Archive for the ‘Destinations’ Category

Poulnabrone Dolmen – The Stones of Ireland

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Miriam C. Davis has an M.A. in medieval archaeology and a Ph.D. in medieval history. She is a professor of history at Delta State University, where she teaches European history and the history of Christianity, and has participated in archaeological excavations in Mississippi, Alabama, England, and Scotland. In addition to her scholarly publications, Miriam has written for the popular press on archaeology, history, and travel. She has lectured throughout the U.S., Great Britain, and Israel.

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Silhouetted dramatically against the horizon, it’s a stark reminder of past millennia, millennia that we know too little about.

We pile out of the bus and begin the short walk up the trail to our destination. Our tour has taken us to Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare, one of the most famous portal tombs in Ireland, and a relic of the Neolithic Age. “Neolithic” means “New Stone Age,” when agriculture emerged in Ireland. It’s also the period of the megaliths, the great stone monuments that dot the landscape of Western Europe.

At Poulnabrone, as we circle the tomb, taking pictures from different angles, we must step carefully. Deep fissures fracture the ground; it’d be easy for the careless visitor to trip or twist an ankle.

That’s because we’re in the Burren, a stretch of land in northwest County Clare in the west of Ireland. Long ago, erosion carved deep grooves in the limestone pavement, leaving a jagged moonscape. But the Burren can also be surprisingly green, as grass readily grows between cracks in the rock due to the mineral-rich soil.

The dolmen itself is made of limestone slabs. A pair of portal stones – that is, large upright stones at the dolmen’s entrance – and two smaller standing stones support the capstone, which slants downward from the front to the rear to create an 8 x 4 foot chamber. (In the 1980s, one of the portal stones was replaced because it had cracked; the original stone still lies nearby.)  Originally, a low, oval-shaped cairn, or man-made pile of rocks, surrounded the dolmen to steady the whole structure.

“How did they get the big stone on top?” someone asks. It’s a good question; twelve feet long and seven feet wide, the capstone weighs over 3,000 pounds.  Probably a mound of dirt was constructed and the slab pulled up it using rollers made of tress. No doubt it involved a lot of sweat. And cursing.

And manpower. It’s no accident that the megaliths (“big stones”) appear in the Neolithic period, after the introduction of agriculture. Hunting and gathering during the Mesolithic Age had supported only a very small population, eight or nine thousand in all of Ireland, living in family groups of about twenty-five. But the coming of agriculture about 3500 BC brought food surpluses that supported larger populations, providing the manpower necessary to erect the dolmens.

We know the dolmen was a tomb, because archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of at least thirty individuals. From the bone fragments we can tell that the dead bodies were already decomposed when they were interred in the chamber around 3000 BC. Why were these particular individuals chosen, and why was so much effort put into their interment? We don’t know.

While its ritual and symbolic functions remain unknown, Poulnabrone Dolmen continues to exert a powerful attraction in the modern world, drawing in thousands of visitors each year. As we walk back to the bus, past the sellers of Celtic crosses and other souvenirs who congregate at the entrance to the site, I think of these long-ago people, whose names we’ll never know. We, with our modern technology — our smart phones and our laptops – we can still be awed by what people did 5000 years ago.

That’s not such a bad thing.

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To learn more about our Emerald Isle tour, click here.

Climbing to Great Heights – The Potala Palace

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Ingrid Larsen is a Chinese art historian and specialist in early Chinese painting. She did her doctoral training at the University of Michigan and Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and received national scholarships from the National Academy of Sciences and the Fulbright Commission. While a Chinese language student in Taiwan in the 1980s, Ingrid worked at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and more recently was a consultant for the permanent Ancient China exhibition in the newly opened National Museum of China in Beijing in 2010–11. From 1997–2007 she worked on the project to catalogue the Song and Yuan dynasty paintings in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and has published on the formation of Charles Lang Freer’s Chinese painting collection. In 2012 she served as editor for a catalogue and exhibition of modern Chinese calligraphy at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University entitled Pictures of the Mind: The Art of Wang Fangyu. Her current research focuses on the emergence of Chinese art collections in American museums and private collections during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ingrid has been traveling to China for three decades, and spent five years living in Beijing––most recently 2009–2010.

