We went on a quest for the quetzal, Guatemala’s elusive national bird, and all we saw was this lousy stuffed exhibit

“How did you all of a sudden get so crazy about that silly fluffy bird?” asks Anete as our chicken bus spits us out in front of the Biotopo del Quetzal. It’s seven in the morning, opening time.

But I can’t explain.

Maybe it’s because of his looks. With its metallic green and vibrant red plumage, the quetzal is a thing of beauty, much like the birds-of-paradise in Indonesia and Papua. Many ornithologists and other lovers of our best feathered friends consider the resplendent quetzal to be one of the most beautiful birds on earth.

Or maybe, more likely, it’s because of what he symbolises – ultimate freedom. It’s said that a quetzal dies when caged and that’s a feeling that resonates strongly within me.

Pharmacy or nacho station?

Whatever it is, our quest for the quetzal merits an early rise. Anete went to sleep with a fever and still feels unwell in the morning. Our possibilities are to go on our hike anyway, or to stay for another day. Purulha is a cold mountain town devoid of any foreign tourism, a place full of taco stands, hardware stores and – luckily! – pharmacies. While Anete is scooping up her cereals with hot milk in the restaurant next to our hotel, I run to the nearest open pharmacy. It doesn’t only sell medicines, but – curiously – also has a nacho station. The pharmacist hands me a sachet with a potent powder and half an hour later, Anete is whistling and running up the hill fifty metres ahead of me.

As with many things beautiful, quetzals are not easy to spot. They hide deep in the Central American cloud forests. Not exactly tropical rain forests, these forests are usually situated at higher altitudes. The humid tracts of highlands, 1000 or more metres above sea level, are the bird’s playgrounds.

The Biotopo del Quetzal boasts two trails, the fern trail and the moss trail, and we decide to hike them both. Entering the cloud forest is like walking into a mystical fairy tale forest. The flora is off the hook, like a forest designed by an architect on LSD. We see weird crablike plants with green balls attached to them, sophisticated spider webs collecting a heavy drop of water and monkey tails, curled up plants that look exactly like the tails of our closest relatives. There are the epiphytes, hanging plants that we know from Belize. They survive without the help of their hosts by taking water straight from the humid air. Their resilience is amazing – we’ve seen them grow even on electricity lines!

Mushroom, mushroom, mushroom

Some leaves have hair, others are coloured baby pink. Some even have moss growing on them. O, the moss! It’s everywhere. Most trees are covered bottom to top with moss, ferns and air plants. And then there’s the mushrooms, an extravagant array of mushrooms! Jellied mushrooms, tiny mushrooms that fall like threads from the moss, mushrooms on a tree that look like pancakes with maple syrup and red mushrooms that grow out of a patch of moss like taper candles. Waterfalls and little streams are running through the lush habitat.

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This cloud forest is unlike any place I’ve ever seen before. Although the biodiversity doesn’t rival that of a tropical rainforest, every cloud forest is notably unique. No cloud forest is alike. They all offer a slightly different environment, a slightly different humidity and a slightly different altitude, and thus every cloud forest has its own variety of species – both fauna and flora.

What a man’s got to do to get laid

We see many examples of the rich fauna and flora, but not the one we’ve come to see. The timing of our attempt toughens our pursuit for the quetzal. We’ve narrowly missed out on the quetzal’s mating season, when males show off by flying high above the canopy, rising to a height of almost 100 metres before descending spirally whilst whistling. What a man’s got to do to get laid!

At the start of the breeding season, the male grows two elongate tail feathers. They can measure up to a metre in length, three times the size of the bird itself. After breeding, these long feathers fall out. Which, let’s face it, again isn’t so different from the human world. I don’t want to feed the men who grow a beer belly after hooking up.

Even though the male quetzal wears his tail feathers for such a short time, this is the most common image of the quetzal. It’s the one you’ll find on coins and banknotes, on the flag of Guatemala and on coats of arms, on bakery walls and on paintings, on towels and pillowcases. The quetzal is every-fuckin’-where in Guatemala.A bakery with the image of the quetzal

Gods of the air

No wonder. The ancient Maya saw the quetzal as ‘gods of the air’. They revered the bird, adored it to bits. Well, the love didn’t prevent the Maya from plucking a couple of emerald green feathers from the quetzal’s plumage, true, but they always released him. The plumes were so valuable they acted like money. Even now, Guatemala’s currency is called quetzal. A quetzal, or so it was rumoured, couldn’t live as a prisoner. The bird would die of sadness, would rather kill itself than to live anyway but free. That notion is echoed in Guatemala’s national anthem: antes muerto que esclavo sera – rather death than slavery.

How about a suiting musical intermezzo?

