We often share about the offshore wonders found in the rich waters off Isla Palenque, but Western Panama is a diverse land of contrasts, with a variety of ecosystems. On the mainland north of Isla Palenque, in the area called the Chiriqui Highlands, is Panama’s sole volcano – Volcan Baru. At over 11,000 feet high, the slopes of this sleeping giant are covered with dense forests shrouded in mist. These ancient cloud forests are populated with exotic species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
The Resplendent Quetzal
Among its most enigmatic is the Resplendent Quetzal, a bird of emerald green plumage revered by the ancient Aztecs and Maya of Mexico and Guatemala. The Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala and is also the name of its currency.
It’s easy to see why ancient cultures held this creature in such high esteem. Its green feathers have a distinct iridescent quality and are bright green, punctuated by a scandalous red breast. As if this weren’t enough, the male has a spiky feathered head crest and two long tail feathers, usually two to three feet long, that trail behind it as it flies, like ribbons on a kite. The quetzal is not a bird that flies high like eagles but its flight is certainly distinct. Particularly during mating season, a male’s flight involves jerky movements more like that of a helicopter than an airliner.
Biodiversity in Panama is great, thanks to its topographical variations and proximity to the equator. Like its Canal forming a bridge between north and south, Panama itself is a bridge of biodiversity where species from North and South America converge. Panama has quetzal birds in abundance and also possesses sub-species of the bird not found further north, such as the Golden Quetzal. One of the best places in the world to see quetzals is on the slopes of Volcan Baru, protected as a national park. Population centers in its vicinity include the towns of Boquete, Volcan, and Cerro Punta.
Sendero los Quetzales
Conveniently, a trail connects ranger stations in the vicinity of two of these towns, one at Alto Chiquero (near Boquete) and the other at El Respingo (near Cerro Punta). The trail, known as Sendero los Quetzales, is a great place to try and spot one of these amazing birds. It takes about six hours to hike the 12-mile trail, which winds through verdant forest and crosses several streams along the way. Beginning from Alto Chiquero involves mostly an uphill climb, while the opposite is true when starting the trail from El Respingo. Keep in mind, you’ll still need to hike the considerable distance between the ranger stations and their nearest towns, or arrange transportation to meet you at the other end of the trail.
The trail is well marked, though parts of it frequently flood due to torrential rains. It’s best to go with a guide, as it’s easy to get lost. A guide will also help you see more wildlife. More than 300 pairs of breeding quetzals are said to inhabit the park through which the serpentine trail winds. Be on the listen for the distinct quetzal call, which sounds somewhat like that of a whimpering dog. Even if you don’t see one of the elusive quetzals, you’ll be treated to the sight of various hummingbirds as they flit by like flashes of lightning in the sylvan scenery, along with several endemic bird species such as the black-chested warbler and the yellow-thighed finch. Like most things in Panama, a hike on the Los Quetzales trail is an adventure that will most likely exceed your expectations.