Friday, January 7, 2011

HONDURAS - In the Cloud Forest

 A typical cloud forest view

In the morning before the clouds cooked off

Melvin, Hernan and Che Barnes in front of a massive fallen tree

Bromeliads and vines cover the trees in the cloud forest

Looking up at a cloud forest tree. Notice that the lateral branches are literally covered with aerial plants.

By Andy

We got back yesterday from our camping trip to the cloud forest and I can honestly say that it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Our plan was to cross the mountain from the southeast corner of the Comayagua Mountain National Park starting in a place called El Horno, hiking up to the cloud forest on the ridge and then following the ridge to the center of the Park in order to hike down into Comayagua, which is straight west of the mountain. On the way up we wanted to visit coffee farms of the people in the organic coffee co-op, but my main plan was to spend a good chunk of time in the cloud forest. We succeeded.

The way the mountain ecosystem is stratified means that in the valley there is a tropical dry forest. As you go up the mountain, this gives way to a pine and scrub-oak forest, which gives way to a pine and sweetgum forest, which is replaced by cloud forest as you get closer to the top of the mountain. The cloud forest is a rich jungle-like ecosystem which receives both abundant rain and horizontal precipitation when the clouds come in and all of the vegetation captures the moisture and the drops fall to the soil. The forest has many types of ferns, palms, moss, orchids, bromeliads, bamboo-like plants, and vines - all are capable of capturing the moisture from the clouds. Where rivers and creeks flow, there is generally also a corridor of broadleafed trees extending down from the cloud forest through the pine. This stratification is dependant on temperature and moisture. In different areas of the mountain the point where ecosystems change is higher or lower, depending on moisture. The rains in Honduras generally come in from the Carribean in the north, so on the north half of the mountain the cloud forest starts at about 1500 meters above seas level, while in the dry south, the sweetgum and pine extend all the way up to 1800 meters. The presence of the cloud forest is why the Mountain was declared a National Park, both for the diversity and because the cloud forest captures and stores gajillions of gallons of water. Where it has not been cut down the cloud forest consists mostly of giant trees, all covered with plants of many types. It is a magical place, and I was looking forward to being there for a good long hike.

The first day we spent driving up to El Horno, skirting the south side of the mountain through the dense pine forests of El Tamarindo, where we met with three of the farmers from the coffee co-op. Once in El Horno, we went to an area on the edge of El Horno called El Sute, where we met with 8 farmers from the coffee co-op and stayed at the house of Don Chico (Fransisco), who is the leader of the co-op in the El Sute. The next morning we spent hiking to visit three different coffee farms in El Sute. Beautiful! Then after lunch at Don Chico´s, we got our gear together and hiked back to El Horno to meet up with our guide, Melvin.

Our group consisted of myself, Zacarias Barnes, Adalid (President of the coffee co-op), Bayron (who works with ECOSIMCO, an NGO working to protect the park), Hernan (my friend from Comayagua), and Melvin (who lives in El Horno and works sometimes as a park guard). Six men with backpacks, tents, a big pile of food and a desire to climb the mountain - it sounds like a recipe for trouble. Climbing up from El Horno I got my first taste of what the hike would be like. As we climbed through pastures and pine trees on a well travelled path I was soon breathing heavy and sweating profusely. My pack was full and the path was steep. We climbed 300 meters in about 20 minutes and we soon had a spectacular view of the valley. For the next hour we climbed and hiked upwards and laterally across the mountainside through thick forest regrowth and pastures, until finally we reached the ridge that we would follow for the next three days. The temperature had fallen by several degrees and soon we were in a dense broadleaf forest. Finally! The first day in the cloud forest was like visiting an old friend. I was back with the tree ferns and purple orchids and the bromeliads of all sizes. Moss covers everything and the thick cap of organic matter made the soil bouncy. We camped and although the wind blew and it got cold, we were warm with the fire.

