more species of birds than in the whole of Canada and the US combined
more species of butterfly than in the whole of Africa
as many plant species as the whole of Europe
HIGHLAND HERITAGE FOREST RESERVE
Many of you will be familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World, and the exploits and adventures of Professor Challenger. Here also is a lost world – an endless panorama that makes you hold your breath in wonder, with no vestige of human life as far as the eye can see.
Valleys like cracks in an endless sea of mountains, and rivers entering narrow gorges where cliffs rise high on either side and the water boils as it thunders down in a succession of rapids.
Here the air is refreshingly crisp and every breath like a sip of champagne – you feel a freedom as you have never felt before, and thought you never could. These are days that cannot be bought for money, days when you are king of all you survey.
As the sun dips behind the long finger of the cordillera that stretches across the horizon it leaves a thin scar that gradually grows crimson, till all the sky along the horizon is fiery red, merging into gold and then to a delicate green – the flames of the campfire dance like magic on the walls of the forest.
Highland Heritage is a private forest and nature reserve affiliated with the Costa Rican Network of Private Nature Reserves, an extraordinary place in terms of biological richness and diversity, with an enviable and unique location in the Talamanca Mountains adjacent to La Amistad InterFrontier Park – a World Heritage Site.
A pristine primary cloudforest, it is refreshingly cool, misty and filled with brilliantly coloured, heart achingly beautiful orchids, bromeliads and numerous species of wildlife including all six neotropical cats.
A number of streams start their life in the hills at Highland Heritage, joining the three rivers which rise in the high mountains, to cascade through the cloudforest in a magical mix of cataracts, pools and waterfalls.
Due to the rugged terrain at Highland Heritage, the rivers and streams tumble in a continuous chain of cataracts and waterfalls - perhaps 100 or more; some are all but impossible to reach. The highest single-drop falls are 85-metres (280-feet). The miles of rivers open the forest canopy to brightly coloured plants while on their way to converge and form the Rio Cabagra.
The Cordillera de Talamanca is the highest and wildest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America, formed by the orogenic activity which created the land dividing the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean Sea, and contains the largest tracts of virgin forest remaining in Costa Rica.
The higher areas lie within montane rainforest; a dense, low and heavily covered forest with bryophytes, ferns, bromeliads, orchids and other epiphytes. Species diversity is perhaps unequalled in any other reserve of equivalent size in the world, due to the convergence of the flora of North and South America and varied climatic and edaphic factors. It includes some 10,000 flowering plant, more than 4,000 non-vascular plant, 80% of the country's moss, about 900 lichen (almost all the known species in Costa Rica) and approximately 1,000 fern species.
The flora is extremely diverse, with intermigrations from both North and South America - Costa Rica being a land bridge between the two continents and a mixing bowl of species from both. With 115 species of fish, 250 species of reptile and amphibian, 215 species of mammal, and 560 species of bird it is a nature lovers paradise. All six species of neotropical cat are found - jaguar, puma (mountain lion), ocelot, margay, oncilla (tiger cat) and jaguarundi - and also Central American tapir, capuchin monkey and spider monkey.
Avian life is prolific with species including the nation's largest population of the legendary resplendent quetzal, bare-necked umbrella bird (both altitudinal migratory birds who migrate between different altitudes on the same mountain), three-wattled bellbird, harpy eagle (with a wing span of up to 8-feet), crested eagle, solitary eagle, the rare orange-breasted falcon, sulphur winged parakeet and hummingbird.
Some 75 percent of all migrating birds in the Western Hemisphere converge twice yearly on La Amistad Reserve. If you are interested in insects there is no point in even trying to provide a number to represent their diversity because new species are being discovered at an amazing rate.
La Amistad Biosphere Reserve is a 2-million acre cloud forest, considered one of the western hemisphere's most biodiverse regions.
La Amistad is the largest most remote National Park in Costa Rica and protects widely diverse habitats, from tropical lowland rainforest, to cloud forests and the northernmost occurrence of the tundra-like paramo ecosystem in the world. Much of the park has never been explored.
La Amistad extends past the international frontier into Panama and is the largest protected region in Costa Rica, with more virgin forest than ALL of the other parks put together. It has been estimated that about two-thirds of the total species found in Costa Rica live here.
At the crossroads of continents, the park displays many of the Mesoamerica hotspot's 24,000 species of plants - 5,000 of which are found nowhere else. As one of the largest protected areas in Mesoamerica, this international park also anchors the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor - an eight-country effort to create a seamless forest throughout the Mesoamerica hotspot. The corridor is being developed from protected, indigenous, community and private lands extending from southern Mexico through Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
Its span of soil types and altitudes, combined with its location, gives La Amistad an unusual concentration of ecosystems. From sea level to the highest peaks, the park's ten distinct life zones encompass coastal mangroves and lowland rainforest, rising to subalpine ecosystems.
In addition to its fauna and flora, the park protects the largest and most important watersheds of the major rivers in both Panama and Costa Rica.
