We awakened before dawn in the misty Costa Rican cloud forest, hoping for a glorious glimpse of a bird as colorful as its name: the resplendent quetzal.
With its iridescent green plumage, red breast (in males) and flowing tail, the celebrated birds capture what draws so many visitors to Costa Rica. This tiny Central American country is renowned for its concerted efforts to prevent deforestation and constitutes one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions.
The payoff for nature lovers exists in a range of spectacular viewing opportunities, from frail sloths to colorful scarlet macaws, and more. From ecoforest stays to guided excursions and self-guided visits to national parks, Costa Rica showcases wildlife—flyers and creepers and slitherers—in vivid colors and surprising ways.
Photo Tom Cohen @tomcophoto for Big Sky Resort
Costa Rica has cemented its environmental credentials across the past five decades, preserving about one-quarter of its land through refuges, reserves and parks. The smallest among them, Manuel Antonio National Park, is a canopied jewel of about 1,700 acres set along the Pacific Ocean’s white-sand beaches.
The idyllic setting draws big crowds, so it’s better to arrive early to take in the white-faced capuchin monkeys holding court in the branches. A black spiny-tailed iguana or red-eyed tree frog is liable to peer from beneath a branch or scamper for cover. The roar of howler monkeys may fill the air.
Be patient (and be sure to pack binoculars and a telephoto camera lens) and the rainforest’s residents will reveal themselves. High up in a tree, a three-toed sloth hangs munching on vegetation. Next to a path, all but invisible with its brown and gray plumage, a bird—a common pauraque—rests up before early evening plans to dine on flying insects.
A word of caution: Not all the forests’ residents are benign. The country is home to more than 20 species of venomous snakes, and though we encountered none of them during our week-long visit, it is advisable to stay alert and pay attention to guides.
Photo Tom Cohen @tomcophoto for Big Sky Resort
While hiking the Osa Peninsula on the southern Pacific coast, we heard the distant cries of toucans and macaws as we watched spider monkeys eating leaves and acrobatically swinging through the trees and occasionally tossing sticks at us for fun.
The same afternoon, during a hike from lovely San Josecito beach, we spotted the brilliant red and blue flash of three pairs of scarlet macaws streaking across the sky. Following their path, we found them perched overhead. I’d cleverly left my biggest lens for this impromptu hike at the lodge, however, and the experience taught me to never be caught without the right lens in Costa Rica.
The Saladero Ecolodge is set in the Piedras Blancas National Park on 360 acres of tropical rainforest. Accessible only by boat, the ecolodge is situated on the scenic Golfo Dulce beachfront and is filled with varied wildlife. We hiked the ecolodge’s trails and spotted birds galore—colorful parakeets, tiny flycatchers, golden-naped woodpeckers and the red and black Cherrie’s tanager. Guarding its nest in a tree, a variable seedeater silently watched us watching her.
The Curú National Wildlife Refuge, on the Nicoya Peninsula, has 17 hiking trails through nearly 3,700 acres of rainforest. While hiking, we spotted the turquoise and bright red of the aptly named elegant trogon, a vibrant pot-bellied bird.
Trogons are known as “secondary nesters” because they lack the ability to create holes in trees for their nests, so they rely on woodpeckers to excavate nesting sites then move in after they are abandoned.
The resplendent quetzal and trogon are related, and similarly lack the strong beaks and claws needed to make their own nesting sites. They also share brilliant coloring, but quetzals are a legendary sight–so much so that they likely inspired Mesoamerica’s serpent god Quetzalcóatl.
During spring mating season, the male grows twin tail feathers as much as 3 feet long, creating an elegant, flowing turquoise train as it flutters from tree to tree. It is widely considered among the world’s most beautiful birds.
Photo: Mädy Georgusis
At more than 8,600 feet in altitude, Paraiso Quetzal Lodge is set within Costa Rica’s central highlands, about two hours from the bustling capital city of San Jose. After a short drive and a 300-yard walk, our guide, Jorge, led a small group of us to a grassy overlook.
He explained how local farmers help spot the quetzals and the lodge works with them to allow viewers access and assure that the birds are protected.
At this site, Jorge told us quietly, the farmer believed that the young had hatched and that the nesting pair were active in bringing them insects.
We waited, watching hummingbirds by the dozens busily going about their work. Then there it was: a flowing ribbon of green, red and black, followed shortly by the less colorful female.
We stayed mesmerized as the quetzals took turns entering and leaving the nest, hidden inside a snag high above the forest floor.
On this, our last full day in Costa Rica, the vivid colors painted an indelible story of the power of renewal.
Alex Pulaski is an Oregon-based travel writer with a background in print journalism and communications. His feature articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Afar and more.