In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal

Published: April 25th 2016
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Monteverde was one of Costa Rica’s top attractions. Its cloud forests formed an otherworldly landscape of misty forest vistas and rolling mountains that are home to a stunning array of wildlife. It is a bird-watchers’ paradise that draws people from all over the world who come hoping to get a glimpse of its most famous avian resident the emerald green and red resplendent quetzal. The main town in the region is Santa Elena, a compact tourist town with a laid-back feeling about it.

We arrived in Santa Elena at around 2:00 in the afternoon. Our journey from Bijagua had been long, but enjoyable. The majority of the drive was on paved roads and, with the exception of a one-lane construction zone where I got to carry the red flag signifying that I was the last car coming in the line, we made good time. We arrived in Juntas, a lovely little town at the end of the pavement, at lunchtime. We found a small soda attached to the Catholic cathedral that looked popular, so we stopped and got a delicious comida tipica from the exceptionally friendly man running the place. After lunch we took a quick look inside the church, which had some amazing stained-glass windows, and then we continued east out of town. The pavement gave way to another rough, rocky road that wound its way through some stunning mountain scenery. We passed through several substantial towns on our way, but the road stayed uniformly bad. I couldn’t help but marvel at Santa Elena’s insistence on having unpaved roads to town – They actually voted against paving the roads in an attempt to prevent Monteverde from becoming a crowded tourist theme park, which made me happy.

Our first order of business in Santa Elena was to find coffee. We asked a hostel-hawker where the best coffee in town was and he directed us to a place at the bottom of the hill called Café Orquidea. We stopped in and got some traditional Costa Rican coffee, which was a strong drip coffee prepared using a special filter bag and a wooden frame. We sat and enjoyed our wonderful coffee and a slice of pineapple cake while we called around town searching for a place to stay. The first three places we called either didn’t answer the phone, or were completely full. We were looking for a place to stay that was in the forest away from the noise of town and we finally found it in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge. The lodge was a short ride out of town located on a mountainside in the dense forest. The grounds were well manicured and the main lodge building was luxurious with sweeping views down the mountain all the way to the distant Pacific. After a bit of negotiating we got a room in the most remote building they had. Our room was spacious with a patio that looked out on the forest and a rustic décor – It was perfect.

We enjoyed some fruity welcome drinks in the lodge’s bar, which had some amazing views, while we chatted a bit with the barman Alex, who was very friendly, and then we moved into our room. It didn’t take long before we found our first scorpion hiding in a rocky crevice on one of the walls. Maria was less enthusiastic about our roommate than I was, so, after a few photos, I escorted him out into the forest. We walked back down to the lodge to watch the sunset, but some low clouds obstructed it. Instead, we joined a night walk that was about to leave and we headed into the forest. Eric, our guide, was quite good at pointing out the interesting little details in the nighttime forest. We saw countless insects, including walking sticks and night crickets, and we found several impressive spiders, including a lovely pink-kneed tarantula. At one creek crossing he pointed out some puma tracks that he said were about two nights old. The night sounds in the forest had a haunting feel about them. There was an almost imperceptible hum that formed the background music. Occasionally a hidden bird would let out a soothing call and Eric would frequently answer back, starting up a conversation of sorts with the bird. We didn’t encounter any snakes on our walk, which was my biggest hope, but it was an amazing first glimpse into the cloud forest. We arrived back at the lodge with plenty of time to get cleaned up for dinner. I ate a delicious piece of fish with a rich shrimp sauce on it while we relaxed among the other guests at the lodge. Everything was delicious and the ambiance was great. Our visit to the Monteverde region was definitely getting off to a wonderful start. After a quick scorpion check between the sheets we climbed in bed and quickly drifted off to sleep.

