Day 1: In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal
It was a warm April morning when I departed the Central Valley and began climbing skyward along the Pan-American Highway, a network of scenic roads that stretches from Alaska to the tip of Argentina. I was driving through a section known as Cerro de la Muerte, the height of land along Costa Rica's towering continental divide that, on the rare cloudless day, offers views of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Armed with scribbled directions, I managed to find and lose my way several times on the outskirts of San Jose, distracted by merging lanes and a serious lack of signage. Each time I stopped to ask the route, I'd get a cluck of the tongue before being told I had just missed the exit.
The Interamericana, as it is locally known, is paved and in good condition although the occasional landslide, random repairs and heavy traffic can make traveling this stretch of road tedious at times. That morning, other than a couple of slug-paced eighteen wheelers, the highway was mine.
I threaded along countryside that reminded me of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Pine and cypress trees perfumed the noticeably cooler air as I ascended Cerro de la Muerte, the so-called "Mountain of Death" (a throwback to an era before the highway was built, when crossing the Talamanca Mountains implied a harrowing and sometimes fatal journey).
As signs for trout fishing bobbed up, I knew I was nearing my destination: Jorge Serrano's Cabanas Paraiso de Quetzal. Found just off kilometer 70, the half-way marker between San Jose and San Isidro del General, the family-run cabins are some 2700 meters above sea level, perched on a mountainside swathed in cloud forest.
I zipped up my fleece jacket, an item seldom used when you live nine degrees from the equator, and marveled at the drastic change in temperature. That's the beauty of Costa Rica -- the climate and geography vary so dramatically, from sultry beaches to mist-covered mountains in just a few hours drive.
Jorge and his wife were gone "in the city", but I was well-cared for by their two sons. The family has eight rustic but spotlessly clean cabins overlooking the fertile pueblo of Tarrazu, where some of the country's finest coffee is grown. Each cabin has a space heater and extra blankets for those chilly nights that occasionally dip below freezing. I was given a map of the area's private trails, and took off for a light hike to some waterfalls.
The heat of the Central Valley seemed a distant memory as I plodded over patches of frost that lingered in the shade. While the cabins' peaceful surroundings are a definite plus, the real attraction for most travelers is the phenomenal birdwatching. Hummingbirds, trogons, warblers, tanagers and finches all nest in the high-altitude forests. But I was hoping to glimpse one bird in particular, the resplendent quetzal.
Over a home-cooked dinner of rainbow trout, Jorge junior assured me that I would spot a quetzal or two, as April-May is the nesting season for the typically elusive bird. The next morning at 6 am, warmed by hot cocoa and the lodge's wood-oven stove, we set off with a spotting scope in tow. The entire reserve was covered in aguacatillo trees (a relative of the avocado), the favorite food of the quetzal. Within fifteen minutes Jorge had identified the quetzal's call and pointed out a regal male perched on a limb above.
I admit I've never been much of a birder and always wondered what all the fuss was about. I knew only that the quetzal was a relative of the trogon, once worshiped by Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Looking at his long streamer-like tail, iridescent green feathers and scarlet breast, I suddenly had a clue. The male was soon joined by his mate, and we watched as they swallowed aguacatillo fruits whole and then regurgitated the seeds, continuing their symbiotic relationship with the trees.
We quietly walked under cypress and oak trees more than a thousand years old, and spotted six more quetzals (four males and two females) feeding on wild avocado. One male clung to the edge of his nest, a cavity in a tree, feeding his hatchlings an appetizing mixture of regurgitated tadpoles and insects.
Jorge's excitement over the quetzals rivaled mine, even though he lives alongside these brilliant creatures. We hiked back to the lodge for a hearty breakfast and coffee, content in our quetzal quota for the day.
Note: December through May is peak quetzal season, though they can be spotted less frequently year-round. Small digital cameras are best for taking pictures through the spotting scopes, which give excellent close ups of the birds and other wildlife.