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4 - 8 July 2002

by Craig Faanes

    “Way Down Here
    You Need a Reason to Move
    Feel a Fool
    Runnin’ Your Stateside Game
    Lose Your Load
    Leave Your Mind Behind  ....”
           James Taylor

July 4

American Airlines deposited me safely and on time in the Mexico City airport about 3 this afternoon.  After clearing customs and migracion I walked to the Aeromexico ticket counters to check in for their 6:00 p.m. flight to Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo on the Pacific coast of Guerrero.  Walking through the airport I was chagrined to find that the huge old flight departure board has been removed.  Gone now are the days when I could spend hours “reading departure signs in some big airport” and become filled with a worsening case of wanderlust watching planes depart for all parts of Mexico, Central America and points even further south.

Aeromexico 357 operated by Aeromar Airlines (✔) left from the far side of the airport on our 1 hour hop over the Sierra to Zihuatenejo (✔) airport on the humid west coast of southern Mexico.  We landed to the south after breaking out of the clouds near the Ixtapa resort area, then proceeded past the mouth of Zihuatenejo Harbour into the airport.  My first impression of Ixtapa from the air, that was confirmed by later exploring on the ground, is that Ixtapa is a mirror image of Ocean City, Maryland or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, or any of a long list of American beach areas that need a colossal Force 6 anti-developer hurricane to return them to how they should be.  Zihuatenejo, on the other hand, retains much of its original character as the quintessential Mexican fishing village.  

Hertz had my reservation and at the price I had confirmed on their website before leaving the States.  This was the first time I have ever had a rental car company in Mexico agree that the “confirmed” rate I was told by Hertz was actually the rate I would pay for the rental!  The $23 per day with unlimited kilometers was a fitting price for the VW bug they gave me.

I checked into the Sotovento Beach Resort on Playa la Ropa.  Finding the bulk of the hotels in Zihuatenejo is straightforward.  Coming into town on Mexico Highway 200, just follow the regular signs for “Zona Hoteleria” and eventually you’ll find your hotel.

Linda Walsh, a cute, attractive, and recently-separated shrink from Austin, Texas, was chatting with hotel employees when I checked into the hotel.  She chuckled as I did when I was informed that the hotel didn’t have my reservation.  This continued a trend begun on my first trip to Mexico 16 years ago where I have never once had a “confirmed” hotel reservation waiting for me when I arrived at the hotel.  Not one!   Linda told me “I filed for divorce last Thursday morning and caught a plane to Mexico that same afternoon.”  Talking to her I found myself thinking that she was the female analog of me long ago when I started escaping to the tropics to get a divorce out of my system.  

July 5

I blasted out of the hotel at 0 dark 30 enroute along Highway 200 to Atoyac.  It took 2.5 hours of quick driving while dodging cows and burros to reach the Atoyac turn.  Directions in Howell’s book on bird finding in Mexico give an optimistic view of finding your way through Atoyac and onto the road to Paraiso.  In the end, I just asked a cop on a street corner how to find the road and then proceeded up the side of the mountain.  From the center of Atoyac it took a little over an hour to reach Paraiso where any semblance of pavement ends.  From this village I raced (as much as you can race on a Mexican mountain road) up the side of the mountain.  I reached San Vincente in about 45 minutes.  From here until I was about 20 km above Paraiso, I was in the heart of the extremely limited range of Short-crested Coquette.  Martin Reid visited this area a little later in July in 1998.  He reported only two flowering trees between San Vincente and 20 km past Paraiso.  I was a little luckier than Martin and found several flowering trees, shrubs and vines.  During Martin’s visit, he reported that White-tailed Hummingbird was the predominant hummer along the road; he also did not see the Coquette.

My luck was a little different.  I found the first of only two White-tailed Hummingbirds ( ✔) at a flowering tree about 5 km above Paraiso.  This was life bird # 3,800.  The road above here was in fairly good shape and I patrolled it for 22 km stopping wherever I found flowering plants and scouring the blossoms for “chupiflors.”  Among a dazzling display at one tree that included White-tailed Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat, Berylline Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Golden-crowned Emerald and Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, I scored a single Short-crested Coquette (✔).

The two life birds possible above Paraiso were hummingbirds and because of that my focus was on little things that go buzz in the night.  Accordingly I didn’t pay much attention to non-hummingbirds, although I found Collared Trogon, Golden Vireo, Red-headed Tanager, White-winged Tanager, Rusty Sparrow, and a host of other high elevation birds between San Vincente and Paraiso.

Probably one of the biggest treats was re-acquainting myself with the voice of the Brown-backed Solitaire.  It has, in my estimation, the most ethereal voice of any Mexican bird.  The first one I ever heard was in Hortensia’s Barranca in Sinaloa in 1987.  I heard two males singing with the sickening drone of chain saws drowning out their voices as the forest was brought to submission.  Today, high above Paraiso, in exquisite cloud forest, there wasn’t a hint of a chain saw for many kilometers around.  Unlike Hortensia’s Barranca where chain saws drowned out the Solitaire’s, today the flute like voice of the Solitaires drowned out many other bird voices.