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IMG_4890-Potala515

Lhasa, a trophy destination for 19th century explorers, is still a remote and mysterious place. When I first visited Lhasa in 1984 we endured a three hour bus ride on a bumpy dirt road from the airport. A new highway and tunnel has cut that trip in half.  Back then, Lhasa was a dusty, dilapidated town with wild dogs and open sewers. Today the city is much tidier. Paved roads, traffic lights, sidewalks, and public parks are signs of progress. Despite change, nothing can diminish the towering magnificence of the Potala Palace that tapers towards the sky and reaches an altitude of 12,500 feet on a mountain in the center of Lhasa.  The Potala was the winter residence and political-spiritual nerve center for successive Dalai Lamas who ruled Tibet since the 17th century.  Its fortress-like architecture comprised of the Red and White Palaces embellished with brilliant gold roof tops, is a beacon for Buddhist pilgrims and travelers from around the globe.

IMG_4702-SI-group-at-Potala515The morning our group visited the Potala, we joined the flocks of Tibetan pilgrims and began to climb the zigzagging stair ramps that lead up to the Palace. Feeling the altitude, we paced ourselves and rested on the landing of each stair set before pushing on to the next. Local pilgrims caught up, urged us on with their smiles, and then scampered upward with sure feet and adequate oxygen. At last we reached the top where a family of pilgrims sat on the final steps––savoring a snack and a spectacular view across the Lhasa valley. The women were striking, each wearing three large salmon-color coral beads woven into their hair. Tibetans cherish coral for its medicinal qualities and treat it as a hereditary gem. Our local guide identified the pilgrims as a tribe from a distant region in Tibet. For them as for us, this was a once in a life-time experience.IMG_4711-Pilgrims-climbing-to-Potala515

After reaching the top, we were first ushered into the White Palace to view the Dalai Lama’s main ceremonial hall and throne, private rooms, and a library lined with Buddhist sutras and historical texts. As our eyes adjusted to the interior light, every surface was super-charged with an explosion of color. Painted murals and hanging scrolls dressed the walls with Buddhist deities and historical scenes. Fabric banners and canopies embroidered or appliqued with the “eight auspicious symbols” were draped from ceilings and pillars. Thick Tibetan carpets woven with wool from highland sheep covered the floors and cushioned the seats where monks meditate daily. Here color seems equivalent to spiritual energy.IMG_4717-SI-traveler-climbing-stairs-at-Potala515

Then, through a tunnel-like passage, we entered a more sacred space in the Red Palace and were dazzled by the halls containing lavishly decorated burial stupas with the remains of past Dalai Lamas. Here the pungent smell of yak butter and incense smoke bespoke the daily rituals of monks who worship their past spiritual leaders. One of the most impressive and sacred stupa tombs belongs to the fifth Dalai Lama who is credited with initiating the construction of the Potala Palace in 1648. Standing 41 feet tall, the stupa is adorned with turquoise, coral, pearls and semi-precious stones and gilded with roughly 3,700 kg (8,157 lbs) of gold––amounting to 150 million US dollars at current values for the gold alone. Much of the wealth of Tibet is concentrated in these halls.IMG_4876-Potala515

As we left the Potala and started our descent into Lhasa city, one person puzzled about what happened to all the cultural and historic relics in the Palace during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when the Red Guard demolished many monasteries around Tibet. The Potala was spared at the insistence of Chairman Mao’s comrade, Zhou Enlai, who reportedly deployed his own troops to protect it. Zhou Enlai is also the patron saint who saved the Forbidden City.

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Read more about upcoming departures of our Classic China and Tibet tour.

Standing In Awe of Buddha

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Carol Morland is a Japanese art historian, with special expertise in the painting of the Edo period. She has taught courses in East and Southeast Asian art at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, Nanzan University (Nagoya, Japan), Temple University Japan (Tokyo), and the University of Hawaii. In addition, Carol has been an editor for Orientations in Hong Kong and has translated Japanese articles for that magazine and other publications. Most recently, she was an assistant curator at the Honolulu Museum of Art, where she focused on the museum’s collection of ukiyo-e. Carol holds an M.A. in Japanese Studies and a Ph.D. in Japanese art history from the University of Michigan. She has two decades of experience living, working, and studying in Japan and China. Current research topics include the changing concepts of Japanese portraiture in the early modern period and the rise of amateur painting circles in the Nagoya area during the 19th and 20th centuries.

