago, the ancient Aztecs used vanilla to flavor their chocolate drinks. When the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez was offered the drink by the Emperor Montezuma, he was so impressed that he brought it back to the King of Spain and it soon became a favorite with the royalty of Europe.

In addition to being designated as the national flower of Costa Rica, the orchid is also the national flower of Thailand, Singapore, Columbia, Panama, Indonesia, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and the Cayman Islands—a very popular flower indeed.

We’re halfway through 2010 and it’s a good time to look forward to next year and the exciting places waiting to be visited. As an added bonus for your forward thinking, The California Native will help you save money on your 2011 vacation.

Tarahumara Weaver in Mexico's Copper CanyonIn Mexico’s Copper Canyon

a young Tarahumara lady weaves a basket from leaves of the agave.

Everybody loves a bargain! So, if you book your trip to Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Yucatan or Costa Rica within the next 30 days, you can lock in our 2010 prices for your 2011 trip.

To quote some famous thinkers on the subject of saving money:

“Money frees you from doing things you dislike. Since I dislike doing nearly everything, money is handy.” – Groucho Marx

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” – Woody Allen

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.” – Yogi Berra

Located near the northeastern corner of Costa Rica, surrounded by rain forest on one side and Caribbean beach on the other, is Tortuguero National Park, whose name means “The Place of Turtles.”

Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park is the easiest place in the world for viewing sea turtles.

Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park is the easiest place in the world for viewing sea turtles.

Tortuguero’s 22-mile long beach is the main nesting area for Green Turtles in the Caribbean. It is also the easiest place in the world to view sea turtles.

Green Turtles mate and nest several times during a season. In mating, an amorous male holds onto a female with the sharp hook on his front flippers. If he can’t locate a female, he will improvise and substitute anything that floats, whether it be a piece of driftwood, another male turtle, or a skin diver.

An impregnated female will wait offshore until dark and then head for the beach and a nesting site. During her crawl up the beach, noise or lights will cause her to return to the safety of the sea. Once she has begun digging her nest, however, nothing will distract her. She uses her rear flippers to scoop out a hole about two-feet deep, deposits around one hundred leathery, golf-ball-sized eggs, covers the nest, tamps down the sand, and returns to the sea.

Many of the buried eggs are dug up by coatimundis, dogs, raccoons, and even humans. The remaining eggs hatch in a couple of months. The baby turtles use a temporary egg tooth to tear open their egg shell. It takes the combined power of about 100 cooperating turtles to excavate the two feet of sand which covers them.

The little turtles appear on the beach, usually before dawn, then scramble for the water. On the way many are eaten by hungry crabs and birds. If they do reach the water they stand a high chance of becoming dinner to an eagerly waiting fish. Of the hundreds of thousands who race for the sea, probably fewer than three percent survive. For the next half-century the turtles live nomadic lives, migrating over vast distances of ocean. After fifty years they reach sexual-maturity and return to the beach where they were born, to mate, nest and produce another generation.

In addition to the Green turtles, Tortuguero is also a nesting place for Leatherback, Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Loggerhead turtles.

For would-be turtle watchers, the best time to see Green turtles is between July and October. At this time you can also see Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles. The Leatherback turtles return to Tortuguero during the months of February through July. Of course there is no guarantee that you’ll see the turtles at any time, as the weather, the tides, activity on the beach, and other factors can discourage them from landing on any given night.

With or without the turtles, Tortuguero is well worth visiting, as it is a wonderful place to view countless animals and birds. Getting there is half of the fun. There are no roads, just rivers and canals, so we travel by boat. Birds fly overhead, monkeys and sloths hang in the trees, and crocodiles rest along the river banks. Traveling up the jungle waterways one can easily imagine himself as Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn on The African Queen.

The quetzal was a sacred symbol to the Aztecs and the MayasLet’s catch a quetzal—on camera that is. We can begin our hunt by hiking through the Monteverde cloud forest, on a California Native Costa Rica Adventure. If we are lucky, we may see this incredible looking bird winging its way through the sky. With its shimmering emerald green body, red belly, and blue back, the bird does not look real. Adding to this effect is his long flowing blue and green tail, twice as long as his 15 inch body. Truly, the Resplendent Quetzal is one of the most beautiful birds in the world.

