On our Costa Rica and Panama cruise extension there is an opportunity to visit a cloud forest in the cool highlands of Costa Rica. A cloud forest is a generally tropical or subtropical evergreen forest found usually from 500m to 4,000m (1,640 to 13,123 feet) above sea level although this is dependent on local climate, which in turn is affected by the distance to the sea, the exposition, and latitude. This is a relatively small band of altitude in which the atmospheric environment is suitable for cloud forest development and usually develops on the saddles of mountains, where moisture introduced by settling clouds is more effectively retained. Annual rainfall can range from 500 to 10,000 mm/year (19.6 to 393.7 inches) and the mean temperature usually ranges between 8 to 20°C (46.4 to 68ºF). Only one percent of the global woodland is covered by these endangered cloud forests.
The Monteverde Cloud forest which we visit on the extension to our Central America cruise, is typically characterized by a persistent, frequent or seasonal low-level cloud cover, usually at the canopy level which allows for an abundance of mosses covering the ground and vegetation. As can be imagined, 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 atmospheric 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.
On the extension to our Costa Rica and Panama cruise we visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve established in 1972. It initially covered some 810 acres (328 ha) of forested land but nowadays extends over 35,089 acres (14,200 ha) and encompasses eight life zones atop the continental divide. An incredible diversity of life can be found within the reserve with over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles at last count. 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. With our exceptional naturalists we walk some of the eight miles (13 km) of trails available, searching for wildlife and absorbing the unique scents, sounds and sights of the cloud forest.
Panama also has areas of endangered cloud forest such as La Amistad International Park, a bi-national park that stretches from Costa Rica into Panama, a small portion of which extends into the Chiriqui province. Here in the highlands of Chiriqui are some of the most spectacular views of Volcan Baru, Panama's highest peak, (3,475m). In this location, primary cloud forest is only found above 2,000m (6,561 feet), and birdlife is abundant, the area representing the southernmost boundary of the quetzals' habitat. Sub-alpine scrubland and elfin forests also characterize the upper slopes where continuous cloud cover and cool temperatures contribute to the low stature of the forest canopy.
Another location in Panama where one can find cloud forest is at the highest point in Chagres National Park. In addition, there is a spot right at the edge where you can overlook the whole of the park, the Panama Canal, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the beginning of the Darien Jungle. This place is known as Cerro Jefe, perhaps one of the oldest cloud forests in Central America.
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