The Vallarta Botanical Gardens
By Sonia Day
Although this magnificent celebration of Mexico’s plant diversity is gaining worldwide respect– and recently picked up a major award from the prestigious International Garden Council – it could also be called “the best kept secret” in Jalisco. That’s because virtually no one I’ve met in Lakeside seems to have heard of the place.
“They have a botanical garden down there?” an amazed Ajijic gardener asked me recently.
He then added, with a skeptical grin: “Is it good? Worth going to?”
Yes to both. Even if you dread the dishrag humidity of the coast and aren’t really into gardening yourself, put this beauty spot on your “must see” list, because it is truly special.
Rambling over 16 jungly hectares– some cleared, some left intact –it contains the kind of eye candy that you expect to find in a botanical garden. That is, well cared-for flowerbeds overflowing with dazzling curiosities like different species of ginger and begonias, plus every tropical shrub you can name. But it’s also possible to wander off alone along quiet hiking trails and take in the less cultivated charms of the region.
I loved, for instance, the twisty, dark Vanilla Trail. You enter over a wobbly rope bridge, then follow a series of steps that undulate beneath thick overhanging vines and 150 year old behemoths like the Maya nut tree (now threatened with extinction, but protected in these gardens). The atmosphere was so jungly and exotic, I almost expected to see Tarzan swinging through the treetops. But there are welcome touches of civilization too: a lovely restaurant, with a brick oven which makes great pizzas, and a well-stocked shop selling quality handicrafts.
Finally, there’s the gardens’ crowning glory: the Orchid Pavilion. Its mission is to preserve and propagate native orchid species that are dying out in the wild (Jalisco contains the highest number of orchids in Mexico) and at the same time educate people not to rip them out of forests.
And what a wonderful goal that is. However, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this little slice of paradise is that it gets virtually no government funding.
“We’ve achieved this with private donations – and a lot of hard work, mostly by volunteers,” says the Gardens’ curator and professional horticulturist, Bob Price, who’s originally from Georgia.
Price is actually being too modest. He got the ball rolling himself ten years ago when, with his mother, Betty, he visited this wild area south of Puerto Vallarta and plunked down his own money to buy a chunk of bare hillside belonging to a cattle rancher.
“Everywhere I travel, I always visit the botanical gardens and I realized that there wasn’t one here. So I decided to just do it,” he explains with a chuckle. Price joined forces with an enthusiastic, local 20-year-old (Jesus Reyes, now the gardens’ director-general) then discovered, to his delight, that plenty of Americans and Canadians who have homes in the vacation hot spot wanted to get involved too.
“We started fundraising and it was phenomenal,” he says. “So many people stepped up, wanting to contribute – and to help in other ways.”
Among them was Dianne “Dee” Daneri, a former head of the American Rhododendron Society that has financed the fabulous new $100,000 pavilion devoted to native Mexican species of rhododendrons, known as Vireyas.
“It was exactly the kind of project she was looking for,” says Price.
The results speak for themselves. Check out some of the rave reviews now appearing on Trip Advisor.
And that prestigious award? Together with multi-million dollar botanical gardens installed in locales like Singapore and Dubai, Bob Price’s brainchild recently joined the list of “Ten Gardens around the World That Are Worth Travelling For.”
It’s quite an accomplishment. For more information: vbgardens.org
(Ed. Note: Sonia Day is Gardening Columnist for the Toronto Star and a sometime visitor to Ajijic. She’s also the author of eight books. Her latest is a novel, Deer Eyes, available from Amazon.com. Sonia’s Day’s bookThe Untamed Gardenhas recently won the Benjamin Franklin Digital Silver Award which is awarded yearly by the Independent Book Publishers Association.Her website: soniaday.com)
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com
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