On the highway north to Cobán, just before the village of Purulhá, the Biotopo del Quetzal was established to protect the habitat of the endangered quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird (see The Resplendent Quetzal). The reserve covers a steep area of dense cloudforest, through which the Río Colorado cascades towards the valley floor, forming waterfalls and natural swimming pools.
Two paths through the undergrowth from the road complete a circuit that takes you up into the woods above the reserve headquarters (where maps are available for US$0.75). Quetzals are occasionally seen here but they’re extremely elusive. The best time of year to visit is just before and just after the nesting season (between March & June), and the best time of day is sunrise. In general, the birds tend to spend the nights up in the high forest and float across the road as dawn breaks, to spend the days in the trees below. They can be easily identified by their jerky, undulating flight. A good place to look out for them is at one of their favoured feeding trees, the broad-leaved aguacatillo, which produces a small avocado-like fruit. Whether or not you see a quetzal, the forest itself (usually damp with chipi-chipi, a perpetual mist) is worth a visit: a profusion of lichens, ferns, mosses, bromeliads and orchids spread out beneath a towering canopy of cypress, oak, walnut and pepper trees.