Forest in the mist
CFFC,  Costa Rica,  Flowers,  Friendly Friday

Barking up the right tree in Costa Rica

In the cloud forest low-hanging clouds hover around the upper canopy before condensing onto the leaves of trees and dripping onto the plants below. Looking up you can barely see the sky; such is the denseness of the vegetation and the constant dripping of water. With less sunlight comes a slower rate of evaporation; the plants below thrive in the abundance of life-giving moisture.

While rainforests cover just seven percent of the earth’s surface, cloud forests are even rarer, covering just one percent. Yet they are just as crucial. They provide the perfect habitat for a large range of plants and animals, many found nowhere else in the world. More orchid species are found in cloud forests than anywhere else. Mosses, lichens, bromeliads, ferns and other epiphytes cover the trunks and branches of their trees. They are also home to a large number of endemic species, as their unique climates and specialised ecosystems create habitats not found anywhere else on earth.

The distinctive feature of cloud forests is this near-constant immersion in a thick layer of mist and clouds. They’re rare because the unique conditions that create them can usually only be found in tropical areas with tall mountains. The high Monteverde region of Costa Rica straddles the Continental Divide, and its Caribbean side captures the clouds that come in off the Atlantic, providing these perfect conditions.

However because of this delicate dependency on local climate, cloud forests risk being strongly affected by global climate change. Modelling suggests that the low-level cloud coverage will be reduced, leading to a rise in temperatures. This could cause the forests’ water cycle to change and potentially even dry up. That makes a visit to one even more special.

The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

We saw the cloud forests at their most atmospheric on a morning walk in the Santa Elena reserve with an excellent guide, Marcela. We experienced for ourselves how the Continental Divide creates these conditions. At breakfast in our hotel on the Pacific side of the divide a mix of mist and sunshine had produced a beautiful rainbow. But this turned into proper steady rain by the time we reached our destination. Fortunately we had come prepared with waterproofs and a plastic bag cover for my camera.

Despite the weather, or maybe in part because of it, we had a fascinating walk with Marcela, spending about three hours in the cloud forest. She pointed out so many small things we would have missed, like tiny subtle-hued orchids and delicate ferns.

Small white flower with spiky petals
White orchid in the rain
Delicate pale yellow flowers
Tiny orchid

And many of the facts she shared intrigued me. Did you know, for instance, that some trees can walk?! She showed us how by putting down their long external roots in different places some trees can inch their way across the forest floor, travelling as much as thirty centimetres in a year!

She showed us a tiny fungus that lives by invading an insect’s body (in this case it was a wasp’s) and somehow manipulating its brain to land in an area where the fungus will thrive. The fungus then kills the host insect and lives off its dead body. I found myself thinking that there could be the plot for a great SF film there, if the fungus were to evolve to attack humans! But I decided that we have enough to deal with at the moment without inventing another threat.

Brown and yellow coiled millipede
Millipede
Epiphytes

I was fascinated in particular by the many epiphytes that live on these trees: mosses, ferns, bromeliads, vines. A single tree is a mini ecosystem in itself, hosting up to 200 species! Unlike parasites the epiphytes don’t kill their hosts. Some have a symbiotic relationship with the tree but most simply live there as they would on the ground, but much closer to the essential light that all forest plants fight to capture. Here they can collect their moisture and nutrients from the air, rain and surrounding vegetation. However they can eventually damage their hosts as branches snap off under the sheer weight of the plants, soil and water.

I also loved the textures and patterns of the leaves which were emphasised by their wetness. They made for interesting monochrome shots, both colour and black and white.

Veins on a large leaf with holesBlack and white photo of a large leaf with holes
Black and white photo of leaf veinsLarge shiny leaf

So I’m sharing this beautiful, mysterious forest with Cee for her celebration of bark and leaves.

My last good …

‘What was the last good …?’ asks Sandy in her Friendly Friday challenge. Of course I have to fill in that blank with ‘holiday’, so among my cluster of posts about our wonderful two weeks in Costa Rica, I offer her this one.

And here to finish are a couple of my other ‘last goods’:

The last good film I saw was Belfast, a moving story of growing up in that city during ‘The Troubles’. Do see it if you can. Jude Hill gives one of the best child’s acting performances I’ve seen for a long time!

