An unimaginable array of flora and fauna can be found in Costa Rica‘s jungles amid the purr of jaguars, mist of clouds, and sputter of active volcanoes.
But one creature is so vaunted that it was the inspiration for the Aztec and Maya feathered snake god: the aptly named resplendent quetzal. Famed ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson called it the most spectacular bird in the New World.
From December to April, during the dry season, its swooping, elegant tail is the giveaway to spotting it in the thick canopy.
Sadly, the quetzal, a member of the trogon family, has become threatened, making it more elusive, and sightings of it rare. Encountering this graceful creature, even if just for a moment, offers a glimpse of living color you won’t find elsewhere.
Locals refer to the dry season as verano (summer), when road mud dries and rivers and foliage recede, making passage and spotting easier.
The quest brings you past crushed-seashell beaches, mountainous cloud forest, deep lakes, streams, and waterfalls.
It is a sublime and transformative natural experience that will stay with you long after the quetzal’s striking plumage disappears into the mist.
> Travel Facts:
- April-December is Costa Rica’s drier season and the ideal time to visit the country’s vast and varied park system.
- The eco-rich Arenal Volcano National Park features two volcanoes, Chato Volcano and Mount Arenal.
- Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a privately managed rain forest and home to 2,500 plant and 400 bird species, many still being discovered.
- The 12,350-acre (5,000 ha) Los Quetzales National Park is covered in clouds and mist. Experts claim it’s the easiest place to spot the quetzal; other bird species, like colibri, tanagers, and hummingbirds, also share the habitat, along with sloths, coyotes, and pumas.
This article originally appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.