Central America's Ecosystems

Nicaragua's lowland rainforests are true tropical jungles. Some are deluged with more than 508cm (200 in.) of rainfall per year, and their climate is hot and humid. Trees grow tall and fast, fighting for sunlight in the upper reaches. In fact, life and foliage on the forest floor are surprisingly sparse. The action is typically 30m (98 ft.) up, in the canopy, where long vines stream down, lianas climb up, and bromeliads grow on the branches and trunks of towering hardwood trees. A classic example of lowland rainforests is the Laguna de Perlas in Nicaragua.

At higher altitudes, you'll find the famed cloud forests. Here, the steady flow of moist air meets the mountains and creates a nearly constant mist. Epiphytes -- resourceful plants that live cooperatively on the branches and trunks of trees -- grow abundantly in the cloud forests, where they must extract moisture and nutrients from the air. Because cloud forests are found in generally steep, mountainous terrain, the canopy here is lower and less uniform than in lowland rainforests, providing better chances for viewing elusive fauna. Some of the most spectacular cloud forests can be experienced at Parque Nacional Montecristo on El Salvador's northern border or Reserva Natural Miraflor in Nicaragua's north-central highlands.

On the Pacific side of the highlands, you'll still find examples of the otherwise vanishing tropical dry forest. During the long and pronounced dry season (late Nov-late Apr), no rain falls to relieve the unabated heat. To conserve much-needed water, the trees drop their leaves but bloom in a riot of color: purple jacaranda, scarlet poró, and brilliant-orange flame-of-the-forest are just a few examples. Then, during the rainy season, this deciduous forest is transformed into a lush and verdant landscape. Because the foliage is not that dense, the dry forests are excellent places to view a variety of wildlife, especially howler monkeys and pizotes (coati). One of the best examples of dry forest is found at Chacocente Wildlife Refuge in Nicaragua.

Along the coasts, primarily where river mouths meet the ocean, you will find extensive mangrove forests and swamps. Around these seemingly monotonous tangles of roots exists one of the most diverse and rich ecosystems in the region. Birdlife includes pelicans, storks, and pink flamingos, and reptiles such as crocodiles and caimans also thrive in this environment.

In any one spot in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, temperatures remain relatively constant year-round. However, they vary dramatically according to altitude, from tropically hot and steamy along the coasts to below freezing at the highest elevations.

Flora & Fauna

For millennia, the land bridge between North and South America served as a migratory thoroughfare and mating ground for species native to the once-separate continents. Perhaps its unique location between both continents explains why the region comprises only .05% of the earth's landmass, yet it is home to 7% of the planet's biodiversity. More than 15,000 identified species of plants; 900 species of birds; 9,000 species of butterflies and moths; and 500 species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are found here. Unfortunately, because of overpopulation and deforestation, El Salvador shares very little of this bounty and has only approximately 800 species. Nicaragua, however, has retained much of its natural diversity and holds some 30,000 species. And that is just what has been cataloged.

All sorts of fish and crustaceans live in the brackish tidal waters off the coast, primarily in the Caribbean, but also in parts of the Pacific. Caimans and crocodiles cruise the maze of rivers and unmarked canals. There are many snakes, but very few are poisonous. Watch out for the tiny coral snake and the bigger barba amarilla. Another creature worth avoiding is the poisonous arrow frog.

Hundreds of herons, ibises, egrets, and other marsh birds nest and feed along both countries' silted banks, as well. Mangrove swamps are often havens for water birds like cormorants, frigate birds, pelicans, and herons. Farther out, both coastal waters are alive with marine life that includes turtles, barracudas, stingrays, marlins, dolphins, and red snappers. Nicaragua boasts the only freshwater shark in the world on Lago de Nicaragua, while the Río San Juan that joins it to the Caribbean is famous for a giant silver fish called a tarpon.

