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shades of green

The road from La Tinta to Tactic is a long hot, steep dusty affair. It is dusk when we reach the junction with the main highway between Coban and Guatemala City but it is only 15 kilometres to the Quetzal Sanctury and I am keen to press on. My bike has been struggling toothlessly since Palenque and the cable housing of the front derailleur has suddenly disintegrated meaning that I am stuck with only a few usable gears on the small ring. Nonetheless, I fly through the darkness in my eagerness for the hot shower than imagine awaits me somewhere.

We arrive at Los Ranchitos – which is about 50 metres from the entrance of the sanctuary and has been recommended to me, not only a good place to stay, but also as a place where one is almost guaranteed to see a quetzal – at about 7.00. Silke stays outside to mind the bikes while I venture in to check out our options.The woman in reception seems nonplussed by the appearance of a filthy cyclists emerging from the darkness. Camping? No. A room? Maybe.

A girl of about 12 takes me to see a room which seems comfortable enough but there is no shower, not even a cold one. “Shower is not included,” she informs me. I am covered in sunblock, dust and sweat and I haven’t had a wash in several days so I return to Silke and the bikes and we try to check out the campsite at the Sanctuary¬† but the only creatures we can see around the various darkened buildings along the highway are hysterically barking guard-dogs. We return to Los Ranchitos to find the gate is locked and stand there shouting until the woman finally returns and grumpily opens it. I explain that we have just ridden from La Tinta and eventually the woman relents. “There is a room with shower but there is only one bed and I have to clean it,” she says. “That sounds fine.”

It’s cold and we sit around until the room is cleaned. When I have finally showered I wander outside. The woman emerges from a door into the car park in front of the building. “The quetzals will be here at 6 in the morning,” she informs me pointing at a tree above the room I am sleeping in. “Really?” “Yes,” she says with utter certainty, “They come every day.”

I wake at just after 6AM and throw my clothes on and hurry outside but I am not filled with any great expectations. I walk down the stairs into the carpark as the woman appears in the gloomy dawn light. She gestures again at the trees above us and as we both glance up a quetzal really does fly across the clearing and land in the tree she is pointing out. I am speechless.

The bird spends the next couple of hours perching and preening in between flitting from branch to branch to pluck a berry from here or there amid a graceful swirl of tail feathers.

A male quetzal perched in a tree above the room I am sleeping in. (Photo: Silke Moeckel)

The family who own this small private Quetzal Sanctuary next to the official government are obsessive about the birds. Julio has a collection of feathers and an astonishingly extensive photographic record of their daily visits.

When the birds finally disappear, we breakfast and then wander off to explore the reserve. Next to the beginning of the rudimentary muddy trail leading into the damp forest is a pile of stout walking sticks.

Cloud forest, green and verdant...

... filled with ferns...

...of all shapes...

...and sizes.

There are always more...

...detail to discover.

Bright splashes of colour here and there complement the myriad shades of green.

The rising sun brings with it ...

...sudden bursts of light...

....illuminating everything.

...

...

...

...

The next morning the birds fail to keep their schedule and do not appear at either 6am or 10am as predicted so we decide to visit the official sanctuary 50 metres up the road. The forest is glorious but eerily silent: we see nary a bird, let alone a queztal.

A orchid illuminated by a beam of light.

Glowing green.

...

...

The Sanctuary is sadly small and the lookout boasts a depressing view of the palm crop across the valley.

Far below trucks roar down the highway on their way to Guatemala City.

We return to the visitor centre where a scruffy stuffed quetzal sits forlornly in a glass box and a series of faded photos grace the wall.

These faded photos...

... showing only the fuzzy silhouettes of quetzales in flight are the only quetzales we see at the Sanctuary apart from a moth-eaten stuffed bird in a glass box. Go to Los Ranchitos, is my advice, if you actually want to see a quetzal.

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