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Birdwatching Paradise on the Cerro de la Muerte

Destination: San Gerardo de Dota

The day had begun in the warm and sunny Central Valley -- 45 miles and a world away from my current location in Costa Rica's Cerro de la Muerte, the so-called Mountain of Death. As I glanced around me, admiring the mist-shrouded landscape of a high-montane cloud forest, I zipped my jacket and flipped up the hood. The mountain air was deliciously chilly.

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Stressed to the breaking point and desperately in need of a weekend getaway, my husband and I had decided to visit Quetzal's Paradise, a family-run lodge located at Kilometer 70 on the Interamerican Highway, halfway between San Jose and San Isidro del General. Though Costa Rica is located just nine degrees north of the equator, the lodge's altitude (9,025 feet above sea level) makes for cool days and even cooler nights. Daytime temperatures hover around 60 degrees F -- just brisk enough to warrant layered clothing but not cold enough to make you wish for warmer weather.

The Cerro de la Muerte, home to the towns of San Gerardo de Dota and Tarrazu, is known for its picturesque scenery and world-famous birdwatching. The resplendent quetzal, which many call the world's most beautiful bird, spends approximately half the year on the Cerro. Here, quetzals are most commonly spotted between December and June, when their favorite food -- fruit from the aguacatillo, or little avocado tree -- is prevalent. Though it was the last weekend in June, we had high hopes of seeing a quetzal.

The lodge's ten small cabins, scattered over an acre or so of property, cling to the mountainside. We wound our way down the hill to Cabin #9, one of two built in 2010. The rustic cabin was constructed of recovered cypress and pine -- no trees are harvested to build anything at the lodge -- and furnished with a bed and small table. Our private porch overlooked an emerald green valley and just outside our bedroom, a swing hung from a huge tree.

The first thing I noticed was the unusually soft and fluffy bed. Peeling back the top cover, I was relieved to find a huge, half-inch thick fleece blanket. And then another and another -- the bed was topped with five fluffy blankets, a wool cover, a bedspread, and sheets! I couldn't wait to bury myself under the huge mountain of fleece, hide from the chilly night, and devour a good book.

We had arrived via the public bus at 1:00 in the afternoon, and my stomach soon reminded me that it was lunchtime. The lodge's restaurant is part of the owners' home, and we ate what the family ate: a traditional meal of rice, beans, salad, chicken breast, and fried sweet plantains.

As we ate, fat raindrops splashed on the tin roof. Soon, the drizzle turned into a full-fledged storm and Jorge, the lodge's owner, built a cozy fire in the restaurant's cast iron fireplace. Rather than head back to our cabin, I cuddled up on the couch while Fabi and another couple sat down to watch Chile face off against Spain in the World Cup.

The rainy afternoon and home cooking were just what we needed to wind down. As the sun set, the temperature dropped to a crisp 50 degrees F. My Costa Rican husband, who has never traveled north of Nicaragua, marveled at seeing his breath -- and his childlike wonder reminded me of my own reaction to winters in my native Pennsylvania. Armed with a hot water bottle (to warm the bed sheets) and the promise of three inches of blankets, we called it an early evening. Tomorrow, we'd be up with the sun to go quetzal watching.

Birdwatching Paradise on the Cerro de la Muerte in Pictures

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