I leave the family for a few days, taking a 5-hour drive into the central highlands. In time, the rolling fields of cattle pasture give way to thickening forest. The unpaved, potholed road curls upwards in ever tighter spirals, taking me 1300 metres above sea level, rewarding my lurching progress with brief bursts of breathtaking vistas across the Nicoya Peninsula to the gleaming Pacific beyond.
My rather cool lodging is a luxury timber ‘treehouse’, and from my stilted bedroom in the heart of the forest, I can see across the valley to Monteverde (the green mountain), the focus of my journey. The trees here are straight out of fairyland: dripping with epiphytes, lichens and bromeliads, festooned with orchids and blueberries, and strung with vines and aerial roots. Birds flit between branches and the forest hums and whirrs with insects. Monkeys jump in the canopy and, as I scan the branches for other life, I catch a magical sight. High in a nook between two larger tree limbs is a sloth, lying on her back with her baby lounging on her belly. As she shifts her position slightly, her infant wraps its arms around its mother in what can only be described as a sloth cuddle.
The problem is, I can see the sloths all too clearly. This forest should be obscured by cloud, wet, veiled in precipitation and far chillier than it is. In fact, I’m wearing a sleeveless top and admiring the dappled sunlight on a warm dry day. The researchers here tell me that they used to get 20-30 dry days a year; now they’re getting more than 100. This year, there have already been 120 dry days – make that 121, after today. Global warming is raising the cloud base, and the trade winds are now pushing the clouds and precipitation up and over the mountains here.
Cloud forests are special, very rare environments, and Monteverde is unique. This cloud forest here contains more than 3,000 different plant species alone, more than 10% of which are found nowhere else, and the highest diversity of orchids on the planet. Because of the particular conditions needed for a cloud forest to develop – altitude with atmospheric moisture – they end up being rather like island ecosystems, isolated from each other with a high proportion of endemic species. The mountains here also act as a barrier, separating the species of the Caribbean from the Pacific sides.
Thi is all changing, though. As the area warms and the clouds fail to condense on the huge leaves and fronds of this forest, the entire ecosystem is being forced higher up the mountain. Chasing it are lowland species of flora and fauna, once found far below the mountain, unable to cope with the high humidity and cold temperatures. I heave myself up into the canopy of a tall fig tree with a biologist who has placed sensors to measure temperature, moisture, wind speed and other parameters, hoping to understand the resilience of this fragile cloud forest. As I sit bird-high in the magnificent fig, the lack of cloud affords me spectacular views. But there is a heartbreaking poignancy in realising I am witnessing perhaps the final decade of an unparalleled forest.
Costa Rica holds more than one-quarter of its land under strict conservation. It’s what has allowed it to base the national economy on nature tourism. But for how long will this be viable?