I reluctantly left Paraiso about 3:30 and rather quickly descended the mountain to Atoyac and Highway 200.  There I turned left and followed the road to Acapulco where I caught the toll road (cuota) to Chilpancingo where I spent the night.  I followed the suggestion in Lonely Planet’s Mexico guidebook and stayed at the Hotel Presidente on Avineda Insurgentes.  The room was $22 U.S. for a queen bed with a commanding view of every truck, bus, and honking car that passed up and down Insurgentes all night long.

July 6

About 5:00 a.m. I gave up on trying to sleep between flatulent-laden trucks and left for the road to Filo de Caballo.  From the hotel turn left and follow signs for “Mexico City Cuota,” the toll road to Mexico City.  At the far edge of Chilpancingo by a Pemex station on the right side of the road, exit the cuota following signs for “Iguala” on the “old” Highway 95.  About 12 kilometers from Chilpancingo you pass through Zumpango which has the last gasoline station you’ll see before the mountains (top off here).  Its also home to the Hotel Cactus which may be quieter and cheaper than any place in Chilpancingo.

Follow old Highway 95 for about 15 kilometers more to Km post 190 where there is a sign with an obvious left turn for “Filo de Caballo”.  Howell had suggested the first kilometer of the Filo road for Balsas Screech-Owl..  It took three repetitions of the taped voice (thanks for the loan of the tape, Mark) to get one to call, and two more play backs before I found the maroon-red eyes of a Balsas Screech-Owl (✔) staring back at me from some acacia-like tree.

Driving up the road in the gathering pre-dawn light some species of Nightjar crossed the road in front of me.  Its identity remains a mystery.  I reached Filo de Caballo in about an hour.  On the edge of town you will see a large sign for the regional hospital.  Bear left here and drive through the village.  In another kilometer or so a side road (signed for some village) juts off to the right and up a hill.  Stay on the main road and continue through town.  Once out of the village you’ll next come to Corrazal de los Bravos and several kilometers above it there will be an obvious fork in the road that leads off to the left.  Bear right at this fork and continue up the mountain.

When Martin Reid was here in 1998, he was warned by the Federales not to travel on the lower fork road (which supposedly leads back to Chilpancingo) because of a problem with armed bandits.  I don’t know if there remains a banditry problem along this road, because I didn’t test the waters.  Before traveling to Guerrero I emailed the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and asked for any late news on safety concerns on this road.  The Embassy specifically recommended against traveling on this left fork of the road.  Thus los banditos may still be working here.  No life bird is worth getting shot over, so don’t go there.

Instead, from this fork, work your way up the mountain through exquisitely beautiful cloud forest at least as far as the turn for Yextla.  I followed this road back and forth all morning checking likely looking habitats and listening.  Finally about 1 p.m. I found a pair of White-throated Jay (✔) skulking around un-jay-like in some shrubby understory vegetation.  Thus, seven hours after I drove onto the Filo road I found the real target bird for my trip.  Now, if Chris Haney would get his butt in gear and publish his extensive research on this bird, science would be much more aware of this gorgeous blue-black-and-white bird.

The cloud forest here, as well as the other forest habitats along the road (pine-oak, oak transition, acacia scrub) absolutely drips with birds.  After today’s trip and another run up the road tomorrow morning, it was easy to see that the Filo de Caballo road is one of the “birdiest” roads in Mexico.

I returned to Chilpancingo about 4:00 p.m. and asked to have my room changed because of the noise the night before.  I was given a windowless room on the planta primera where I caught up on a couple hours nap time and then went out to find dinner.  Despite Chilpancingo being the capital of Guerrero, and it being a University town, there was an obvious shortage of places to eat here.  I walked the streets of Chilpancingo and hung out on the zocalo after dinner, enjoying the local crop of bronze-skinned beauties and wishing that I was 30 years younger.

July 7

Some time in the middle of the night the constant loud noise from the television downstairs became too much so I went to the front desk to complain.  There I found a well-armed security guard with his feet up on a table, drinking a beer as the television roared in the triple-digit decibel range.  I had to yell for him to hear me ask to turn down the volume.  I think my chances of ever staying at the Hotel Presidente in Chilpancingo again are on par with my chances that I’d ever vote for a Repugnican.

A heavy and persistent fog hung low over the valley at 7 this morning as I retraced my steps up the Filo road.  I spent about three hours in the upper elevation forest and a little bit of time in the scrub picking up several trip birds and a couple for my Mexico list.  

I reached the cuota about 11 a.m. and then beat a very fast 130 km in 1 hour 20 minutes back to Acapulco where I followed signs for Zihuatenejo and lumbered along in the brilliant sun and heavy heat.  About 30 km south of Zihuatenejo I stopped at a miramar and did a seawatch.  About the only thing exciting was a flock of 7 Willet.

I checked back into the Sotovento Beach Resort for my last night in town, then drove around Zihuatenejo and went over the hill to Ixtapa.  One look at its high rises sent me back to the relative reality of Zihuatenejo.