The jungle teems with wildlife, particularly birds. Macaws, parrots, hummingbirds, and toucans are just some of the many reasons why both countries are excellent for bird-watching. The larger birds tend to nest up high in the rainforest canopy, while the smaller ones nestle in the underbrush. Count yourself lucky if you catch sight of the beautiful quetzal, or one of the region's elusive big cats, including jaguars, puma, and ocelots. A little easier to spot are howler monkeys and their simian brethren, the spider and squirrel monkeys. Other mammals to look out for on the jungle floor include anteaters, deer, and sloths.

Plant life in this region is very much determined by altitude and climate. The Pacific dry forest is home to hardy species of thorny shrubs that lose their leaves in the high season and burst into flower in April and May. Higher up, the landscape is dominated by pines, oaks, and evergreens. Above 1,600m (5,249 ft.), the flora becomes more lush, with orchids, mosses, and ferns all growing abundantly on giant trees.

Searching for Wildlife

Forest animals are predominantly nocturnal. When they are active in the daytime, they are usually elusive and on the watch for predators. Birds are easier to spot in clearings or secondary forests than they are in primary forests. Unless you have lots of experience in the tropics, your best hope for enjoying a walk through the jungle lies in employing a trained and knowledgeable guide.

Tips to keep in mind include listening carefully and keeping quiet -- you're most likely to hear an animal before seeing one. Also, it helps to bring binoculars and dress appropriately. You'll have a hard time focusing your binoculars if you're busy swatting mosquitoes. Light, long pants and long-sleeved shirts are your best bet. Comfortable hiking boots are a real boon, except where heavy rubber boots are necessary (a real possibility, if it's been raining). Avoid loud colors; the better you blend in with your surroundings, the better your chances are of spotting wildlife. Finally, be patient. The jungle isn't on a schedule. However, your best shots at seeing forest fauna are in the very early-morning and late-afternoon hours.

Environmental Threats

The one thing that makes El Salvador different from Nicaragua is that it has lost much of its wildlife and their natural habitat. The jaguar and giant red macaw are now extinct, and less than 5% of the country retains its original forest. This has led to chronic soil erosion and devastating mudslides. Poverty means protected species such as the Ridley turtle often end up on the dinner plate.

The picture is somewhat better in Nicaragua, but only by default. Poor access and infrastructure in the country's Atlantic region means Nicaragua still has an area the size of El Salvador that is untouched and preserved. However, logging, poaching, and squatting mean many of Nicaragua's 76 protected areas are so in name only, and deforestation is an increasing worry. The problem is exacerbated by natural disasters, corrupt politics, and never-ending land disputes. The western lowlands have a poor record environmentally. It is no accident that the tiny crater lake Tiscapa in the center of Managua is known locally as "the toilet." Lake Managua to the north is heavily polluted, and the magnificent Lake Nicaragua is in danger of going the same way. It has almost lost all of its famous freshwater bull sharks.

Unfortunately, environmental issues often fall toward the bottom of the list of priorities when your main worry is where the next meal is coming from. Nevertheless, both countries are waking up to the idea that caring for the environment is increasingly important. Anti-litter campaigns have had some success, and environmental awareness is now on the school curriculum. Suchitoto in El Salvador has instigated a new waste-water management scheme and banned all political graffiti from sidewalks, walls, and telegraph poles -- a giant step in a country overrun with ugly political scribblings in both urban and rural areas. Sea turtle schemes encourage locals to protect rather than hunt, and the benefits can be seen in the busloads of curious tourists who come to view the famous reptiles nesting. Yet tourism is not the panacea some proclaim and can be just as destructive, as was revealed by the hotel resort in Nicaragua that was trucking out raw sewage and dumping it near an unsuspecting village. There are some green shoots of optimism, however. Preservation is taking hold in cities such as Granada, which has banned a certain American fast food chain from setting up shop in the center. As well as the official national parks, there are ever-increasing collections of private initiatives and wildlife refuges that are doing their bit to hold onto what is left.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.