backpacking… upgraded

Looking out for the quetzal

resplendent quetzalI 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.

Mayan forest homeThe coolest one I found is called Proyecto Ecol√≥gico 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…

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Tortuguero, Costa Rica (part two)

We awoke the following morning aiming to explore the inland side of Tortuguero: vast tracts of dense rainforest sliced through by snaking canals. Armed with sack lunches of tomato-and-cheese sandwiches, the five of us piled into two canoes and launched ourselves into the waterway. We had rented the canoes for a half-day, thinking that four hours of paddling around would suffice to see a huge number of animals and to exhaust ourselves completely. We were half right.

Winds funneling through the canal passages made it extremely difficult to maneuver the canoes, and the perpetual paddling under an unrelenting tropical sun made the sandwiches almost moot. We could hear howler monkeys calling from the banks, but we couldn’t stop to watch them or we’d be blown backwards. By the time we made it to a calm spot where we could finally rest and observe the animals around us, it was time to paddle back to return the canoes.

We changed our approach when we made land again. Back at the dock where we initially arrived in Tortuguero, we asked a local man who was in the middle of tying down his motorboat if he’d be willing to take us out for a few hours to show us around the park. We agreed on a reasonable price (a few U.S. dollars apiece), and in minutes we were motoring past the same spot we’d spent hours rowing to reach. Our kind guide spent the next four hours patiently explaining the flora and fauna of the area to us in lowest-common-denominator Spanish, and he even took us ashore for an hour-long hike through the rainforest. All told we saw probably 30 howler monkeys in distinct vociferous groups, a half-dozen caimans, a few treefuls of spider monkeys, some river otters, and gorgeous tropical birds. During the hike we walked by a tiny, adorable, bright yellow snake (about eight inches long and pencil-width in diameter) that was coiled in a tight spiral on a twig. We were instructed to admire the snake from a distance because it was known to leap up to three feet to inject deadly venom via wee fangs into passing prey. The snake was the most effective argument for travel insurance I have yet come across.

We rounded out our first full day in Tortuguero with an incredible meal, the most satisfying of my life. Brutally tired and sun-sapped, we found our way to Miss Miriam’s, where we polished off platter after platter of red beans and coconut rice, steamed carrots and green beans, and tender chicken that fell off the bone in savory hunks. Chased with several rounds of ice cold Imperial beer, the meal was the perfect ending to a day I’ll never forget.

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Tortuguero, Costa Rica (part one)

After a 90-minute, sun-soaking motorboat journey between walls of undisturbed rainforest, we arrived at Tortuguero, a tiny town on the northern half of Costa Rica’s Caribbean shore. Tortuguero is best known as a major nesting area for sea turtles (the town’s name means ‘turtle catcher’ in Spanish). We were drawn there by the promise of seeing the giant sea turtles in action, and failing that, we’d tour the Tortuguero National Park on the lookout for river turtles, monkeys, caimans, and tropical birds. During the boat ride I had spotted a pair of Capuchin monkeys sporting together in the tops of the trees that towered over the river bank; it was my first ever sighting of monkeys in their natural habitat.

There are two relevant bits of information to impart here: one, I frickin’ love monkeys and always have, and two, I am given to the occasional flight of magnificent idiocy. Hence, I came within nanoseconds of heaving myself out of the boat to swim up for a closer look. As I assumed the heaving position, I remembered the boat captain telling us that there were alligators lolling about in the water, waiting for just such an idiot. [Side note: I had been leaning against taking this trip to Costa Rica in the first place (for cost considerations) until I was told there was a good chance I'd see monkeys there. So, for both of the aforementioned reasons, I relented and bought my ticket. I'm awfully glad I did.] Anyhow, I knew there would be more monkey sightings once we reached Tortuguero. To wit…

Landed in Tortuguero in the late afternoon, we arranged to take a guided beach walk/turtle-reconnaissance-mission later that night. After dropping off our bags in the hostel and scarfing down a facsimile of pizza for dinner, we set out down the beach under the dim light of the moon and stars. We walked about five miles north with no turtle sightings before our guide bade us to retreat, disappointed, back toward town.

We were trudging along, bemoaning our fatigue and turtle-lack, when the guide stopped in his tracks and shooshed us. He shined his red-hued flashlight down at what appeared to be a huge, smooth, still beach boulder. Several moments passed before I realized it was moving; we were only a few feet away from a 600-lb. leatherback turtle. She had already visited her nest and was flippering glacially back toward the ocean. We stood around her for about five minutes, admiring the clumsy sweep of her tracks, listening to the forceful expulsions of air she emitted every now and again while dragging her massive body across the sand. Once she reached the water her pace quickened; in only a few more seconds, she had disappeared beneath a bubbling, moonlit swirl on the surface of the water. Abuzz and flushed with the kind of adrenaline that comes from experiencing a National Geographic moment in person, we blithely walked the mile or so back to town and retired to our hostel for the night. (to be continued…)

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