Often taking the form of fog, these clouds hover around the upper canopy of the forest before condensing onto the leaves of trees and dripping onto the plants below.
Understandably, the sun has a hard time breaking through this thick veil of clouds. This causes a slower rate of evaporation and thus provides the plants with a bounty of life-giving moisture. This moisture helps to promote a huge amount of biodiversity, particularly within the type of plants known as epiphytes.
These plants grow on other plants (including trees) non-parasitically, collecting their moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris that surround them. Common examples include lichens, orchids and bromeliads, all of which are abundant in Monteverde. Cloud forests also tend to host a large number of endemic species, as their unique climates and specialized ecosystems create habitats that are not found anywhere else on Earth.
Climate change is expected to seriously alter the nature of these forests. Models suggest that the low-level cloud coverage will be reduced, and as a result, temperatures will go up. This could cause the forests’ hydrological cycle to change and potentially even dry up. This alarming theory gives traveler’s all the more reason to act in environmentally responsible ways both at home and abroad.
Monteverde’s two cloud forest reserves provide visitors with a wealth of opportunity to explore, adventure, and learn about these wonderful ecosystems.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was established in 1972 and initially covered some 810 acres (328 ha) of forested land. Nowadays, its protective reach extends over 35,089 acres (14,200 ha) and encompasses eight life zones atop the Continental Divide. There are over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles living within its bounds. It’s one of the few remaining habitats that support all six species of the cat family – jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis – as well as the endangered three-wattled bellbird and resplendent quetzal. Over 8 miles (13 km) of trails are available for visitors to explore on their own or with a guide.
The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve was established in 1989 and is managed and operated by the community of Santa Elena. It was one of the first reserves in the country to be directly controlled by the local community (as opposed to a government agency), and is an excellent example of what people can do to both preserve and learn from their immediate environment. It has a similar sampling of plants and animals as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve; however, it also acts as a habitat for spider monkeys, which the Monteverde Reserve does not. Its 765 acres (310 ha) host trails ranging from 1-3 miles (1-5 km) in length, as well as an observation tower that affords fantastic views of the Arenal Volcano on days that it is clear.
There is an assortment of activities within the Monteverde area to help visitors engage with these forests. Hikes through the reserves allow tourists to see, smell and even touch the interior of these jungles. Hikes that are taken with a naturalist guide will give visitors a better chance of spotting – and learning about – the animals that live here. Bird watching expeditions, which are best during the early morning hours, are understandably popular, as are visits to the butterfly farms and insect museums. Hanging bridge and aerial tram tours allow participants to peer into the upper reaches of the forest canopy, while zip-line tours will send them flying directly through it.