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Hummingbird at Savegre Hotel
Hummingbird at Savegre Hotel
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Where is the best place to go birdwatching in Costa Rica? One of our favorite birding places is Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve & Spa in San Gerardo de Dota.

The family-owned lodge is located in the Talamanca Mountain cloud forest, 90 kilometers southwest of Costa Rica's capital, San José . The 400-hectare private reserve is just nine kilometers from Los Quetzales National Park.

How do you get to Savegre Hotel? You can drive to San Gerardo de Dota from San José on the Pan-American Highway or take the Musoc bus to San Isidro del General. For a fee, hotel staff will pick you up there or at Juan Santamaria International Airport (code SJO) in San José.

Bird species checklist

When we checked into the 49-room hotel, we received a checklist of 170 common, migrant, uncommon, resident, accidental and rare species of birds observed at Savegre Hotel. By the time we had signed for our cabin keys, we had already seen a half-dozen of them.

Reading Birds of Costa Rica book
Reading Birds of Costa Rica book
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Four species of glittering cobalt, emerald and violet hummingbirds hovered around a feeder just outside the window. But it was a more legendary bird that drew us here — the resplendent quetzal (pronounced ket-saal).

Quetzal Education Research Centre

Efraín Chacón discovered the Savegre Valley during a hunting trip in 1952. He noted that the land was good for farming so he and his family cleared some trees and established a cattle ranch. Unfortunately, the cows eroded the land and ate much of the lush vegetation.

In 1982, he sold the cattle and replaced the pastures with a trout hatchery and orchards of plums, peaches and apples. A lodge soon followed to house the fishermen who came here to catch trout in the pristine Savegre River.

At the same time, Professor (now emeritus) Leo Finkenbinder, a biologist at the Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma, was planning a field trip for his students. A friend recommended Savegre, because he was astounded by the abundant birdlife during a fishing trip.

Fried trout dinner at Savegre Hotel
Fried trout dinner at Savegre Hotel
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

So smitten was he with what he saw, that Dr. Finkenbinder established the Quetzal Education Research Center (QERC) at Savegre. QERC leases the forest from the Chacóns and uses it as a classroom for teaching university courses in tropical biology and ecology. Undergraduates do research on the quetzal and its habitat in the library and lab.

Home-cooked meals

The Chacóns treat students, scientists and guests as family. Meals are home-cooked and delicious. Typical dinners? We enjoyed fresh trout from the hatchery and casado (a heaping plate of salad, rice, beans, meat, eggs and fried vegetables). "Casado means married man," explained our waiter, "because wives make it to keep their husbands happy."

We became addicted to Salsa Lizano, a sweet-and-sour sauce used like ketchup on almost everything. It was especially tasty with gallo pinto, the dish of black beans and rice seasoned with onions and sweet peppers, served with eggs for breakfast. Desserts included coconut flan and fruit from the Chacon's orchards. For drinks, there were fresh fruit refrescos and one made from sweet yellow tomatoes that grow on trees in the garden.

Birdwatcher peers through scope
Birdwatcher peers through scope
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Birding tours

Although Savegre is just nine degrees north of the equator, temperatures are cool at night and in the early mornings, because it is located at an altitude of 2,200 meters. After breakfast, we dressed warmly to look for quetzals on a birding tour with Marino Chacón along the Quebrada Trail.

Several birdwatchers were already out since sunrise, peering into scopes mounted on tripods. Heads up and mouths agape, binoculars glued to their eyes, they strained their necks forward to gaze at a resplendent quetzal (scientific name: Pharomachrus mocinno).

Its yellow beak gripped the small green fruit of the aquacatillo tree, a wild avocado, which is the mainstay of its diet. We were shocked to see the object of our quest so quickly.

Sacred bird of the Mayas and Aztecs

According to Mayan legend, the bird was a spiritual protector. Tribal chieftains coveted its glossy streamers as adornments. Today, the quetzal is endangered, the victim of a rapidly diminishing cloud forest habitat.

Resplendent quetzal
Resplendent quetzal
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The pigeon-sized male sports two graceful tail feathers nearly twice the length of its body. A crimson breast contrasts vividly with its lustrous green plumage. It is truly one of the most splendidly attired birds in the world.

Quetzal behavior

Resplendent quetzals nest in woodpecker-like hollows in tall trees. The holes are large enough to conceal the entire bird, except for the ends of the male's train, which flutter outside like the fronds of a fern. Males and females share nest-building and incubating the two pale blue eggs that the female lays between March and June.

Marino spoke with awe about the quetzal's courtship display. "The males rocket into the air, clashing their breasts together in a competition for females," he said.

We saw no more quetzals that morning. There were, however, many other pleasant distractions. A yellow winged virio fed her cheeping open-mouthed babies in a mossy nest. Some horseback-riders, on a Savegre Hotel tour, stopped to compare notes on bird-sightings.

Hiking on cloud forest trail
Hiking on cloud forest trail
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Hiking trail

Giant tree ferns and wild black raspberries lined our path. Bromeliads and orchids adorned the trees. We crossed a babbling brook edged with wild begonias, impatience and ferns. After four hours of hiking, we returned to the hotel with checkmarks next to 80 of the birds on our list.

During breakfast the next morning we talked to a couple who, on a tour with Marino, had checked off 130 species in the valley. Before we could finish our conversation, Marino rushed in shouting "quetzal!"

We dropped our forks and darted outside to find a splendid male quetzal perched on a post, just meters outside the dining room. He had appeared, almost magically, like in a dream. The quetzal let us admire him for a couple precious minutes. Then like an apparition, he vanished, leaving only the glint of the sun on his luminous green tail feathers.


Savegre Hotel Natural Reserve

More things to see & do in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica Trips for Nature Lovers

Costa Rica Adventure Tour

Central America on a Shoestring

Manuel Antonio National Park - Hiking, Beaches and Wildlife

Marenco Beach Rainforest Lodge - Hiking in Osa Peninsula Rio Claro Refuge