We eat a nice breakfast. I finish packing and head out in a car with Mary, Sarah, Keisha and Stephanie. We pass narrow streets with houses with ironwork on the windows and razor wire above fences. Fifty years ago, this did not exist, but once Costa Rica entered the international market, the rich/poor gap quickly increased, leading to an increase in crime. Still, it is not a dangerous area in the least. Costa Rica is one of the few Latin American countries which has had a stable economy and government for many years now. Children and their parents still walk around at night with no fear. The roads gradually widen until we hit the highway. Tropical trees, bananas, vines, and a characteristically red soil fly by. On the way there, we discuss some of the sociological issues of Costa Rica. Males and females each have distinct cultural role and there is a strong sense of machismo amongst most males. Females tend to work around the house while men work in the fields. We also discuss education. Here, education is mandatory through elementary school and many people do not finish high school. Despite that, basic literacy is high. There is an odd assortment of bikes, runners, and scooters fearlessly weave in and out of the highway traffic. Couple that with large crowds of people crossing; I am amazed that there are not more accidents. Ads for McDonald’s, Taco Bell, etc are everywhere. Apparently it is difficult to escape the tentacles of fast food. The hamburger is ubiquitous, even here.
We climb slowly into the Cerro. the change in vegetation quickly becomes apparent. Outside of the window, I notice gigantic ferns which must be six feet long and three feet wide. I see my first bromiliad, epiphytic plants with leathery, pointed leaves. Epiphytic plants grow on trees to gain access to sun. They often trap rain water thanks to a pitcher-like physiology. The trees are completely covered in lichens and bromiliads. One cannot even see the bark. The hills are very steep. Amazingly, they are covered in a criss-cross of pastures. Jokingly, Mary claims that the cows have shorter legs on one side of their bodies to navigate the slope. On the side of the road, I see thick cloud forest. It truly looks impenatrable, differentiating it from our forests. The steep sides of the road are a rich red from the iron oxides in the soil. I am amazed by the beauty of the landscapes one sees behind the trees. The road winds in a seemingly aimless direction. At a distinct point in the journey, the temperature cools to 20 degrees Celsius. We continue moving upwards.
We stop for a first breakfast. As we stop, a rain storm begins. This shortly turns to hail: our first rainforest storm. A nearby valley is sunny, though. The mountain ridges of the Cerro create very localized weather patterns.
When the rain lets up, we move on to a bog. We are now at 9,000 feet above sea level and it is about 15 degrees Celsius. The mist is thick and cars turning the corner come suddenly into sight, appearing suddenly out of the fog. The bog has a primeval feel: the grey-blue mist encircles the water and enshrouds the trees in a cloak mystery. I expect a dinosaur to emerge at any moment. None does. Instead, we see a Flame-throated Warbler, a small bird with a distinctive orange-red throat, moving through the moss. A hummingbird whizzes by. It is amazing to see them at this elevation, but apparently they congregate here in some number. The bog is in a transitional zone between cloud and elfin forest. Above the elfin forest is tropical alpine forest. We see a tank bromiliad in a tree. This epiphyte fills with water. In the lowlands, it acts as a breeding pool for frog tadpoles. Much of the plants at this altitude are small and have leathery leaves to conserve nutrients, as the soil is acidic and nutrient poor. This is a characteristic of the aricacae plant. It has thick leaves similar to blueberry plants. It also has a blue berry.
Our class discusses some of the mosses, lichens, and liverworts. We find basidial lichen, which looks like shells with its swirls of color. Nearby is fruticos or foliose lichen, which reminds me of coral with its white branches. We also find thalos lichen. Which is a flat lichen. Finally, there is some crustos lichen on a rock, which is very small and hugs the rock like barnacles would a ship. Lichen are a combination of bacteria or blue green algae and fungus. They filter out water from the surrounding air. This increases the moisture in the ground by up to fifteen percent.
There is some bamboo near the trail. There are two kinds of bamboo here: tussok bamboo, which is a pioneer species, and bending bamboo, which bends over, and sends out new roots when it hits the ground again.
The strange upright flowers which stick up like poles out of the ground and are colored an impossible blue are terrestrial bromiliads, also known as puya. It is native to the tropical alpine forest. It has xerophytic adaptations, that is, it has leathery exterior which prohibits water loss. This is a strange adaptation in an almost incessently wet place.
Nearby is a Castilleja, or Indian Paintbrush. We also find blechnum ferns. These are large ferns that are fire tolerant. Although the bog seems to be impossible to burn, apparently it does on occasion catch fire, adding charcoal to the organic matter of the bog.
The bog is largely composed of sphagnum moss, which accumulates as peat. It holds twenty-five times its dry weight in water. It catalytically makes the water acidic. This, in addition to the low temperatures, results in little decay. Thus, it is a very effective ecosystem for carbon storage. With the catalytic exchange of the sphagnum moss, the pH of the bog is around four. Finally, we see a St. John’s Wort: a pretty yellow flower.
On our next stop, we visit the tropical paramo. This is at 11,000 feet. The temperature dips to 11 degrees Celcius. The paramo, like the swamp, is based on layers of undecayed organic matter thanks to the temperature. The vegetation is much shorter than what was at the bog. We see stunted trees, woody giant carrot, and club moss (lichopodium). It is not a true bryophyte as it has a vascular system. Mosses are also abundant. Cushion moss is close to the ground, while feather moss branches out. We also learn how to differentiate liverworts from moss. Mosses generally have pointed, tiny leaves that have a midridge. On the other hand, liverwort leaves are rounded and flat. They can only survive in very wet regions because they are delicate and do not deal with dessication well as they have no tap roots. They need wet climates, but in places where there is enough moisture to support them, they dominate the lichens and mosses. Lichens can tolerate drier soils, with mosses ranging somewhere in between the two. On our way back to the cars, we see a Volcano Junco in the brush.
After this we go to our hotel/hostel: La Georgina. I have some stew and rice and my first Costa Rican coffee. This country may make a coffee drinker out of me yet. Ricardo explains the difference between North American alpine forest and Central American alpine regions. In North America, the alpine forest is cold and variable in temperature. In Central America, it is never excessively cold and there is nearly a constant temperature. Outside of the window, we see hummingbird feeders, which attract hundreds of hummers whizzing about. They occasionally squabble amongst each other for the sweetened water. It is a beautiful sight: little patches of rainbow darting back and forth. The heavy rainfall does not phase them at all. Due to the heavy rain, we postpone our cloud forest trip and move into the cabin. It is quite cozy and has a fireplace where we can warm ourselves and dry our clothing. After a while, the rain lets up and we head out.
Most of the trees in this cloud forest are oaks. Due to the low number of insect pollination (it is too cold for them), wind is the primary pollinator in the ecosystem. This is a sloppy form of pollination, as there is no way of having a given tree species’ pollen blow to another one of the same species, leading to low tree diversity. However, as the amount of vascular plant diversity decreases with an increase in altitude, bryophyte diversity increases.
Cloud forest deforestation is particularly ridiculous as this ecosystem is exceedingly important to the watershed. Clearing this land is not productive as farm or pasture land anyway, due to the poor soil. Most of it consists of peat and some mineral soil, deep below the organic matter.
Back at the hotel we slowly freeze in our wet clothes. Everything is soaked. Stupid rain in the rainforest. We have dinner. Along with it, I order a milk tea. It is slightly sweet and surprisingly good. We head back to the cabin in the pitch black. The clouds block out any moonlight. When we turn out our headlamps, we cannot see our own hands an inch away from our faces. Upon our return to the cabin we learn the equation for hostel. Hotel+s-heat. I hope the night will be kind.