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25 April - 3 May 2000

by David R Ferry

Day 1- arrive in Guatemala City

We (a party consisting of myself, my wife Linda, and friends Ellen and Diane) arrived in Guatemala City on an American Airlines flight from Ontario through DFW.  There is a United flight direct from LAX.  The DFW to GUA leg was on American's affiliate Grupo Taca.  The plane, from the Taca subsidiary Aviateca, looked a bit old.  More about Grupo Taca later.  Customs were routine.

Marco Tello's daughter, Flor de Maria, met us at the airport and drove us to the hotel in the family car.  This is apparently standard practice for their agency.  The hotel, the Clarion Suites, is modern, very spacious, comfortable, has a nice restaurant, and is only 2 km from the airport.  There are also several other restaurants within walking distance.

Day 2- flight to Santa Elena, drive to Tikal

Flor de Maria met us at 5:15 AM to take us back to the airport.  We checked in for the flight to Santa Elena on Tikal Jets, which probably should be "Tikal Jet" since they appear to have only one plane.  There were other local airlines with flights to Santa Elena, which might be important for timing, as I will discuss later.  In any case, the Tikal Jets flight was fine.  We arrived in Santa Elena about 8:30 AM and boarded a bus for the one hour drive to Tikal.  The bus has to stop at the entrance to the park and everyone has to pay the 50 quetzal fee (about $6.50, which has to be paid every day).

We arrived at the Jungle Lodge, but, as I would see every day, the rooms are not ready until 1:30 PM, so all the baggage sits in the lobby for the rest of the morning.  This is rather inconvenient and possibly insecure.

We birded the grounds, and they were spectacular, as I was told they could be.  We had 50 species by lunch and walked only 200 meters!

I need to describe the Jungle Lodge environment.  The rooms were comfortable enough, but since April is the hottest time of the year, it doesn't help that there is no air conditioning and the electricity is shut off at 11:00 PM, so your ceiling fan doesn't work.  Some other time of year would certainly be more pleasant.  The Jungle Lodge expects the people who get off the bus to spend the morning touring the ruins so they will be out of the way until the rooms are ready.  In April, at least, this was miserable for my wife, who went on the tour instead of birding with us that morning.

The food is a major problem at the lodge.  It was very basic, as I was warned, and the options for vegetarians were extremely limited.  A considerable use of Spanish was necessary to obtain something that we could eat.  The service was also very poor.  The same waiters were present at every meal, but they did not remember in 3 days that our meals were included in our room charge.  We were presented with a bill after each meal, which required a discussion with the front desk every time.

We spent the afternoon doing some fantastic birding on two of the trails in the ruins.  I was also impressed with the number of mammals in the park.  We saw scores of spider monkeys, several troupes of howlers, many coatis, several agoutis, and a red brockett deer.  All were extremely tame, as were the resident Ocellated Turkeys.

Day 3- Tikal

We spent the morning along the old airport and the afternoon in the visiting the nearly dry ponds and in the ruins.  We continued to rake in the birds.

Day 4- Tikal in the morning, drive to Biotopo Cahui, lunch at Camino Real, flight to Guatemala City, night at Clarion Suites

The morning was great at Tikal.  We decided to hire a car and driver for the trip back so we could stop when we wanted to.  One such stop produced a Black Hawk-Eagle!  Our driver took us to the Biotopo Cahui, a hillside reserve with seasonal dry forest much like West Mexico.  It was 10:30 AM when we arrived, so it was hot and not very productive.  Earlier would obviously be better, but I don't think it would be worth missing the morning at Tikal.

Far more productive was the stop at the Camino Real.  Not only was the site of the beautiful hotel and its wonderful restaurant a nice change, the grounds were extremely productive for birding.  Since April is the very end of the dry season, the irrigated grounds with their exotic plantings were teeming with birds.  We should have spent a great deal longer here than at the Biotopo, but we need to get back to Santa Elena.  The flight back to Guatemala was unremarkable.

