Guatemala 12 - 21 October 2000
by Dennis Rogers & Dave Klauber
CHIAPAS - OAXACA
The Howell birder’s guide proved very complete for the sites we visited, and this report will not attempt to do more than provide some detail on the practical aspects of birding the key areas. In general, the book is up to date and complete regarding the particular species of interest.
The specialties as detailed for sites 12-2, 12-3, 11-4 were very cooperative for us, with Green-fronted Hummer, Rosita’s Bunting, Doubleday’s Hummer, Sumichrast’s Sparrow, and Giant Wren all quickly located at the respective sites. The “big” lagoon (p.248) was quite good for waterbirds with one Reddish Egret. Puerto Arista has a couple of perfectly nice hotels.
We found ourselves staying near the downtown in Oaxaca City, which while pleasant, is not too practical for parking, early starts, or cost. There are plenty of options at all price ranges. We stayed in a comfortable place for about $35. The possibilities on the outskirts are high-priced and near busy roads. The only options on the important Highway 175 north out of town are a string of love hotels, which might be OK on a weeknight if you’re so inclined. In general the town and highways are well signed and not difficult to navigate.
The La Cumbre site (11-5) presents a special problem as the locals have taken to charging a 60 peso “cuota” ($6.50 per car -- larger groups have been asked for more) for the use of public roads, supposedly for the benefit of the “community.” The chains are usually unlocked, and can be lowered, as we did, unchallenged, on the southeast side. We were unable to visit the other side after an argument, which very nearly turned into an altercation when the character tried to lock us in. When things calmed down some, he refused to give his name or any indication of authority to be charging money on behalf of anybody. We checked at the municipality in the town down the hill, and they had no knowledge of the charge; the (presumed) mayor’s eyes got rather wide upon hearing the amount involved. Any attempt to force you to pay if you’ve already been in or not let you leave would be a matter for the police, as even in Mexico illegal detention is a serious matter. If you wish to pay to avoid a hassle, by all means do so, but don’t be fooled into thinking you’re contributing to anything more official or legitimate than the weekend’s bottle of mezcal.
Hwy 175 is in terrible shape onwards towards Valle Nacional, though some of the lower parts had been fixed, so improvement can perhaps be expected. Considering that, we decided to concentrate on missing Oaxaca valley specialties rather than go to 11-9.
We’d seen almost all the high-elevation species on the first road, and got the Dwarf Jay on the Sierra de Juarez (p. 227) on the way to Valle Nacional. Also Long-tailed Wood-Partridge along the road. No Hooded Yellowthroat despite several stops. No Bumblebee or Garnet-throated Hummers, not many flowers this time of year. The 11.7 site was productive though most of what’s there is widespread.
The desert and scrub sites around Oaxaca (11-1, 11-2, first part of 11.4) were mixed, with Monte Alban almost birdless the one morning we went there. Most of our luck was at Teotitlan del Valle (11-2) with plenty of birds in good habitat. Unfortunately it seemed like most were White-throated Towees; several of the specialties caused problems. We missed Slaty Vireo (despite some taping), Beautiful Hummingbird, and Pileated Fly, among others, with poor looks at Blue Mockingbird, Ocellated Thrasher, and Oaxaca Sparrow.
Guatemala as a country is going pretty much nowhere, and can be tiresome for travel, especially compared with Mexico or Costa Rica. We only visited three sites of birding interest. Many Guatemala-Chiapas endemics can be found at Fuentes Georginas or the Biotopo del Quetzal (not visited on this trip), and Tikal is one of the most impressive birding spots I’ve visited.
The border crossings from Mexico is a rude introduction to the Third World, and that’s coming from someone who’s been by land to all the countries in Central America (except Belize) in the last six months. Only Honduras is worse. At El Carmen, it starts with the immigration post hidden among a bunch of food stalls all painted with the Pepsi logo. Immigration too, painted courtesy of Pepsi. Then some car fees. Just keep your composure amongst the hustlers and confusion.
Mostly the relevant highways are in good shape. The trip from Guatemala City to Flores (Tikal) is reputed to be about 9 hours but we did it in 7.5 on the return. Food is spectacularly bad in Guatemala, especially after the treats in Mexico.
Fuentes Georginas is now well signed just below Zunil on the Mazetenango-Quetzaltenango road. The road is paved the full 9 km from Zunil up to the hot springs resort. Q10 p/p with Q5 for parking. The hot springs have nice pools, but the cabins (about $10) are dark and dank. It gets pretty cold at night, and the firewood was damp. With the pavement and the continuing deterioration of the accommodations, a day trip from Quetzaltenango now makes more sense. The gates don’t open until 8, but there is plenty of birding on the entrance road, so that won’t be a problem unless you wish to climb the mountain to look for Horned Guan which was seen early in 2000. Ask for information from Luis at the restaurant. I didn’t do the climb but Dave did; the only additional species of note was Black-throated Jay.
12 - 13 October 2000
SANTA MARIA DE JESUS
This small town about 12 km below Zunil on the main highway is the jumping-off point for a previously unknown Cabanis’ Tanager site. On a brief visit we did not see the bird, but Dave returned later and found it.
From the town, find your way down to the dam and across. Look for a trail by some houses in the same general direction as you will be facing while crossing the dam; this well-worn trail goes more or less level around the end of the ridge, crosses a valley that is mostly fields, and goes onto the next ridge. Beyond the fields is normally the best area for the tanager, but it was found this time in some fruiting trees in the first stretch of forest. These trees were very good for Turdus and tanagers.
14 October 2000
Blue & White Mockingbird
Black-throated Green Warb
Tikal is one of the best birding sites I’ve been to for its combination of atmosphere and birding, truly impressive. You really need to stay in one of the hotels in the park to do it justice. The Tikal Inn was $35 double, though you still pay the park fee of about $7.50 if you want to go to the ruins, so do that the day you enter. Avoid the Jungle Lodge. Birding around the airstrip is good and unregulated. Any guidebook will give you additional logistical details. Similarly, the Beavers book Birds of Tikal has plenty of info, though beware of the errata on the abundance codes, the bar with XXX is actually “fairly common”.