I just ran across a blurb in an old mental floss magazine about the resplendent, or Guatemalan, quetzal. Quetzals are among the most beautiful birds on earth, boasting scarlet breasts and iridescent blue-green wings, and the tail feathers of males can grow up to three feet long! To the Mayans, who considered the quetzal sacred, its feathers were more valuable than gold.
Centuries on from the heyday of the Maya, the quetzal is still held in the highest regard among the people of the region; it is the national bird of Guatemala and lends its name to the country’s currency. (Incidentally, that kind of quetzal is not more valuable than gold; one quetzal equates to about US$0.13). Partly from over-hunting and partly due to decades of habitat destruction, the quetzal is now a threatened species.
By the way, the quetzal serves as a nice metaphor for the spirit of a flashpacker. The bird requires the freedom to fly about; a caged quetzal will surely die. OK, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the point. (Also, like this flashpacker, the quetzal’s favorite food is the avocado. The quetzal will fly up to the hanging fruit, pick it from the tree and fly back to its nest, devour it whole, and regurgitate the pit 20 to 30 minutes later. The similarities are uncanny.)
A few years removed from trips to Costa Rica and Guatemala, I had largely forgotten about the quetzal. We spent several days hiking through the rain forests of both countries and never spotted one. Apparently our experience was not unique; with their numbers in decline, it is becoming more and more difficult to find the quetzal in the wild. There are a handful of organized, guided tours throughout Central America that promise a glimpse of the cherished bird, but they tend to be very expensive and very regimented.
The coolest one I found is called Proyecto Ecológico Quetzal in Guatemala. They arrange for you to stay with a Maya Q’eqchi’ family in the cloud forest of Chicacnab, where the remnant Mayan culture is preserved. By day you walk the trails of Chicacnab, which has the highest population density of quetzals in the country, and you return at night to share in the lives of a typical Mayan family. The family profits from tourism, and in return they promise to preserve the forest in which they dwell. The only information I couldn’t find on the website was the price…