Costa RicaCosta Rica

Quetzal Spotting in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest

Destination: Monteverde

The sun streamed in through my shades, warming my senses and encouraging me to wake up. It was a beautiful morning, and I knew it would provide ideal conditions for our day walk in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. If it were anything but sunny in town, the cloud forest would surely be too rainy for comfort.

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After a scrumptious pancake breakfast at the hotel, Mallory and I packed up our belongings and transferred to the nearby Tree House Hotel. The hotel perches above one of downtown Santa Elena's most recognizable landmarks: the Tree House Restaurant, Bar & Cafe. Built around a 60-year-old ficus tree, the restaurant has served tourists and residents since 2004, and I was ready for my inauguration to its edible delights.

Promises of coffee and international cuisine would have to wait though, as we were due at the reserve in just an hour, and I knew the bumpy road would take time to traverse. Dropping our bags, we walked out to the main road and caught a 4WD taxi, the only vehicle that seems suited to Monteverde's roads.

A 20-minute taxi ride delivered us to the base of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, where hummingbirds and bees swarmed around red sugar-water feeders, moss covered every natural surface, and a shy coatimundi brazenly bathed in front of onlookers. While we waited for our guided tour to begin, Mallory and I watched thirsty hummingbirds drink their fill, the buzzing of their wings filling our ears.

Soon it was time for the tour to begin, and Johnny, our guide, welcomed us to the forest. The scene before me was breathtaking, and the forest dripped with green: beads of water slid down tree trunks, and vines cascaded from the canopy, like strings of natural emeralds that emphasized the forest's existing beauty.

The reserve is comprised of 80% primary and 20% secondary forest, home to 400 bird species, 121 mammal species, 800 tree species and 3000 plant species. Facing mainly Costa Rica's Caribbean side, the Santa Elena Cloud Forest is actually wetter during the country's dry season. During our visit however, the reserve glowed with sunlight and life, birds called from above, and the forest floor teemed with life.

Most striking, at least to my eyes, were the mosses and plants that clung to every living surface. Johnny explained that unlike parasites, these cloud forest epiphytes exist in symbiosis with the trees. Living in harmony, each towering tree can host up to 240 types of epiphytes, including numerous orchids. In fact, of the 420 orchid species that live in the Monteverde area, 88% are epiphytes, living only in trees.

The Monteverde region is also home to more than 70 species of avocado tree, a primary food for quetzals. Instantly, I perked up: though I had lived in Costa Rica for more than two years, I had yet to see a resplendent quetzal. Hopefully, I asked Johnny if there was a chance of seeing one of the colorful birds. "It's possible, but unlikely." he responded. "They usually arrive during their mating season, March through June."

As we walked along the beautiful trails, it was easy to spot the transition from secondary to primary forest -- trees grew taller, trunks wider, and the canopy seemed denser. Descending, we also felt the temperature rising -- up to three degrees Fahrenheit for every 300 feet in altitude -- and soon I realized that we were no longer walking through the clouds, but under them.

Suddenly, our guide stopped to point out a troop of white-faced monkeys moving through the trees. The playful creatures didn't swing, but rather grabbed at branches and flying roots to steady themselves as they sucked insects off of the leaves. Wholly disinterested in our presence, the primates climbed up and down the trees around us.

After the capuchin monkeys had moved on, we continued walking. Johnny stopped to show us a small hummingbird nest about 10 feet away. Unlike most nests that we had already seen, this one had two baby purple-throated mountain gem hummingbirds inside. Quietly and with much care, Johnny invited us to have a look; the tiny babies were brown and covered in feather down, and looked up at us with hungry eyes and open mouths. Their mother, absent for the moment, was surely hunting for something to nourish their growing bodies.

Too quickly, it was time to begin hiking back uphill and loop back to the trail's end point. A fellow tourist and I saw a bird swooping through the air; his distinctive, two-pronged tail was evident, and we were sure that we had seen a quetzal. Johnny, taking our word, guided the group back downhill, where we searched the trees in vain. All of a sudden, he spotted the bird and declared that it was, indeed, a resplendent quetzal. Its back was to us, and hard to pick out from the green trees, but he had found it. Quickly and quietly, he guided us to a different path and soon, we were at the base of the quetzal's perch.

Just 25 feet away, the amazing bird sat in the tree, seemingly oblivious to our presence. His ruby-red chest glinted in the sunbeams and his long turquoise tail fluttered in the breeze. The group began to take photos, and we all knew that this was a special moment -- the resplendent quetzal is near threatened and, in many parts of Central and South America, almost impossible to spot. Though Costa Rica's protected forests have become prime quetzal territory, even here they can be difficult to find.

After marveling at our avian friend for more than 30 minutes, we began our ascent in earnest. Traipsing through the forest, we climbed upward into cloud, and were soon surrounded by a thick, white mist. The temperature dropped, cooling us after our hike, and then, the three-hour, 1.25-mile walk was finished. Waiting for our taxi to arrive, Mallory and I discussed the day's successes, and hoped that the rest of our trip would be just as exciting.

Back in Santa Elena, we eagerly climbed the Tree House stairs and sat down at one of the restaurant's outdoor tables for a late lunch. A waiter approached, an iPod in hand, to take our order. As we spoke -- a chicken cheeseburger for me and a deluxe hamburger for Mallory -- the waiter noted everything on his portable device. Just five minutes later, our lunch was before us -- thanks to the Tree House's proprietary iPod ordering system, the restaurant's delicious food is prepared and delivered quickly and seamlessly.

After we finished, we walked around downtown's one, small block, breathing in the clean mountain air and watching the setting sun. As night fell, we walked back to the Tree House for a bit of dessert (milkshakes and coffee), and to enjoy the evening's live music. A talented guitarist serenaded the evening's diners, and after we had drifted upstairs to our comfortable, warm beds, we made sure to keep our doors open to let the notes drift in.

Quetzal Spotting in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest in Pictures

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