The last good book I read (actually am still reading, as I haven’t quite finished) was/is Frank Gardner’s Blood and Sand. Frank is the BBC’s Security Correspondent. In 2004 he was shot and paralysed from the waist down in Riyadh but hasn’t let that stop him travelling the world and continuing to work. Inspirational, and also a fascinating insight into the recent history of the Middle East and the Islamic world.

The last good TV drama I watched was The Tourist, starring Jamie Dornan as a man who loses his memory after a road accident in the Australian Outback. It combines tension with humour in a way that reminded me of Fargo and made it a great watch, although I wasn’t 100% convinced by the ending.

I visited Costa Rica in February 2022

64 Comments

  • Annie Berger

    You and Phil and Michaela have helped convince me that Steven and I have to add Costa Rica to our future travel wish list. Your post is intoxicating to look at and also provides a perfect amount of information to put the photos in perspective. I am amazed the photos came out so clearly and vibrantly as it sounds like you had to shoot them with the camera in a plastic bag. Is that correct? Beautiful as always.

    Also liked the walking tree comment as we saw/heard the same on a guided walk in the Peruvian Amazon!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Annie – I’m sure you would both love CR so I’m glad to have helped ‘sell’ it to you 😍 As to the plastic bag, I wasn’t actually shooting through the plastic, I had it wrapped around with just the front of the lens peeking out, tucking it away completely between shots! Fiddly but worth it!

  • Leya

    Thank you for a wonderful tour again, Sarah – and so many interesting facts coming along with your excellent photos! I have never heard of a tree “walking” – but trees are enigmatic…everywhere. An adventure of great magnitude.

  • rkrontheroad

    Wonderful tropical flowers, and the patterns of the plants! I like the b&w against the green. This brings back memories of rainforests, when I lived in Guatemala, in Guatemala and several trips to lush Costa Rica.

  • Bama

    Hi Sarah. The photos in this post remind me of my own backyard, those cloud forests on Java. Although it is the world’s most densely-populated island, surprisingly (and fortunately) there are still pockets of relatively untouched forests like this here. And they are such a perfect antidote to Jakarta, the city I currently live in.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Bama, it’s interesting and great to hear about the forests you have on Java. I’ve been to Bali but so far nowhere else in Indonesia – it’s a country I’d like to see more of one day.

      • Bama

        I hope you’ll be able to return to Indonesia sometime soon and have enough time to explore the country even further.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Before I reached it towards the end of your narrative, I was going to comment on just how many species of plant can live on a single tree. It’s a mind blowing stat. So pleased that had so many good experiences in Costa Rica, it really is a wonderful place.

  • photobyjohnbo

    Beautiful photography, Sarah. Our only experience with Costa Rica was near Puntarenas. It looks like the Caribbean side might be the place of choice to visit next.

  • maristravels

    It’s all been said above so I will add how wonderful I found your way of laying out the photos and the emergence from the mistiness and beauty of the rainforest into the colour and brilliance of the flowers really made it for me. It was like walking alongside you. Great post, as usual. I also loved Belfast and it was good to see The Troubles being portrayed from ‘the other side’. So often the attention is only on the IRA but this time it seemed a much fairer look at a traumatic time for the inhabitants.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Mari 😊 I do take a bit of trouble with my layouts (I mainly use the Modula gallery because it’s so flexible) and it’s nice to get positive feedback on them! I agree with all you say about Belfast. I sadly see some parallels with what’s happening in Ukraine right now – ordinary families having their lives very abruptly turned upside down.

      • maristravels

        It shows that you’ve made an extra effort with your images. I didn’t know what Modula was so I’ve just Googled it and I see it’s a WP plug-in. I’ll have a look at it when I get back to writing again. My eyes are giving me a great many problems these days and the glare from the computer is especially trying, so I can only spend about 30 minutes at a time before I have to give up. I seem to spend all that reading other people work and commenting – but I enjoy that as well.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          I’m sorry to hear about your eyes – I hope you can find a solution soon as it would be good to see you blogging again! Meanwhile I do appreciate the visits to my posts and comments, especially under those circumstances 🤗

