The road ahead disappeared in a cloud. Our bus careened along a narrow dirt path that clung to the mountainside. To the right rose a steep slope, covered with trees whose boughs hung heavy with glistening bromeliads. Small rivulets of icy blue water streaked down the mountain, funneling into crude cement drainages that diverted them beneath the road.
I sat on the left side, where even more rising peaks of tropical greenery emerged from each thin gray cloud. Eventually, we too passed through the wisps of a cloud, and I could not believe I was in Costa Rica. My semester abroad had just begun, and on the second day the director of our group of students had packed us into a private bus heading to a highland region called Savegre. While other students socialized between themselves, my eyes never left the condensation-covered windows until the director called our attention from the front of the bus.
Her name was Zaida, and halfway through the three hour trip she told us how Savegre lay in the Talamanca Mountains, the largest of Costa Rica's four ranges. It had only been settled fifty or so years before by homesteaders from the valle central, the coffee region where most Costa Ricans live. She said Savegre was a cloud forest.
A cloud forest. The phrase fascinated me. The idea of a forest in the clouds seemed like an oxymoron, the quintessential symbols of earth and sky somehow brought together. Cloud forests are a type of rainforest found in higher elevations along tropical mountain slopes, where their most noteworthy characteristic is high levels of condensation, making them always wet and misty. They're famous for their many endemic species of birds and amphibians.
Zaida added that there were many birds there. For the entire month before I left for Costa Rica, I had pored over books about the country, and so I knew that the cloud forest was the home of the resplendent quetzal. I asked Zaida if there were any in Savegre. "Yes," she said, "but I've never seen one. You'll need a lot of luck, since we'll only be here for three days." Zaida asked me how I knew about the bird. I fished in my backpack for the field guide I'd bought for my stay and showed her. She smirked, looking both amused and impressed, and held it up for the entire bus to see.
Even on the plain white page of the field guide the quetzal dominated the other trogons, the family of tropical birds the quetzal belongs to. They're all beautiful. The trogons have a certain stateliness, a refined dignity in their red, orange, green, yellow, and black plumage. But the male quetzal outshines them all. His plumage is a crisp, glittering green that shines like a dew-covered leaf in the early dawn. His head sports a spiky Mohawk, and the lower breast is a deep maroon that shades to a bright crimson on the belly.
But his greatest feature is the train of feathers that dangles below him, three long wispy streamers that the male protects by hopping backwards off his perch before flying forward. The male quetzal is widely regarded as the most beautiful bird in the western hemisphere. The female is also beautiful, but she lacks the male's grandiloquent train of feathers and bright red breast.