We woke up with the sun the next morning and, for once, the sunshine saddened me a bit. We were in the cloud forest, so I was hoping for the famous mist-shrouded forest of my dreams, not sunshine. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast at the lodge and then we loaded up the car and headed out of town. After about fifteen minutes on a muddy road we reached the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and, since our vehicle was tiny, we got a premium parking spot beside the ticket office. A few minutes later we were on the trails in the most perfectly misty forest I had ever imagined – The sunshine was a distant memory! It quickly became clear that finding a quetzal, or any other wildlife, in the forest’s tangle of mossy vines and thick foliage was going to be a challenge. We spent the next several hours walking at a deliberately slow pace through the misty wonderland. At times colorful birds chattered in the trees and they frequently made themselves known by flying across the trail. The mist enveloped us in a cool cloud of moisture that dampened our clothing and put a slight chill in the air. We followed the main trail to the park’s only suspension bridge. The massive red bridge spanned a wide tree-filled ravine that ran down the side of the mountain and disappeared in the mist below. The long metal walkway bounced gently with every step. The mist turned to heavy rain forcing us to pick up our pace across the chasm. When we reached the relative shelter of the canopy on the far side of the bridge we paused to put on our ponchos and then we continued into the rainy mist. Eventually the path led us up to an exposed ridge where the wind roared across our path pelting us with heavy mist and rain. We reached the end of the path at a wooden deck with views over the continental divide to the wet Caribbean side of the ridge. We stood in the blowing mist and soaked up the raw wildness of the wind and the mist – It was an amazing place!

We retraced our tracks back down to a junction and then we continued our exploration of Monteverde. The path headed up and down slippery slopes on well-maintained trails. We ascended mysterious, moss-covered staircases that passed between massive, buttressed trees. Eventually the path descended into a swampy lowland of sorts where there was an elevated wooden walkway that kept our feet out of most of the mud. I paused to take a photo of an amazing pair of trees that the path passed between. Maria was a little ahead of me and she stopped and pointed up into the trees to the right of the trail. Just as I got up to where she was I heard an unusual bird call in the trees where she was pointing. I looked up and, instantly, one of my longtime dreams came to fruition – We were staring at a beautiful resplendent quetzal a short distance off the trail. I had spent weeks searching the forests of Guatemala and Honduras for the quetzal back in 2006 to no avail and I had wanted to see one ever since. I was giddy. Maria helped me get my camera gear in order and then I took several pictures of the quetzal through the light mist as he flew back and forth between a few branches. At one point the sun broke through the clouds and set his emerald plumage aglow in a brilliant flash of green. We spent about five minutes with the amazing bird before he said farewell and flew deeper into the forest, his long green tail feathers streaming behind him as he flew – It was a beautiful sight! Maria was proving to be an excellent wildlife spotter!

We encountered the quetzal at about the mid-point of the circuit we were following. Once he flew away we started walking again, but our exhaustion was becoming more apparent. We picked up our pace as we wound our way through the stunning forest. We left the boardwalk behind us and started following a stretch of trail that clung to a steep slope above a rushing creek. We heard several more interesting bird calls, but the wildlife became harder to find, possibly it was us not being as observant. We paused several times to rest and to remind ourselves to take in the scenery we were passing through. We reached the turnoff for a small waterfall, so we turned and followed it to a platform just below the falls. It was a beautiful place to rest. The white ribbon of water fell into a dark, rocky pool surrounded by the verdant ravine we had been following. The far side of the ravine was heavily forested. Above the trees we could see the mist flowing quickly through the treetops, yet it was calm beneath the canopy were we were. We were very close to the ranger station, so we turned back onto the trail and quickened our pace. The path in that section was well maintained, so the going was quick. We passed a small tour group that was just starting their exploration. The guide pointed up into the trees and said Capuchin monkeys. We had been hoping to see some monkeys, so that was another great experience. A short time later we emerged into the parking area and said farewell to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Our time in the forest had been more amazing than I had hoped and, while we didn’t see much wildlife, we did see the resplendent quetzal, the area’s most famous and shyest inhabitant.