Marco Tello met us at the airport, and we decided to pick up our van then instead of waiting until the rental car company opened in the morning.  Marco had assured me that the van had room for 10, after I had told him my concerns for having enough room for my 6' 5" body.  Our van turned out to be a nearly new Mitsubishi with a tiny diesel engine.  Although there theoretically was room for 10 in this vehicle, there was no way that it had enough power to go up any hill with any more people and luggage than it carried.  Everyone but me had to get out to drive up the ramp from the hotel parking garage the next morning!  There was also no air conditioning, but you don't really need it in the mountains.  I would not rent such a vehicle again.

Jason Berry met us that evening after his long bus ride from Quetzaltenango.  He turned out to be a young, very friendly, very enthusiastic birder.  He knows all the birds by sight but has yet to learn all of the calls.  He is primarily familiar with the Western Highlands.  His assistance in having scouting the rest of our route, however, was invaluable.

Day 5- drive through the Motagua Valley to the Biotopo Quetzal, night in the Hotel Posada de Montaña

We left very early the next morning so as to get to the dry area in the Motagua Valley as soon as possible.  Getting out of Guatemala City is more difficult than getting out of, say, Guadalajra, in that there are almost no signs and the roads are inadequate for the urban sprawl.  The road down the mountain to the dry valley below is better than it was when I was here a few years ago in that there are passing lanes on the uphill side every few km.  All truck traffic from the east has to go up this road.

The dry area along the first 15 km up the road to Cobán was productive for birds tough to get elsewhere in Guatemala, such as Russet-crowned Motmot.  We had breakfast at a very commendable roadside restaurant which is used by all the long-haul buses.

The winding road up to about 5500 feet took another hour and a half, not including stops.  At one point along the road in the lower pine forest, I heard (and recorded) what I can only conclude was an Ocellated Quail.  The bird was on a weedy hillside under scattered pine trees, and, although it would answer its own taped call, it would come no closer.  It sounded very similar to a Montezuma Quail.  Naturally, walking up the hillside produced nothing.  This site would certainly be worth some more effort for this elusive bird.

The Hotel Posada de Montaña is a small quaint place with reasonable quality bungalows.  There is a sitting room with a fireplace, a bedroom and a bath.  The grounds have pine-oak forest and Inga trees which were in bloom during our visit.  The Inga blooms were being swarmed by hummers, mostly Azure-crowned.  There is a small restaurant in the hotel which serves a fair variety of adequate food.  The waitresses were mainly young Indian women who spoke fair Spanish but no English.  The hotel is 7 km from the Biotopo Quetzal.

Day 6- Pension Quetzal and the Biotopo Quetzal

There is small pension next to the Biotopo which has rooms which appeared reasonable but slightly less sophisticated than the hotel.  For 5 quetzales per person, you could walk the trail up the hill and into the forest for about 1 km to the hotel's water supply at a waterfall.  The great attraction at this place is the morning Quetzal show.  At least one pair and maybe two spend the night below the highway and make there way up the hill just at dawn.  According to the locals, this happens all year long.  We heard them calling to each other below the road and then watched them cross into the trees at the edge of a small clearing.  Two males and a female were eventually present and displayed to each other for more than 20 minutes in plain sight, calling constantly!

We explored the trail up to the waterfall, found a good mix of mountain birds, and moved on to the Biotopo.  The reserve charges 20 queztales per person for entrance.  There is a small visitor's center with some exhibits and a biography of conservationist Mario Dary, who was killed by poachers in the ‘70s as he worked to establish the reserve, which is officially named for him.

There are two loop trails in the reserve, one of about 1.5 km and the other of over 3 km.  The trails are in excellent condition and very well maintained, but are fairly steep.  The cloud forest is well preserved and beautiful.

In the afternoon, we decided to investigate a tract of land north of Cobán which Jason had heard about.  After an hour's drive north, we found the area, which turned out to be a large park north of town.  The habitat was disturbed, and so afforded us several birds which were not seen in the cloud forest.  I don't believe, however, that the setting or the drive or the birds warrant this side trip.

Day 7- Pension Quetzal and drive to Antigua

We spent the next morning watching the Quetzal show at the pension, and the rest of the morning at the Biotopo.  Altogether a very pleasant place area with good forest, great birds, nice rooms, and fair food.  I probably would have left immediately after an early breakfast an birded the pine forest in the putative Ocellated Quail location or headed on down for an early visit to the dry Motagua Valley below.

