The quetzal is Guatemala’s national bird and their money is named after it. It’s also one of the most impossible-looking species on the planet. The bird has iridescent feathers that change from bright green to dark blue to nearly black as the light shifts. Its overall color scheme includes an eye-popping mix of neon green, red, blue, yellow and white. The feathers on its tiny head are like a fluffy mohawk. Strange finger-like feathers seem to wrap around from its back toward the front of its chest as if to hug the bird. Its eyes are beady and black.The males sport tail feathers than can be more than three feet (one meter) long.
The holy grail of birding
Quetzals are also incredibly shy and prefer a very specific cloud forest habitat that only exists in a few places on earth. This makes the quetzal a must-spot for most birders and, frankly, for non-birders like us too. And so we headed for the Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera nature reserve, more commonly called the Biotopo de Quetzal in the Verapaz region of Guatemala in search of this unbelievably showy yet famously hard to spot bird.
Timing is (almost) everything
Quetzals are “easiest” to see from March to June. That’s their mating season so they’re more active. This is also when the males’ tail feathers gain full length and splendor. We arrived in quetzal country in May with fingers crossed.
Location, location, location
We’d heard the rumors that quetzal sightings were practically guaranteed at a little guesthouse right next to the Biotopo de Quetzal called Ranchito del Quetzal Hotel & Restaurant. Whenever we hear the words “guaranteed” in association with any kind of animal sighting we roll our eyes. But we checked in anyway after driving past their sad, faded sign on the highway.
Yep, a renowned place to see quetzals is right on a major road. That’s really the only drawback at the Ranchito. The rooms are simple concrete block affairs but comfortable enough for 180Q (about US$23). There are great hiking trails on the guesthouse’s property (which literally shares a fence with the biotopo) and the owners, Flori and Don Julio, could not be more charming–even when they were knocking on our door before sun up asking “Quiren ver las quetzales?” (Do you want to see quetzals?).
Quetzals and coffee
We threw on clothes, grabbed binoculars and cameras and did our best to quietly hurry down to the restaurant where Flori had set out plastic chairs and made coffee. Don Julio, meanwhile, was calmly pointing at a trumpet tree (guarumo in Spanish) less than 40 feet (12 meters) away. Up in its branches was a male quetzal. Just like that. Quetzals love the fruit of the trumpet tree. Knowing that, Don Julio planted loads of them on his property years ago and now the quetzals know they can come here and eat.
We sat there in our comfy chairs sipped hot coffee and admired the birds for a couple of hours. As the sun came up we looked forward to really seeing their brilliant colors but the birds seemed to dislike the sun. They almost seemed to hide from it, waiting for a patch of clouds to obscure it before flying or feeding again.
Don’t hate us because they’re beautiful
That same scenario repeated itself the next morning, minus the knock on the door since we now knew the routine. At one point we counted more than 10 quetzals in the same tree. It was getting ridiculous. To be honest these sightings came so easily they were almost anticlimactic. We certainly didn’t fell like we earned them. We never even set foot in the Biotopo del Quetzal. Hell, we barely had to get out of bed.
So we decided to visit a remote, privately owned nature preserve called the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve. We had to work up a sweat, but we got even more amazing quetzal sightings.