A unique sort of high-altitude jungle atop the highest peaks in Honduras, the cloud forest is a fairy-tale world of oak and wild avocado covered in vines, huge ferns, orchids, and bromeliads. 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. Although cloud-forested peaks do not receive significantly more rainfall than surrounding regions, temperatures (6–12°C/43–54°F on average) and evaporation levels are markedly lower, so the forest retains a great deal more water, much of it in the form of the near-permanent airborne mist.
The result is a dense, towering forest that appears similar to lowland rainforest in its exuberance but is totally different in composition. The number of tree species is quite low compared to the rainforest, but the profusion of epiphytes covering the trees to gather the moisture blowing through the forest is astounding. Although epiphytes passively live on the cloud forest trees and are not parasitic, they can sometimes colonize a tree so successfully it literally collapses under their weight.
Trees in the cloud forest don’t reach the same heights as in the lowland rainforest, both because of the climate and because of the invariably steep slopes they grow on, and the undergrowth is often thick. But in a few places, for example the plateau atop Celaque, you’ll find stately stands of towering oaks, spaced widely with few plants underneath. 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 other types of trogon as well as the odd-sounding three-wattled bell bird and the emerald toucanet, among many others.
Two types of cloud forest exist in Honduras. In the southern and western part of the country, “true” cloud forest has developed. Here the geographic position of the mountains, in the prevailing wind patterns, has captured a constant cap of clouds, from which the forest sucks its moisture. The true cloud forest is located at elevations of roughly 1,800–2,800 meters and is isolated by a ring of drier pine or liquidambar (sweet gum) forest. Because these forests are biological islands, a variety of endemic plant and animal species are found within them.
In northern Honduras, another type of cloud forest is found at lower elevations. These forests receive more direct rain than those in the south and rise directly out of the tropical forest below them with only a small intervening band of pine, if any at all. These cloud forests are more accurately characterized as mountain rainforests and are sometimes found as low as 1,000 meters. The forests of Pico Bonito are a prime example.
In a few places at the highest elevations, notably in the Sierra de Agalta, strong winds and high moisture levels have combined to create bizarre and rare elfin forests. Here gnarled, stunted pine trees only a couple of meters tall grow among a profusion of mosses, lichen, ferns, and shrubs.
A sort of transitional stage between the cloud forest and rainforest is the subtropical wet forest, which receives about the same amount of rainfall but hosts an intermediate mix of species. Because this climate is ideal for coffee-growing, subtropical wet forests are under heavy pressure from small-scale plantations, especially in Olancho, Yoro, Santa Bárbara, and around Lago Yojoa. Were you to hike the very difficult route up the side of Pico Bonito just outside of La Ceiba, you’d walk up through, successively, tropical, subtropical, and montane wet forests—one of the few places in the Americas where this is possible.
As the sources of Honduras’s rivers, cloud forests are vital to ensure the country’s water supply. Unfortunately, they are also natural targets for campesinos who live in the valleys below, hungry for wild game, land, or wood. It was in recognition of cloud forests’ critical importance that the Honduran government enacted the 1987 law creating the national park system, which was aimed primarily at protecting the cloud forests. While the laws have been of use in defending better-known parks like La Tigra, Cusuco, or Celaque, the destruction continues unabated in many remote, less-visited forests.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition