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26 November - 6 December 2004

by Paul Hudso

Sites visited:

Ek Balam, Chichen Itza, Coba, Puerta Laguna Monkey Reserve, Tulum, Calakmul, Kohunlich, Vigia Chico Road, Muyil, Barrera Botanical Gardens.  All sites can be reached with a normal car.  I visited the first 5 sites with my non-birding wife, who then went back to the US as planned.  If you are traveling with a non-birding spouse, I can't imagine they would find Felipe C.P. exciting for very long.   If you are also heading south of here, and have a non-birder with you, you might do well to plan to arrive in FCP in the evening twice (on the way down and the way back), allowing you to spend the night there, do the road in the early am twice without spending a full day there, and leave before your companion gets too bored.

I found that the bird list in Howell's Where to Find book were pretty good (although perhaps a bit more ambitious for Vigia Chico Road than elsewhere).  So I haven't listed every bird here, it makes more sense for you to rely on Howell's lists than my isolated experience.  Instead, I wanted to add some practical details you may not find elsewhere, especially regarding Calakmul, so I'll report the trip out of order, starting there.

Calakmul, Campeche State

Calakmul's towering pyramids are impressive in their own right, but what makes it special is that it is surrounded by what I believe is the largest remaining tropical old-growth forest in North America, and has hardly any tourists or traffic.  The result for birders: while Ocellated Turkey are elusive if not unlikely at Vigia Chico Road and elsewhere, at Calakmul I had approximately 30 of them in my 1 1/4 days of birding.  When a group of 14 turkeys descended upon my campsite at 6 am at the entrance gate at km18, I pulled out my camera and one of them came right up to me and nearly pecked my shoe.  The others were all seen before 830 am or after 4, usually along the road.  I also had two pairs of Great Curassows on the drive in, the second pair in the parking lot for the ruins.  I have seen reports say that they couldn't get into the site before it opened at 8, but I just walked right in, and paid on my way out.  But the birding would probably be good even in the parking lot (hard to beat Great Curassow as a parking lot bird, although I once had Great Hornbill in a parking lot in Thailand).  In the trails around the ruins, there is a lot of space between the trees, giving good visibility for ground birds; I had Thicket and Least Tinamous, Singing Quail, and Mexican Antthrush, and more Ovenbirds than I have ever seen anywhere.   Other highlights in the forest included Rufous Piha, Pale-billed Woodpecker, a sweep of the region's Woodcreepers, tons of migrants, and, while unexpected, what I am pretty sure was a Bicolored Hawk.  You'll need to look at the range maps; not all Yucatan birds are here, and you may get a few new ones not found in the northern/central Yucatan circuit (for me, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Gray-headed Dove).  For mammals, I had coati, agoutis, Yucatan and Deppe's squirrel, Yucatan Howler and C.A. Spider Monkeys, and a grey fox (road, early eve).

Many of my newer travel books said you could no longer camp in Calakmul, and maybe this is correct in terms of staying at the ruins area themselves.  But as of Dec. 2004 you definitely could camp for free at the second gate at km 18 (using your own tent).  There is even a campfire circle, non-odorous latrines, and the friendly and quiet guards are nearby all night and will make you coffee in the morning.  Within 10 minutes of daylight at the campsite/gate I had the 14 aforementioned turkeys, 4 collared aracaris, 3 keel-billed toucans, and when the sun broke, lots of hummers working the road south from the gate.  So if you are up for camping, this is a good spot to wake up. If you aren't, or, as I would encourage, want to drop some extra money to promote real ecotourism, I also spent a night at Hotel Puerta Calakmul, which was high-quality lodgings and OK food.  That night I was the only person there.  They will also make box lunches for the trip into Calakmul, although you could do at least as well packing your own from a grocery store (Note: the last Westernized-looking grocery store I recall is in Tulum at the nw corner of intersection of 307 and the road to Coba, so stock up there on 5L waters and anything else you want, there is no food or water at Calakmul).   Might want to work out a rate with the hotel in advance by email.  The person on email speaks english, but the people at the lodge don't, so make sure the confirmation email is written in spanish that you can print and bring with you to the lodge.  You reach it by turning into the road to Calakmul and then a quick left on a 500m unpaved road about 50m after the turnoff; if there is a person at the Calakmul turnoff best to ask to make sure you get pointed in the right di0>Cw k  rection.  The hotel would probably be nicer if it were further from the highway (you can hear some faint noise), but I'd rather be here than further away.  You definitely want to be at least 10km down the road to Calakmul by dawn.

