Mid-day at about 7,000 ft.Going up--9,000 feet

--into a   Cloud Forest.

By Susan Dearing

Colima has one out of only 12 Biosphere Reserves in all of Mexico. The "Sierra de Manantlan," designated a reserve in 1988, is truly remarkable, beginning with dry, arid fields of tall cactus at its base to thick forests of pine and oak at the summit. Dividing the two extremes are bamboo and an assortment of wildflowers.

For the unenlightened (as I was before this adventure), a Biosphere Reserve is a natural, complete ecosystem, that is internationally recognized, that serves as a "living laboratory" for testing out and demonstrating integrated management of land, water, and living things. For more complete information go to: www.unesco.org/mab/nutshell.htm

Spring cactus bloomsWhat is a cloud forest? Well, a rain forest gets its moisture from rain. A cloud forest, then, gets its moisture from clouds. A cloud forest is so high up that it is actually in the clouds, at least part of the day, and of course, clouds are made up of particles of water.

The unpaved road that leads to the cloud forest is roughly 30 minutes beyond Colima's famous waterfall, El Salto on the old Minatitlan-Colima road. The tiny sign, saying, "Estación Biosfero," is easy to miss. But after making a left turn, you'll be heading up, up, up, and there certainly won't be any traffic jams. In fact, the first time I went up to the summit (about 2˝ hours, with frequent stops), I passed only one car; the second time, just three.

Beginning the climb up from 3,000 ft.Stop often and look all around you, at plants and animals, large and small. The road is generally one lane, but there are wider areas to pull over. 

Rainbow-hued wildflowers are everywhere--on the hillside, poking their colorful heads out of rocky cliffs, and sometimes in the middle of the road. Even Zinnias were growing wild on the roadside.

Even the sounds change as you go higher and higher. In some areas you'll hear birds calling and insects buzzing; in other places you'll hear nothing but the wind, or sometimes, nothing at all. The absolute silence can be eerie, and there are spots where you can stand in the sun and be warmed, while a few feet away, the wind coming up the valley is so cool it feels like air conditioning.

Edible cactus growing at about 4,000 ft.There is no guardrail, so there's nothing to impede the view, as the road twists and turns. You'll rarely exceed 10 mph, but speed is not the object of this eco-adventure.

The conditions that make cloud forests so good at producing water also make them the perfect home for a variety of unique animals and organisms.

The most attractive residents of the biosphere are probably birds, including wild turkeys, eagles, hawks, flycatchers, parrots, jays, orioles, hummingbirds, owls, and woodpeckers.  

Hiking down a logging trailA camera with telephoto and macro lenses, and binoculars can make this experience even more enjoyable. 

Sturdy tennis shoes or hiking boots are also recommended if you want to get off the road into the wilderness. Hiking down the logging trails can often net you many photo opportunities, because the animals are disturbed by the tree cutting. Just stopping at the side of the road and looking close will find you many tiny things: Anis (licorice), mint, and other herbs can be found growing along the side of the road. Looking under rotted logs or fallen leaves can net you a colorful beetle or two. Believe it or not, there are some very beautiful bugs and spiders! 

These butterflies look like a leaf when resting on one.You'll notice that certain species of butterflies prefer certain types of flowers. See how many different kinds of wildflowers you can locate. There are hundreds of species of birds. One of the best books for birdwatchers is Peterson's Field Guide, "Mexican Birds." Bring a book along about medicinal plants. You'll be sure to find some. Mistletoe (which is actually a parasite) grows wild in the trees. Stand under it and....well, you know...

Hunting for foodThe cloud forest is also home to butterflies, frogs, lizards, cougar, puma, ocelot, raccoon, peccary, squirrel, rabbit, possum, armadillo, and the endangered Mexican bobcat. All are protected; no hunting is allowed.

To the naked eye it would appear that there are less animals in a cloud forest than a rain forest. Due to the thickness of the foliage, you will not see as many, but they are there, and are well-protected. The rain forest has less underbrush, so it would appear to hold more animals.

8,000 ft. and climbingCloud forests are easy to recognize by the clouds that caress them almost all year long. At altitudes of about 6,000 feet and up, the clouds deposit tiny drops of water on the forest trees and plants. This begins a process called horizontal precipitation.

The persistent clouds affect the vegetation by reducing sunlight, wetting tree canopies, and suppressing evapotranspiration.

