Pura Vida Part 3: Monteverde Cloud Forest

The last-leg of the drive to the twin cities of Santa Elena and Monteverde was very bumpy but also very pretty – especially once we started gaining altitude.  Located in the Tilaran Mountain range there were dramatic views on both sides of the road. I shared the ride from Rancho Mastatal with Prescilla and Chet from Lyons, France. We arrived in Santa Elena just as it got dark and it started raining. It was pitch black by the time I arrived at my destination in Monteverde.

I was here to photograph the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Located high on the continental divide in Costa Rica it is home to over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds and over 2,500 varieties of plants. which is being affected by warming temperatures which are causing its vital clouds to form higher up in the atmosphere instead of lingering among the trees as traditionally does. Even though there was plenty of precipitation during my visit during the end of the wet season, overall there has been a decrease in the amount of misty days during the dry season that are critical to the life of the forest – especially the orchids. This mist is what makes it a “cloud” forest.

My home while visiting the reserve was the Monteverde Cabin House owned by Mills Tandy, a retired biology professor from Austin who has been coming down here since 1986. He built the little cabin I stayed in when he first moved down and then, when he retired, built a larger home on the same property – Finca Colibri.  He lives there with his Berenese Mountain dog – Shaggy – a lovable Wookie-look-alike.

Mills gave me a tour of the trails on his property that abuts the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (MCFR). I already knew that one of the first species to disappear in the forest was the golden toad. He said he had been lucky enough to see them before they disappeared around 1989. The Harlequin frog has also been in serious decline for many years and many other species are being affected by the changing climate.

Monteverde has a very interesting history as it was largely settled by Quakers from the US who were looking to escape the draft as conscientious objectors during the Korean War. They cleared a good bit of the land for farming and some residents now think it best to let the jungle take back much of this land as Mills has allowed to happen on his property. But apparently this can be a contentious subject in an otherwise super-friendly town.

I spent Thanksgiving Day walking the trails through the MCRF with Rowan Eisner and her partner Willie Bach. They are both very concerned with the changes in the forest’s climate and are actively involved with finding ways to support its preservation. I had emailed with Rowan when I was thinking about coming to Costa Rica and she wrote that with the changes in the climate, “our cloud forest is quickly becoming a rain forest, so see it while you can!”

Having never been in a cloud or rain forest – I was immediately enchanted with the density of the foliage.  Immense strangler fig trees and delicate ferns, mosses, and orchids can sit side-by-side (or in many cases on top of each other) in an incredibly dense space. A medium-sized tree can support up to 70 different species of flowering epiphytes (plants that live on other plants) including  up to 40 species of orchids. Even though the sun barely came out when I was there I imagine it rarely sees the ground even when it is brighter out. Hansel and Gretel would never find their way out of there even if they left a trail of bread loaves. The forest floor is even more jam-packed than the canopy. It’s an enchanted place worthy of saving.

As the climate warms both the flora and fauna in the forest are being affected. The delicate orchids are especially at risk as they are dependent on there being misty days. I asked Giovanni Bello one of the guides in the MCFR about his take on how climate change is affecting it and he noted is that many flowers bloom earlier and birds are migrating up the mountain. One of the highlighted must-see stops on the way to the forest is the hummingbird garden where I was mesmerized watching the tiny birds zipping around my head. Their colors were so vivid – it would really be a shame if they were one day victims of the warming trends.

I also spoke with Dr. Alan Pounds, a scientist who has worked in MCFR since 1981.  He reinforced the fact that there are more variables in the wet and dry season along with population changes (both decreases and abundances) and shifts in habitat in the fauna – most notably those of the anurans (frogs and toads) and lizards,  You can read more about his studies in the forest by clicking here and here.

The bird populations are being affected too. As mentioned in The Weather Makers, by TIm Flannery, as the temperature warms the keel-billed toucans, generally a lowland bird, are moving up the mountain and they are predators of the eggs and young of the resplendent quetzal. I was there in the wrong season to see this colorful bird but I wonder if the next time I get to visit Costa RIca if there will be any left for me to spot.

In reference to the bigger picture of climate change Dr. Pounds believes that Costa Rica could go “carbon-neutral” fairly easily since they don’t use coal to heat their homes. The country is already using some hydroelectric and wind power but the biggest carbon dioxide contributor is transportation … one that’s tough to alter with our worldwide addiction to our cars and trucks. “I think we can reduce the impacts of climate change but since there are already forces we’ve set in motion it will take a long time to turn the ship around.”

Coffee bean plant outside The Common Cup

While in Monteverde I stopped in at The Common Cup for some fresh roasted and brewed  java.  Master roaster Heyner Varela commented that climate change is starting to affect their crops as warmer temperatures are forcing their plants to blossom earlier which means the beans could lose some of their robustness. Thankfully the cup I had was good and robust to the last drop.

Since it’s difficult to show the changes that global warming is causing in many of the places I am photographing for this project (like the absent Golden Toad), I am striving to capture the existing beauty of places such as Monteverde. I hope that by showing them as they exist now that I can urge all of you and my future audiences to become more concerned about how climate change is affecting the world – either in your own backyard or someplace you have dreamed of visiting. Because if we don’t find ways to curb carbon emissions you may never get the chance to see these places in all their glory. I’m including examples of the many, many plants I photographed to share its dark beauty with you.


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