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13 January - 1 February 2004

by Richard C. Carlson


We spent three delightful weeks touring the Mayan ruins and birding spots of the Eastern Yucatan in January 2004.  The birds were great, the ruins incredible, and the people wonderful.  I couldn’t recommend this trip more highly.  Everything worked without a hitch.  This is an incredible area, still mostly undiscovered by the tour mobs.  We had many delightful spots to ourselves.  We birded about half the time and saw 185 species. Our range and birdlist were limited by the fact that my wife was recovering from a broken foot. (Bird List Follows.) The total cost, staying and eating in the best places, renting a big car and hiring local guides was a roughly $125/day per person.

Starting from the youngest Mayan ruin at Chichen Itza in dry thorn scrub forest, we  worked our way south through older and older ruins -- Uxmal and Calakmul -- to the magnificent early Classic period site of Palenque. As the ruins got older, the habitat became closer to true rainforest and we saw more exotic southern birds.  Palenque was incredible. On the return, we stayed at Campeche, an unknown gem and the best-preserved Colonial city in Mexico We ended our intensive birding at Celestun in pampered luxury on the beach surrounded by flamingos.  Finally, we spent the last week helping build a library with the Palo Alto Rotary club at Chicxculub, (of killer meteor fame) near Merida.

We made many of the reservations online ourselves, and the tough ones were made through Mayan Quest  They were wonderfully helpful, and it’s a lot easier letting them make the calls in Mexico than trying to do it yourself.  The best car deal we could find online was $80/day for a big sedan to comfortably carry all 4 of us plus luggage.  We later found a smaller car at Mexico Rent A Car for only $40 a day in Merida.  Gas cost about $2.50 a gallon and must be paid in cash. We flew via Continental through Houston which has by far the best service if you’re coming from the West – flying all the way through Miami with the other carriers adds a day each way.  Continental also lets you skip Mexico City, a real plus.  We planned the trip with a lot of on-line help, but ended up mostly copying the itinerary of an elder-hostel tour.  (I love to read tour itineraries.)

JAN 13 Tuesday  MERIDA

Leave Tucson at 2:30 Arr Merida 8:59
Taxi to Hotel  (Don’t even think about picking up your car the first night and driving to your hotel in the dark.)
Hotel Colon: This was clean, cheap ($60/night), centrally located, comfortable and birdless.  I though we would hate the place, but downtown Merida is just fabulous in the evening.  The town square area is surrounded by lovingly restored colonial buildings with free entertainment and great restaurants.  A step up would be the Grand Hotel


We picked up the car downtown and only got lost once navigating the labyrithine downtown streets out to the freeway.  The freeway was under construction, so it took about 2 ½ hours to get to CI. (It’ll be done soon.). We stayed at our beloved Hotel Hacienda Chichen – stay nowhere else!  The Hacienda is over a century old, with massive trees and has been protected for decades.  The birds know they are safe here, and act accordingly.  It was about 11 when we arrived, but the place was still hopping with birds.  Warblers, tanagers, flycatchers and Indigo Buntings were everywhere.  Best birds were a Yellow-bellied Elaenia and Yellow Olive Flycatcher from the parking lot.  As we ogled the birds, two Mexican birders wandered up, and it turned out to be David Bacab, probably the best bird guide in the Yucatan. We made arrangements to meet him in Celestun, and then my companions dragged me away (kicking and screaming) to lunch.  Lunch at the Hacienda requires binoculars and takes forever.  The birds just kept popping up, and I had to be reminded to eat.  

After lunch, we went to see the ruins.  We hired an archeology guide, who patiently let us interrupt his talks to watch the birds.  He even found a TB Mot-mot for us.  Again because of the protection, the birds were pretty tame.  We saw Rigeway’s Rough Wings, Summer Tanagers, Altamira, Orange and Hooded Orioles, and a Golden Olive Woodpecker.  Anywhere without crowds was full of birds.  We saw Bl. & White, Hooded, Parula, Yellow-throated, Bl. Throated Green, and Magnolia Warblers, plus an Ovenbird, several White-eyed Vireos and Green Jays.

That night I went out with my spotlight.  I wasn’t having much luck until I heard what sounded like rain coming down from one tree.  I looked more closely and it turned out to be a Ceiba tree in blossom.  The blossoms were being picked off by a flying horde of bats – hundreds of them!  I dragged my companions out of bed to watch the show.

