Costa Rica Chronicles: Vol. IX

Cloud Forests: An Embarrassment of Riches

    Cloud forests, a type of rainforest, occur on high mountains in the tropics, generally between 2,000 and 3,500 meters, and experience very different environmental conditions. As one ascends in elevation, the hot steamy lowlands are left behind and several distinct vegetation zones occur…Cloud forests are so named because they are often shrouded in mist and fog. The high moisture level and cool year-round temperatures foster plant communities rich in mosses, ferns, and epiphytes…

So, there are around a half dozen cloud forest reserves in Costa Rica, and if you ask half a dozen people which would be the best cloud forest to visit if you only had time to visit one you’d get half a dozen different answers.

Three of these are near the village of Santa Elena, and my favorite piece of advice on the cloud forests came from one of the staff at our hostel. He said, “Here’s the thing, ever since the Lonely Planet guide said that the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve gets 20,000 visitors annually, while the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve sees 200,000 visitors per year, the pendulum has swung and now folks are regularly reporting that Santa Elena is too crowded.”

Based on this advice, in addition to advice to arrive at the reserve early in the morning because they only allow so many people in at a time, we chose to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

Now, tourists’ have a reputation that precedes them, that of having very high, emotion-filled expectations – born of spending most of their days in nature-deficient lifestyles – of seeing every form of wildlife they’ve read about in all the books on the cloud forests. As a result, folks who have been there, particularly those whose jobs involve advising tourists about their visits, make it a top priority of pulling out a map of the area and running through an obviously well-worn shpiel to cover their asses out of sincere concern for our feelings and in order to lessen the blow of disappointment:

“The cloud forest reserves are so vast and the portions visited by tourists on the only trails tourists are allowed to tread on are so relatively small, that most of the wildlife has learned that they have plenty of room and don’t need to get anywhere near those loud-mouthed, binocular-laden bipeds. So, in short, if you are a binocular-laden biped, expect to see lots of flora and very little fauna.”

You’d think that with all the snark in this post that I’m building up to complaining about how much of a waste of time Monteverde was, but the truth is that the preemptive disappointment prevention we received from our friend at the hostel worked. Our expectations were sufficiently lowered, and our visit there turned out to be quite lovely.

The forest, in many ways, resembles the subtropical rainforest we have right here in the Pacific Northwest: lush, green, dense with ferns and moss and lichen, and that ever-present smell in the air of damp soil. From there, however, the forest is entirely different. From the bromeliads and the heliconia to the ficus and mango trees, the flora is clearly tropical, and the star of the whole show was…

…the Resplendent Quetzal. I’d guess that 95% of the people who visit Monteverde would name the quetzal as being on the top of their wish list in terms of wildlife sightings. The birds are described as being elusive, and visitors who see them tend use the term lucky a lot.

Given that, I guess we were supremely lucky! Our first 2 hours in the park were with an interpretive guide, Rolando, a caffeine-fueled font of information on everything we saw in the forest. About an hour into our hike, Rolando was scanning the canopy and got very quiet as he set up his monocular on its tripod. Waving us over, we gazed through the lens and saw our first quetzal, stunningly colorful, sitting on a high branch.

Later, after we returned to the trailhead and were preparing to leave, we sensed a hushed commotion from some other visitors, and, making our way over to a small crowd, found that they’d discovered a mated pair of quetzals, sitting about 15 feet away on lower branches.

So, you might ask, were there clouds? Well, as a matter of fact, thanks to the clouds we were unable to see anything at a lookout situated at the Continental Divide. It was actually quite eerie, standing there at a steep drop-off, where the rainforest just stopped, and before and below us was nothing but vapor, blowing through in a breeze that felt like you could be swept off and float away.

I could go on and on, mention the hanging bridge and the gigantic tarantula that crossed our path as we hiked, but there is so much more to get to and this post alone has taken me almost a week to write because of my crazy schedule.

Up Next: Oh yeah, we’re near the equator.

Costa Rica Chronicles: Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III, Vol. IV, Vol. V, Vol. VI, Vol. VII, Vol. VIII, Vol. IX, Vol. X

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