For a relatively small country, Costa Rica packs a punch when it comes to unique wildlife and natural opportunities. Anyone with an eye trained in eco-friendly, conservation-oriented travel and rainforest adventures has probably considered a trip to this lush Central American paradise. Costa Rica is a jewel box with iridescent hummingbirds, magenta orchids and neon-lit parrots with a soundtrack of soul-stirring spout, howls, talk and calls throughout the jungle.
Now entering: Monteverde Cloud Forest
Over a mantle of the misty rainforest, mountains soar above the clouds. Temperatures begin to drop about 3,000 feet, and the warm air from the forests below turns into an ethereal mist. Moss and low-draped trees add to Lord of the Rings aura. This is a cloud forest – or in Spanish, beautiful forest. Specifically Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Here, located at the top of Costa Rica’s continental gorge at the bottleneck in North and South America, the mist nourishes the plants and trees, which then release the moisture into small streams that flow into larger streams and rivers. Think of a cloud forest as a celestial sponge or a living groundwater reservoir. This fungal effect has been considered sacred by many civilizations, including by the indigenous peoples of Luzon in the Philippines, who were strongly opposed to deforestation in their region.
There are cloud forests worldwide, including Panama, Pakistan, Cambodia and of course Costa Rica. All in all, these rare forests cover approximately 1% of global forests in tropical and subtropical mountain environments.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, established in 1972 and now covering more than 35,000 acres, is flanked by pristine and secluded beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean. It consists of eight life zones, more than 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles. Six species of cats live here: jaguars, ocelots, cougars, oncillas, margays and jaguars. Here also lives the endangered three-wattled bell bird and glorious quetzal. Monteverde supports 2.5% of the Earth’s biodiversity over a landscape of rainforest, hazy mountains, rushing rivers and active volcanoes, and is home to many indicator species, meaning they are sensitive to environmental change and can throw up a pictorial red flag. , when an ecosystem is threatened.
One of the most inviting aspects of the rainforest for conservation and nature-centered travelers is the proximity of Monteverde (three hours by car) from San Jose, Costa Rica. With more than eight miles of trails available for exploration, the reserve lends itself to intensely authentic experiences like the ones you can get on our Natural jewels in Costa Rica nature travel.
Wildlife in the Monteverde Cloud Forest
As you wander through this cloud forest of Costa Rica, you will likely be rewarded with glimpses of spiders, roars, squirrels, sloths, leaf frogs and anteaters. There are plenty of birds, from the eye-catching radiant quetzal to the little hummingbird. By the sea you can see green sea turtles and leatherbacks crawling up the shore at night to lay their eggs. Here’s just a taste of the wonderful wildlife Monteverde has in store.
With its shiny green plumage, the brilliant quetzal manages to both blend in with the emerald roof of the cloud forest and still stand out with its iris. Look closely: the quetzal is brown, not green – so volatile in its color, in fact, that you can not quite put a finger on it. The other birds in the rainforest rely on the quetzal to spread seeds, which they do by swallowing whole fruits like avocados and pushing the pits far and wide. The best viewing time in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is during the quetzal breeding season from mid-February to June or July.
Small, tree-swollen anteaters are also known as tamanduas, while slamming their long tongues in and out in search of rainforest termites and ants. They live in the lowlands and in medium altitude habitats of Costa Rica. The giant anteater is a rare sight, but if you see one, you will recognize it by its huge bushy tail and unique fur. Look at the trees for the nocturnal silk anteater, which clings to the branches with its half-gripping tail.
Named after the brown hoods worn by a group of monks called the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (the distinctive robes came down over their eyes), the Capuchin monkey has a dark body and crown surrounding its striking white face. If they are not looking for food, they are typically found lurking. Look for them in groups of up to 35, led by an alpha male and an alpha female.
Caiman / Crocodile
Look for the caiman, the crocodile’s smaller cousin, relaxing on the shores of freshwater habitats, in mangrove swamps and in certain saltwater environments. They are most commonly found in the lower wetlands of Costa Rica on both sea coasts. The spectacled caiman is one of the most common – and smallest – crocodiles with a length of 3.9 to 6.6 feet.
Howler monkeys and squirrel monkeys
The cloud forest comes to life every morning with the call of the howler monkey, while the males greet another day – and each other – with guttural sounds reminiscent of a thunderous roar of a lion. These bearded leaves can bear as far as 3 miles. You will hear it again at dusk, or at any time during the day, that an intruder is getting too close to their territory, which ranges from 3 to 25 acres. If you see a mid-howl, notice the neck, which balloons outward, inflates, and resonates. The female call is more of a loud howl or moan. The howler monkey vocal sound is one of the loudest made by any land animal. The most widespread monkey species in Central America and one of the largest monkeys in the New World, the roar is sure to be one of the most spotted animals on your Monteverde trip.
