Feeling a bit lighter in the cloud forest cathedral

Where do you find awe when you need it?

It’s the peak of the first real summer travel season in three years, and nearly every other person I know is visiting Italy, posting photos of cappuccinos, cobblestone streets, and cathedrals. My own first summer travel photos are a bit cloudier. A bit more green. They show the sun filtering through a canopy of leaves and curtains of moss and vine. I wanted to visit a cathedral of another sort for my still-in-the-thick-of-COVID pandemic reintroduction to international travel.

Walking under the mist-shrouded canopy of Monteverde Reserve cloud forest.

My photos capture only a small bit of the Costa Rican cloud forest reserve, Monteverde. Even with a modern camera, iPhone filtering, and a GoPro for wide-angled shots that can *almost* capture the full height of a ficus tree, my photos are just about as dark and fuzzy as the ones I took with my old film camera on my first visit here, more than 20 years ago. Walking into the forest is like walking into the belly of a large, living organism. There’s no way to capture the enormity of it – with or without a camera lens.

This tree is one of the elaborately decorated pillars supporting the canopy of the cloud forest cathedral that is Reserva Monteverde.

The Monteverde Reserve is located to the northwest of Costa Rica’s capitol city of San Jose, on the edge of the Cordillera de Tilarán, which stretches north and west from the heart of Costa Rica to Lake Arenal. The name ‘Monteverde’ translates to ‘Green Mountain’ in English, and it’s a name that aptly describes this place. If you hike the mile and a half (and about 800 feet up) up to the Continental Divide from the reserve entrance, you find yourself emerging from the shadows of the forest on to a viewpoint, where you take in every shade of green – shades that are in a constant state of flux as mist moves around and above you, and the light brightens then dims from one moment to the next.

The view from the Continental Divide in Reserva Monteverde underscores how it got it’s name: Green Mountain.

The Monteverde Reserve is probably the most well known, well-researched cloud forest in the world. Scientific work here over the past 50 years has led to a better understanding of the ecology of other cloud forests, wherever they might exist. The reserve was established in 1972, by a group of Quaker American immigrants, and has grown from 810 acres (only 1.2 square miles) to 35,089 acres (close to 50 square miles).

Within the reserve, given enough time, you might catch a glimpse of some of the 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, 1200 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 3000 species of plants and trees (this might be an underestimate – we’re not really sure).

Sometimes the mist falls through the forest like smoke on a calm day. (Having come from a land where we now have a distinct fire season, smoke was the first metaphor to come to mind.)

There are also over 750 species of trees in the Monteverde Reserve. The US Forest Service has identified 865 tree species across the continental United States. So tree diversity in Monteverde, in 50 square miles, comes close to what we might find across the entire United States. When I learned this, I gave up my quick-lived dream of trying to learn the names of cloud forest plants and trees. I’ll stick with the few I know – which is probably most reasonable without pursuing a degree in cloud forest botany.

As you enter the reserve, you walk along a trail through primary growth rainforest. Immediately, you notice how the light dims and shadows dance across the canopy far overhead. I happened to arrive at a time when the clouds were thinning and the rain was dissipating. This doesn’t mean it was necessarily drier, as water is continually cycling through the forest floor, the bark of the trees, out the leaves, and right back into the air.

When you hear the words ‘natural cathedral’, you might think of a place with a grand vista, such as Yosemite, or Banff. There are few grand vistas in the Monteverde Reserve. The focus here is on the detail – the life that surrounds you completely and fills in the sky above your head.

The hanging bridge on Camino Bosque Nuboso trail allows you to walk right through the forest canopy.

Tropical montane cloud forests occupy only 1% of the world’s woodland forests, but support 2.5% of the world’s global biodiversity (and 50% of the biodiversity in Costa Rica). They exist only in the latitudinal belt on either side of the Equator between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and at elevations from roughly 850 to 2500 m (2800 to 8200 ft). There are varying estimates on this, but basically, the cloud forest is at a high enough elevation to capture the moisture clinging to the slopes of a mountain, as warm, humid air rises, then cools. This process wrings out water vapor into clouds that sometimes appear to grow right out of the tops of the trees. Cloud forest temperatures can be much cooler than what you might find in lowland rainforests, with daytime highs in the low to mid-70’s (22-25 degrees Celsius).

There’s a hush that falls over you as you begin to pass beneath these towering trees, adorned in strangler figs and liana vines. You drop your voice to a whisper and repeatedly stop to gaze up in wonder at the canopy that seems to glow with a green hue. The light filters through the leaves to form a kaleidoscope of green-stained glass. Curtains of mist drop quickly, white veils that can obscure your vision as it wraps around and through the canopy. You don’t greet other hikers verbally – you just smile beneficently and move on.

I am humbled by this place in the same way that I was by Antarctica. I have visited other cloud forests since my first foray in Costa Rica – specifically, Podocarpus National Park and Reserva Mindo-Nambillo, in southern and northern Ecuador respectively. They are truly amazing places. But for me there is something special about Monteverde, maybe because my first experience in a cloud forest was here. The trails (which really only cover a very small part of the reserve) have been constructed over 50 years to prevent erosion by heavy foot traffic, so you find yourself walking on cement pavers or crushed gravel, rather than sliding through sticky red mud. It’s easy to wander along and take in what’s over your head, without worrying too much about your footing.

Near the Continental Divide the trees are stunted along the exposed peaks and ridges. This is known as the ‘elfin forest’, and the gnarled trees appear to hold back the dense wall of moss and ferns. This area contains just as much life as the towering canopy at lower elevations, but all packed into a few short meters of height about the ridge line.

The forest is teeming with life in every direction, and I know pretty much nothing about it. This feels like an enchanted forest – something out of a fairy tale. In Japanese there is the concept of shinrinyoku, or forest-bathing. It refers to bathing your soul in the sights, sounds, scents of the forest as a way to promote healing. Monteverde is a good place for forest bathing, because when you’re inside it, it’s hard to imagine anything in the outside world.

As with nearly every beautiful place I visit these days, it’s hard to take this place in while also being fully conscious of just how sensitive cloud it is to climate change. Monteverde became famous in the 1980’s for one of the first climate-related extinctions, when the Golden Toad succumbed to the chytrid fungus. There have been many more extinctions since then, and they are ongoing. Cloud forests comprised about 11% of all forests in the 1970’s, but have been in decline over the past 50 years due to warming, deforestation, and other human activities.

Costa Rica has a long history of environmental policy that supports landowners in preserving (or replanting) the forest. In 1996 it became illegal to remove forest without approval from authorities. Costa Rica also introduced the Payments for Environmental Services (PES) Program (a program that pays landowners to protect the forest, conserve biodiversity and mitigate CO2 emissions, financed by a tax on fossil fuels). In the past 40 to 50 years, the country has been able to reverse deforestation, and has gone from being a country with one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, to serving as a model for other tropical countries.

A glimpse of the forest canopy overhead requires arching your neck backward, until you feel like you might fall over.

The people of Costa Rica have a deep respect for nature, and preserving the environment pays off financially, not only from the PES, but Costa Rica’s large eco-tourism industry also incentivizes ongoing conservation efforts on public and private lands.

It’s not a perfect system for managing and protecting forests. A road trip across the Costa Rican countryside will send you driving for miles and miles along farm roads, on land that was once rainforest. But this country has figured out how to start turning around the tide of environmental devastation that has swept this planet, and that’s bit of inspiration that fortifies my faith in the idea that we will find a way to live sustainably.

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