Orchids growing in the sanctuary at Lo de Perla
As our car jolted up the steep rocky road into the forest, I’ll admit, I had some misgivings. I had happened on a Trip Advisor review about a spectacular orchid garden located somewhere in a jungle near San Pancho, Mexico. The problem was we couldn’t find the website and the hotel staff seemed unaware of its existence. With some perseverance, though, we finally arrived at what appeared to be the location and in no time found ourselves headed up a mountainside in a white SUV with a guy named Romero.
Romero greeted us enthusiastically enough at the bottom of the road. He had just dropped his kids at the local school, a group of low white stucco buildings from where bunches of rowdy students were just pouring forth. We piled into the car and started up the slope. As we climbed into the forest, we passed a sugar cane field on the right and some banana trees on the left, and suddenly found ourselves in the thick of a mango grove whose horizontal rows of trees lead up and away into the distance.
After some 20 minutes or so of bouncing around, we stumbled upon Romero’s friend careening down the mountainside in a souped-up white Volkswagen. He swerved up onto the side of the embankment, screeching to a halt at a precarious tilt while we carefully maneuvered around him. We climbed higher into the jungle, jostling past gigantic coconut palms while oversized ferns brushed the sides of our car. Finally, sun turned to deep shade and the forest canopy closed in around us.
Lo de Perla appeared as we pulled into a clearing carved into the jungle. We climbed out of the car into dappled sunlight under a lush canopy of fan-shaped leaves and other exotic foliage. Above our heads, bunches of deep purple bougainvillea cascaded from silvery palms while at our feet bright yellow and red tropical flowers poked their heads from amongst emerald ferns.
At the time of our visit, it was afternoon and a hush hung over the forest. Romero tugged on a chain and a gate made out of a palm log swung open, revealing a central path leading into the garden. Directly in front was a cabin constructed from palm tree logs with a pitched roof draped in palm fronds. Surrounding the house were collections of rocks and stone containers planted with unusual forest plants.
Romero explained that his father had built the house, along with most of the structures in the garden.
“You should see it when it’s all green in the summer,” he remarked thoughtfully.
It turns out that Romero and his father are the sole caretakers of Lo de Perla, which is a privately-owned 40 hectare jungle garden perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The tropical forest features more than 1000 different species of unusual and rare plants, including hundreds of rare orchid varieties. Father and son work full time in the jungle where they labor in harmony with nature, lovingly tending the orchids and other exotic plants along with the many animals that seek sanctuary in the garden.
Orchid varieties growing on trees at Lo de Perla
And we could see that everywhere, thousands of orchids were rooted to trees (grouped by species) and potted in all kinds of containers, including coconut husks, old logs from the forest and ancient stone vessels Romero and his father had found while digging in the jungle. At high season, when the orchids are in full bloom (October/November and April/May), Romero told us the forest literally erupts with color. We could barely imagine such a sight, given that in February there was already so much to see. Many orchids were bursting with life, some sprouting tiny buds and even a few early flowers.
As Romero led us down into the forest on a spongy path, he stopped frequently to tell us stories about the many unusual plants. Tenderly fingering the different species, he spoke with a soft reverence as he invited us to touch, smell and experience the plants’ many unusual characteristics. We looked at root structures, marveled over woody vines you could drink from and ran our hands over the palms, their leaves passing like feathers through our fingers.
We spent a glorious two hours ambling up and down the mountainside amidst the lush plant life of the tropical forest, stopping to view all sorts of unusual varieties of palms, deciduous trees, ferns, cycads, bromeliads and cacti, plus a seemingly endless array of tropical flowers, wild red chile peppers and climbing vines. At the end of the tour, we stopped in the Sanctuary. Built by Romero’s father, the small greenhouse houses hundreds of orchid varieties, many of which were in bloom.
Here are some highlights of our tour:
Native to the tropical Americas, this colorful plant has more than 40 different varieties and it appeared in every shape and form in the jungle garden. Also known as False Bird-of-Paradise (Strelitzia), the plant is remarkable for its paddle-shaped leaves and thick flower stalks that bear brightly colored, waxy bracts. In addition to storing water for certain insects and birds, the bracts conceal small, inconspicuous flowers that are pollinated by hummingbirds, bats and other birds, depending on where they grow. The bracts come in all variations of orange, red, yellow and green.
The variety Lobster-Claw (Heliconia rostrata) differs from other varieties in the species in that it produces downward-facing flowers on long, panicles inside thick, waxy bracts colored red, orange, yellow and green.
Strangler Fig (Ficus cotinifolia)
Yes, it produces figs, but this evergreen tree is parasitic and gradually strangles its host tree to death. The whole process starts when animals (monkeys, birds and bats) eat the fruits and deposit seeds on the upper branches of other trees (the dense leaves of palms are ideal.) From there, the fig tree embryo takes root in the crevices of the tree bark, slowly sprouting roots that penetrate the host tree for water and nutrients. As the roots grow stronger, they intertwine and envelop the host, sending roots down to the ground and into the soil where the fig starts an independent life.
Strangler Fig and host palm
Once the roots start drawing water and nutrients from the soil, the strangler fig has no more use for the host. The roots gradually strangle the host tree (sometimes over the course of a century). What remains is a gigantic, twisted, log-like tree with a hollow cylinder in the middle where the host tree once stood.
Gumbo Limbo Tree (Bursera Simaruba)
Native to tropical regions of the Americas, this deciduous tree is commonly known as the copperwood or turpentine tree. It is most notable for its profusely peeling red bark. (Which has also prompted some to nickname it the Tourist Tree after the skin of sunburnt tourists.)
Gumbo-limbo grows rapidly and is rugged and hurricane-resistant. This causes it to have many uses, including serving as wind protection for crops and roads. A particularly popular use is to provide ‘living-fence’ posts. The tree can be cultivated from simply sticking small branches into good soil. Once rooted, they grow into large specimens in no time.
Gumbo wood is also used for firewood and light construction, and its resin is used as glue and varnish. When its leaves are brewed into a tea, it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Interestingly, gumbo-limbo is also the traditional wood used in the U.S. for making carousel horses.
Native to Mexico and Central America, this medium-sized spiny palm grows to about 20 feet in the Mexican forest. It produces clusters of globular brown fruits on thick green stems, which sometimes grow as thick as 3″ across. The fruit and seeds provide food for animals as well as humans.
We misunderstood Romero, who we thought identified the nut as a type of coconut, used for its oil as well as for its meat. He cracked open a few on a nearby rock and we sat down at a rough-hewn gumbo limbo tree table to eat them. And yes, they did look a lot like miniature coconuts inside, although the meat was very oily and the texture produced a bout of coughing after it was ingested. All part of the experience!
Built by Romero’s father, the Orchid Sanctuary houses a collection of more than 500 unusual species. Each variety is adapted to different habitats, be it trees, plant or rocks and each relies on certain insects or birds for pollination. There were regal cattleyas, delicate yellow and brown-spotted oncidiums (including a chocolate orchid), multi-colored dendrobiums (including the lovely Hono Hono), and freckled Singapore varieties. Plenty of bright-colored phalaenopsis and rare wild varieties including Pink Lady Slipper and White Egret were also on view.
Here are a few of the beautiful orchids we saw blooming in the Sanctuary.
Heading to Puerto Vallarta? Lo de Perla is just an easy 45 minute car ride away. Once we found the name, we found the website. For more information, you can also telephone 322 181 1909. It’s really worth the trip.