If in the area at dusk, a worthwhile spot is a bat cave right within walking distance of the main highway, 8 km east of the Calakmul turnoff.  I have seen more bats at Frio Cave in Texas, but this is still a massive flight.  I have never seen instructions for the cave on the Internet or any guide, so just for you, I recorded these instructions in my notes.  On the main highway, between km 106 and 107, there are two dirt tracks leading north.  You want the one that is further west, about km 106.4.  If the bats have already started you should see a stream of them crossing the road above.  Park your car on the north side of the road (plenty of room) and by foot follow the trail for about 10 minutes (unlike the highway km marker, the hike time is a rough estimate, but it is easy).  It bends west and ascends a hill, and as you are going up you will see that you are going up the side of a funnel, with the cave mouth way below.  The bats start coming around sunset.  One neat thing here, I'm not bat expert, but it seems that bats usually take some warm-up laps inside the mouth of a cave before flying out.  Here, they do that outside where you can see them.  After making their laps, they spill out way above you, although more than a couple of them will pass right by you, within feet.  The show seemed to be past its peak before it was completely dark, but a flashlight would be handy.  There were some Mexicans there with me, including what seemed to be a very well-behaved school group.  PS -- If anyone knows the species here, please email me.

Kohunlich -- in Quintana Roo state between Chetumal and Calakmul, visited on my way back.  9 km south of the highway on a paved but much pot-holed road.  It seemed fairly birdy but I had limited time and opted to spend most of it entranced by being the only person at the site, which is surrounded by beautiful palms, ruins on top of hills with nice vistas, the temple of the masks, and for my last hour there, an endless chorus from the howler monkeys.  Near dusk had my only Gray-headed Kite of the trip.  Earlier in the day, I also stopped at Becan and Chicanna to see the worthwhile ruins; I opted to see them during midday hours so spent more time looking at the ruins than birds.

Coba:  I have seen some reports from birders who don't think they can afford the ClubMed place and lament that there is no other option for lodging.  If you are not picky, you can stay at the Hotel El Bocadito, which is mainly known as the restaurant and bus stop on Coba's main drag.  It is pretty spartan (what can you expect for $10?), and ear plugs for the roosters are recommended (provided you can still hear your alarm).  The dawn start at the lake paid off for me, with two Ruddy Crakes and a lifer Spotted Rail together at the short end of the lake past the ruins entrance.  I probably would have missed the rail had it not called; once I heard what I figured I could be nothing other than a rail, I just waited for a few minutes and was soon rewarded with unbeatable views.  The crakes came out with the rail.  As for the site itself, you walk through a lot more forest than Chichen Itza.  In addition to the expected birds, I was excited to discover that the rustle of leaves I thought must be caused by a mammal turned out to be a Crested Guan.  Also, I had my only Rose-throated Tanager here; perhaps you will have better luck but if you don't find them to be as common as the books suggest, you aren't the only one.

I went to Vigia Chico Road after Calakmul and felt a bit disappointed while I was there.  Only when I got home did I realize I saw more species than at Calakmul, but it wasn't as exciting, and certainly not as pristine.  (Although clearly one is jaded when you say that about a place where in 1 1/2 days I had most of the diurnal endemics, Red-capped Mannikin, and Royal Flycatcher.  (For the Royal FC, try the first few hundred yards of the "road" mentioned in Howell that breaks off diagonally around km 6.3).  My second morning I went out with a local guide, Arturo Bayonera, who has been recommended by other reports. If you have a solid grasp of the local birds, from a strict lister perspective Arturo is really just a second pair of eyes; I found myself in some cases more confident about ranges, identifications, etc.  And he didn't take me to any locations I couldn't have found myself using Howell's book.  But I was still happy to pay him, as he is seems to be exactly the type of local naturalist/educator/community activist that we need to support if we want these birding habitats to survive in the long-run.  And Arturo did teach me a lot about the non-avian environment, from plants to herps.  Just don't expect a guide along the lines of a Paulo Boute of the Pantanal who knows exactly what everything is and exactly where to find it.  One event worth noting: somewhere around km 6-10, as Arturo was returning to get the car, unfortunately another car came down the road and hit a snake that was crossing the road.  Like me, Arturo was clearly sad for the creature, which when we arrived at the scene he gasped a bit and identified it as a young "Terciopelo."  I didn't know that local name, but when he pried open the mouth 0>Cw k  to reveal the fangs I realized (and later confirmed) that it was a fer-de-lance!  It is of course highly unlikely you will encounter any snake, much less one of these, but hey, the birding here is probably best from the road anyway where it is easier to see what you might be about to step on.  In the Western Hemisphere, this is one of the snakes you least want to mess with.

The Puerta Laguna Monkey reserve, 15 minutes or so northeast of Coba on the road to Nuevo Xcan, is worth a stop to support the local ecotourism.  Saw both howlers and spiders, and the forest had some parakeets, blue-crowned motmot, woodcreepers, etc.

