After three weeks in the rain, heat and humidity of Turrialba, we were ready for some time in the mountains. On the advice of our friends, Candace and Andrea, we headed south of San Jose to San Gerardo de Dota, a town surrounded by Parque Nacional Los Quetzales. After a winding, seemingly death defying two-hour ride towards Cerro de la Muerta (“Hill of Death”) the bus dropped us off exactly where we asked: the 80 kilometer marker of the Panamerican highway. Then we walked.
The notably cooler temperature, light cloud cover and most importantly, lack of humidity reminded us of a comfortable spring day in Portland; it felt like home. A light mist kissed our skin as we donned our packs for the three kilometer walk to “Miriam’s Quetzales” where we had reserved a cabin for four nights.
As we walked down the road, we were treated to stunning views of the surrounding Talamanca Mountains and the National Park. (And when I say down the road, I mean DOWN the road. We dropped 2,000 feet in elevation over the course of our 3km walk).
Wispy clouds danced in and out of the side canyons, temporarily masking the cloud forest and then bringing it into view again. After 45 minutes, we turned a corner and Miriam’s place came into view below.
We dropped our packs at her doorstep and entered the restaurant. We were immediately greeted as if we were family by Lillian, Miriam’s daughter, who I had communicated with over email. A few minutes later, Miriam, a short grandmotherly woman with her hair in a bun and her eyebrows penciled on, appeared from the kitchen to take us to our cabin another 200 meters down the hill. She spoke no English, so we were rewarded for our three weeks of hard work, feeling pretty proud of our ability to communicate with her even if it was just about the weather.
We got settled then hoofed it back up the hill for dinner, notably winded by the climb at 8,000 feet elevation. We were treated to a homestyle meal of black beans and rice, with a big bowl of steaming carrots and yucca in a savory broth, a plate of tomatoes and cucumbers, eggs and fried local cheese with just enough salt and the perfect umami flavor (we immediately fell in love and specifically requested it for the next three nights).
San Gerardo de Dota is not so much a town as a loose grouping of accommodations and restaurants strung along a steep 10-kilometer long road nestled in the Rio Savegre valley. There is a church, a school and two tiny pulperias the size of tool sheds. Otherwise, the town is devoted to tourists, 60% of whom flock here to see the resplendant quetzal.
We too came to see quetzals, and we were not disappointed.
On our first morning, we headed out with Alex, our highly skilled birding guide (and Miriam’s son-in-law), and were treated to not one but five quetzals (four males and one female) within the first 20 minutes. Although nesting season has ended, the four males retained their 2-foot long brilliant green tail feathers which shined in the sun and floated in the breeze as they flew from tree to tree.
And quetzals aren’t the only beautiful bird species here. In the course of three hours with Alex, we saw about 40 different species, 30 of which were “life birds” for us. Some of the highlights included flame-throated warbler (a Costa Rica and Panama endemic), fiery-throated hummingbird, long-tailed silky flycatcher, flame-colored tanager, silver-throated tanager, and collared trogon. All before breakfast!
We continued the birding extravaganza during our meal, enjoying colorful visitors to Miriam’s feeders.
After another incredibly tasty meal, we spent the rest of the day hiking the steep and muddy trails of a nearby private reserve along a tributary of the Rio Savegre. We both fell flat on our butts sliding on the mud, but that didn’t deter us from making it down to the stream, enjoying vegetation that reminded us of Oregon’s temperate rainforests along the way.
Stay tuned for Part 2!