Robert and Catherine Wilson started this garden in 1963 and ten years later control was transferred to the Organization for Tropical Studies. There are more than a thousand species of plants on the grounds, and the gardens serve several purposes.
They are used as a training ground for scientists, and their education programs for the public are excellent as well. Research programs on tropical botany, including conservation, horticulture, sustainable development, agroecology, and reforestation studies are carried out, and the gardens preserve endangered species.
There are several excellent walks through the gardens, whether you are just out for a stroll, or intent on learning the scientific names of every tree and flower you might encounter later in a National Park.
Color-coded signs lead you along well maintained paths through plantings of related species on the Heliconia loop, the Bromeliad walk, the tree fern hill trail and fern gully, the bamboo forest, and the orchid garden loop. The jewel of the gardens is the collection of palms (over 700 species) from all over the world.
You can join a guided walk (make a reservation in advance… in high season to ensure inclusion and in low season to make sure there is a guide around) or pick up a trail guide that describes what you see at dozens of numbered and color-coded signs along the walks. If you want a little more mystery, there is a short (~1.5 km) trail through the primary forest abutting the gardens, or spend the night and join a nocturnal tour or the “early bird” avian expedition.
The Wilson botanical gardens would be an excellent first stop on any tour of Costa Rica. A visit here teaches you some basics of tropical ecology, and primes you for visits to the National Parks. The plants and animals are concentrated into a small area, things are clearly labeled so you can be sure of what you are seeing, and there are guides and other well informed visitors to answer your questions. Unfortunately visiting here first is not very practical for most visitors who fly into the international airport in the central valley eight hours to the north. There is an alternative. The Lankester Botanical Gardens near Cartago make an excellent day trip from anywhere near San Jose.
When to Visit?
The far southern Pacific of Costa Rica where the gardens are located is very wet in September and October and not particularly recommended but use the menu for other months of the year to see weather and seasonal information to plan your visit.
Staying in the Gardens
The Organization for Tropical Studies’ main mission is to facilitate scientific research but they also provide unique and educational experiences for tourists who are interested in Costa Rican nature. Nestled in the Wilson Botanical Gardens at the Las Cruces Biological Station high in the Talamanca Mountains a dozen double occupancy “cabins” (modern, very clean, comfortable and safe, but not luxurious) offer lodging while you immerse yourself in natural history.
Incentives to spend a night or two abound. For example the “early bird” tour promises a veritable artist’s palate of species—scarlet-thighed dacnis, silver-throated tanagers, violaceous trogons, blue-headed parrots, violet sabrewing hummingbirds, and turquoise cotingas—but 5:30 a.m. comes awfully early.
Night walks are another great reason to stay. The gardens are an excellent choice for a nocturnal excursion. The well-maintained wide smooth paths allow you to pay attention to your surroundings rather than worrying about stumbling on a root or sinking in a mud bog. After the tour you can relax on your terrace and listen to the crickets and frogs whose scientific names you may or may not still remember. It’s much more pleasant than driving back to a hotel, and driving is never a great idea after dark in Costa Rica.
The guides on the hikes are the best around. If you stay, you’ll have other opportunities to talk with them, scientists, students, and fellow travelers who share your interest in nature. For example at meal time everyone eats family style in front of huge picture windows in the new dining hall. The food is tasty and the natural mountain spring water doesn’t even go in a plastic bottle before it’s served.
Quick Facts Wilson Botanical Gardens
The gardens are 145 hectares and elevations range from 1000 to 1100 meters (3281 to 3609 feet). The habitats represented here are gardens and regenerating tropical rainforest-upland.