Snapshot: Life Upon Life Upon Life

Layer upon layer upon layer upon layer of incredible plant life. That’s what I remember most from our time spent in the wonderfully atmospheric cloud forest of Santa Elena in Costa Rica.

We had been to rainforests in Asia prior to this trip, and loved our experiences there, but were disappointed by the lack of animal life. The Thai and Malaysian rainforests just weren’t exactly what we were expecting. In all fairness, our expectations were sky-high: we were after a BBC Planet Earth show, after all!

We’d heard that Costa Rica had been doing an exceptionally good job preserving their swathes of rainforest, that their rainforest ecosystem was a wonder to behold and that the results of their preservation efforts were unbelievable. We just had to see for ourselves. And they were SO right!

The lowland rainforest parks were incredible with astonishing numbers of beautiful orchids, amazing plant diversity, incredible bird life and lots of wonderful insect, amphibian and mammal life. We experienced packs of baboon-like howler monkeys bellowing at each other with their deep barks, the antics of devilish spider monkeys as they chased each other through the trees, the astonishing colours of poison dart frogs as they warned predators to stay away, the tedious clambering of sloths as they lumbered ever so slowly through their one hour a day of movement, and the flashes of brightly coloured snakes and iridescent birds as they flitted and skulked about the forest.

But it was the Cloud Forest of Santa Elena, high up above the coffee growing area of the Pacific highlands, that stole our hearts.

It was cool. It was primitive. It was ethereal. It was savage. It was amazing.

It was cool… and yet the moisture that drifted through on currents of air, wrung from the wisps of cloud tails that billowed through, clung in mini droplets to the little tendrils of moss and to the air roots of epiphytes as much as it did to the hairs in our noses. It was such a strange feeling breathing that air in. It was at once wet, and yet you could feel how rich and dense the air was. With each great lungful that we took in, hiking through that cloud forest, we could truly understand the importance of trees and plants… their health and preservation… on our planet, for it is the conversion of carbon dioxide that those plants take in, to life-sustaining oxygen that is of paramount importance. Breathing that dense, moist air in under these conditions was an incredible sensation.

It was primitiveit felt like you were walking with the dinosaurs, and in a sense you actually were! There were massive ferns, their unfolding fiddlehead spirals as big as a large dinner plate, covered in protective sharp spines, that were much the same as they had always been, evolutionarily speaking, having been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Those spines once protected the tree ferns from the mouths of colossal predators that no longer exist. And yet, everything in the cloud forest was still huge, as if waiting for the return of those ancient, lumbering monsters… the towering trees, the incredibly thick blankets of moss, the massive leaves of philodendron as large as a man’s torso (putting the same type of plant in my home to shame)… it wasn’t much of a leap to imagine that you were walking in the footsteps of those gigantic, hulking animals!

It was savage… parasitic vines, called strangler figs, wrapped around trees, like massive nets, choking out the life of the large tree inside, until that tree succumbed to the moist, decaying nature of the rainforest environment and crumbled away, leaving nothing but humus, food and shelter for the next generation of plants, fungi and animals. Of course, those strangler figs were also excellent scaffolding for an eight year old boy with an adventurous instinct for climbing! Our son climbed high inside one of those trees, not afraid of what might be lurking in there with him… like poisonous snakes, spiders & insects, scared into defensive mode by a well placed finger or foot… perhaps not the best parenting move on our parts, in hindsight! But it was unlike any playground climbing structure he’d ever been on or inside.

It was ethereal we were actually walking through clouds, feeling them gently billow through the dense understory of the rainforest, high in the mountains of Costa Rica. The moisture of those clouds was catching on every hair, snagging every plant fibre, drenching every clutch of moss, ensnared by every dangling root. The clouds, as they passed through thickly at times, and sparsely at others, made the forest wink in and out of existence with an other-worldly feel. Epiphytes, those plants that do not need soil to grow, clung to the nooks and crannies of the rainforest trees, trapping life-giving moisture from the exhalations of the passing clouds as they whispered their way through the forest.

It was amazing…. we saw mosses and ferns growing on the roots dangling from trees that were, themselves, growing on the branches of trees high up in the rainforest canopy. I remember our daughter, stopped dead in her tracks, neck craned back, looking up, up, up with an expression of reverent awe on her face. Mosses and vines grew on tree trunks. Trees grew on branches, their roots dangling like Tarzan vines, rooted into the soil far, far below, simply growing where the birds had dropped their seed! Ferns and orchids grew in the crooks of branches. Thick mosses cloaked dangling tree roots. Plants grew on trees. Trees grew on trees.

Layer upon layer of incredible life: that’s what I remember most about that incredible landscape.


Snapshots is a regular feature, running every Tuesday on my blog when we are not away on our adventures. Each snapshot revisits some of my favourite photographs and memories of our years spent discovering the unique places of the world and the hidden recesses of our innermost selves. 

One Comment on “Snapshot: Life Upon Life Upon Life

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