Costa Rica Scouting Trip – December 2009, Part 1: Cerro de la Muerte and Mirador de Quetzales

Mirador de Quetzales

We arrived on the afternoon Continental flight from Houston and immediately headed to pick up the rental car.  The majority of airport car rental offices are located across the highway from Juan Santa Maria International Airport, but you cannot walk there.  Most rental agencies offer a shuttle service or you can grab a cab for less than $5.

Car rental prices tend to be on the expensive side in Costa Rica, but there are some smaller rental agencies that provide excellent customer service and reliable vehicles.  The cars aren’t going to be brand new, but they’ll get you where you need to go.  Just make sure you have a functional spare tire.  Every time I’ve rented a car in Costa Rica, I’ve gotten a flat.  The roads are infamous for their potholes so a spare is a must.

We left the rental office at 5 pm for our drive along Highway 2 (Interamerican Highway) towards Mirador de Quetzales.  I chose this hotel due to its proximity to the highway and its resident quetzal population.  Highway 2 climbs Cerro de la Muerte, part of the Talamanca Range and the highest peak in Costa Rica.  Cerro de la Muerte translates to “mountain of death”, but the name precedes construction of the highway.  It refers to the many Costa Rican lives that were lost as villagers traversed the range with goods headed to San Jose.  Even though the name doesn’t directly refer to the road, the road does have a nasty reputation.  As you climb in elevation, you move into cloud forest and mist/rain and/or clouds decreasing visibility are virtually guaranteed.  Add sinuous curves, a lack of street lamps and potholes that force you into the lane of oncoming traffic, and you’re in for a harrowing driving experience in the dark.  If you can avoid the pass at night, I recommend doing so.

At km 70 and three hours into our drive, we reached the turnoff for Mirador de Quetzales.  Mirador guarantees quetzal sightings from December to May and I wanted to see if the property lived up to the hype.  Quetzals are high on the list for most birders that visit Costa Rica and I’m always on the lookout for lodging options that offer reasonable chances at spotting this spectacular cloud forest resident.

Cabins at Mirador de Quetzales

The cabins are located 700 meters from the highway.  There is another set of cabins along the road that you must pass to get to Mirador so you’ll drive up the hill past the first set.  The per person rate is $50 including dinner, breakfast and a guided hike to see quetzals.  We weren’t expecting dinner due to our late arrival, but were offered dinner as soon as we checked in.  A grilled cheese sandwich and Imperial beer never tasted so good – it must’ve been our relief from surviving the drive!

The cabins here are basic – small beds and no heat in the rooms, but there is hot water for showers.    Most people expect Costa Rica to be warm year-round, but the altitude and humidity make for cooler temperatures in the cloud forest.  We asked for additional blankets and our hostess stocked each cabin with several extras.  She also gave each of us a hot water bottle when we turned in for the night.

It appeared that we were the only travelers staying at El Mirador so we requested a 6 am quetzal walk instead of the regularly scheduled one at 6:30 am.  Four minutes into our walk, our guide pointed out a male quetzal in a tree just off the trail.  That is the shortest quetzal search I’ve ever been involved in.  At this time of the year, the quetzals aren’t paired up yet for nesting season (March – June).  We were told that during those months, it is common to see 8-10 individuals along the trails behind the cabins.  This was the only individual we spotted, but we heard 2-3 more males making their characteristic perwicka call along the trails.  Mirador de Quetzales’ quetzal guarantee did live up to the hype.

Male resplendent quetzal