The first thing the eye registers when it views the resplendent quetzal is the exceptionally long, bright-green tail.
Then the focus darts to the shiny, stabbedin-the-heart-red breast, finally resting on the tussle of feathers atop the head, reminiscent of bed head. Then the bird drops off its perch, winging through the air in its signature U-shaped loop. In flight, it is apparent why this bird inspired the Mesoamerican feathered serpent deity the Aztecs called Quetzalcoatl.
North-central Costa Rica’s Monteverde has long been the country’s top cloud-forest hot spot and the prime destination for pilgrims in search of the elusive quetzal. But for some, that is a prime reason not to go; some feel the tourist rush is detrimental to birdwatching.
Those who seek peace and quiet should take a closer look at the mountain village of San Gerardo de Dota, in southern Costa Rica’s Los Santos region, as an alternative destination.
“Right now, San Gerardo is in an interesting position of possibly following in the footsteps of Monteverde,” says David Hille, field station manager at the Quetzal Education Research Center (QERC), run by Oklahoma’s Southern Nazarene University on the Savegre Mountain Hotel’s land. “For a beautiful, pristine community like San Gerardo de Dota, it is important as it becomes more well known that it is done in a sustainable fashion.”
As hard-core birders know, the right season and relative quiet are usually the best conditions for viewing beaked buddies.
“Here, (the bird) is way easier to see because there is a huge population of the wild avocado the quetzals eat,” says Felipe Chacón, sales manager at the hotel. “The population is much more stable because they do not migrate up and down, because there is fruit.”
Normally, quetzals are difficult to see outside of nesting season, but in San Gerardo, the birds are locally famous for gathering on their favorite food trees – aguacatillo, or wild avocado – allegedly in great numbers, all year-round.
The journey from the capital to San Gerardo is easy, even if it starts at a jarringly urban location: the Musoc bus station in southern San José, where you buy a ticket to San Isidro. The bus leaves the capital behind and cruises down the highway. There is a single stop at a roadside food joint during the two-hour ride, when passengers file off in hopes of catching a bite during the 15-minute break.
Along the ride, as the altitude increases, the clouds begin to form. The curling wisps consume the TalamancaMountains, enveloping the deep-green forest in a surreal aura of mystery. You ask the driver to stop somewhere between kilometers 70 and 80, where a prescheduled driver picks you up and takes you to whichever local hotel you have booked for your stay.
The mountain streams give rise to a fair amount of fish farming, and some of the hillsides are pockmarked with bald patches of deforested land. But the forest tracts are pristine, and envelop gorgeous waterfalls. In addition to the quetzal, 175 bird species, seven of them endemic, inhabit the trees, including the long-tailed silky-flycatcher and the fiery-throated hummingbird.
Quetzal nesting season in San Gerardo de Dota, at peak from March to April, is particularly spectacular for your avid avian spotter.
Nests, found in holes in dead trees near running water, can be easily located with the help of locals and hotel guides.
“Five (known) nests were active (this season),” Hille says. “The nests that are found are always on the roads and on the trails.”
That figure represents what Hille assumes is a small cross section, considering that much of the hotel’s 400-acre property is virgin, inaccessible forest.
The birds here have another leg up over their Monteverde counterparts.
“The biggest advantage is that you’ve got a large continuous tract of oak and bamboo forest … down to Panama,” Hille explains. “This is a large part of their range that is still intact. This is a population that should be healthier and should be more natural.”
Indeed, the center is hoping to figure out just how healthy the birds are. Hille says the center intends to team with geneticists from the University of Costa Rica to test the fortitude of the genes of the valley’s fauna.
Regardless of the results, one thing is clear: For now, San Gerardo de Dota is the place to go to skirt the crowds and get some quality face time with Costa Rica’s most resplendent bird.
The Resplendent Quetzal
–Quetzals live in cloud forests from Mexico to Panama.
–The body of the quetzal is about 14 inches (35 cm) long, but in males the tail feathers can grow up to an additional 36 inches (90 cm). Females do not have the iconic long tails.
–The birds lay clutches of two eggs. Incubation takes 17 to 18 days. Babies attempt to fly at three weeks; the first one to fly is generally fed by the male, while the other is ignored until it flies.
–Birds gain the green and red coloring at 3 years.
–Quetzals tend to nest in holes in dead trees near water.
–Their favorite food is the wild avocado. Deforestation of the trees that produce them threatens to starve the species out.
–The name is derived from the Atzec word quetzalli, meaning “beautiful.” Quetzal feathers were used in ceremonial dress throughout Mesoamerica, and the plumed serpent deity that appeared in many of the region’s ancient cultures was likely inspired by the bird.
–The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, and gave its name to that country’s currency.
Source: Rainforest Alliance(www.rainforest-alliance.org)
Where to Stay
Accommodations in the San Gerardo area range from posh to simple.
Savegre Mountain Hotel (2740-1028, www.savegre.co.cr) offers two rooming options: standard rooms for $161 double in high season and $150 in low season; and junior suite cabins for $217 during high season and $199 in low season. Rates include three meals and entry to the hotel’s private land and gorgeous waterfall trails. Junior suites come equipped with a fireplace, bathtub and other amenities.
Dantica Hotel (2740-1067, www.dantica.com) has nine hectares of private forest and offers upscale bungalows and suites. Bungalows go for $127 double in low season and $146 during high season.
Trogon Lodge (2293-8181, www.grupomawamba.com/trogonlodge), on a 42-hectare farm of its own, has beautiful junior suites and standard rooms. Standard doubles go for $74, while double suites cost $120.
Mirador de Quetzales (2771-4582), formerly Finca Eddie Serrano, offers simpler, more affordable, family-style lodging. The rooms cost $47 per person including three meals and a two-hour tour.
Paraíso del Quetzal (2200-0241, www.paraisodelquetzal.com) has eight cabins on nine hectares, complete with forest trails. The $50 per-person rate includes dinner and breakfast and a guided hiking or birding tour (see separate story on pages W6 and W7).