Costa RicaCosta Rica

Monteverde: Home of the Resplendent Quetzal

Destination: Monteverde

On my travels through Costa Rica, I've tackled whitewater rapids, hiked the side of a volcano, and watched the sunset with my toes buried in the sand. But one experience that had eluded me was seeing a resplendent quetzal in the wild. While the country's cloud forests are famous for these bejeweled birds, I had yet to see one on my numerous trips. I chalked this up to right-place, wrong-time syndrome, and I was determined to change my luck during my visit to Monteverde.

I had scheduled eight hikes – one for each day of my trip – through Monteverde's cloud forests. Since the town straddles the continental divide, it is home to several microclimates, each with its own, unique habitat. To further increase my chances of seeing a resplendent quetzal, I had planned tours to not only the Monteverde Cloud Forest and Santa Elena Reserves, but to several private wildlife refuges, and Selvatura, a wildlife-adventure park.

Imagine my surprise when, on my first full day in Monteverde, I spotted a green-and-red shadow swooping through the forest canopy. We were about 90 minutes into a hike through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, and I was enamored: emerald green epiphytes draped like silk scarves along every tree trunk and forest surface, hundreds of orchid species decorated my field of view, and we had already seen white-faced monkeys and newborn hummingbirds.

So when I saw a two-pronged tail out of the corner of my eye, I didn't quite believe it. But another hiker had seen it too, so our tour guide, Johnny, squinted his eyes and searched the endless sea of green for the telltale ruby-red chest of a quetzal. How he found the bird, I'll never know: the quetzal's back was to us, his green plumage camouflaged almost perfectly in a tree at least 250 feet away. We hiked to the base of the tree, and there he was: a beautiful quetzal male, his pendulum tail and downy chest primed and ready to attract a mate.

The bird seemed oblivious to our presence, as his turquoise tail fluttered in the breeze. Our group's excitement was palpable: resplendent quetzals are near threatened, and they can be almost impossible to spot in much of Central and South America. While Costa Rica's cool cloud forests are prime habitats for these elusive birds, changing weather patterns and other factors make it hard to accurately predict their location. In fact, my chances of spotting a quetzal in January had been deemed "unlikely," since peak quetzal season in Monteverde is between March and June.

That day wasn't the only time I beat the odds. On the last day of my trip, as I traversed Selvatura's hanging bridges, I would spot my second quetzal. Perched in a tree high in the upper canopy – at eye level, thanks to our elevated position – sat another glorious male. Through my camera's zoom lens, I watched as he pulled a small "aguacatillo," an avocado relative, off the tree and popped the fruit into his mouth. I watched until he flew away, most likely in search of more tasty tidbits.

At that moment, surrounded by the thunderous quiet of nature, I was grateful to have finally experienced the quetzal's otherworldly beauty for myself.

Monteverde: Home of the Resplendent Quetzal in Pictures