Quetzal paradise in Costa Rica

We had been sitting for 45 minutes, watching long blue feathers sticking out of a hole in a tree.

I was in the cloud forest in the Central Valley in Costa Rica, with my husband and two kids. We were staying at El Paraiso Quetzal (Quetzal Paradise), an eco-lodge, and we’d gone on an early morning birdwatching tour to look for quetzals.

Quetzals are beautiful and rare birds that live in Central America. They’re iridescent blue-green, and the adult males have magnificently long tail feathers. The quetzal has a few claims to fame:

  1. The Mayans considered the quetzal to be a sacred bird, with the tail feathers being worn by royalty.
  2. Quetzals are important to the ecosystem of the cloud forest, because they spread the seeds of many trees, including the wild avocado tree.
  3. Quetzal is the “Q” on the animal alphabet in my kids’ classroom.

My 8-year-old son loves birds, and with both kids intrigued about quetzals because of that “Q” picture, we couldn’t pass up the chance to see them while were in Costa Rica. So here we were watching feathers flutter from a tree.

Those feathers belonged to a male quetzal. Quetzal nests are in holes in the sides of trees. The hole is big enough for the eggs and for the quetzal’s body. When the female is sitting on the eggs, she’s completely hidden. But the male quetzal’s tail is too big to fit in the hole. So when he takes his turn sitting on the eggs, the tail feathers flutter out of the hole, looking much like another of the ferns that grow abundantly on trees in the cloud forest.


Based on their previous behavior, the female quetzal was expected to come and trade places with the male that morning around 8. We got there around 7:30, so we wouldn’t miss it. (We’d already been to a different site, where we found a younger nest-less male quetzal. Yes, this tour started incredibly early.) We got excited about the tail feathers, and photographed them way too many times. Then we settled in and started waiting.

After 45 minutes or so, we were still just watching feathers fluttering in the breeze. The kids had gotten restless and had moved on to picking some blackberries from the bushes behind us. We were trying to keep them quiet, since noise might scare the quetzals. The kids did pretty well at the quiet thing, for an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old (and the two other families on the tour had a baby each, so at least ours weren’t the only noisy ones!). We were all wondering whether the female quetzal was going to show up at all.

Evidently, we weren’t the only ones wondering. The male suddenly emerged from the nest. One second we were watching tail feathers, the next we were staring at the most magnificent bird in Central America. And the mood instantly shifted, with everyone (kids included) wanting to take turns with the binoculars to see the incredible birds better.


“Our” beautiful quetzal perched on a tree branch, looking around expectantly. We couldn’t stop marveling at the beauty of his iridescence and his elegant tail. He flew into a closer tree, just above our heads, and everyone gasped to see such magnificence in flight. Perching for a while, he almost seemed to be posing for us. He stayed there for a while, then went back to perch on the tree right next to his nest.

The female quetzal still hadn’t shown up. Either the presence of humans near the nest scared her away, or she was just too busy enjoying her wild avocado feast to come back to the nest quite yet. The male decided he couldn’t wait any longer, and tucked himself back into the nest, tail feathers once again fluttering out of the hole. (My husband was unbelievably excited about the video he captured of this moment.)

As we headed back to the lodge for breakfast (which we knew would be delicious), we knew the rest of our day would be just as amazing, what with admiring the many rainbow-colored hummingbirds that buzzed around the lodge, and walking through the verdant cloud forest to admire the incredible variety of plants and animals. Later that day, I would have one of my favorite meditations ever, lying in the moss next to a waterfall. But the day already seemed perfect in that moment.

Travel perfection. Sometimes it comes in the form of long blue feathers.


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