Regarded as one of the world’s premier tropical research stations, the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza, otherwise known by its acronym CATIE (wwww.catie.ac.cr), is unique in Costa Rica. For the last 65 years, the agricultural research and higher education centre, 4km east of Turrialba, has worked on marrying the needs of Latin America’s rural poor with those of the environment – it was here that the technique for producing palmito (heart-of-palm) from the pejibaye was developed – and at any one time it is involved in over a hundred research and development projects, from tackling climate change to producing disease-resistant tropical crops.
It’s this expert knowledge that makes the tours of CATIE’s landscaped Jardín Botánico so eye-opening. The genial guide will introduce you to some of the 472 species being preserved here, explaining the virtues of the miracle fruit (it makes sour things taste sweet) or divulging some of the 101 benefits of eating noni; the tour is very interactive, so you’ll spend much of your time sniffing spices, touching tubers and munching on freshly picked tropical fruit such as mangosteen and pink ornamental bananas.
As well as hosting a number of vital germplasm projects, including one of the most important collections of coffee and cacao plants in the world, CATIE harbours a variety of wildlife: armadillos, coatis, sloths and caimans, and, attracted by the myriad tropical plants, 300 species of bird – the central lagoon alone is home to boat-billed heron, northern jacana and purple gallinule, and is the roosting site for a hundred or so great white herons. Keen birders can take part in the bird-banding research run by the Programa Monitoreo de Aves, part of an ongoing study into land-use transition – vital when so many Costa Rican farmers are replacing their coffee plantations with sugar cane. Volunteers can help with the catching, weighing and releasing of birds in various habitats across campus.