We made our way back up the main highway to Guatemala City, which was must easier than on my previous visit when the road did not have passing lanes.  The pitiful little diesel engine in our van was barely up to the task, however.  With a good map and Jason's knowledge, we managed to only get lost once going through Guatemala City.  There were no signs that indicated the turnoff to Antigua.

It is 40 km to the old capitol of Antigua.  The city was devastated by an earthquake in 1773, and never really recovered.  The town has retained its colonial flavor by chance and now by law: all of the interior and exterior structures must remain unchanged.  There are collapsed cathedrals, narrow cobblestone streets, and the typical Spanish architecture of the period.  The buildings are brightly painted and have huge ancient wooden doors which lead to interior courtyards full of flowers and fountains.  We stayed at the Hotel Posada Don Rodrigo, which was an old monastery.  The grounds were beautiful and the rooms were very large and comfortable and with a very good restaurant on the grounds.  The best hotel in town is supposed to be the Santo Domingo, another old monastery, but it was full and we only saw it from the outside.  If the rooms and grounds are nicer than the Don Rodrigo, they must be really something.

Since it was Linda's birthday, we wanted to go to whatever was supposed to be the nicest restaurant in town.  The Sereno turned out to be an incredible recommendation.  The restaurant is an old restored mansion.  Each room has no more than 2 tables in it.  The food, service, and setting were spectacular (light years from the Jungle Lodge!).

Day 8- Tecpán Ridge

On Jason's recommendation, we drove north for 1 1/2 hours to a high ridge over the small town of Tecpán.  There were microwave towers at the top, always a good sign in the tropics (the road will be passable!) We only got lost once, when a local farmer told us to take a small dirt road to the left.  Luckily, we couldn't get up a steep hill about a km further.  The poor little van did not have enough power or traction (the tires looked like they belonged on a motorcycle) to climb up.  We turned around and went back up the correct road, which turned out to be in great shape.  We climbed to 9500 feet elevation by my altimeter.  The forest was pine-oak with a bit of the cloud forest look.  There were many birds at this altitude which we had not seen elsewhere, including many Pink-headed Warblers.

We spent the entire day on this high ridge.  The birding was wonderful all they way down to the town.

That evening we met a local birder, Mary Thompson.  She said she had a nearly sure-fire place on the way up to Tecpán which had Pileated Flycatcher.

In summary, Antigua is a beautiful town which is certainly the right place to end a tour.  It is cool, beautiful, sophisticated and historical.  On a clear day, one can see the three towering volcanoes which surround the town.  There are many places to shop and snoop into if tour participants wanted to spend an afternoon there.  The proximity to the Tecpán Ridge is highly desirable.

Day 9- early drive to Guatemala City and the flight home.

The flight back on Grupo Taca was a bit of a disaster.  They claimed that the plane was oversold, or at least the "weight limit", whatever that was, was exceeded when it came time to check in Diane.  She was told that she had to be put on a different flight, go to El Salvador, and change planes there.  This was only prevented when my non-subtle wife played the Pushy American role and insisted that Diane was getting on the plane.  It turned out that flight was only 3/4 full, so I never figured out what the problem was.  Perhaps a bribe would have helped, but it would have been better to go on a real American Airlines flight instead of the affiliate, or use United with its direct flight to LAX.


Total species seen:  260


LPI=Lago Petén Itzá and vicinity
M=Motagua Valley
B=Biotopo Quetzal and vicinity
C=Cobán and vicinity
A=Antigua and vicinity
TR=Tecpán Ridge and vicinity

