Floral biodiversity is also high – well over 10,000 species of vascular plants have been described in Costa Rica, and more are being added to the list every year. Orchids alone account for about 1300 species.
Experiencing a tropical forest for the first time can be a bit of a surprise for visitors from North America or Europe, where temperate forests tend to have little variety. Such regions are either dominated by conifers, or have endless tracts of oaks, beech and birch. Tropical forests, on the other hand, have a staggering number of species – in Costa Rica, for example, almost 2000 tree species have been recorded. If you stand in one spot and look around, you’ll see scores of different plants, and if you walk several hundred meters you’re likely to find even more.
The diversity of habitats created as these many species mix is a wonder to behold – one day you may find yourself canoeing in a muggy mangrove swamp, and the next day squinting through bone-chilling fog to see orchids in a montane cloud forest. If at all possible, it is worth planning your trip with the goal of seeing some of Costa Rica’s most distinctive plant communities, including a few of the following examples.
Classic rain-forest habitats are well represented in parks of the southwest corner of Costa Rica or in mid-elevation portions of the central mountains. Here you will find towering trees that block out the sky, long looping vines and many overlapping layers of vegetation. Many large trees may show buttresses, a feature of tropical trees whereby they grow wing-like ribs extending out from the base of their trunks for added structural support.
Along brackish stretches of both coasts, mangrove swamps are a world unto themselves. Growing stiltlike out of muddy tidal flats, five species of trees crowd together so densely that no boat and few animals can penetrate. Striking in their adaptations for dealing with salt, mangrove trees thrive where no other land plant dares tread. Though often thought of as a mosquito-filled nuisance, mangrove swamps play some extremely important roles. Not only do they buffer coastlines from the erosive power of waves, they also have very high levels of productivity because they trap so much nutrient-rich sediment, and serve as spawning and nursery areas for many species of fish and invertebrates.
Most famous of all, and a highlight for many visitors, are the fabulous cloud forests of Monteverde reserve, with fog-drenched trees so thickly coated in mosses, ferns, bromeliads, and orchids that you can hardly discern their true shapes. Cloud forests, however, are widespread at high elevations throughout Costa Rica and any of them would be worth visiting. Be forewarned, however, that in these habitats the term ‘rainy season’ has little meaning because it’s always dripping wet from the fog.
For a complete change of pace try exploring the unique drier forests along the northwest coast. During the dry season many trees drop their leaves, creating carpets of crackling, sun-drenched leaves and a sense of openness that is largely absent in other Costa Rican habitats. The large trees here, such as Costa Rica’s national tree, the guanacaste, have broad, umbrellalike canopies, while spiny shrubs and vines or cacti dominate the understory. At times, large numbers of trees erupt into spectacular displays of flowers, and at the beginning of the rainy season everything is transformed with a wonderful flush of new green foliage.