As the bus travelled along the Cerro de la Muerte and traversed the roaring Talamanca Mountain range the urban sprawl of San José and Costa Rica’s Central Valley grew ever distant behind us. The landscape of houses, shops and smallholdings quickly transformed into a rich landscape of epiphyte-laden trees and rocky outcrops of the Cloud Forest. We got off the bus at an altitude of nearly 3000m, tantalised by our first glimpses from the bus the window.
The 4km walk down into the valley where Ben, James and myself would be staying for the next few days was rather overwhelming. The road dropped down steeply, curving and winding into the depths of the valley. On occasion there would be a parting in the trees, revealing the gorgeous views of rolling hills and endless swathes of trees. We watched as vapor rose quickly from the forest and formed thick, soft clouds that hugged the hilltops. Being able to stand and look out over such an immense forested landscape is a privilege that is impossible to experience in British highlands. ‘This may be one of the most incredible views I have ever seen,’ I observed at the time. A few hours later we arrived our log cabin nestled deep within the valley, known as Savegre River Valley or ‘Valle del Quetzal’ by locals and tourists alike – after a rather spectacular bird we would be hoping to see during the trip.. but more on that later!
The avifauna of the Talamanca Mountain range is incredibly unique. The high elevation and isolation from other mountainous areas has led to a high level of endemism – species found only in CR and Western Panama but nowhere else. This includes some marvelous species such as the regal-looking long-tailed silky-flycatcher (a real corker, honestly), the smart but striking flame-throated warbler and the uber-luminous golden-browed chlorophonia. Naturally, hummingbirds abounded here. One particularly rainy and brisk afternoon we retreated to a small café where the owner has a number of feeders in his garden. We delighted in watching an array of small stunners such as the exquisite fiery-throated hummingbird, the glossy-green lesser violetear and the teeny scintillant hummingbird whizz between the feeders. Whilst we were enjoying the hummingbird extravaganza, the owner of the café picked fresh mint from the garden and soon emerged from the kitchen with a big jug of steaming mint tea. He proceeded to fill up the feeders with this sweet and delicious offering, before pouring us all a mug! Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon, I must say.
Our days in the valley started early. On the 31st of December we awoke at 5:15, just before sunrise, enticed by the possibility that we might see a more-than-gorgeous bird which draws hundreds of tourists to the valley each year. This bird is, of course, the one and only Resplendent Quetzal, a member of the diverse and colorful trogon family. We hiked down the road a couple of kilometers to an area where Quetzals had been seen on previous days. We knew we had reached the ‘spot’ when we saw a sizable group of birdwatchers poised intently with cameras and binoculars. It only took us a moment to spot the bird, a male. Its dazzling green plumage caught the morning light as it sat 100 meters or so away in a tree. Within a moment the bird took flight, giving us a quick view of its 4 long tail feathers elegantly streaming behind it.
Among other things, the Quetzals are drawn to the Savegre River Valley due to the high density of avocado trees that grow in the valley, which form a large part of its diet. We walked along the road to a fruiting tree, in the hope that quetzals would be drawn to its offerings. Soon enough another male appeared. This time the bird was much closer giving us a view of the metallic green head and wings, which contrasts with the bright crimson belly. Words cannot really describe the bird’s full glory and beauty, but suffice to say everyone was stunned into a collective silence.
The rest of our precious days in the valley were filled with long walks through the cloud forest, breathing in the fresh mountain air and taking in the diversity of plants. Unfortunately, between us, we had a rather limited knowledge of the regions botany but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the huge variety of plants that are supported by the moisture and nutrients that are literally pulled out of the clouds. Hundreds of bromeliads, mosses and lichens cling to the trees, covering almost every available surface. Huge vines draped down from the canopy that towered above us. If there is anywhere that I have ever felt immersed in nature, it was here.
It was a shame that we had to leave the valley so soon, but none-the-less we were looking forward to our time relaxing on the warm and hippie pacific coast…