The quetzal quest

Said to be the most beautiful birds in the world, quetzals were revered as gods by ancient Mayan and Aztec civilisations. Today, the cloud forests of Costa Rica are the best places to glimpse this majestic avian

By Emma Thomson
Published 15 May 2017, 16:10 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:04 BST
The quetzal

The quetzal

Photograph by Getty Images

Thick morning mist hangs like dragon's breath all around us in San Gerardo de Dota. Dawn is yet to break and in the poor light, the sounds of the cloud forest vibrate in my ear. From the trees echo croaks, whistles, chirrups and the drip-drop of water trickling from leaf to leaf. It's November, but the wet season rains have lingered, leaving everything glowing green. We're searching for the quetzal — claimed by some to be the most beautiful bird in the world; in particular, the male whose trailing twin tail feathers can grow up to a metre long. In parts of Central America, the Maya and Aztecs were so in awe of the quetzal's majesty, they revered the birds as gods; they could be used instead of money, and priests and royalty would wear the feathers in their headdresses as a symbol of wealth. Today, it's the national bird of Guatemala — the country's currency is named after it — but habitat loss and hunting means Costa Rica is now one of the best places to see this amazing avian.

Now, wrapped in fog, the signs for a sighting look good: "They don't like the sun," advises our local guide, Carlos. I'd expected him to lead us deep into the undergrowth on our search, but instead we walk a hundred metres up the road from our lodge. "There's an avocado tree here that they love," he whispers. Insects, small frogs and fruit are all well and good, but apparently it's aguacatillo (miniature wild avocados) they go crazy for. "Babies start eating them from two weeks old," grins Carlos. So, like a flock of hawks, our small group gaze intently at the squat shrub. Five minutes turn into ten. Fifteen minutes later and still nothing.

A volcano hummingbird alights on a nearby wooden post and we swivel our eyes to admire its violet bib, but at that moment a new sound cuts through the quiet. A mewing so delicate it melts the heart. We all freeze and I cock my head to the side to hear it better. Carlos is on the move. He swivels his tripod-mounted spotting scope from the hummingbird back to the avocado tree and there, perched on an outer branch, is a male quetzal — his fire engine-red breast flashing through the mist.

Carlos waves me over. Looking through the eyepiece, I can make
out the dew drops on its iridescent emerald feathers and the glisten of its beady black eye.

A little later, a dowdy brown female joins him and we watch them eat the hard fruits. Then, one of the group trips over a stone and the noise unsettles the birds, sending them up into the air. The male flies across the opening in the trees above us; his twin plumes fluttering behind him like a magnificent banner. I've no idea how much a Maya would have paid for those feathers, but just seeing them is worth every penny.

Published in the Costa Rica 2017 guide, distributed with the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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