Bundled up against the cold outside, visitors enjoy the warmth of a bonsai display inside the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Marnie’s Pavilion. © Scott Dressel-Martin
Originally published January/February 2017
By Pat Woodard
Some days, you just have to get away—away from slate gray skies and snow that falls sideways, from the tyranny of ice scrapers and the torture of long johns. Denver winters don’t last forever. It just seems that way. Fortunately, there are places around town where you can escape to the tropics without buying a plane ticket, even if your escape only lasts a few hours.
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The urgent rumble of rushing water cut through mist that stole the color from the scene before me. Then, a sudden clearing and a blaze of deep purple, dazzling white and luminous green revealed the treasure. Feverishly, I checked the map. Yes! There it was! Even the restrooms were clearly marked!
It’s easy to get lost in jungle reverie at Marnie’s Pavilion inside the Denver Botanic Gardens. This is a relatively small space compared to the Boettcher Tropical Conservatory you’ll likely pass through to get here, but it’s the best place in the Gardens to see orchids. For my money, it’s one of the best ways to slay winter’s monochrome melancholy with a jolt of jarring color.
It’s not just orchids. The treasure here is a profusion of vivid tropical plants; flowers, ferns and wonderfully named rain forest denizens like Elephant Ear and Teddy Bear plant.
Marnie’s Pavilion is a two-level escape from winter. On the lower level, a tropical river emerges from a waterfall that plunges from a cliff choked with lush rain forest vegetation. Every 30 minutes or so, strategically placed sprinkler heads emit the mist that makes the illusion complete. Go up a flight of stairs or take the elevator and you are in the rainforest canopy, gazing over the rocky ledge from which the river tumbles, almost believing that you might need a machete to hack your way home.
I claimed one of the many chairs that offer a place to soak in the atmosphere, marveling at the juxtaposition of snow falling outside huge glass panels that protected me in my sultry cocoon. Marnie’s Pavilion was lively with fellow winter refugees whose cares seemed to melt the moment they came in from the cold; school groups, young couples, seasoned veterans of decades on the front lines of the annual war on winter, all with smiles as bright as the vibrant flowers that surround them.
I decided to stick around awhile and opened a book I brought just for the occasion. If Kipling didn’t write The Jungle Book in a location just like this, he should have. Mowgli, Baloo and even Shere Khan would feel right at home.
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It was an uneasy bargain, concocted in the fog of a cabin-fever delusion. I could easily immerse myself in a world of steaming forests, mangrove swamps, coral reefs, even bone dry deserts. Yes, I would be in the embrace of tropical warmth. I would also be surrounded by cold-blooded killers. My wife Anne and I decided to live dangerously, and bundled up for the short walk from the Denver Zoo entrance to the doors of Tropical Discovery.
Inside, it’s hard to feel too scared when you see grade-school kids on a field trip pressing their faces to the glass separating them from the jaws of a huge alligator snapping turtle. Still, this is an easy place to imagine the predicaments you might find yourself in if not for that thin, clear barrier between you and assorted vipers, anacondas, piranhas, poison dart frogs, vampire bats, crocodiles and the like.
Opened in 1993, Tropical Discovery is a place where you can explore several different tropical environments representing several different parts of the world, along with the plants and animals that inhabit them. There really is an atmosphere of the tropics here, with even the intense high-altitude sunlight of a Colorado day filtered by a dense canopy of trees, flowers and vines. Howler monkeys lazily resting in the trees and a capybara grazing beneath them assured me that all was right in this part of South America. But Anne was on a beach in Indonesia, where a monster was lurking.
“Who’s for dinner?” It’s not the most comforting thing to read on a sign in front of the Komodo dragon habitat. There was Anne, just feet away from a forked tongue representative of the world’s largest species of lizard, known to grow to 10 feet long, weigh as much as 150 pounds and reputed to occasionally supplement a diet of deer and carrion with human flesh.
Of course we knew we were safe on our side of the glass, but there’s nothing like a stare-down with a cold-blooded killer to get some warm blood pumping before a return to a Denver winter’s icy grip.