          • maristravels

            Sadly there’s no cure for my macular degeneration so it’s a matter of just coping and trying to balance the use I give them. I try and alternate between a bit of computer use (wearing dark glasses), reading (with special light) and walking outdoors. Outdoor use is severely restricted now as unless I wear a peaked cap to keep the sun from getting down behind my very dark glasses, the glare is too much. I have to look down as I walk as I can’t look ahead because of the glare. It’s awful to long for a dull day, but I do, because that means I can go out and feel comfortable as I walk around. My life has turned around a lot in two years, and of course, travel is much restricted, but hey, I’m still here and managing!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, it was too interesting not to linger, and Marcella was great about not hurrying us. She clearly loves the forest and is very happy to show it to visitors 🙂

  • I. J. Khanewala

    Beautiful. I love the cloud forests of the Himalayas and the seasonal cloud forests of the western ghats (that may be what Margaret saw off season), and I think I would like this one too. It is different, but familiar.

  • sustainabilitea

    Wonderful photos, Sarah. Your experiences with the guide remind me of ours in the rain forest of Manuel Antonio. If we hadn’t been a group with a guide, we would have missed so much!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 😊 Yes, in a place like this it really helps to have a guide and on this occasion we had Marcella to ourselves as it was one of just a couple of private tours we did here. The only time we explored on our own was one of the reserves in the Arenal region, Selvatura, and I wonder what we missed there? Towards the end of that walk we caught up with another couple who were with a guide and had stopped to look at something. He kindly pointed it out to us too – it was a Resplendent Quetzal, the only one we saw on this trip, and we would never have spotted it without his help!

  • Henna Kaarina Honkaniemi

    I had heard about the fungus who invades insects mind but didn’t know trees could walk 🙂

    You must have had photographers-dream-trip out there, amazing photos!

    I liked best the one which you had taken of the leaves of that palm (?) tree from tge below, the leaves looks pretty “crisscrossing” against the clouds/sky 🙂

  • restlessjo

    Blood and Sand sounds like a good read, Sarah. Really fabulous, atmospheric photos in the rainforest. I love hunting for wild orchids. It’s just about that time of year here.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Jo 😊 The reserve staff here have transplanted some of the orchids to a special orchid garden near the entrance, as they naturally grow high up in the canopy where we wouldn’t easily be able to see them. They want to study them to help them thrive and educate visitors about them.

  • Manja Maksimovič

    Ohh, what a splendid visit you had! It must have been amazing. I love your photos. It must have been similarly overwhelming as in a cathedral, just for other reasons.

    Thanks for sharing your other last bests too. I’m interested in “The Tourist” and “Blood and Sand”, as for Belfast, I must say that the boy did exactly the opposite for me. I found him really hard to bear. 😀 But all the rest was very worthwhile, even though my favourite part of the movie is the beginning. And then it goes black & white. :p

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Manja – I like that analogy to a cathedral, I often get that feeling in forests. Less so here actually, as the low cloud and rain made it feel more closed in on itself, but in other forests on this trip, yes 🙂

      I watched so many black and white films when I was young (and still do from time to time) that I really don’t have a problem with that! I can assure you The Tourist is in colour throughout 😆

  • Sandy

    Looks like you had a good holiday. Quite different from your home town! I’m guessing that it was pretty humid in the forest. What were the daily temperatures like?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We had a great time thanks, and it could hardly be more different from London! Up here in Monteverde the temperatures were lower than elsewhere – maybe highs of around 20 degrees? In La Fortuna / Arenal it was the mid to high 20s and on the Pacific coast high 20s to low 30s. There were a couple of days there I found a bit too hot but generally it was a welcome chance to get warm and enjoy some sun!

  • Monkey's Tale

    Beautiful captures of this fascinating cloud forest. We also visited Santa Elena’s Cloud Forest. It’s another example of how extraordinary nature is. Maggie

  • Alison

    Fascinating Sarah, lots of great information here and some great tips for new books and what to watch. So many challenges included as well!

  • margaret21

    I think that of all the experiences you’ve described on your blog, this may be the one of which I am most envious. I saw forest which in some ways resembled this in Kerala many years ago, but clearly the cloud conditions add an extra dimension. Wonderful – and your photos really bring it to life.

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!

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