La Amistad is of central cultural importance in the region too. The majority of two countries' indigenous populations live in or around this protected area. It is home to 80% of Costa Rica's indigenous residents.
Archaeological sites have been found along major water courses and nearby pre-ceramic sites have been discovered dating back more than 12,000 years - such sites are extremely rare in Central America. Skilfully created elaborate zoomorphic and anthropomorphic gold ornaments and jewellery point to the cultural development of pre-Columbian man in the area over the last 3,000 years.
From Highland Heritage you can continue over the Talamanca Mountains at 2,900m (9,500ft) alongside the peak of Cerro Utyum 3,070m (10,080ft). The vistas here are, as you would anticipate, truly spectacular. This trail provides access to La Amistad Park before dropping down through the Valle de Talamanca, eventually connecting to the Caribbean Sea via the indigenous villages of Kichugueccha, Bribri and Coroma. Highland Heritage provides access to La Amistad and nearby peaks.
It takes about 8-10 days to complete the amazing 60-km trek across the continental divide, which is both a physical and mental challenge, but also an unforgettable experience.
The nature of the terrain can be extremely difficult in places, with slopes between 25 and 50 degrees, some of them reaching 70 degrees. In this case, the energy required by the trekkers is demanding. Rivers and streams are relatively common and one of them, the Rio Cohen, can present difficulty in crossing during periods of continuous rainfall.
There are no real trails such as we know, the paths being along riverbeds and those of large mammals such as the tapir and jaguar, making progress sometimes slow and difficult. The path is often obstructed by fallen trees, branches, lianas and spiny plants, making the hike difficult with a heavy backpack (it is possible to have Indian packers). Usually, groups hike every day from 7.00 am to 4.00 pm with a light meal at noon, but the schedule can vary according to the group's needs or capacity: it can be extended to more days but rarely reduced and the longer it lasts, the more food that has to be carried.
(Pictures above, below and right): The forest floor of a rainforest is a difficult place for seedlings to grow. There is little light and a lot of competition for water and nutrients. This is where the fig tree scores over many other species in that they grow in reverse - downwards rather than upwards: their seeds being deposited by birds and animals high in the canopy branches, where the plants can enjoy sunlight and intercept aerial-borne nutrients contained in rain, mist and dust.
They send out roots that slowly snake their way down the host tree or dangle as aerial roots from its branches, eventually reaching the ground - sometimes taking several years - where they put on a growth spurt. Finally able to draw nutrients from the soil (and competing with the host tree), they continue to grow, both upwards and in width using the host tree as support, until eventually they engulf the tree in a web of roots and branches, reaching their goal to become a tall and freestanding tree with branches, leaves, fruits and flower.
The host tree then dies, both from being shaded out, root competition, and from the strangler's constrictive pressure, eventually decaying completely and leaving a huge, hollow strangler fig in its place. Wildlife thrives on the sweet fruit of the fig tree and figs are considered a 'keystone' species because they are so important to the animals of the rainforest in bearing fruit several times a year. Different species fruit at different times so that there is always a supply of food for animals that depend on such fruit as a major part of their diet. During lean times many primates and birds feed almost exclusively on fig fruit.
Although strangler figs are still abundant - and the many giant strangler fig trees at Highland Heritage are impressive indeed - old forests with mature fig trees are being lost every year through logging. New growth trees which replace the fig are usually of a single species and fruit at the same time. Animals that relied on the plentiful, year-round fruit of the fig trees either starve or move away. Most will not return to the area.
It's appropriate that the orchid is the national flower of Costa Rica - the March blooming purple cattleya skinneri (guaria moradoa in Spanish). The country has more than 1200 identified species, the richest orchid flora in Central America. Countless others await discovery. Two new species of orchid were recently discovered here by German botanists. At any time of the year you will find dozens of species in bloom, from sea level to the subfreezing highest peaks. There is no best time for viewing orchids although the beginning of both the dry season (especially the wettest rainforest regions) and wet season can be particularly favourable times.
Not only are orchids the largest family of flowering plants, they're also the most diverse. Some are almost microscopic with flowers less than one millimetre across, others have pendulant petals that can reach more than half a metre. Some flower for just a day, others will last several weeks, and one flowers only at night. For the best orchid 'experience' visit cloud forests, for the greatest diversity exists in humid - not wet - mid-elevations where they are abundant as tropical epiphytes. One biologist found 47 different species growing on the same tree.
Orchids have evolved a remarkable array of ingenious pollination techniques. Some species self-pollinate. Others attract insects by impersonation. One, for example, produces flowers that closely resemble the form of a female wasp complete with eyes, antennae, and wings - it even gives off the odor of a female wasp in mating condition. Another species drugs its visitors. Bees clamber into its throat and sip a nectar so intoxicating that after the merest taste they become so inebriated they lose their footing and slip into a bucket of liquid. Escape is offered up a spout and as the drunken insect totters up, it has to wriggle beneath an overhanging rod which showers its back with pollen.
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