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The smell of incense and the sound of chanting fill the air, as we step into the huge space of the image hall at Todai-ji temple in the ancient capital of Nara. Our eyes are immediately drawn upward to the face of the principal image of worship, the Great Buddha Dainichi, one of the largest bronze statues in the world. The original sculpture was cast in the 8th century by Emperor Shomu, who wished to proclaim both his devotion to Buddhism and his own imperial power. Standing before this Buddha, even hundreds of years later, we can understand the awe felt by the Nara period worshiper.

Like devotees of earlier eras, we reached the Great Buddha Hall by proceeding down a long, wide walkway that passes through two gates: the outer South Gate, an important architectural monument in itself, and a smaller gate that leads into the inner compound. We have been greeted along the way by the many tame Sika deer that roam the temple grounds and are considered sacred. While we have visited many temples on our journey, it is here at Todai-ji that one can truly feel the power that Buddhism wielded in Japan. And the grand scale of the site and the setting of the Great Buddha Hall within a series of enclosures give us an understanding of the experience of worship as no description, photograph, or museum display could.

A short bus ride brings us to another important monument in Nara, also located within Deer Park: Kasuga Shrine. While the Todai-ji compound was open and level, organized symmetrically in the Chinese fashion, and hot in the late morning sun, the approach to the Shinto shrine draws us into a very different world. Walking up a stone pathway that cuts through a forest of enormous cedar trees, the air is cool and damp. We pass by hundreds of large stone lanterns (there are more than 2,000 in all), some dating from early in the shrine’s history and covered with moss, and others from later years. Kasuga Shrine is, in fact, famous for its lanterns, both these and the many smaller bronze lanterns that hang in the shrine building itself. Kasuga was founded in the 8th century, but its continued importance to worshipers is everywhere apparent. Many of the stone lanterns bear paper squares with the names of recent donors, and among the popular auxiliary shrines are those dedicated to finding love.

After a delicious lunch of Japanese noodles, we return to Kyoto and visit one last temple. Kiyomizu-dera is perched high on a hill, and walking out onto the broad porch extending over the valley, it feels as if we are suspended in air. The road up to the temple is crowded with young women in bright kimono and alive with the sounds of shop keepers hawking their wares. There are many stores selling ceramics and local specialties, including yatsuhashi, a triangular treat made of pounded rice filled with a sweet paste. Perhaps best of all is the soft-serve ice cream flavored and then sprinkled with matcha, the powdered green tea introduced into Japan in the 12th century and used in the traditional tea ceremony—a particularly successful combination of East and West, past and present.

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To learn more about our Eternal Japan tour, click here.

A River Runs Through It: The Heartbeat of the Cities of Old World Europe

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Hugh Agnew has been fascinated by Czech history and the Czech lands since first arriving in Prague as a graduate student in 1977. Now Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he has taught courses and published books and numerous articles about the Habsburg Empire, the Czech national identity, and Czech heritage and history. His insightful talks on past Smithsonian journeys through the Bohemian countryside, on the Elbe and Danube Rivers, and in Prague at Christmastime have made him a favorite with Smithsonian travelers.

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This year I was trying to decide what makes the “Old World Europe” journey so special. To be sure, the rich history, cultural and artistic treasures, and vibrant modern life of the cities on the itinerary—Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava and Prague—definitely help make the journey so attractive and memorable. But each one of these destination cities also shares one important thing—to quote the title of Norman Maclean’s novel, “A River Runs through It. A river (sometimes the same river) is an inseparable part of the cityscape, history, culture, and present day life of each of these cities. Yet each city, in its own way, enjoys a unique relationship with its river, and the place of the river in the city’s life (and our experience of the city as visitors) differs in interesting ways from destination to destination. I set out to explore the relationship between these cities and their rivers.