JAN 15 Thursday

Got up early to bird the Ceiba tree.  It was hopping with tanagers, euphonia, warblers and hummers.
Drove to Uxmal (4 hrs)
UXMAL Classic Mayan 900-1100 Lovely site.  But short on birds in afternoon.
Hotel Villas Arqueologicas

JAN 16 Friday

Bkfst -- Hotel
Morning  Bird Grounds and Visit Sayil -- full of Mot-mots & Tityra
Leave at 10:30 Start Drive
Lunch  -- Enroute  Gas -- Don't Forget!
Afternoon -- finish drive 5 Hrs Bird Grounds
Dinner -- Hotel
Evening -- Hotel
CALAKMUL -- Huge Classic Mayan site in deep jungle just opened mid-90's
Rivaled Tikal at its peak.  Very wild, chance to see Jaguar, peccary etc. plus deep jungle birds at hotel and ruins Many local ruins, only partially excavated.
Hotel Puerta Calakmul Jungle and Safari lodge.  This place was designed by geniuses but is run by a terribly nice but utterly clueless staff. 
Phone 011-52-998 874 0254

JAN 17 Saturday

Bkfst early
Morning Bird Grounds and drive to Ruins (1.5 hrs)
Watch for Jaguars
Lunch -- box lunch at ruins -- feed Coatimundis
Afternoon -- return from ruins and nap
Dinner  -- other hotel??

JAN 18 Sunday

 Bkfst Hotel
Morning  Bird Grounds early
Leave 10 A.m. 4 hr drive to Palenque
Lunch  -- enroute
Afternoon  -- Start Palenque
Dinner -- Hotel
Evening -- Hotel
PALENQUE beautifully excavated Pre-classic site with some surviving murals.  Good jungle, protected area full of birds.  Chocolate plantations and birdy marshes nearby.  
Hotel -- Chan Kah

Phone 011-52-916 345 1315

JAN 19 Monday

Bkfst at hotel & early bird
Morning -- Palenque ruins
Lunch -- ruins
Afternoon -- nap and more birds & ruins
Dinner -- hotel?

JAN 20 Tuesday -- Same

More birds, more ruins.

Jan 21. Wed

Drive to Campeche 4 hrs?
Lunch enroute
CAMPECHE -- best preserved colonial city in the region, if not Mexico.  Dates to early 1500's First landing place of Cortez.  Gates remain from once massive walls that stopped raids by Drake etc.
Hotel Baluartes
Phone 011-52-981 816 3911

Jan 22 Thursday

Afternoon -- Drive to Celestun 3 hrs
CELESTUN Protected beach and swamp area. Full of water birds and migrants plus Flamingos
Hotel Eco Paradisio -- Luxury resort on shell beach
Phone 011-52 (988) 916 21 000

JAN 23 Friday tour with Bacab

Bkfst at hotel
Early Morning Boat tour for early birds
Afternoon -- Nap, search for shells
Dinner Hotel
Evening -- Night Boat tour to see crocodiles, Potoo??, Night herons etc.

JAN 24 Saturday

Wilson’s & Snowy plover
Flat tire
Bkfst Hotel
Morning -- Beach
Afternoon Drive to Merida
Dinner Merida
Evening Meet Rotary gang.
Hotel Colon 011-52-999-923-4355

Jan 25 Chicxulub --

Hotel Colon
Rotary Activities

Jan 26 Flamingos and X

Jan 27 Dzibilchaltun

Jan 28 Uxmal

Jan 29 Pat sick

Jan 30 Hays Leave
Carlsons stay

Jan 31 Carlson stay

Chase birds, goof -off

Feb. 1 Carlsons fly to Tucson.

Leave 7:30 a.m. Cont. 1111
Arr Houston 9:35
Leave Houston 11:55 Cont. 1716
Arr Tucson 1:33

Travel agent in Merida for Hays and Rotary is Yucatan Trails Travel Agency, Denis Lafoy, 011-52-999-928-2582; tel/fax 928-5913

Carlson Travel Agent:
Maria Calcena
MayanQuest, S.A. De C.V.
Av. Xpujil No. 3 SM 27
Cancun, Q. Roo, MEXICO
Tel. +52 998 898-1641 / 206-2039

Richard Carlson
Full-time Birder, Biker and Rotarian
Part-time Economist
Tucson, AZ & Lake Tahoe, CA
rccarl AT

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