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You Mean Quetzals? I Don't Think They Exist.

Written by Jared on April 3, 2012

A Quetzal!Start: March 23, El Biotopo De Quetzal
Finish: March 25, Santa Ana, El Salvador
Hours Spent Walking Up A Mountain: 2
Number of "It's a Quetzal!" Said: Hundreds
Incredibly Rare Birds Seen: 4.5
Borders Crossed: 1

Our last stop in Guatemala was intended to be one of our most memorable: a hunt for the elusive national bird of Guatemala, the quetzal. Pronounced "ket-zal" for the español impaired. Sacred to the Maya, name of the national currency, pictured on the country's hard could it be? They should be everywhere, right? No, not so much.

Thanks to the time we spent in Antigua we have an inkling of just how difficult it can be to see this bird. My Spanish teacher has lived in Guatemala for more than fifty years, and she's never seen one. In fact, I can't remember meeting one Guatemalan with anything more than a second-hand report of a sighting.

They speak of the bird as some great mystery, a piece of Guatemalan culture that has been lost. I'd go so far as to propose the analogy that it would be like the US having bigfoot on their flag, and instead of saying "give me five bucks", we'd say "give me five bigfoots". Nobody would really know why, but we'd all agree that bigfoot is awesome, and as American as apple pie, baseball and all that other stuff.

Our campsite in the quetzal reserve.

Where do you go if you want to have a decent chance to see a quetzal? Why, El Biotopo del Quetzal, of course. A national park dedicated to preserving the dwindling cloud forests that the birds call home during the mating season which begins (conveniently for us) in March. Staying in the park is a must, you have to be up and hiking into the forest by sunrise to have a chance at seeing the birds.

Fortunately, the park has camping facilities, albeit a 5 minute hike from our car. But it was worth it, it's been two months since we last pitched our tents and fell asleep to the sound of Jessica whimpering about the size of the spider she just saw.

Not a quetzal.

While we didn't see any quetzals our first afternoon in the park, we did have a couple other visitors. A troupe (gaggle, flock?) of these blue birds would routinely maraud our campsite. They weren't shy in the least. One climbed down behind our grill, speared a frog, and flew off no more than two feet from where I was cooking lunch.

Also not a quetzal.

Along with birds, there were a fair share of geckos and other lizard-like critters. Kobus caught this guy sunning on a rock near our tents.

Sunrise through the trees.

The next morning we set off into the cloud forest. It's a bit too cold to be a jungle, but it's certainly a rainforest. Similar to the rainforests on the Olympic peninsula, except with more tropical plants and animals. It was a magical setting for a hike, quetzals or no.

Jared and Jessica start up the mountain.

The three mile hike involved walking to the top of a hill, and then farther back into the forest where the fruit trees grow. Chances are apparently better in that area as the trees lower down the hill have yet to begin fruiting. It's all starting to sound a bit like snipe hunting to me.

Switchbacks leading up the trail.

This is one of the curvier sections of the trail. Very well maintained, but nothing but switchbacks and stairs for a mile.

The view from the top of the hill.

Once we got to the top we took a breather at the lookout. As always, the climb was well worth the effort given the view at the top.

Jared and Jess take a breather at the viewpoint.

We stopped for a fancy breakfast of chocolate muffins, a bit of sun and a breather before heading farther back into the forest to continue our search for an invisible bird.

A view of the Guatemalan cloud forest.

One last shot from the top - this gives you an idea why they call this "cloud forest". Everything is green, perpetually wet and covered in moss and ferns. The view is spectacular, certainly a part of Guatemala worth visiting, regardless of the rarity of certain exotic wildlife.

The light shines through the jungley forest.

Back into the magical forest, we begin our descent. On the way down I saw a bird that could have been a quetzal, but I was the only one. Given that there was no proof, it felt a bit more like an ET sighting than a wildlife encounter. Who would ever believe me?

The hike was fantastic, but there's no way you could see a bird up there. The vegetation is too dense, the trees are too tall and covered with plants. The bird would have to land on the trail for you to get a good look at it.

By the time we got the bottom we were no closer to having seen a quetzal than when we started. We resolved to change locations the next day, and move to a place where we knew others had seen the bird.

Our second stop on the hunt for the quetzal at El Ranchito.

Just up the road (literally thirty seconds away) is a place called El Ranchito. It's a hotel and restaurant run by a super-friendly local family. From the moment we arrived they did everything to assure that we would see ourselves a genuine quetzal.

The plan of attack? Get up at 6, grab a cup of coffee, a gigantic camera lens; have a seat and wait for the birds to come to me. This is my kind of bird watching.

Our first sighting - the backside of a quetzal.

Success! Our first sighting - a magnificently crested quetzal ass. We saw the bird fly in and out of the tree, and we heard the sounds it made. Once we knew what we were looking and listening for our search got a lot easier.

A blury shot a quetzal.

This right here is a picture of a quetzal, albeit a younger female variety, taken from half a mile away in less-than-ideal lighting conditions. Google "resplendent quetzal" if you care to see what the males look like, in all their shiny-green glory.

Another blury shot a quetzal.

One last blurry shot to prove a point - quetzals really do exist! It's true. We seen 'em. Considering it's something even most Guatemalans will never see, we're excited with how this little adventure turned out.

The El Salvadorian border.

Fresh from our quetzal sighting, we head to El Salvador. Another unexciting border crossing, and on to the sixth country of this trip.

Up Next: We go from a sketchy city, to a relaxing beach, to an awesome campground where we take a tour of a coffee plantation on horseback.


#2 Jessicam 2012-04-06 01:00
Hey Jame,
I believe you! We're in San Miguel, El Salvador. Crossing through Honduras to Nicaragua tomorrow. Plan to spend the weekend in Leon, then head to Grenada. When do you think you'll be in Nicaragua? We need to meet up again for mojitos!
#1 James 2012-04-06 00:16
Congrats on the sighting! Nobody believes me but I saw one fly by when we were driving dirtroads wayyyy up in the mountains above Coban. Were in Toaca, Honduras now. Where are you guys?

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