There are few animals – and offhand I can’t really think of any birds – with quite the mystique of the iridescent emerald-green denizen of southern Mexico and Central America known as the resplendent quetzal. Since they’re fairly rare (officially “near threatened”) and even more elusive, you’re very unlikely to spot one if you go birding in the scrub forests of the Yucatan or the highlands of Chiapas (they’re somewhat easier to spot further south, in places like Costa Rica and Guatemala, although my own attempts, such as in the cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica, unfortunately did not yield green gold). But if you delve into local indigenous culture and history a bit by visiting Mexican, Honduran, and Guatemalan archaological sites and museums, will certainly notice evidence of pharomachrus mocinno’s dramatic impact on Maya and Aztec culture (I've been fortunate enough to witness the Maya Quetzal Dance, and it is quite an impressive production).

One of the most important and recognizable figures in Mesoamerican mythology is Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered snake” (known by other names such as Kukulkan by the Maya), who became associated, depending on the culture, with learning, the sky, fertility, the martial arts, even creation itself. The quetzal, meanwhile, according to an old Maya folk tale was chosen king of the birds because of its brilliant plumage. So it’s hardly surprising that Mesoamerican warriors, priests, kings, and emperors sought to adorn themselves in quetzal-feather headdresses, capes, and other verdantly plumed finery. It was a crime to kill the birds for their plumage, so they were caught, plucked, and released. You can imagine how tricky that little feat usually was. 

So if you get to visit magical sites such as Copan, Chichen Itza, or Tikal; get to see some of the wonderful stonework depicting Quetzalcoatl at the archaeological museums in Mexico City or Guatemala City; or get to witness a Maya quetzal feather dance in Chiapas or elsewhere, you’ll be struck by how much this shy, retiring bird of the highland forests has shaped one of the world’s great civilizations.

Photo: Fabio Bretto

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