Costa Rica is known for its natural beauty, advancements in sustainability and conservation, and vast wildlife viewing opportunities. While all these things struck me, what was most inspiring to me was hearing the stories of those who call Costa Rica home.

This is the story of Hector Wiliams Solano, a farmer helping to change how we protect these naturally wild places we are so lucky to be a part of.

Hector Wiliams Solano’s farm is tucked away in the cloud forest of central Costa Rica. Our Natural Habitat Adventures group arrived there after driving through beautiful winding roads—most of what we can see around are trees. The goal of the day was to see the magnificent and world-famous quetzal. These birds are known to be elusive but strikingly beautiful if you are lucky enough to spot them.

Hector Williams Solano, a Costa Rica farmer and conservationist

© Madison Mitchell / WWF
Hector Wiliams Solano, the Costa Rican farmer and conservationist

Project Quetzal Paradise

Hector Wiliams is a part of Project “Paraiso Quetzal” (Quetzal Paradise), which works with farmers in the area to involve them in the conservation of this mountainous ecosystem where the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) lives, In return, the farmers benefit financially from ecotourism. The Paraiso Quetzal Project, spearheaded by a local hotel—the Quetzal—started about a decade ago and has already collaborated with more than 20 families. Hector Wiliams was the first farmer to work on the project.

At the time, Hector’s main livelihood came from growing blackberries, strawberries and other crops. He tells us that he didn’t know much about conservation, nor the quetzal then. In fact, he shares that he was about to cut down an aguacatillo tree on his farm—the tree on which quetzals feed—because he wanted more space and sunlight for his crops.

Luckily, his son, who was working with the hotel Quetzal, heard about the opportunity for farmers to get involved with Project “Paraiso Quetzal.” He encouraged his father to join the project. Hector kept the tree on his farm and started to receive income from the tourists coming to the region in search of the quetzal. Shortly after Hector joined the project, other local families wanted to contribute as well. Not all of them are directly involved with the quetzal sightings—some are involved in hiking activities, trout fishing and hummingbird viewing.

Meeting the Resplendent Quetzal

That was 10 years ago. Today, Hector welcomes us with a big smile, and our accompanying local guide—Eric Granados, manager of the project and ex-farmer—directs us to a wooden shelter that oversees the aguacatillo tree (Persea caerulea), where we hope to see a quetzal. Hector explains that he had the idea to build this refuge after seeing many tourists stand in the rain while waiting to see the quetzal. A year ago, with some of his own investment and support from the project, he was able to build this structure. Now, tourists can stay dry, use the bathroom and even enjoy a warm coffee while they wait to see the magnificent bird.

Three men in Costa Rica guiding and sharing their love of conservation

© Madison Mitchell / WWF
Pictured from left to right: Eric Granados, Jimmy Tosso (our Nat Hab guide), and Hector Wiliams Solano

Eric tells us that since many families now participate in the project, they have formed an association to coordinate the different ecotourism activities and ensure that the benefits are fairly distributed across households. He also works to ensure that the visits to see quetzals are not intrusive, equally distributing visits to various areas so that the wildlife stays protected in their natural habitat.

Hector says that he is now very aware of the importance of conserving the aguacatillo trees and protecting the quetzal’s environment. Before his son told him about this opportunity, he never thought this could be an option to earn income. He has benefited a lot from the project and sees the conservation of the quetzal as essential to his livelihood. He mentions that he even built a little fence around the tree because travelers used to get too close to take better pictures and he was worried that would disturb the gorgeous birds.

Quetzal in central Costa Rica

© Ed McDermott

The quetzal is considered an umbrella bird because as the cloud forest is protected, other species from the area benefit as well. We were able to admire the quetzal multiple times during our visit to Hector’s farm, and we experienced a true example of a conservation project where biodiversity protection coexists with community development.

Learn more about the resplendent quetzal and birdwatching in Costa Rica

By Luz Cervantes, Senior Program Officer, Environment and Disaster Management at World Wildlife Fund