The most spectacular of Guatemala’s fauna, the resplendent quetzal is paid tribute by the very name of the country’s currency. The Q1 coin includes a drawing of the quetzal, its tail artfully designed to spell out the word paz (peace). While deforestation has significantly reduced this majestic birds habitat over the past several decades, there are still areas where it can be found in its natural habitat, most famously in Quiché, San Marcos, and Las Verapaces. See the travel guide for more tips on observing the quetzal with your own eyes).
One of the quetzal’s natural habitats, the aptly-named Biotopo del Quetzal, is named for Mario Dary Rivera, a biologist at the Universidad de San Carlos and one of the principal figures of Guatemala’s environmental conservation movement. In fact, Dary is responsible for the establishment for most of the country’s biotopes, which serve to protect the country’s incredible wealth of biodiversity for future generations. Like many activists, Dary was assassinated during the armed conflict in 1981, though it’s unclear whether the culprits were military or just angry loggers.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his death, Dary’s efforts preserved the natural habitat of Guatemala’s threatened national bird. The quetzal, characterized by its blood-red chest, shiny turquoise wings, and flowing green tail, inhabits the misty cloud forests of Central America and is a prized sight for bird watchers and eco-tourists. The reclusive quetzal likes to feast on the fruit of the aguacatillo tree and is most active in the early morning. In Guatemala, your best bet to spot this elusive bird as at the Biotopo del Quetzal, the cloud forests of Chelemhá and Chicacnab, the Reserva Natural Sierra de las Minas, and the Refugio del Quetzal in San Rafael Pie de la Cuesta, San Marcos.
The quetzal’s place as Guatemala’s natural bird comes from the fantastical interpretation of an actual historical event, the final battle between Spanish forces and the K’iche’ Mayan kingdom at present-day Quetzaltenango. Tecún Umán, a prince of the K’iche’, led his army against the troops of Pedro de Alvarado. It is said that Tecún Umán possessed magical powers derived from the quetzal bird that enabled him to fly. After numerous attacks, Tecún Umán was able to disorient Pedro de Alvarado by killing his horse. In a counterattack, however, de Alvarado pierced Tecún Umán’s chest with a sword, fatally wounding him. Upon his death, the resolve of Tecún Umán’s forces was broken, and they immediately retreated into the mountains. Soon after, a quetzal bird emerged from his bloody chest and alighted there briefly before soaring into the sky. The red chest of the resplendent quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird, is said to come from the very blood of Tecún Umán.