Look for smaller squirrel monkeys in the lowland rainforest of Costa Rica’s South Pacific coast. They are very social, gather and travel in groups of 30 members or more. These omnivorous monkeys attach themselves to fruits, insects, lizards, leaves, flowers, nectar and buds, and they often search for food next to the capuchin monkeys from May to October. The squirrel monkey is active day and night and jumps over the forest floor on all fours, sheltered by the jungle’s lower floor from predators above.
The Jaguar is an icon of the Central American rainforest and has long been revered. It rarely shows up today, but if you are very lucky, you might get a glimpse of this rich, golden mammal that can be recognized on its black rosettes. They tend to live in jungle, lowland savannah and coastal mangrove habitats. They can grow more than 7 feet long, stand 2 feet by the shoulders and weigh up to 200 pounds.
Who does not want to glimpse the dull, relaxed sloth? Cleanliness is not a virtue when it comes to these woody animals. Their tangled hair is home to parasitic moths, mites and green algae – all of which work hard to keep sloths camouflaged from predators such as jaguars and eagles. Look for the herbivorous three-toed sloth and the omnivorous two-toed sloth. The former is more active during the day, making it easier to spot.
Plants in the Monteverde Cloud Forest
All the noisy, flying, scrambling, tree-hugging wildlife would not be in Monteverde at all if it were not for the plant life that also thrives here. The cloud forest acts as nature’s terrarium and is home to a huge amount of flora biodiversity, especially plants known as epiphytes. These plants grow on other plants – without harming them – and draw moisture and nutrients from the air, rain and dirt that surrounds them. With their unique climates and specialized ecosystems, cloud forests also host many endemic plant species. This is the place to see plants and flowers you do not see at home, and to add another level of appreciation for the incredible display of life found in Costa Rica. Look for these exotic plants among the approximately 2,500 species of flora that thrive here (including the giant choke fig trees!).
These are best seen in the Monteverde Orchid Garden, where you can appreciate their delicate beauty through a magnifying glass. There are more than 460 species to inspect along with a knowledgeable Nat Hab expedition leader who can explain their growth process.
Particularly colorful bromeliads are hard to miss. Like many plants in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, bromeliads are epiphytes that adhere to the tree branches and contribute to the lush landscape of the forest. Frogs often lay their eggs on bromeliad leaves, which are the perfect form to hold on to water.
Do not overlook the humble low! This is the lifeblood of the cloud forest, which adds another layer of greenery and provides food, cover and nesting material for birds, mammals and insects.
This flowering wine, of which there are hundreds of species, often produces fruit (passion fruit, anyone?), But these are the flowers you will notice first: wide-open petals with filaments resembling a crown.
Preservation of the cloud forest
According to an international study led by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), published on April 30, 2021, in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, “despite conservation efforts, up to 8% of some [tropical cloud] forests have been lost over the last 20 years due to deforestation and small-scale agriculture. “This percentage includes the cloud forests found in 60 countries around the world. Satellite data show that between 2001 and 2018, about 2.4% of the total area of cloud forests on Earth lost.
In addition to human factors, climate change is also to blame. The cloud base continues to move down or up depending on the particular region, leading to loss of water supply. WSL states that about 40% of the loss occurs even in protected areas.
“Tropical cloud forests are probably home to the largest concentration of terrestrial species in the world. These regions, which are already small and fragmented, continue to lose land, with dramatic consequences for biodiversity and its functions,” said Walter Jetz, co-author of the study and Director of the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change in the United States.
Specifically in Costa Rica, the system of private reserves and biological corridors (SIREP) created in Monteverde is being successfully extended to other cloud forests in the country to preserve important ecosystems. In total, the program protects 11,120 acres of cloud forest, lowland rainforest and transition-dry forest. The Tropical Science Center, the first Costa Rican non-governmental environmental organization, was established in 1962 and works to preserve, sustain research efforts, promote ecotourism, and develop sustainable initiatives to protect the Monteverde Reserve as well as other private reserves and biological corridors in Costa Rica.
One of the ways you can help support the Monteverde Cloud Forest is through thoughtful, eco-minded travel with a conservation travel company such as Natural Habitat Adventures. We take you right to the heart of Monteverde, where you can walk the skywalks in the canopy and explore ferns, orchids and giant strangler figs. We will meet a large variety of birds in the Curi-Cancha Reserve, where 50% of the land is primeval forest, while the rest has been restored to native forest from pastures in recent decades. We will be looking for brilliant quetzal, three-wattled bell, ocelot, white-faced capuchin monkeys, armadillos and more in this most researched mountain forest environment in the world.
We also visit Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula, home to Central America’s densest populations of scarlet macaws, tapir and jaguar, as well as some of Costa Rica’s largest trees. You will come away with a deep respect for and dedication to preserving one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems.