The cloud forest of El Biotopo del Quetzal

Feb. 6 & 7, 2020

The city of Cobán sits in the foothills along the eastern edge of the Guatemalan highlands. With the highlands acting as a natural barrier, the eastern foothill’s cloud forest is isolated from the cloud forest along the western slope of the highlands. This means there are a few bird species that live in this region that you cannot easily find in the rest of the country. Those birds were our targets, and the spot we were heading to was the Biotopo del Quetzal; a nature preserve about 1 hour outside of the city.

Our bus from Lanquín dropped us off at the central park in Cobán, which is just one block from a grocery store and 4 blocks from the bus station Monja Blanca. The reason that is important is because we were going to be camping at the Biotopo del Quetzal!

To get ready for our night of camping, we went shopping. We bought some fruit, granola bars, more oatmeal, and got ingredients for peanut butter & jelly rolls (where you use tortillas instead of bread to save space and avoid smashed sandwiches). Next, we walked down the street to the bus terminal Transportes Monja Blanca. This is the bus service that can take you to the Biotopo.

We bought our tickets for the next bus, only Q15 / $2.00 USD each! 2 dollars is a great price for a 1.5 hour bus ride.
We loaded our big bags on top of the bus and held our small bags in our laps. Soon, we were being dropped off on the side of the road right in front of the Biotopo entrance! It was hard to believe that we left Chi’Bocol Community Hostel just that morning, made it all the way back to Cobán, and now we were ready for our next birding adventure in the cloud-forest!

The preserve has a few campsites available at a first-come first-served basis. They are really nice gravel pads with a covered picnic table. For only Q20 / $2.60 USD per person per night, it really is the perfect budget option for birding this amazing preserve! Nothing beats camping in the exact place you want to explore. Once you wake up and step out of the tent, you’re immediately birding!

My two main target birds for this reserve were Slate-colored Solitaire and Unicolored Jay. For the Solitaire, it was our only shot at them for the whole trip. Luckily, the reserve seemed like a great spot for both species. Before we even set up our tent, we had a group of Unicolored Jays fly through our camp! They went to the “bird feeders” by the one snack shack in the park, where a man feeds the jays pieces of tortilla. We hadn’t been in the park more than 10 minutes, and we already had amazing views of this great bird!

Unicolored Jay

For the rest of the afternoon, we left the park and walked down the highway 50 meters to the hotel and private preserve of Ranchitos del Quetzal. We ordered some food, a stack of pancakes, and wandered around the trails immediately near the buildings. I was told that there is a good chance to see the bird that all these places are named after, the Resplendent Quetzal, right from the parking lot of Ranchitos.

Sad to say, but we did not find any Quetzals that evening. I did, however, see my lifer Green-throated Mountain-gem and Slate-colored Solitaire! I had great looks at both birds in the fading evening light. We finished our pancakes and walked back to the reserve and our camp before nightfall. We were waking up early to hike the trails of the Biotopo to look for Quetzals and anything else we might find.

The air was crisp and cold enough that we saw our breath.

Mornings in the cloud forest are always colder than you think they would be. We made our coffee and breakfast by light of headlamps and packed our trail lunch. As the early light of morning grew brighter, the birds started to sing.

Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes sang from deep within the forest, but one bird perched at eye level along the trail just long enough for me to take a few photos! Slate-colored Solitaires and Slate-throated Redstarts were singing in the beautiful cloud forest as we started our hike.

Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush

We wandered the trail up, marveling at the giant trees and lush vegetation. Cloud forests get their name because they are almost always shrouded in clouds. The hot and humid air from the lowland rainforest is forced up by the mountains, and so the water vapor condenses into clouds that hug the mountains. This brings a lot of moisture to the forest. Epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants without needed soil, drape the limbs of trees, and giant Tree Ferns grow like ancient relics from the era of the Dinosaurs.

It wasn’t long before we found a mixed flock of birds foraging and moving through the trees. Slate-throated Redstarts, and Common Chlorospingus were the most common, with a couple Wilson’s Warblers and Spotted Woodcreepers. We also had great looks at the absolutely stunning Golden-browed Warblers, which was a lifer that I got just the day before when we arrived at the reserve. The pattern of rich saffron yellow and deep reddish-chestnut on their head is a really striking combination!

Golden-browed Warbler

In the mixed foraging flock, we heard a high-pitched and loud song that reminded me of a Pacific Wren from back in Montana. It was a Rufous-browed Wren! After a bit of work to see it, it popped out on a limb of large tree, and we got to see the little songster.

Rufous-browed Wren

Working our way up the trail, we came to small overlook. It wasn’t much a of a view, but it did offer a look out over part of the forest. It was beautiful. Seeing a lush hillside covered in native old-growth cloud forest always makes my heart happy. Especially in contrast to the slashed and clear cut hillsides around Semuc Champey, it was a welcome feeling to be in a giant forest again.

Moss and other epiphytes cover every available inch of the trees’ trunks and branches.

We heard a Collared Trogon singing off in the distance, and without knowing we walked right under a second trogon on the trail to the overlook. On our way back to the main trail, we noticed it sitting right above the trail! The female trogon sat still, slowly turning her head while scanning the forest for food. That’s what makes spotting trogons so difficult. They can sit on a branch for 20 minutes and not move while they watch for moving prey like bugs or lizards.

female Collared Trogon

After a wonderful hike with a few more lifers (Golden-cheeked Warbler, White-faced Quail-Dove, and Greater Swallow-tailed Swift) we made it back to the reserve headquarters and camp. We had an amazing morning exploring the forest and we saw both of my main target species, the Unicolored Jay and Slate-colored Solitaire. With another chance at Quetzals later in our trip, we decided to pack up and head back to Cobán.

Before we left the Biotopo, we sat by the tienda and bird feeders and watched the Unicolored Jays pick up little scraps of tortilla. A male Violet Sabrewing came in to drink from the hummingbird feeders set up by the tienda. That was the 2nd species of Sabrewing for the trip!

Unicolored Jay – it was great to get a photo of one away from the ‘tienda’

We said our goodbyes to the park’s staff and to the jays, and walked down to the highway to hitch a ride back to Cobán. I didn’t expect our short trip back to the city to be very eventful, but I should have known otherwise. Any bus going to a major city is going to be PACKED FULL. And just like that, the bus we flagged down was loaded with people. We barely even fit inside! All the way back to town, the driver stopped to let people off and crammed even more people in. For a minibus like that, with only 14 seats, our max count of people on board was 31, including someone riding on the outside of the vehicle, holding on as we went down the highway.
Nothing short of impressive!

The whole way to Cobán, I started to feel more and more carsick. I just thought it was a combination of being tired and absolutely smashed into a tiny minibus for nearly 2 hours. Once at the hotel in Cobán, it got worse.
That night I puked up all the peanut butter I ate in the morning and for lunch. I felt feverish and deeply exhausted. Stephanie ran to a pharmacy to get some meds and Pedialyte. Pharmacies work differently in Latin America, and there seems to be one on every block. You can get most antibiotics over the counter, and they sell all kinds of other health items, including rehydrating Pedialyte.

The next day I was exhausted, but I seemed to be over my stomach bug. I don’t know if I had a 24-hour flu or just if my body decided it wasn’t going to digest the peanut butter from our lunch. Whatever it was, we spent that extra day at the hotel relaxing and I tried to feel human again.

The following morning I was back to normal, and we packed our bags and took a taxi to the bus terminal Terminal del Norte. There, we started our journey to Huehuetenango, the land of coffee and Goldman’s Warblers!

eBird checklist for El Biotopo del Quetzal 1st night:

eBird checklist for Ranchitos de Quetzal:

eBird checklist for El Biotopo morning hike.

Cost and logistics

El Biotopo del Quetzal

Monja Blanca terminal in Cobán is the place to get a bus to the reserve.
It costs Q15 / $2.00 USD per person – one way.
Alternatively, any bus to Guatemala (City) from Cobán will go by the Biotopo, and you can jump of there. Any Monja Blanca bus going TO Cobán from Guatemala City is how you can get there if you’re coming from that way.

Entrance fees: Q40 / $5.20 USD covers your entrance, and if you’re camping you don’t need to pay for each day you are there.
Camping costs Q20 / $2.60 USD per person per night.

Ranchitos del Quetzal offers beds in single, double, or triple rooms. Starting around Q200 / $26.00 USD per night for a single. Ranchitos has a small private nature reserve on the property, with walking trails and knowledgable staff who often help people see a quetzal.

We stayed at the Hotel Don Juan Matalbatz. It was really nice and their breakfast (not included) was just what we needed to feel better before we moved on to Huehuetenango.

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