The river Vistula (Wisła) flows through both Warsaw and Krakow, yet its personality in each place (like that of each city) is quite distinct. Warsaw’s Old Town and the major areas visited on the Old World Europe journey lie on the western side of the river. Here the Vistula, flowing through the broad Mazovian plain, has broadened out significantly, with wide riverbank areas and sand beaches that Warsovians enjoy on a sunny afternoon in Indian Summer. On the afternoon of our arrival in Warsaw I used my free time to take advantage of the reasonably fine-weather and walk across the bridge named for Prince Józef Poniatówski  to Warsaw’s suburb of Praga, in particular to the district known as the Saxon Meadow (Saska Kępa). Spared much of the wartime destruction that left 85% of Warsaw in ruins, this part of the city now has pleasant tree-lined streets with bistros, restaurants and shops. Warsaw’s relationship with its river is celebrated in the city’s coat of arms, featuring a mermaid armed with a sword and shield. The story goes that the mermaid (syrenka, or “little siren” in Polish) led the Polish prince Bolesław of Mazovia to the site of a fishing village on the river and ordered him to found a city there. From that beginning, sometime at the end of the thirteenth century, the city developed further. When Poland joined with Lithuania to form a Commonwealth of both nations, Warsaw’s location midway between the two capitals of Krakow and Vilnius led the Kings to make the city their new capital, a change that became permanent in 1596.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Krakow, the ancient capital of the Polish kingdom, also lies on the Vistula, but much closer to its sources in the Silesian Beskids near the border with the Czech Republic. As we looked down from the Wawel Castle, we could see that the river is narrower here than in Warsaw, and seems more intimately connected to the old city. Yet while the river is central to the current modern city of Krakow, the old part of town lies only on the northern, left bank of the river, and the associated district of Kazimierz seems in some ways closer to the water. Indeed it should, since Kazimierz was once an island in the Vistula, as recalled by the name of the street that marks one of its boundaries, Starowisłna (Old Vistula) street. City development gradually filled in the former branches of the river, leaving only memories behind. A modest walk along Starowisłna from Krakow Old Town led a group of us to the Kazimierz district for a pleasant evening meal in one of its many restaurants.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

In contrast to the two Polish capitals, Budapest is both divided and joined right through its center by the river Danube—a situation that is commemorated in the coat of arms adopted by the united city in 1873. The river is an intimate part of the cityscape, and the Margaret Island in the river one of its favorite playgrounds. Yet it is still a broad and formidable power, bridged permanently only in 1848 by the suspension bridge designed by Adam Clark and financed by the patriotic Count István Széchenyi.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge remains one of the landmarks the visitor will use for orientation purposes, and an impressive engineering feat. So many of the city’s significant buildings are along the riverbanks that a tourist river cruise after dark is a wonderful way to enjoy the sights.  But the best place to appreciate the position of the Danube in the life of Budapest is from the summit of Gellert Hill, where we stood on a sunny morning after the previous day’s cold rain, and looked along both the Buda and Pest sides. We could see such landmarks as the Royal Castle and the spire of Matthias Church, the Houses of Parliament, St. Stephen’s Basilica and other buildings of Pest, and the Chain Bridge providing a connection between them. Walking or riding across the Chain Bridge was part of our enjoyment of the life of Budapest.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Bratislava, too, was once the capital of Hungary—at least that part controlled by the Habsburgs while the Ottoman Turks ruled over most of the rest of the kingdom. Now it is the capital of Slovakia, which joined the ranks of independent states at the beginning of 1993. Here, too, the Danube, navigable for its entire length from Bavaria to the Black Sea, is an important part of the city.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Gazing down to the three countries corner from the castle hill, we could see that the Danube is a thoroughfare for goods and visitors on the way between Vienna and Budapest, constantly busy with the ebb and flow of working and pleasure craft. Yet although the Petržalka district of Bratislava (joined to the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1919 after the First World War) lies on the southern, right bank of the river, the old town and Bratislava Castle lie only on the northern, left bank. Several bridges join the two sides of the river at Bratislava, the most striking being the assymetrical suspension bridge, the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising (also simply called the “new bridge”). Built between 1968 and 1972 to connect Petržalka with the Old Town, the bridge destroyed most of the old Jewish quarter of Bratislava, including a moorish style Neolog synagogue (the Orthdox synagogue had been destroyed already in 1961). The bridge juxtaposes the old represented by the castle and the palaces of Austro-Hungarian nobility on the left bank with the new of a densely settled residential district, dominated by the concrete panel apartment blocs built beginning in the 1970s by the Czechoslovak regime.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

The Danube is inseparably linked with another Old World Europe destination, Vienna, thanks to the immortal music of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz.” But (as the Viennese like to say) not only is the Danube seldom blue, depending on the weather, but it is not as central to the cityscape of the old part of Vienna as it is in Budapest. True, a canal drawn down from the main course of the river provided the Habsburgs with a moat around their residence city and castle in Vienna, but the river is essential really to the modern, Danube City section of Vienna with its soaring skyscrapers housing the headquarters of international organizations. There too are the river islands with their sandy beaches, where the Viennese can join the Warsovians in some late-summer sunbathing, but the fact remains that the river is more part of the picture frame of Vienna than it is the heart of the picture.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

