The ABCs of: Cloud forests

February 21, 2019

One of the most incredible things to see while visiting Costa Rica is the country’s striking cloud forest. Why do the dense, misty treescapes look the way they do? Here’s a quick primer.

Atmospheric conditions

One of the most important things for the formation of low-lying clouds is the atmosphere. Conditions have to be just right — a combination of altitude, humidity, frequency of precipitation and density of vegetation — in order for these clouds to form, and to stick around. There’s no specific region on earth, altitude range, or local climate that is most amenable to the formation of cloud forests. In fact, because this is such a difficult balance to strike, only about 1% of the world’s forests can be categorized as cloud forests. Costa Rica’s famous Monteverde cloud forest, for instance, sits between about 1,200 and 1,800 metres above sea level, has an average annual rainfall of 300 centimetres, and ranges between 16 and 18 degrees Celsius in temperature.


In cloud forests, the trees tend to be a bit shorter, but the vegetation near the ground more dense than in other types of forests. Tree trunks grow thicker and more gnarled, and plant life near the ground is lush and verdant — think ferns, lichens, orchids, and other plants that thrive in high-moisture environments. In fact, cloud forests are also sometimes known as “moss forests” for the high volume of moss that grows within them.

Clouds (of course)

Yes, the low-lying wisps that characterize these forests are, technically, actual clouds. Known as silvagenitus clouds, they develop due to high humidity caused by evapotranspiration, which is when water evaporates through the land, via foliage and the tree canopy of the forest itself. Visiting a cloud forest such as Monteverde in Costa Rica can seem surreal — like walking through the sky! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will surely make its way onto your bucket list.

Getting there

See the cloud forest and so much more on a tour with National Geographic Family Journeys with G Adventures, a new line of trips for adventure-loving families in search of a meaningful way to discover the world together. With itineraries inspired by National Geographic's expertise in photography and storytelling, wildlife, culture, history, and geography, these trips let families connect with the world and each other.

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