Travel: On a quest for the quetzal: Simon Rowe saddles up for a dizzy ride in search of Costa Rica's rarest rainforest bird

Click to follow
DAYBREAK comes with thick mist and drizzle in Santa Elena. Ask the locals and they will shrug and say the rain is a gift from the gods. In this mountain hamlet in Costa Rica, bad weather means good business; rainproof ponchos are in big demand among the ill-prepared tourists who pass through the town on the way to the rainforest.

The cause of this big wet is the Monteverde cloudforest preserve, which looms above Santa Elena like a damp green carpet spanning 6,500 hectares. Set up by American Quakers in the mid-Sixties, the rainforest sanctuary is today privately owned and managed by the Costa Rican Tropical Science Centre (TSC).

From the seedy port of Puntarenas on the Pacific coast, it takes a bone-rattling four hours in a decomissioned US-registered schoolbus, along roads little more than widened goat tracks, to reach Monteverde. Once in Santa Elena, the extent of its frequent deluges becomes apparent. Thick soupy mud fills the main street and finds its way into everything, even the coffee. Keeping the mud off your boots is hard, but finding a local guide to take you into the rainforest is not.

In the cool early-morning mist, we saddled up our quarterhorses for a six-hour trek into the sanctuary. We hoped to encounter one of its most rare and elusive birds, the resplendent quetzal. The Indians of the Caribbean lowlands once used its dazzling green and crimson plumage in their royal costumes. Today, a quetzal sighting is for many the highlight of a visit to Monteverde.

Our party of three Canadian biology students, two Dutch nurses and one slightly jaded glassblower from Miami looked a motley bunch in the half-light. But where was our guide Raphael? Had he overslept? Then out of the mist he appeared, a man with a large straw hat riding a small horse, neither in any hurry to keep their early-morning appointment.

Raffa, as he likes to be called, is an expert mountain horseman, jungle guide and storyteller. Guiding travellers into the Monteverde preserve is now his full-time job, providing a welcome alternative to the neatly packaged tours dished out to visitors in the bustling capital. But even he admits that the preserve's fragile environment is in danger of being loved to death by the increasing numbers of visiting conservationists and adventurers.

As a conservation measure, the TSC now restricts park entry to 100 people a day, while it negotiates the purchase of more forest from the government. A rotation programme is also now in place to ensure the regrowth of well-

trodden trails. But despite its difficulties, the centre is proving that Costa Rica's rainforests can be preserved - and yield higher economic returns through ecotourism than if they were cut down for timber and low-yield pasture.

The precarious economy of this tiny country hinges on fluctuations of coffee and banana prices around the world, so the potential of ecotourism as a hard-currency earner is fast being realised. It would also be a welcome alternative to logging, which has devastated the environment: in the late 1940s, the rainforest covered three-quarters of the country; today barely a quarter of that remains.

In a rowdy Santa Elena bar the night before our excursion, Raffa had agreed to guide us to edge of the rainforest on horseback. From there it would be a two-kilometre hike to a point, high in the jungle, where he had sighted two pairs of quetzals that week. According to Raffa, our destination on the preserve's southern boundary would be easy to reach.

It was not easy at all. Heavy overnight rain had turned the steep mountain tracks into quagmires. The horses slipped frequently in the mud, and fording the swollen mountain streams became risky. Crossing open farmland, we encountered wind gusts so fierce that several horses slowed to a complete standstill.

I was no Latin gaucho. With the effects of two hours of riding painfully impressed on my rear, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever walk again - let alone hack my way through thick jungle to sight the quetzal. Higher into the clouds we climbed, until the distant thunder seemed to boom inches above our heads. A grove of palms offered some respite from the weather. Raindrops pelted off these giant umbrellas with such deafening intensity that it was like standing in a wildly applauding crowd.

Roughly half of the 2 million known species of plants on Earth are found in this kind of rainforest. There are 2,500 species of plant in the Monteverde preserve alone. All around us, vines as thick as a man's wrist tangled earthwards from towering silk-cotton trees. Bromeliads clung to their massive trunks, competing for what little light filtered through the canopy. Iridescent hummingbirds darted through the undergrowth, sucking nectar from fiery red and yellow flowers and bringing yelps of delight from our biologists.

Beside me, a palm served as a landing-pad for a pair of poison-arrow frogs. Their shiny orange bodies and brilliant blue legs make quite a fashion statement in the forest gloom. Yet such flamboyance serves as a warning to would-be predators that these amphibians are deadly, and are better left off the menu.

Soon we descended into a hollow. Sheltered from the swirling wind gusts, the mist hung low in the trees and the rainforest began to take on an air of fantasy and timelessness. Towering ceiba trees became weird prehistoric animals, their gnarled roots seeming to writhe like a nest of serpents on the forest floor. Knobs of dripping mosses clumped together like goblins, appearing to chatter in the mist.

Suddenly Raffa motioned us to keep very still and quiet. Preoccupied with fairy-tales, we had obviously missed something. We stood motionless, ears strained to hear something beyond the plops and drips of water and the low whirr of tree frogs. A faint sound like the pitched notes of a flute came from deep in the hollow. It was impossible to see more than a few metres in the misty gloom, but Raffa assured us it was the song of the quetzal.

We edged further into the undergrowth, crouching behind Raffa like a hunting-party on the trail of a rogue bull elephant. Then the rain began to fall, a fine patter rising to a thunderous roar, drowning out all other noise and any chance we might have had of locating our quarry. The quetzal had taken flight and vanished into the mist.

The weather in these mountains is difficult at the best of times. Its ferocity heightens during the wet months of May and August, leaving tourists saturated by daytime showers and bedazzled by spectacular electrical storms at night. Raffa, however, was not about to let a little rain dampen our spirits. With one swipe of his machete, he slashed two thick liana vines, grabbed hold of them and swung out into the forest like a madman. For the next half- hour, we swung like Tarzans through the jungle, screeching and yelping, slipping and sliding in the mud. The quetzal may have eluded us, but in the primeval rainforest our animal instincts had returned.-

Dressed to kill: the poison-arrow frog


GETTING THERE: Fly to San Jose with KLM (081-750 9000) from pounds 925 return (minimum stay 10 days, maximum stay 3 months, no advance booking necessary); Continental Airlines (0293 776464) from pounds 583 return (minimum stay 7 days, maximum stay 1 year, book 21 days in advance); Iberia (071-830 0011) from pounds 604 return (minimum stay 7 days, maximum stay 3 months, no advance booking necessary); Trailfinders (071-938 3366) from pounds 469 return.

TOUR OPERATORS: Exodus Expeditions (081-675 5550) 25-day tour, part hotel stay, part camping, visiting wildlife reserves and jungle, from pounds 1,250 including flights; Journey Latin America (081-747 8315) 11-day Jabiru Tour, visiting wildlife reserves and volcanoes, from pounds 1,460 including flights. JLA can also arrange itinerary extensions, tailor-made tours or flights only; World Wide Journeys and Expeditions (071-381 8638) offers individual tours.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Costa Rican Embassy, 5 Harcourt House, 19a Cavendish Square, London W1M 9AD (071-495 3985).

(Photograph omitted)