But for the final city of the Old World Europe journey, the river is the central heart of the experience. Flowing into Prague from the south, the Vltava (or Moldau, to use the German name more familiar still to most foreigners) makes a large S-curve as it flows through Prague before it continues north towards the Elbe and eventually the North Sea. Immortalized in Bedřich Smetana’s tone-poem “Má Vlast” (My Homeland), it is impossible to remove it from my experience of and feelings about Prague. The Vltava and its bridges knit together the towns of Prague into the great metropolis that is the Czech Republic’s capital. The oldest, and the one most familiar to foreign visitors, is the Charles Bridge, built in the fourteenth century to replace an earlier structure destroyed by floods.  Now the second oldest bridge in Central Europe—after the one across the Danube at Regensburg—the Charles Bridge is a link (or perhaps, as we jostled for space with other visitors crowding along its length during the height of the season, rather an obstacle course!) between the historic Old and New Towns of Prague and the Castle, Castle Town, and Lesser Quarter.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

If Budapest and Vienna, the two ambitious former capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, impress us as visitors with their almost imperial scale—and with impressive riverscapes in keeping with that scale—the impact Prague makes is somehow different. Though a proud royal capital in its own right, to me Prague’s scale is smaller, more intimate, even (dare one say it?) provincial. Yet every city of the Old World Europe journey has its intimate and small-scale moments for us to enjoy, along with the grandiose relics of the past and the bustling present-day life of a modern European metropolis. And a unique part of all those experiences, making these cities what they are, are the rivers that run through them.

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To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here.

Costa Rica’s Natural Heritage

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

James Karr, Smithsonian Study LeaderSmithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip. Smithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip.

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A Smithsonian Journeys expedition to Costa Rica is like a birthday party: you know you’ll get gifts, but you don’t know what. You can guess some gifts from the itinerary, but the best ones are the surprises—the unexpected encounters, the memorable experiences.

People. The camaraderie of our groups is always a gift: It’s a pleasure to meet travelers, who, no matter what their backgrounds and reasons for choosing a Smithsonian trip, inevitably form a cohesive and communal group. The enthusiasm of fellow travelers is contagious and enriches all of us. But nothing matches the welcoming smiles and friendliness of the Costa Ricans themselves.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Places. Two volcanoes have star billing on our Costa Rican itinerary, yet both can be hard to see as clouds swirl up their slopes and around their peaks. But in February 2013, we had clear skies from horizon to horizon and got a spectacular view inside the caldera of Poas Volcano.  This was the first time in eight trips that I saw Poas in full splendor. Wow! What a gift!

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

As we travel, we crisscross the Continental Divide, the ridgeline splitting rainfall flowing to the Caribbean from rain flowing to the Pacific. The scenery is magnificent, with forests—often protected in national parks and reserves—giving way to cattle ranches and farms growing bananas, plantain, pineapple, coffee, sugar cane, mangos, and more. The last days of our trip, we walk a sheltered Pacific Coast beach, feeling relaxed, meditative.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

Plants and Animals. The multicolored splendor of flowering trees in the tropics is rarely matched in any temperate forest. And when the fruits ripen, we find many mammals and birds lured to the fruiting tree. White-faced and howler monkey troops travel along treetop highways, seeking food, defending territories, and watching over their young.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Our daily bird walks usually produce a group list of 140 to 160 species. The resplendent quetzal, a species considered one of the world’s most beautiful birds, is a must-see for many traveling with us, and we are often lucky enough to find one. Sometimes, we’ll also spot the tiny six-inch ferruginous pygmy owl, which hunts insects at dawn and dusk, and hummingbirds feeding their young in the nest.

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

We rarely see snakes, but the five-to-six-inch orange-kneed tarantula sometimes startles us.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Experiences. Some of our most memorable events are serendipitous. Once, a restaurant lunch stop led to an invitation to visit a server’s relative, who was harvesting a local palm wine, and  we were treated to an impromptu wine tasting.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Another time, our tour director invited us to his family home, where the garden overflowed with 800 species of orchids. We met his family,  including his grandfather, who, at more than 100 years of age, tends the orchids every day.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Then, pausing in a shelter to avoid an afternoon downpour, we found a gift of artwork: motorbike tires crafted into toucans!

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Each trip gives new gifts to everyone, not least of which is the chance to share them with fellow Smithsonian Journeys travelers.

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To learn more about out our Costa Rica’s Natural Treasures tour click here.