To the Aztecs and Mayas, the quetzal was their most sacred symbol. Its name was derived from quetzalli, an early Aztec word for the bird’s beautiful tail feathers. The quetzal was a symbol of both freedom and wealth. Freedom, because a quetzal was believed to die in captivity, and wealth, because the Mayas were traders, and quetzal feathers along with jade were their most sought after treasures. They traded the feathers as far north as the central valley of Mexico and as far south as the Empire of the Incas. Only the priests were allowed to wear the feathers of the quetzal. It is said that the feathers were only taken from living birds which were then released to grow new feathers.

A Mayan legend describes how the bird got its crimson breast. When the Mayan chieftain Tecun Uman fell in battle, mortally wounded by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, a gold-and-green quetzal landed on his chest. As the chieftain died, the bird flew off, its breast forever stained with the blood of the Mayan.

During most of the year the quetzals are solitary birds. During breeding season, between March and June, they mate and produce two blue eggs. Both the male and female take turns at incubating the eggs. They feed by darting out of their nests to pluck fruit, insects and occasionally a lizard or frog from the forest canopy.

Originally endangered by local hunters seeking its feathers for religious ceremonies, the quetzal is now threatened by the destruction of its habitat and the demand for its live export.

Located in the Central Mountain Range, not far from Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jóse, the town of Sarchí is the center of Costa Rica’s painted oxcart industry.

Decorated oxcart in Costa RicaAccording to legend, around 1910 a farmer was suddenly inspired to spruce up the appearance of his oxcart. He painted the wheels with multi-colored designs. Others copied his designs and oxcart painting became a uniquely Costa Rican art form. At one time each district in the country had its own special design, and people could tell by looking at an oxcart what region it came from.

Until about thirty years ago, oxcarts were the principal means of transporting coffee beans and other agricultural products to market. Today some farmers still rely on this traditional method of transporting their goods. The father of former president Oscar Arias Sánchez made his fortune hauling coffee in oxcarts to the port of Puntarenas.

Today, the painted oxcarts are produced mainly for decorative purposes. In addition to the full-size carts, replicas are available for sale ranging from small, inexpensive table top models to larger carts that are designed to be used as planters or living room cocktail carts. Regardless of size and price, all of the oxcarts are beautifully handpainted in bright colors featuring motifs of butterflies, flowers and fruits, as well as traditional design patterns whose origin can be traced to designs brought to Spain from North Africa by the Moors.

The gift shops in Sarchí are also filled with other woodcrafts including furniture, chairs, desks, coffee tables, and polished wood serving dishes, as well as leather items, ceramic crafts, and jewelry.

Exploring the arts and crafts of a country offers travelers another way to learn about its people and culture. Costa Rica has a wide spectrum of art objects ranging from the inexpensive to museum-quality collector’s items. Goods offered for sale include wood crafts, ceramics, reproductions of pre-Colombian figurines and masks, leather accessories, hammocks, woven baskets, jewelry made of woods, silver, gold and jade, embroidered dresses, blouses, table linens, and, of course, replicas of the famous painted oxcarts.

In San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, almost every craft item is available. However, as travelers visit the beautiful and diverse provinces of Costa Rica, they can purchase products reflecting the particular traditions and culture of the surrounding countryside.

One item that most visitors bring home is a bag or more of Costa Rican coffee beans. Sipping the rich flavor, and inhaling the wonderful aroma weeks after returning home helps recapture some of the adventures and sights of a Costa Rican vacation.

So how about it? Wan’na buy an oxcart?

Need a clue? It is also related to the horse and rhinoceros. Give up? It’s a tapir.

Tapir in Costa RicaTapirs are rather strange, primitive creatures. They are big animals—measuring about six to eight feet between their short little trunk and their stubby little tail, and weighing up to 700 pounds. Unlike elephants, who pick up food with their trunks, the tapirs move their trunks aside and browse like horses. Tapirs are the only animals native to the Americas which have four toes on their front feet and three toes on their hind feet.

In ancient times, tapirs were found throughout North America and tropical Eurasia. When the weather cooled down the European tapirs became extinct. The North American tapirs migrated south across the isthmus of Panama. Today tapirs are found only in Central and South America, and Southeast Asia.