Great Tinamou- T
Little Tinamou- T
Pied-billed Grebe- LPI
Neotropic Cormorant- LPI
Bare-throated Tiger Heron- T
Great Egret- LPI
Snowy Egret- T
Little Blue Heron- LPI
Cattle Egret- E
Green Heron- LPI
Black Vulture- E
Turkey Vulture- E
Gray-headed Kite- T
Hook-billed Kite- T
Plumbeous Kite- T
Gray Hawk- T
Common Black-Hawk- C
Great Black Hawk- T, LPI
Roadside Hawk- T
Red-tailed Hawk- B, TR
Black Hawk-Eagle- T
Laughing Falcon- T
American Kestrel- M, C
Bat Falcon- T
Peregrine Falcon- B
Plain Chachalaca- T, B
Crested Guan- T
Highland Guan- B
Great Curassow- T
Ocellated Turkey- T
Singing Quail- TR
Ruddy Crake- T
Gray-necked Wood Rail- T
Purple Gallinule- T
Common Moorhen- T
American Coot- LPI
Limpkin- T
Northern Jacana- LPI
Rock Dove- M, C
Band-tailed Pigeon- TR
Short-billed Pigeon- T
White-winged Dove- M, C
Inca Dove- M
Ruddy Ground-Dove- LPI, M
White-tipped Dove- T, M, C
Ruddy Quail-Dove- T
Pacific Parakeet- TR
Olive-throated Parakeet- T
Orange-fronted Parakeet- M
White-crowned Parrot- T
Red-lored Parrot- T
Mealy Parrot- T
Black-billed Cuckoo- B
Yellow-billed Cuckoo- M, C, B
Squirrel Cuckoo- T, LPI
Groove-billed Ani- T
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl- T, M, C
Common Paraque- B
White-collared Swift- B, C, TR
Vaux's Swift- C
Little Hermit- T
Wedge-tailed Sabrewing- T
Violet Sabrewing- B
Green-breasted Mango- LPI
Broad-billed Hummingbird- LPI
White-eared Hummingbird- B, TR
White-bellied Emerald- T
Azure-crowned Hummingbird- B
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- T
Buff-bellied Hummingbird- T
Green-throated Mountain-Gem- B
Purple-crowned Fairy- T
Black-headed Trogon- T.
Violaceous Trogon- T
Mountain Trogon- TR
Collared Trogon- B
Slaty-tailed Trogon- T
Resplendent Quetzal- B
Tody Motmot- T
Russet-crowned Motmot- M
Blue-crowned Motmot- T, B
Turquoise-browed Motmot- M, B
Green Kingfisher- M
White-whiskered Puffbird- T
Emerald Toucanet- T, B, TR
Collared Aracari- T
Keel-billed Toucan- T
Acorn Woodpecker- TR
Golden-fronted Woodpecker- E
Hairy Woodpecker- B, TR
Golden-olive Woodpecker- T, C
Guatemalan Flicker- M, C, TR
Chestnut-colored Woodpecker- T
Lineated Woodpecker- T
Pale-billed Woodpecker- T
Spectacled Foliage-gleaner- B
Ruddy Foliage-gleaner- B
Plain Xenops- T
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper- T
Ruddy Woodcreeper- T
Olivaceous Woodcreeper- T
Barred Woodcreeper- T
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper- T, B
Spotted Woodcreeper- B
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper- TR
Barred Antshrike- T, LPI
Plain Antvireo - T
Mexican Antthrush- T
Northern Beardless Tyrannulet- M
Greenish Elaenia- T
Yellow-bellied Elaenia- T
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher- T
Sepia-capped Flycatcher- T
Paltry Tyrannulet- B
Northern Bentbill- T, LPI
Eye-ringed Flatbill- T
Yellow-olive Flycatcher- T
Stub-tailed Spadebill- T, LPI
Royal Flycatcher- T
Tufted Flycatcher- B, TR
Greater Pewee- A, TR
Eastern Wood-Pewee- T
Tropical Pewee- T, M, B
Least Flycatcher- T, M
Pine Flycatcher- TR
Yellowish Flycatcher- B, C, TR
Bright-rumped Attila- T, B
Rufous Mourner- T
Dusky-capped Flycatcher- T
Brown-crested Flycatcher- T
Great Kiskadee- T, M, C
Social Flycatcher- T, LPI
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher- T, M
Piratic Flycatcher- T
