In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal

On a bit of a whim, we decided to spend a weekend up in the highlands near some of the tallest peaks in Costa Rica and the picturesque town of San Gerardo de Dota (about 2 hours south of San José on the Interamericana). We wanted to explore the cloud forest, enjoy some hiking and possibly even sight the elusive quetzal. So we booked an AirBnB (why don’t they have a loyalty program!?!), a ‘rustic cabin’ in the mountains, and jumped on the road Friday afternoon.

The drive there was gorgeous once we exited the San José sprawl and Cartago (the former capital) and started to climb into the mountains.

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We stayed in the tiny community of La Esperanza at about 7,000 feet and were enjoying the much cooler temps as it was such a change from Atenas and the coasts…until evening came and it got downright chilly. Good thing we brought extra blankets and the cabin had a fireplace so we could stay warm. I secretly wished I had a hat and gloves. Oscar still insisted on wearing shorts except for this first photo. The boy runs hot.

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The first morning we hooked up with a local guide named Luis who lives in the same community where we were staying and took us to his property for a bird-watching hike. There are a number of aguacatillo trees there which is the main food source for quetzals so he sees them often. Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky, but it was a gorgeous place with amazing views, centuries old beautiful oak trees, and wild blackberries that the kids couldn’t stop eating.

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We then headed to the peaceful town of San Gerardo de Dota also known as the ‘Alps of Costa Rica.’ It’s a tiny town along a dead end dirt road with the beautiful Savegre River flowing through it. It offers cute cabins and boutique hotels, a few restaurants and is well known for bird watching and hiking enthusiasts as well as anglers hoping to catch rainbow trout. The drive was beautiful getting there and we enjoyed a fabulous lunch (as fabulous as lunch out with 2 little ones can be) at the lovely Café Kahawa. This was no ordinary café, but a feast for the senses – listening the river babbling alongside, watching the hummingbirds and butterflies dart around, and admiring the beautiful decor and landscaping, not to mention enjoying the delectable ‘trucha al coco’ (fresh grilled trout with a coconut sauce) which Palmer and I both chose and their delicious adult beverages. YUM!

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Our final day included a visit to Parque Nacional Los Quetzales and a short hike. I was thinking there would be more hiking trails there, but there was just one out and back 2k trail from the main entrance. We enjoyed the cool misty walk and moss covered trees, and are already talking about a return trip. It really felt like we were not in Costa Rica anymore!

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This is what we were hoping to experience:

This is as close as we got:

(A beautiful mural on one of the building in La Esperanza and an Oscar original. Haha!)

 

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Tarcoles and Carara National Park

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View from Crocodile River Bridge over Rio Tarcoles.

We had a fun day with mom and dad watching the huge crocodiles that congregate in the Rio Tárcoles under the Crocodile River Bridge in Tarcoles as well as hiking in nearby Carara National Park. Both sites are just a couple kilometers from each other and only about 40 minutes from Atenas so it was a perfect day trip for us, but they’re also easily accessible from San José or anyone heading towards the South Pacific Coast (Jaco, Manuel Antonio, the Costa Ballena) of Costa Rica as they’re located right on the main route, Route 34.

The Crocodile Bridge is a quick stop, but definitely worthwhile as the crocs are HUGE and fun to watch right below the bridge. The nearby town of Tarcoles also offers crocodile boat tours for those with a bit more time.

Carrara National Park ($10 entrance for adults) is an unassuming national park where if you blink, you might miss the sign and parking lot just off the highway but I highly recommend a hike and spending at least an hour or two exploring. It’s always hot and humid, but the trails are mostly all shaded.

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Hiking at Carara – Photo credit: Karen Solle 🙂

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This was our second visit and we’ve seen monkeys both times. It’s located in a transition zone where the Pacific dry north meets the humid south coast so there is an abundance of flora and fauna in the park. We decided not to hire a guide this time around, but there are typically a few waiting around the main entrance and they are fantastic as they know where the animals are hiding, what to look for and they often have a telephoto zoom lens or spotting scope so hikers can see up close the wildlife high in the trees.

Despite our not having a guide, we still saw a ton of wildlife and other hikers are usually happy to point out what they discovered or where to find a specific species on the trail which is super helpful. We discovered a scarlet macaw high up in a hole in a tree pruning itself as well as agoutis, leaf cutter ants, two howler monkeys swinging from the canopy, a number of unique birds and towering trees with amazing root systems. We hiked all of the trails in the park (3 interconnected loops) and estimated we walked about 4 miles in total. On a side note, I highly recommend the Costa Rica Wildlife Guide (Amazon aff link) so that you can identify what you see. Even the kids get into this!

After all that exercise, we enjoyed a delicious typical lunch with fresh fruit juices at Soda El Guacimo, a popular roadside restaurant with excellent service, just a couple miles north of the Croc Bridge.

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Casado con pollo (chicken, rice and beans, salad, green beans and sweet plantains)
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Soda el Guacimo: “May Peace and Labor Ever Live” (last line of the national hymn)