Head to the clouds: Costa Rican cloud forest alive with birds, butterflies and orchids

June 8, 2009 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment


MONTEVERDE REGION, Costa Rica — The Monteverde Cloud Forest is a treasure trove of botanical wonders. It’s also a major pain to get there.

Five miles of new paving on the Monteverde Road was just finished in December, adding to the seven miles already paved.

But the last 13-mile stretch is still an infamous 1 1/2- to 2-hour trip along a potholed, take-your-life-in-your-hands uphill road better suited for donkeys. Crawling along at barely 5 mph, vehicles weave up the mountainside, stones flying from the tires over the no-rail precipice.

Purists always have been against paving the whole route. They worry that tourists will overwhelm the fragile spot that is home to a rich ecosystem that includes 400 species of birds, 600 of butterflies, 300 of orchids and 200 of ferns.

But with tourism faltering due to the worldwide recession (visitor numbers to Monteverde hover between 100,000 and 250,000 people a year), sentiment is building for paving the entire route — with caveats.

“Much tourism is lost due to horrible road conditions,” says Richard Whitten, an American biologist who recently moved back to the United States after living in Monteverde for 15 years collecting insects. “But much damage to the fragile ecosystem can result from weekend joyriders and others who only come up the mountain for quick thrills and who care little for the real value of Monteverde, one of the last most amazing cloud forests on the planet.”

Rumors are that the government plans to pave the last part soon. On the other hand, “I will not hold my breath. Things are slow here, and frankly that is just fine,” says a Monteverde tourism official who didn’t want his name used.

Having survived the harrowing trip, I can say that the cloud forest makes every minute of the drive worth it. Monteverde (“green mountain” in Spanish) is a magical anomaly in nature.

Set in the stick-dry Pacific coastal Tilaran Mountains, the Monteverde region has its head in the clouds at 5,000 feet elevation. Just past the town of Santa Elena, you traverse suddenly from hot, dry and sunny to cool, misty and rainy, with clouds hovering barely above ground nine months of the year.

Only 13 percent of sunlight makes it through to the ground. That allows the damp forest to grow like a wild terrarium, with smaller plants growing on the trees up to the sun.

The result is a botanists’ wonder of wild orchids and bromeliads blooming on trees and delicate moss and ferns seemingly sprouting from tree trunks. You may see a hummingbird’s nest no bigger than the palm of your hand or a quetzal bird with a long, multicolored feathered tail.

The plants that grow on the trees are called epiphytes. There are more than 500 species here. The forest also boasts 500 species of trees, 100 of mammals and 120 of reptiles and amphibians.

Dreamily dubbed an “elfin forest” for its canopy of short, gnarled trees, Monteverde also has Quaker roots. In the 1950s, a group of American Quakers from Alabama settled here to raise dairy cows, far, far away from the violent world they deplored. Some are still here, although tourism has taken over.

It is possible to hike through portions of the 26,000-acre Monteverde reserve areas, but most tourists see a portion of the bountiful scenery via swinging bridge skywalks or zip-line rope courses.

I visited Selvatura Park, which has a Tree Top Walkway of eight long swinging bridges set nearly 200 feet above the canopy floor. It also has a ropes course featuring 15 zip-line cables and platforms, some more than 1,000 feet long.

The park also has a phenomenal outdoor hummingbird park (50 species live in Costa Rica), a restaurant and an insectarium featuring Whitten’s collection, called Jewels of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has an astonishing number of bugs — including bugs with luminescent “headlights” — iridescent butterflies, and beetles as big as dinner rolls.

A few degrees warmer here or there, and Monteverde’s clouds could lift and its creatures be left to bake in the sun.

To see the diversity here is to realize what we stand to lose.

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