Muyil -- A small Mayan site between FCP and Tulum.  There is a boardwalk through the forest that goes to the large lagoon that is worth a stop for scenery.  Incidentally, I had my only Yellow-wing Tanagers here.  I hadn't been sweating it as I had seen them on other trips, but for me they were not as common as other reports suggest.  I can't vouch for it, but there was a place across the road from Muyil that looked like it was set up to do tours of Sian Kaan.  Now having seen the area, I think this is where the tours from Cancun and Tulum may take people.  So perhaps it is possible to put together your own tour from Muyil, maybe at a cheaper rate and more tailored for a birding or relaxed itinerary?  Not sure.

Chichen Itza -- As everyone suggests, get there at opening.  I focused on ruins rather than birding, but had some good birds around the fringes and along the road to the Sacred Cenote.

Barrera Botanical Gardens:  As noted elsewhere, they do not open at sunrise and as far as I could tell you can't walk in without climbing a high fence.  Since this was my last morning in the country, I did exactly that at 6 am and made a beeline to one of the workers lest I get accused of trespassing.  In my broken Spanish I told him it was my last day, he explained that I should come at 8, but after a few more spanish phrases and long looks, he said I could stay.  Anyway, after 10 days in the region, I didn't see anything new here -- it would probably be a better introduction than farewell -- but had some nice looks at Black Catbird, Spot-Breasted Wren, Yucatan Vireo, the ubiquitous migrants.  There were also spider monkeys and agoutis -- a more convenient and less expensive option for the monkeys than P. Laguna.

I had planned to do Cozumel but in the end didn't feel like having to sort out the logistics.  Seemed like it would be a hassle to not have a car and an even bigger hassle to try to rent one there, and having never driven a moped wasn't sure that would be wise in terms of safety.  I'm sure it is very doable, evident from the many successful trip reports, but I used the time to spend a bit longer in various other places. 

Other Notes: If using Howell's field guide, in winter or migration bring your North America guide with you as well, and note in advance which migrants are in range at that season.  Many birds look the same, but others won't look familiar -- i.e., the male Indigo Bunting, Palm Warbler, and Spotted Sandpiper.  Since they aren't pictured in Howell, it is good to take a look at these winter plumages on your flight down there.

If you want to be certain to have a tickable Couch's Kingbird, rather than just eventually deciding that one of the Tropical Kingbirds you have seen must have been a Couch's, you will want to know the calls.  The Couch's call can be downloaded at  I recorded it onto my handheld digital recorder, something that I find is far preferable to pen and paper, memory, or a tape recorder to describe what I see over the course of a day.  This is especially useful when away from home, as you can talk into the recorder as you are watching or right after seeing the bird and then listen to the recordings at the hotel that night while looking at the field guide, with separate numbered tracks like a cd player.  The model I use is no longer sold but at least Panasonic and Sony make them; the kinds that don't connect to computers are $50 or so.

If you are doing the southern route, chances are you will buy gas at the Pemex just east of Xpujil.  I can confirm the story that these guys are notorious small time crooks.  You have to get out of the car, see that the pump is reset to zero, and, here's the key, don't take your eye off the count the entire time they are pumping.  Two other employees rushed out to engage me in conversation while the third was pumping.  I knew their reputation, so I looked back a time or two at the ongoing count.  Sure enough, a few seconds after I saw it pass 220 pesos, he took out the pump and announced it was 355 pesos.  He had reset it to zero and pumped in 3.55 pesos more worth of gas, and then tried to convince me it was 355 (which would be impossible in the small car I had).  I told them that I knew what they were doing, showed it was 3 pesos and not 300, gave them 240 and left as they were mildly complaining.  But it would have been better if I had not taken my eye off even for a second.

Lodgings: Chichen Itza: Hotel Dolores Alba, $36, nice pool, 2km from ruins, a handful of birds.  Coba and Calakmul, see above.  Tulum: beach palapas at El Mirador, $18, far north end of Tulum beach road, great views from restaurant, walk to Tulum in the morning through the peaceful and birdy back entrance rather than drive through the Disney entrance, but bring your bug spray and make sure you get a room with a good bug net).  Felipe CP: Hotel Faisan y Venado ($16 single, not birdy, close to main square; no pool.  I believe that there is another hotel, La Casonera, that might be better if leaving a non-birding companion).  Puerto Morelos (1.3 km north of Barerra gardens): Hotel Ingleterra, $27, plenty adequate but may be nicer places nearer water, PM is a good place for snorkeling (but must pay about $20 for boat ride to reef).  Rental Car:  shop around on-line before you arrive.  It can get expensive, especially since as I understand it you need to purchase liability insurance even if your credit card covers damage to the car.  I can't recommend the American company I used, Advantage Rent-a-Car: they didn't give me a receipt, billed the wrong amount to my credit card and still three weeks later they haven't fixed it yet.

In total I had 215 species, and finally pushed my North America list, where I have been birding for 7 years, past my South America list, where I spent 7 weeks one summer.

Paul Hudson
Phudson AT stanfordalumni dot org

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