We were craving coffee and we were feeling like continuing the day’s adventures, so we turned down a side road at the sign that pointed toward Ecolodge San Luis. We both work for the University System in Georgia and the Ecolodge San Luis was a research station nearby that was run by the University of Georgia. We decided to take a look. The road descended steeply into a lovely green valley. We passed stunning views of the Pacific and some precipitous drops off of the side of the road made the going slow. Eventually we reached a small sign that directed us toward the lodge. We reached the guardhouse where a friendly man told us a little about the lodge and then told us we could go and take a look. As we continued down the road a large emerald green and red bird shot across the road, his graceful tail feathers streaming behind him. We were forced to slam on our breaks to avoid hitting our second resplendent quetzal in less than two hours!

We parked and walked up to the lodge. We were greeted by one of the lodge managers and we explained our connection to the University System in Georgia and he welcomed us to look around. We had read that there was a coffee shop there but that wasn’t the case, but they still offered us some coffee from the dining hall. We were joined by one of the naturalists working there. Alex was from Georgia, but had been working at the lodge for a year. He was very enthusiastic about his work and excitedly told us about the facilities and what they did there. We told him about the quetzal we had seen and he was surprised, saying that they were rarely seen at such low elevations. Our conversation turned to snakes, which was a passion we shared. He asked if I wanted to see an eyelash viper that was nearby and I excitedly said yes. We finished our coffee and then he took us on a quick walk around campus, explaining the purpose of the different buildings. We turned down a forest trail and then after a short distance he stopped and pointed up to a branch just above our heads. A stunning green and yellow viper was resting in a tight coil just a few feet above us. Alex told us that the snake had first been spotted a few nights before and that it had just eaten, which was why it hadn’t moved yet. We were able to make out the special eyelash-like scales above its eyes, but most of its head was hidden. I love snakes and I had hoped to see some of Costa Rica’s interesting serpents, so it was another dream come true for me.

We took some pictures and then we started back toward the lodge, detouring to take a look at the human waste biogas digesters that had just been built on site – Maria had done a lot of research on human waste biogas digesters in India in college and I had built a few, so we were both very interested. When we got back to the lodge Alex asked us if we wanted to see a giant tarantula with lots of baby spiders and a moment later we were off down another trail. The spider was located in a big hole beneath a rock and we could easily make out the spider and several tiny white babies – It was very cool. We also spotted a coati and some amazing trees on the second walk and then he pointed out some small tin-roofed cabins where he and the other staff lived. A short walk later we were back at the lodge where Alex said farewell – He had to go cook the turkey for a special Thanksgiving meal the next day.

We left the lodge and headed back up the steep hill toward Santa Elena. Along the way we passed somebody walking up the hill and we stopped and offered him a ride. It turned out that he was one of two moth researchers working at the research station, so we talked more about the lodge as I tried to get the car going again. The hill was too steep, so I had to roll back to a flatter spot in a switchback in the road and then we were underway again. We dropped the man off at a local dairy factory and then we stopped there for some highly recommended ice cream. After our sweet tooth was satisfied we drove into Santa Elena for an early dinner. We ate at a strange restaurant built around a giant fig tree. The tables were spread out between the trees massive branches on a second story tree-house-like floor. It was a great way to bring our adventurous day to a close. After dinner we headed back to our lodge and spent the rest of the evening relaxing. Before bed we decided to head down to the lodge’s restaurant for a snack and a cup of tea and then we drifted off to a much-earned night of sleep.

We were up with the sun the next morning. Maria grabbed her cardigan as we were walking down to breakfast and gasped - There was a giant scorpion resting in its folds. I played with the beautiful creature and took some pictures and then I escorted him to the forest. We sat beside a hummingbird feeder at breakfast and we got to see two different hummingbirds, a beautiful, multi-colored bird and a giant, deep blue one, as well as a huge squirrel – It was a great way to end our stay in the cloud forest. An hour later we were checked out and on our way to the coast. Which coast remained to be determined…

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