Surviving Winter: A Tropical Vacation… in Colorado

OrchidHere I am, still in the middle of winter. There are five more weeks until spring, and that’s just according to the calendar. At my altitude of 7,000 ft, I won’t be seeing green until the end of April. I need something to encourage and motivate me… something green and flowering… something more productive than pacing the floor, complaining about the gloom, and dreaming about a trip to the Bahamas that isn’t in the budget.

My husband is well aware that his wife develops a bad case of cabin fever by mid-February. That’s why our annual Valentine’s Day date involves a visit to a tropical rainforest. No, we don’t buy a plane ticket. In fact, we head north. We hop in the car and make the hour drive to Denver.

The greater Denver area sports at least three options for anyone in need of a green-leaves-and-humidity break. Other parts of the country will have similar places, where you can escape winter for a day.

Some years we head for Denver Botanic Gardens. While the gardens are open year round, what attracts me at this time of year is their huge greenhouse structure crammed with tropical plants. As you wander the path that winds among the foliage, you can feel your skin rehydrate and your spirits revive. Since you’ve already paid your entrance fee, why not go ahead and tour the outside plantings as well. They will provide gardening inspiration even in the dead of winter.

butterfly-butterflypavillion-lah-081If we’re in the mood for more than just plants, we drive a bit further to the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster. They also have a large conservatory packed with tropical plants. Many are in bloom, and more than 50 species of exotic butterflies and moths visit the flowers. The stream running through this indoor garden contains turtles and fish.

The building complex also houses an “invertebrate zoo,” where everything from cockroaches to walking sticks will encourage you to take a fresh look at the insect world. If you dare, you can get up close and very personal with Rosie the tarantula. If spiders are a bit much, try holding a sea urchin or horseshoe crab instead. Two hands-on tidepools feature animals from the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

This year, we decided to visit the Denver Zoo. It’s true that many of the animals are not on display in the winter, and most of the outside enclosures consist of bare dirt and leafless plants. Warm-climate animals such as the apes were shut up indoors, and the giraffes were in a large barn-type structure, windowless and boring both for them and for us.

arctic-fox-denver-zoo-2009-02-14-lah-346rHowever, many of the more cold-hardy animals were out and about, active in the brisk weather. The Arctic foxes were chasing with one another around their enclosure, while the Humboldt penguins would sprint through the water, then abruptly stop to preen their tuxedo feathers. And what’s a Colorado winter to a polar bear?

When we got too cold outside, we headed indoors to see the birds, reptiles and fish.

The bird habitat is amazing. Roofed in glass, it’s completely climate controlled, so the tropical species feel right at home. A waterfall feeds a stream running through a series of rooms, each representative of a different continent. The entire structure was full of tropical plants and exotic birds. As a birder, I found it therapeutic just to see the bright colors and bizarre forms displayed by species from Africa, Asia, and Central America. Plus, as a gardener, I enjoyed the plants as much as the animals. I could have spent hours just soaking it all up.

lizard-denver-zoo-2009-02-14-lah-370rAt the other end of the zoo is “Tropical Discovery,” where you can see snakes and lizards, fish and other assorted animals. Walking into the cave-like exhibit, we passed waterfalls and blooming orchids, while the animal displays centered around the theme of an ancient ruin deep in the equatorial jungles. A giant scaled lizard hung out on a fallen log, while a huge green snake coiled around itself until it was literally tied in knots. Mud skippers sat in the shallows of a large swamp. A series of saltwater aquaria featured tropical reef species—the anemones and clown fish were surrounded by a collection of children, all pointing out “Nemo” to one another. Even on a trip to the Bahamas, I couldn’t have experienced so much variety with so little effort.

At last it was time to head home. The snow started to fall as we left the parking lot and headed back to Colorado Springs. I didn’t care. I’d just spent a day in the tropics.

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