Tropical Kingbird- LPI
Couch's Kingbird- T
Thrushlike Schiffornis (Mourner)- T
Masked Tityra- T, LPI
White-collared Manakin- T
Red-capped Manakin- T
White-eyed Vireo- T
Mangrove Vireo- T
Yellow-throated Vireo- T
Blue-headed Vireo- C
Hutton's Vireo- TR
Warbling Vireo- T, C
Red-eyed Vireo- T
Yellow-green Vireo- T, LPI
Tawny-crowned Greenlet- T
Lesser Greenlet- T, LPI
Rufous-browed Peppershrike- TR
Stellar's Jay- TR
White-throated Magpie-Jay- M
Brown Jay- T, LPI
Bushy-crested Jay- M, C, B
Black-throated Jay- B, TR
Unicolored Jay- B
Gray-breasted Martin- T, M, B
Tree Swallow- T
Mangrove Swallow- LPI
Bushtit- TR
Brown Creeper- TR
Band-backed Wren- TR
Rufous-naped Wren- M
Spot-breasted Wren- T
Banded Wren- B
White-browed Wren- T
Southern House Wren- LPI, B, C, TR
Rufous-browed Wren- TR
White-bellied Wren- T
White-breasted Wood Wren- T
Gray-breasted Wood-Wren- B, TR
Long-billed Gnatwren- T
Tropical Gnatcatcher- T, M
Eastern Bluebird- B, C, TR
Brown-backed Solitaire- B, TR
Slate-colored Solitaire- B
Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush- TR
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush- TR
Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush- B
Swainson's Thrush- B
Wood Thrush- T
Black Robin- B, TR
Mountain Robin- B, TR
Clay-colored Robin- E
White-throated Robin- T, LPI
Rufous-collared Robin- C, TR
Tropical Mockingbird- C
Blue-and-White Mockingbird- TR
Gray Silky- B, C
Olive Warbler- TR
Golden-winged Warbler- T
Tennessee Warbler- T
Crescent-chested Warbler- B, TR
Yellow Warbler- T, B, C
Magnolia Warbler- T, B, C
Black-throated Green Warbler- C
Townsend's Warbler- TR
Blackburnian Warbler- B, C
Grace's Warbler- B, TR
Black-and-white Warbler- T, M, B
American Redstart_ T, LPI
Ovenbird- T
Northern Waterthrush- T
Kentucky Warbler- T
Mourning Warbler- B
MacGillivray's Warbler- TR
Common Yellowthroat- T
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- B
Wilson's Warbler- B, C, TR
Canada Warbler- C
Painted Redstart- B
Slate-throated Redstart- B, TR
Golden-crowned Warbler- T
Rufous-capped Warbler- C, A
Golden-browed Warbler- B, TR
Common Bush-Tanager- B, TR
Black-throated Shrike-Tanager- T
Red-crowned Ant-Tanager- LPI
Red-throated Ant-Tanager- T
Summer Tanager- T
Western tanager- C
Flame-colored tanager- B
Blue-gray Tanager- M
Yellow-winged Tanager- T
Scrub Euphonia- T, LPI, B
Yellow-throated Euphonia- T, LPI
Blue-hooded Euphonia- C, TR
Olive-backed Euphonia- T
Blue-crowned Chlorophonia- B
Red-legged Honeycreeper- LPI
Blue-black Grassquit- LPI
White-collared Seedeater- T, LPI
Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer- B, TR
Yellow-throated Brush-Finch- C
Green-backed Sparrow- T, LPI
Prevost's (White-faced) Ground-Sparrow- A
Spotted Towhee- TR
Stripe-headed Sparrow- M
Rusty Sparrow- A, TR
Rufous-collared Sparrow- B
Guatemalan (Yellow-eyed) Junco- TR
Grayish Saltator- LPI
Buff-throated Saltator- C
Black-headed Saltator- T, C
Blue Bunting- T, LPI
Indigo Bunting- T, A
Painted Bunting- LPI
Melodious Blackbird- T, LPI
Great-tailed Grackle- E
Bronzed Cowbird- A, TR
Yellow-backed Oriole- C, TR
Altamira Oriole- M, C
Baltimore Oriole- T
Chestnut-headed Oropendola- B, C
Montezuma Oropendola- T
Black-capped Siskin- TR
Black-headed Siskin- B, A
House Sparrow- A

David R Ferry
Yucaipa, CA