Montag, 5. Januar 2015

Cloud Forest in Honduras

A popular catch phrase I always hear tourists say in Honduras is "cloud forest". They've come to go "into the cloud forest". They're "cloud forest hunting". Many tours are run into this sort of unique habitat and the country is well known for its numerous national parks. While the term "cloud forest" certainly sounds exotic, I believe few people know what it actually means. I've had hikers come back to tell me they were disappointed they hadn't seen a "sea of clouds" (vis-à-vis this image). This misconception frustrates me because the beauty of a cloud forest has nothing to do with endless views into the horizon. In fact, if you're in an actual cloud forest you shouldn't be able to see 50 feet in front of you.

The world press has really taken to beating up on Honduras lately, what with our designation of "world's most dangerous country" and all (what constitutes "dangerous", and for whom? That's a separate post). So, let's take some time to highlight a fact that tourists should be attracted to and one that should make Hondurans proud: of all the world's forests, only 1 percent are classified as "cloud forests" -- and Honduras is covered in them!

Right. But what exactly is a cloud forest? Many sources refer to it as a type of "misty rainforest" or "high altitude jungle", both of which are not entirely accurate. The real definition: Cloud forests are similar to rain forests, but they key difference is that cloud forests receive a lot less rain. They get their moisture directly from being enveloped in clouds, not from rain falling from the sky. While cloud forests, rain forests, and jungle are all generally found in the tropics, cloud forests are usually at higher altitudes. This makes sense when taking into account so much interaction with clouds; as the Mayans used to say, here the forest literally "catches the clouds".

So, what's so important about cloud forests -- and why should you visit them? First off, a cloud forest is a unique environment. Wildlife diversity (the number of species) living inside of these zones is, simply put, incredible. For instance, of the 334 species of amphibians and reptiles currently known from Honduras, 122 are known to be distributed in cloud forest habitats. Countless species are waiting to be discovered in cloud forests, especially in little-explored parks such as Santa Bárbara Mountain (near Lake Yojoa) and Sierra de Agalta (in Olancho).

Cloud forests are also a critical source of fresh water. To quote:

The cloud forest of La Tigra National Park in the mountains above Tegucigalpa, Honduras has a mere 18 km x 16 km area of cloud forest. Yet this single forest provides 40 percent of the water used in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras with its 1.25 million inhabitants.

Were you to visit a cloud forest, you'd find an entirely wet environment where "a perpetual mist creates a spooky stillness broken only by the plaintive call of a quetzal or the scurry of a fox. It seems nothing short of miraculous, after walking up through the much drier pine forests below, how much moisture the cloud forest retains".

From Moon Guidebooks: "The cloud forest provides a home for many of the same mammals that live in the rainforest, such as jaguars, sloths, monkeys, and peccaries, but has a unique bird population not seen in lower, hotter forests. The quetzal is certainly the most famed of the cloud forest birds, and it is joined by... the Emerald Toucanet, among many others."

Have you ever hiked into the cloud forest? If not, give it a try. La Tigra National Park near Tegucigalpa is one of the easiest to access (US$10 for foreigners) and has a well-marked trail system with maps. Cerro Azul-Meambar National Park (PANACAM) near Lake Yojoa is another easily-accessed park (US$5 for foreigners) with no need for guides, although Santa Bárbara Mountain contains much better cloud forest, but a guide and good outdoor gear is a requirement. Celaque National Park near Gracias, Lempira is another well-visited park and also doubles as the tallest point in Honduras.