A 2,849-acre tract of cloud forest along the road to Cobán, the Biotopo del Quetzal was created to protect its resplendent namesake species, which is endangered because of the indiscriminate destruction of the country's forests.
The reserve offers the chance to see the quetzal in its natural habitat during its mating season, between April and June. Oddly enough, the best place to see the birds is not in the park itself, but in the parking lot of the Ranchito del
Quetzal, 1½ km (1 mi) north. Since it is easier to spot quetzals around dawn or dusk, it's worth spending a night in the area. Even if you don't catch a glimpse of the legendary bird, there are plenty of other species to spot—you're actually far more likely to see a brilliant emerald toucan than you are a quetzal.
Expect rain here year-round, or at least the Verapaces' famed, drizzly chipi-chipi. (March and April clock in as the least-wet months.) At altitudes ranging from 1,500 to 2,300 meters (4,900 to 7500 feet), temperatures here average 16°C (60°F). The resulting luxuriant greenery of the cloud forest is gorgeous in its own right. One of the last remaining cloud forests in Guatemala, the Biotopo del Quetzal is a vital source of water for the region's rivers. Moisture that evaporates from Lago Izabal settles here as fog, which provides sustenance for the towering old-growth trees. Plants like lichens, hepaticas, bromeliads, and orchids abound.
If you're lucky, you can see howler monkeys swinging above the two well-maintained trails, the 2-km (1-mi) Los Helechos (The Ferns) and the 4-km (2½-mi) Los Musgos (The Mosses). The latter takes a short detour past a series of beautiful waterfalls. Plan on 45 minutes to an hour for the shorter trail and about double that for the longer hike. Both trails cross a river with concrete bathing pools where you can swim if you don't mind the cold. An interpretive guide is available at the stand at the trailheads.