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The Butterfly Pavilion, the first of its kind in the U.S. when it opened in 1995, purchases 500 chrysalis-encased caterpillars a week. Twice a day, the staff release newly emerged butterflies into the rainforest. About 1,600 butterflies occupy the space at any given time. © Dreamstime/Samuel Evig
“I want to pet Rosie!” My first thought when my granddaughter Leah made that wish known was that Rosie must be a giant plush toy in the form of a butterfly. After all, we were headed to the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster to luxuriate in the heat and humidity of a recreated tropical forest, complete with 1,600 butterflies. It turned out that our first stop was to see Rosie the tarantula and let her crawl on the palm of Leah’s hand. Butterflies may be the stars here, but the Butterfly Pavilion houses thousands of other critters; ants, bees, scorpions, even the massive Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. All fascinating enough, but when Priority One is to feel the tropics, destination one is Wings of the Tropics.
This isn’t an exhibit; it’s an experience. A trail winds through an indoor forest as countless butterflies flit about, flying wherever they want and briefly touching down on human heads, shoulders and faces. There were many families like ours, three and even four generations strong, with faces of all ages lit up in surprise and delight after a close encounter with an almost phosphorescent blue morpho, a shimmering orange banded shoemaker or a huge owl butterfly.
Temperatures and humidity inside Wings of the Tropics are consistent with the home habitats of the butterflies here, and the plants and flowers are transplants from tropical forests around the world. Periodically drifting through the scene, a light mist provides nourishment to plant and animal, and prompts an observation that if we were outside, this precipitation would mean a white knuckle drive home.
No one is in a hurry to leave, and we are treated to a bonus … the release of about three dozen butterflies newly emerged from their chrysalis stage. They are ready for their first flight. Reaching a gloved hand into a mesh box, a staff member carefully removes a butterfly and flicks his wrist. With a fluttering flash of color, a promise of warmth and renewal takes flight on delicate wings. It will be months before we see butterflies gracing the Colorado countryside. At the Butterfly Pavilion, that day doesn’t seem quite so distant.
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The tropical environment of Casa Bonita Restaurant in Lakewood includes a 30-foot-high waterfall. © Rob Lee
Before Indiana Jones first cracked a bullwhip, I had Jungle Jim. Born about the same time I was, the Jungle Jim TV series presented the death-defying exploits of an American adventurer who always wore a safari suit, until he stripped off his shirt to escape certain death with a swan dive from an impossibly high waterfall. It was a wonderful escape from a Minnesota winter that often seemed as black and white as the images on the TV screen.
When the snow flies in Denver, it’s comforting to know I can return to those thrilling days of yesteryear just by strolling through the doors at Casa Bonita. Not only is Jungle Jim there, he and the jungle are now in living color!
Okay, the last time I was there the adventurer in the pith helmet was a girl, the gorilla she was chasing wore a basketball uniform, and there were wandering mariachis serenading the diners ringing the waterfall, but I’m not one to quibble.
Casa Bonita is a Denver institution that spans generations. I took my kids there. Now, I take my granddaughter. “I remember the first time I came here,” she says. “I was 3.” Now a seasoned 7-year-old, Leah has several visits to her credit, though she won’t venture into Black Bart’s Hideout.
For the uninitiated, Casa Bonita is a Mexican restaurant with, as the brochure says, “strolling musicians, daring cliff divers, exciting gunfights, amazing magician, hilarious puppet show, dancing monkeys in costume, roaring waterfall, graceful palms, etc., etc., etc.” Literally every 15 minutes some kind of entertainment breaks out.
You can call it campy. I call it irresistible. With no windows revealing the brutal reality of winter just outside, Casa Bonita is enclosed in a world of twinkling green lights in ersatz palms and thatch roof gazebos overlooking a tropical lagoon and waterfall. Like the Jungle Jim escapades of my childhood, it’s as real as I want it to be.
Leah stood poolside at the bottom of the waterfall and watched a diver plunge 30 feet, surfacing to give her a high five.
Her smile could have melted a mountain of snow.
Pat Woodard is a freelance writer in Parker, and a frequent contributor to EnCompass.