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Under the spell of the quetzal

The attraction would not be the same if it was other specie, but the quetzal catches everyone's attention. That bird we knew ever since we were kids for being engraved in the coat of arms which seals our money and crowns the national flag is so important, even if only a few have had the privilege of contemplating one of its specimens in movement and in its natural habit. Just to have the honor of watching it for a brief moment is enough motivation to take on an adventure in the inhospitable forest of the Sierra Caquipec, in the Department of Alta Verapaz.

'There it is, there it is!', says Francisco Caal with a low but emotive voice, he is a birdwatcher who united the expedition in Cobán, from where we departed towards San Juan Chamelco, around three o'clock in the afternoon. Its 17:30 and we are starting to feel the cold, since the sweat that soaked our clothes during one hour and a half, the time we took to walk up the mountain is getting cold.

Connoisseur of the singing and habits of the different bird species that live in the cloudy forest, Francisco warns us about the presence of el quetzal due to the paused onomatopoeic sounds which seem to get closer. Standing still, with our cameras in our hand and sharpening our pupils to distinguish any movement around the immense green entanglement we wait for several minutes.

The welcome or invitation to play hide and seek, that first close encounter with the national bird challenges us to get up early in the break of dawn and discover him on its early flights, in its courtship period which is previous to mating. But the night hardly starts and in the house of the Cho family an unusual soiree awaits.



The soiree finishes, until tomorrow

Together with three of his children and wife, Francisco Cho Bebwelcomes and invites us to accommodate in a modest cabin with twowooden beds, two small tables and some benches. The absence of waterand light is palpable. The water in a washbowl must be measured, sothat five of us can wash our hands, while a few candles extinguish andmark the end of the nightly activity.

We are in the hamlet Nuevo Chicacnab, located in the mountains ofCaquipec, at an altitude of 2,500 meters above sea level. A fire whichis almost never blown out, children playing and dogs wandering,searching for a bite of food are part of the environment that surroundthe houses of the 34 q'eqchi' families who alternate to sheltertourists.

After a dinner with eggs, herbs, tortillas, chili and coffee, we sharedsome talk and games with the inhabitants of the house and some of theirneighbors, but the candles don't have too much time left. It is time togo to sleep and hope that our sleeping bags will let us resist thecoldness of dawn which comes accompanied by a strong wind.


A good eye and patience

The cockcrow announces the break of dawn. There is no time or light tochange the clothes we used to sleep. Shoes, a jacket and a wet towel toclean our faces are enough. We must hurry out and look for a place thatcan offer some visibility advantages, be patient and stay quiet.

We have waited for almost one hour without seeing anything else but awoodpecker. Suddenly, a peculiar paused chant announces that a specimenis close, but not alone. A similar sound to that of a peacock indicatesthat, luckily, we will also see a female quetzal.

Francisco indicates in direction to a rift where a couple of unoccupiedand partly rotten tree trunks elevate. After a brief and fast flight, abird with green feathers red chest and a tail formed by two bigfeathers half a meter long settles in the top of one of the trunks andshows us his outline.

Beautiful and elegant, as if he knew about the admiration he awakens onthose who do almost anything to see it, he watches us motionless andlet us take some pictures. Seconds, rewarding seconds, record in ourpupils and in the memory of the digital camera.

Weariness, sweat, cold, any inconvenience has been worth while and hasbeen compensated by the captured images. A male in solitary and, later,a group of four or five specimens, including a female, have rewardedour effort.


A family farewell

The hunger and sun at nine o'clock reminds us of the time, we must goback to the cabin, eat something and begin our hike back to San Lucas,small village located on the base of the mountain, where a vehicleawaits. Little by little we walk away from the community and into theforest ornamented with orchids, bromeliads and other floral species.

But not only had the Cho family given us an emotional farewell. As ifit had been commissioned for the effect, a couple of quetzals reach ushalf the way and settle for a few seconds among the branches of anenormous tree, giving us again the opportunity to use our photographiccameras.

Finally we abandon the place, with certain sadness, and wishing to comeback to watch the bird couples nest and feed their babies.


Romance in the heights

The months of March and April are ideal to watch the courtship andmating of the quetzal. During this time it is possible to watch, in theearly hours of the morning, small groups of males competing for theacceptance of the females.

The conquest results easier for males with the longest tails, who carryon spectacular spiral flights. Once formed, the couple will seek a deephole at an altitude not less than 5 meters to nest. It usually occupiesholes delved by woodpeckers.

The quetzal's eggs are light blue and to incubate the couple takesturns during an approximate period of 18 days. When the pigeons areborn, the parents continue alternating to feed them. Insects, seeds andfruits such as the aguacatillo, are part of their diet.

After three weeks, the pigeons are feathered. One week later they goout of the nest to start flying and this is the time when, togetherwith the parents, they migrate looking for refuge in the thickest partof the forest. This can be seen around the month of May.

Even though it is permanently threatened by predator species, it isbelieved that nowadays the quetzals population has increased thanks tothe efforts of programs that create environmental conscience and fightto stop the advancement of the agricultural border.


Rural Tourism

The most direct and safe way to visit Chicacnab in order to watch thequetzal is with the tours offered by Ecoquetzal, an organization incharge of the low impact tourism project or ecotourism in thecommunities of San Lucas, Chicacnab and Rokjá Pomtilá. These trips willlet you get in touch with the wildlife of the cloudy and tropicalforests and coexist with q'eqchi' families.

The Sierra of Chicacnab has the greatest density of quetzals inGuatemala. German students put together in 1988, an inventory about thecloudy forests and distribution of the quetzal in the Sierras ofCaquipec, Guaxac y Yalijux and registered an average of 145 birds persquare kilometer.

The Ecoquetzal Project works under the coverage of the AsociaciónBiosfera y Desarrollo Agrícola Sostenible, BIDAS, (Association ofSustainable Biosphere and Agricultural Development) and it also managesagricultural and handcraft programs, with the purpose of protecting thetropical and cloudy forests of Alta Verapaz and improve the qualitylife of its inhabitants. The funds collected by concepts of tourism areinvested in making improvements in the communities.

For those interested in visiting the place, it is advisable to bring sleeping bags, drinkable water, canned food and wet towels.

For more information visit www.ecoquetzal.org
This trip was carried out with the help from Inguat.