Part II: Quetzal Sightings and Cloud Forest Waterfalls
For the last 24 hours, I had been bargaining with Mother Nature: just let me see one quetzal -- just one -- and I'll do anything. Anything! Since it was the last week in June, the very tail end of quetzal season on the Cerro de la Muerte, there was a good chance that we wouldn't spot the magnificent bird. In fact, the aguacatillo (little avocado) trees at Quetzal's Paradise were already stripped bare, the birds long since gone to greener (and fruitier) pastures.
We met Jorge at 5:30 a.m. this morning and set off for a small, private farm six miles north of the lodge. Rumor had it that the property, which sat at a slightly higher elevation than the lodge, still had fruit on its trees. Now, as our group hiked up a steep embankment, my eyes focused on the trees lining the trail. Suddenly, an explosion of ruby and jade burst from a nearby tree -- a male quetzal in flight, his long, twin tail feathers fluttering in the breeze. We collectively inhaled, surprised at our early success and thrilled with our luck.
That first bird was a harbinger of good things to come: over the next hour, it seemed there was a quetzal everywhere we looked. No sooner had Jorge focused his telescope's lens on one, when another appeared. We took turns oohing and ahhing, watching the birds swoop and forage for tiny fruits. Male resplendent quetzals sport brilliant red chest feathers, so they often camouflage themselves by showing only their green backs. This morning however, several proudly flaunted their crimson feathers for the camera. By the time we left, we had spotted at least nine quetzals and probably more. In the excitement of contiguous sightings, I had lost count.
Back at the hotel, we ate rice and beans and hot chocolate, my new favorite treat. The delicious drink -- it warmed even my bones -- was made from local organic cocoa powder and fresh milk recently coaxed from Cinnamon, the lodge's resident cow. Our bellies full, Fabi and I decided to enjoy the beautiful morning and take a hike along the Zeledonia Trail.
Whenever I envision the length of a mile, images of high school fitness tests pop into my head. However, mountain miles are completely different -- a world apart from recycled rubber tracks or the treadmill's smooth belt. In the forest, there are many distractions -- scenic lookouts, roosting birds, colorful flowers -- and the terrain is varied. Given yesterday's rainstorm, I knew that my two left feet -- I've taken tumbles in almost every one of Costa Rica's forests -- would have to meander with care. Good thing I love taking my time.
We began at the lodge's small hummingbird garden, where colorful feeders attracted at least ten species including fiery-throated hummingbirds, magnificent hummingbirds, and green violet ear hummingbirds. The tiny creatures bickered amongst themselves, vying for position near the feeders, their wings buzzing faster than the eye could see. Once or twice, as if grateful for a place to rest, one of the feather-light birds landed on my outstretched finger.
A babbling brook and melodic birdsong provided the soundtrack to our hike, which wound just over a mile through the lodge's grounds. Cloud forest habitats are my absolute favorite, and this one didn't disappoint: kelly green moss clung to almost every surface, epiphytes dangled from branches, and small orchid blooms stretched to reach patches of sunlight. We stepped carefully, finding secure footing and navigating muddy patches like pros. Every few minutes, we lifted our eyes from the forest floor to appreciate the beauty around us. Two small waterfalls hugged the trail and later, the large Bromeliad Waterfall tumbled over our path. We hiked up our pants and waded through, only stopping for a gulp of crystal-clear mountain water.
After an hour and half of leisurely hiking (a 90-minute mile; impressive!), we emerged from the forest and watched as clouds rolled into the valley. It was time to head back to the cabin for another afternoon of rejuvenating rest.