The Maya adoration for the quetzal shows in a bunch of legends and folk stories. In the most famous of the lot, the quetzal acts as the spiritual leader of the Mayan warrior prince Tecún Umán. The Spanish were ruthless and conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado pierced Tecún Umán in combat. Upon which his bird landed on the warrior’s bloody body and got his distinctive red feathers. “After keeping a death watch through the night,” writes naturalist Jonathan Maslow, “the bird that rose from the chieftan’s lifeless body was transformed. It was no longer the pure green of jade. Its breasts had soaked up the blood of the fallen warrior, and so, too, became crimson, the shade of Mayan blood, as it has remained to this day.” Again, the quetzal represents liberty, independence for the country Guatemala and he’s the protector of the Maya people.

Let’s be honest, it’s a better national bird than most countries have. Estonia’s national bird is a barn swallow, one of the most common birds in Europe, but still claimed as theirs by the Estonians. Belgium has more imagination, but only slightly, with the common kestrel. No, give me the quetzal any day, that magnificent, elegant and gorgeous bird. Even though I have to admit that the Estonian and Belgian nominees are much easier to spot.

Cloudy cloud forest

We clamber down a rocky trail towards a viewpoint, thinking that we might be lucky there. On the contrary, we see how the clouds rush in and cover everything with fog, a humid layer of mist. I finally realise why these woods are called cloud forests. Maya languages say that ‘the forest catches the clouds’ and that’s an ample description.

Viewpoint in the Biotopo del Quetzal

The clouds are kicking in.

We’d seen the phenomenon a day earlier when we had just checked into our hotel. Many local hotels have a rooftop, but it’s seldom developed in the way say Moroccan rooftops are. It’s usually simply a place for the workers to hang the laundry to dry. But whenever I see stairs leading up to a rooftop, I can’t help but check it out, if only for the view. And so, I climbed onto the roof of Hotel San Antonio in Purulha. The vista didn’t disappoint. All around, 360 degrees, green molehills rose up. I ran down to drag Anete, still down with fever, up to check out the view. But when we returned, the clouds already kicked in and draped the whole environment with a thick blanket of condensation. Gone was the view. The temperature plummeted instantly.

Showering in the cloud forest

It is the same now, on the viewpoint. It gets chilly, but I recognise the importance of the incoming clouds for this environment. It’s the moisture from the clouds that waters the trees and plants, just as much as the rain falling from them. It’s like the vegetation filters the clouds. Hence, these cloud forests are extremely important sources of water. Although 30 percent of Guatemala is forest, less than 2 percent is cloud forest. Yet, villages and cities alike get their water from springs and streams that originate in cloud forests. “They are the living aquifers of Guatemala,” writes Community Cloud Forest Conservation. “Turn on your shower in any hotel in Antigua and you have a direct connection to the cloud forest el Pilar on the Agua Volcano. If your bathroom faces south, you can see the cloud forest from which your water is coming.”

A sign reads: “The water in these mountains comes from the evaporation of Lake Izabal and the Gulf of Honduras. Pollution in these bodies of water can even affect life in this forest.” I reminisce about our time on the boat, on said lake, when our host had ordered us to cut our trash into tiny pieces and toss it into the lake. I’m happy I never obeyed and that I always peddled our trash to the mainland.

Long live the quetzal!

Nevertheless, the cloud forests are under threat. And therefore, so is the quetzal. Its numbers are dwindling. The main culprit is habitat loss – loggers cut down forests and replace them by coffee plantations and pastures for livestock. Illegal trafficking and hunt don’t help the quetzal’s cause. It’s no news that humans are capable of destroying a thing of beauty, even if they admire it.

I don’t think these are the reasons why we didn’t spot a quetzal. It simply wasn’t meant to be. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’m happy in the knowledge that I’ve shared the forest with perhaps the most wonderful winged creature on Earth. After all, I didn’t see the Javan rhino Indonesia either, nor the jaguar in Belize, but I still revel in the effort. Nobody can control wildlife – and not seeing something in the wild still feels way more special than seeing something behind the cage of a zoo or an animal park.

(For the record: quetzals do live in zoos and have reproduced a couple of times in captivity. However, as wildlife conservationist Thor Janson writes: “They are only shadows of themselves in captivity. Quetzals live in the cloud forests, to see one in free flight is to experience its magical presence as it soars, plumes flashing against the sky. Their symbol, their credo, is a life of liberty; the National Bird of Guatemala, long may they soar.” Amen. Long live the quetzal!)

A quetzal soars over Purulha, in a drawing on a city wall.

One Reply to “We went on a quest for the quetzal, Guatemala’s elusive national bird, and all we saw was this lousy stuffed exhibit”

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