As a general rule, a cloud forest will receive less moisture than a rain forest. Its topsoil or humus layer will have less natural fertilizers, because matter will not decompose as quickly.  Because of this, the trees and plants will receive less nutrients. 

Van climbs beyond 7,000 ft. levelIn a rain forest the precipitation is greater, and the leaves, rotten trees and other organisms, will decompose faster.  Thus, in a cloud forest, trees will generally be smaller than in a rain forest. At the summit, the trees may be stunted by strong winds.

The best indicators that you're in a cloud forest are plants like bromeliads, orchids, lichens, and tree ferns. Cloud forests are also home to an abundance of mosses that cover both the tree trunks and the forest floor. Sometimes the term moss forest is used as a synonym for cloud forest.

Logging truck has a 2-hour ride down to the main highwaySome cloud forests are home to pine and fir trees, giving them the appearance of temperate forests. As you continue to go up, deeper into the Biosphere Reserve, you'll notice logging trails intersecting with the main dirt road. The industry of logging is strictly controlled in Colima. Certain areas have been designated to be thinned, and a permit is required, and the number of trees felled is tightly controlled. For example, if you request a permit for 50 trees, you will be subject to heavy fines if you take even one tree more.

On the edgeThe steep slopes of the cloud forests provide an almost continuous canopy of tree cover, and a spectacular view is offered from the occasional open spot in the canopy. Below the tree level flow many small tributaries with crystal clear waters and refreshing waterfalls.

Leaves and branches draw cloud moisture, which drips to the ground and adds water to the hydrological system. Cloud forests protect watersheds by maintaining ground cover, minimizing soil erosion, and providing a regular and controlled supply of water to communities downstream.

Bamboo grows along the slopesThe climb up the mountainside brings a gradual change in vegetation, which signifies changes in soil, precipitation levels and temperature as well. 

At each altitudinal floor there are dominant plants that indicate another ecological life zone. At one level, bamboo grows so dense that it becomes difficult to travel through it. 

A roadside shrine shows evidence of 100s of candles burned in memory of a lost loved one At another level grows pine, fir and oak. At yet another level, an abundance of mosses and fog give visitors the feeling that they're in a Dracula movie. It is here that most visitors admire the master work of Mother Nature.

These fascinating ecosystems are valuable not only for scientific purposes; they are also valuable as water producers, outdoor classrooms for environmental education, genetic banks, eco-tourism and opportunities to promote and practice sustainable development. There are several on-going projects within the Biosphere Reserve, to plant trees, built fire barriers, and protect the soil from erosion by planting various species or easily-rooted plants.

Welcome to 9,000 ft.As you near the summit of the "Sierra de Manantlan," at 9,000 ft., you will see a sign that reads: "Welcome (to the) Public Forest Land El Terrero. Biosphere Reserve Sierra de Manantlan."

The word, "Ejido," which means common or public land, is a word generally used to describe land settled by indigenous peoples of Mexico.

El Terrero is a small ranchito of less than 100 indigenous people. You will see the Indian children at play in the schoolyard wearing coats in July. Cows, pigs and chickens wander freely, and most people get around by walking or riding burros. The simple houses are made from wood, and sometimes fences are made with giant cactus plants, which produce a strong alcoholic liquor called, "aguamiel," or honey water.

When a woman walking down the road told me the use of the cactus, I mistakenly assumed that with such a nice name they would drink this "sweet water" like regular water. It wasn't until I returned to Manzanillo, I discovered the real purpose of the giant plant! (Perhaps they do consume it like regular water; it can get pretty cold up there in the winter!)

From El Terrero, the road continues down the other side of the mountain into the state of Jalisco, and into more pristine wilderness.

In El Terrero there is a nursery called "El Milagro," (The Miracle), which houses more than 226,000 plants. The biosphere reserve is also home to 2,070 species of fern, 8 species of pine, and 588 vertebrate animals, including more than  a dozen protected endangered species: green iguana, boa constrictor, 2 species of pumas, ocelot, jaguar, and lynx. It has the largest concentration of hummingbirds in all of Mexico.

Tours and camping trips can be arranged by contacting: susan@gomanzanillo.com

A 180-page guidebook is available showing more natural wonders in the state of Colima at: www.gomanzanillo.com/guidebook/index.htm