In the morning I noticed that the cloud forest we were in was actually secondary growth. Our guide, Melvin, explained that the owner abandoned it and focused on other land that was more easily accessible. The forest was only about 30 years old. I was amazed at how quickly it had regained the appearance of a cloud forest. During that day we soon found ourselves in virgin forest. The distinguishing feature was that There were fewer trees, but most of the trees we saw were enormous. They were also covered with aerial plants. Sometimes the aerial plants would grow so thick on the branches that the branches would fall off and land on the ground, blocking our way. Sometimes whole trees would topple leaving a gap where light streams in. Then we would get a chance to see what the canopy was like. It seems that the aerial plants can create an ecosystem of their own up in the canopy. They trap and store water, and as leaves decay, a sort of soil is formed on top of the branches. This happens to the point where when we see a fallen branch, it is often more plants and soil than wood. I love this image of plants growing on top of plants on top of plants and I just wanted to stay in the forest primeval marvelling. But it did not last long. The ridge is a dry place and we were out of water, so we climbed down into a valley and found water, and then located a trail that led us through abandoned fields and some corn patches and pasture. As thrilled as I was to see how quickly the forest regenerates, I was equally disheartened to see the burned stumps of the recently cut forest.

After we left the deforested areas, we entered the nucleus of the park and soon we were back in the primary old growth forest again. Walking along the ridge was slow going, because there were often massive trees that had fallen and there was no trail to begin with anyway. Melvin led the way, hacking at the undergrowth and advising us on the best route to climb over or under fallen trees. He can cut a trail with his machete as fast as we could walk. Quite amazing. Our second campsite was more protected than the first, and we had a nice fire again. Our fourth day we spent entirely in untouched cloud forest. We never even saw signs of human existence, such as evidence of cut undergrowth or clear trails. Sometimes Melvin would scout for us and I would just marvel at the beauty. Bayron, who had been working to protect the park for three years, had never been this far into the center of the mountain. He and Adalid and Melvin kept talking about how if people could only see the marvels that we were seeing, they would have to protect it. They also were hatching plans to create a network of trails following the ridges, with marked campsites and park guards in every community. We tossed around the idea of having a place that would rent out tents and sleeping bags and drop tourists off in a mountain village, where guides could lead them to the primary cloud forest. There was a lot of dreaming about what it would be like to have a well-developed national park. It was awe-inspiring to be in the midst of such an extensive forest. That day we reached our highest point, 2360 meters above sea level. The afternoon sun came through the trees on the summit while we relaxed and ate chocolate and checked to see if we had cell phone service.

In looking back on the trip I notice how much I identify with the mountain and the cloud forest. I have emotionally and mentally adopted the entire mountain. I rise when I see recuperated forest and I sink when I see a clear-cut. My heart swells as I walk the ridge looking for a quetzal, and I die a little bit inside when I hear that hunters recently killed a jaguar (or was it a puma?) in the outskirts of the park. In retrospect, I am taking a dualistic view on things. My brain likes to divide things into good and bad. I cheer for one team and wish ill upon another. This is a dangerous stance to take. As an accidental dualist, I place things and people into categories based on what they remind me of. I am quick to judgement and once something has been judged it loses its vitality. It becomes a thing that I know about that I can either hope for or fear. My challenge is to keep an open mind. In talking with Melvin, I got a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation. I want to save the forest by removing as many people as possible. Obviously protecting the forest is good. But many on the people deforesting feel the rights of ownership, and although the state has declared the land a national park, it has not indemnified anyone. People need to eat, and my own idea of what a national park is might be getting in the way of what a national park could be. Maybe it is not an on-off switch, with people kicked out of the park completely. I don´t have answers, just awe and questions.



  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing your experiences and photos. What an amazing adventure.

  2. want more photos? for now facebook may be the best way to see more!!/group.php?gid=351160480843

    We´ll try to post more photos soon for non facebook friends!

  3. Andy Gaertner,

    I listened to this blog post (I have program on my computer that allows me to do so). I am blown away. Sounds absolutely life charging. I love to draw little plants and also get excited by unusual oddities in the remaining Wisconsin Prairies. I can't imagine what it was like to be enveloped by such lushness and then have to deal with a range of emotions that go with seeing such unparalleled beauty. Thanks for the good listen and hope to meet you in the future.

    (Friend of Zac Barnes and Matt and Erin) Joe Maurer

  4. Thanks Joe! Maybe go with us next year.