There are only four species of tapirs—the Malayan tapir in Asia, the Brazilian tapir in the rain forests of South America, the mountain tapir in the high northern Andes, and the Baird’s tapir in Mexico and Central America.

The Baird’s tapir, which we can see on our California Native trips to Costa Rica, is the largest land mammal native to this region.

Tapirs are timid, inoffensive creatures who generally live in swamps or near wet areas, feeding on water plants and browsing on forest foliage. Their splayed feet help them walk in muddy and soft ground. They are good swimmers and can also dive and walk along the river bottom. Traveling on land the tapir does not always follow a beaten trail but instead doggedly pushes his way through the jungle with his head carried low.

People hunt tapirs for their flesh and hides. The thick hides are used to make whips and bridles. The flesh is considered excellent food. In some areas, natives believe they can cure epilepsy by grinding down the tapirs’ toenails and taking them in powdered form. As a result of both hunting and the cutting of forests, tapirs have become rare in many areas.

Aside from humans, the jaguar in Central and South America and the tiger and leopard in Malaya are the tapirs’ only enemies. Despite their bulk, tapirs are fast and, if there is water nearby, can usually escape predators. In addition, tapirs are extremely muscular, with very strong jaws. If cornered, the peaceful tapir can put up quite a fight.

Tapirs tend to feed in the early or late hours of the day, often before the sun comes up and after it sets, although you can occasionally see a tapir at any hour.

Like dogs, tapirs are territorial and mark their territories and daily routes with urine, but unlike dogs, tapirs are solitary and it is unusual to see more than two or three of them together.

A pregnant tapir carries her baby for thirteen months and her single offspring weighs 15-20 pounds at birth. Baby tapirs have striped-and-spotted coats for camouflage. They can look forward to a lifespan of about thirty years of happily chewing their way through the forests and swamps.

From a place like no other in the world, come animals like no others in the world.  A few of the animals that can be spotted on California Native Costa Rica Explorer tours are the Jesus Christ Lizard and the Two- or Three-toed Sloth.

In Costa Rica, a two-toed sloth hangs lazily in a tree.Hanging upside-down from the branches of trees in Costa Rica’s lush rain forests, sleep the two and three-toed sloths. The Spanish word for sloth is perezoso, meaning “lazy”, and  sloths, who sleep around eighteen hours a day, live up to their reputation.

Because of their “lazy” or slow-moving nature, sloths live high in the forest canopy, which camouflages them from predators. They spend most of their time in the trees. By adulthood sloths are about as big as a medium sized dog. Their permanent smiling expression gives them almost human-like characteristics. These fascinating creatures can live up to thirty years. They begin reproducing at about age three and bear one baby a year.

Costa Rica is a wonderful place to observe and photograph sloths, because of the abundance of cecropia trees, which are the sloth’s favorite food. The leaves of these trees are spread out enough to make “sloth-watching” easy.

Basilisks are the other curious creature can be found on many Costa Rican rivers.  Here, you’ll see strange-looking lizards go charging from the banks, standing on their hind legs, running across the river—literally “walking on water.”

Costa Rica's 'Jesus Christ' lizards can walk on water.Basilisks, aka “Jesus Christ lizards” refer to the legendary monsters whose breath and glances were fatal to those unfortunate enough to encounter them. Basilisks are quite large, as lizards go, up to three feet long, and the males have large crests on their heads, backs, and tails. This, and the fact that they run on two legs, makes them look like little dinosaurs.

The name Jesus Christ lizard refers, of course, to their ability to walk on water. They do this by running very quickly over the water’s surface on their large hind feet, which have flaps of skin along each toe. This ability is best developed in young lizards, who can run twenty yards or more over the water without sinking. The ability to “walk on water” helps the basilisks catch food and escape from predators.

Basilisks eat almost everything, including insects, shrimp, scorpions, other lizards, snakes, fish, small mammals, birds, flowers and fruit.

Their only natural enemies are raptors, opossums and snakes, who view the basilisks as potential dinners. To protect themselves while they sleep, the basilisks bed down in vegetation overhanging water, and, when the vegetation is disturbed, dive to safety.

Come with us to Costa Rica and meet the Jesus Christ lizards as well as the many other exotic birds and animals that dwell in the forests and rivers of this magical little country at the center of the Americas.

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