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Costa Rica: In search of the quetzal

If you’re looking for the elusive quetzal deep in Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest, you’ll need luck on your side

Costa Rica: In search of the quetzal
Resplendent quetzal, Costa Rica. Image: Getty

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It’s early, far too early, and the sun is just breaking through the canopy, its silky beams casting a dappled pattern on the forest floor. I’m here to spot the quetzal, an iridescent little bird that lives in the cloud forests of Central America, and is notoriously difficult to find. People travel from all over the world to search for the quetzal; many leave without even hearing its distinctive call.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest nestles 4,500ft above sea level on the Costa Rican Continental Divide. Moisture from clouds gathers on leaves, beads along mossy vines and falls to the forest floor. Orchids tangle around an algae-encrusted bench, ferns splay from every nook and butterflies dance between flowers. I’ve arrived in the forest as it’s waking up with a crescendo of whistling birds, chirping insects and creaking branches.

When you imagine a jungle, you imagine something that looks like the Monteverde Cloud Forest. I’m joined by Adrian, a local ornithologist. A short, weathered man in his 50s, he’s lived in Monteverde his whole life. Not long after setting off into the undergrowth, he stops abruptly and starts scraping the ground with his boot, deftly extracting a shiny brown bean from a spiky pod. He presses it into my palm; without its good fortune, he says, we’ll never see the quetzal.

We trek deeper into the forest, surrounded by the sound of dripping as cloud turns to droplets of water. I wipe condensation from my camera lens, scanning the trees for signs of the quetzal. Often, we hear a crack of a twig that’s not caused by our boots. The quetzal shares its home with all manner of creatures, from snakes and sloths to tapirs and monkeys, and we’ve no idea how many pairs of eyes are watching our slow progress through the undergrowth.

After a few hours, Adrian stops at a clearing. His eyes narrow and he holds up a hand to silence me. Then I hear it: a barely audible whistle from a cluster of trees ahead, the call rising and falling, answered moments later from further into the forest. Then it falls silent. Minutes later, we hear it again, this time behind us, echoing around the treetops, then silence once more.

With a flash of red and green and a flurry of feathers, the magnificent bird swoops through the clearing, landing on a fragile branch 50ft away. It sits for a few moments, bouncing slightly with the branch and cocking its head to listen for its mate. As the quetzal rises and falls with the branch, the sunlight catches its long tail feathers, which shimmer in shades of ultramarine, turquoise and blue; a brilliant stained-glass window against the forest mist.

I’m utterly transfixed by the sight of the beautiful bird. As my hand reaches to my camera, the lucky bean drops to the forest floor and rolls under a fern frond. I lean over to pick it up, then stop, pause a moment, and leave it there for someone else to discover. 


Travel Writing Competition 2018 runner up, announced in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)