July 8

I returned my rental car about 9:30, then checked in for Aeromexico 357 back to Mexico City (Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters and Rufous-backed Robins were hopping around on the airport lawn).  On approach to the Mexico City airport we were given spectacular views of the smoke and steam belching out of Volcan Popocatapetl just southwest of the city (“I don’t know where I’m a gonna go, when the volcano blow”).  In Mexico City I caught American Airlines north to Dallas.  A thunderstorm had passed over DFW just before our arrival causing a huge backlog of flight departures which meant that arriving flights had to sit on the tarmac and wait for a gate to open up.  We landed at 6:00 p.m. and finally pulled up to the gate at 7:15.  There I quickly cleared Immigration and Customs (I really wish they would remove those pictures of Dubya Bush and Mullah Ashcroft from Immigration and Customs in any airport in the United States, simply because of the bad first impression those nitwits give to foreign visitors).  

My 8:45 departure to Washington National was delayed until 9:30 and then further delayed until 10:00.  On taking my seat for the 2.5 hour flight to Washington I looked up and saw Pat Buchanan take a seat three rows ahead of me.  Although I detest that repulsive racist, I will give him credit for being the first prominent Repugnican I’ve ever been on a plane with, who didn’t sit in First Class.  Instead, Pat was back in the cheap seats with us common Democrats.  We finally landed at National at 1:40 a.m. on July 9 where I took a taxi home.


This was my 16th trip to Mexico and after it I have only seven mainland Mexico endemics left to find.  Thus this trip like all future trips will no doubt be short, surgical assaults on a specific area for one or two target birds.  This was the last time I’ll ever find four life birds in Mexico on a trip.

Following directions in Howell’s bird finding guide will get you almost on top of most of the West Mexico specialties in this part of Guerrero.  Supplement that information with the excellent directions in Martin Reid’s 1998 report and, at the right time of year, you should hit the motherlode of good birds.

Martin failed to find Short-crested Coquette despite being in the same area on the same roads only two weeks later than me.  He found very few flowering trees that no doubt contributed to the lack of a Coquette.  During my trip, there certainly was no superabundance of flowering trees or shrubs but obviously more than what Martin found two weeks later.  Maybe I was just mega lucky and found the one straggler Short-crested Coquette that hadn’t done an altitudinal migration to search for more flowers.

The birding here was superb.  I found just short of 160 species for the trip and the bulk of those were in the highlands.  I missed a lot of species because my diurnal search image was on three species.  Thus, unlike most times when I try to track down every unfamiliar voice, this time (except for Sunday morning) if it didn’t buzz like a hummingbird or squawk like a Jay I didn’t pay much attention to it.  Among the birds found on the trip were 27 of Mexico’s 87 endemic species.  Thus, almost 1/3 of the endemic avifauna of Mexico in 3 days when I wasn’t really paying attention to other species is nothing to sneeze at.

Many people have avoided birding Guerrero for a long time because of narcotraficantes and armed robbers above Paraiso and above Filo.  Despite the concerns of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy, I never had a problem here.  Instead, almost everyone I met greeted me with a smile, and many people stopped along the road to see if I was hurt or needed help.  Not once did I fear for my safety.  In fact, I am more worried for my safety crossing Fairfax Drive in Arlington, Virginia each night when I walk home than I was in Guerrero.

Martin Reid mentioned a prominent policia/militar presence in the Filo area when he visited in 1998.  On my trip I was stopped by armed road blocks in only three places: 1) at the junction of Highway 200 and Highway 95 (libre); 2) just before entering Acapulco on Highway 200; and 3)
just below the first settlement below Filo de Caballo.  The latter was most impressive (but they did set out orange caution cones in the road as I approached around a curve).  Here, below Filo, I came around a curve in the road and saw a bunch of soldiers and policia blocking the road.  Off to the right was a Humvee with a soldier riding shotgun on the machine gun that was pointed at me.  On the left side of the road was another Humvee with someone pointing the machine gun at me.

Two soldiers with machine guns cradled in their arms blocked the road in front of me and behind them was a military truck blocking the lane.  I rolled down my window and learned from the policia lieutenant that they were conducting a “routine check” for “drogas y narcotraficantes”.  They searched under the seats, in the glove box, in the trunk, and then tore out and lifted up the back seat looking under it.  They took down my name and passport number and asked me what I was doing in the area.  When I told them I was looking for birds, the lieutenant laughed and asked “do you mean women or the things that fly?”  Everyone started laughing and then they apologized for keeping me so long.  “Sorry, we have to do this to everyone,” the lieutenant said.  This was a much more sanguine encounter than the roadblock I endured in Jalisco once that came complete with a soldier sticking a machine gun barrel in my ear and screaming at me to open the trunk.

I enjoyed what little time I could spend in Zihuatenejo.  It reminded me a lot of Puerto Escondido when Mark Oberle and I spent a night there in 1986.  Ixtapa, on the other hand, is about as Mexican as I am.  If you want to “experience” Ixtapa, just go to Ocean City, Maryland, or to the Jersey shore and eat at a Mexican restaurant.  You’ll have the same Mexican “experience” and you’ll save yourself the airfare.

I stayed at the Sotovento Beach Resort on Playa la Ropa for $57 US/ night.  Its considerably more in the high season.  The rooms have seen their better days and on my second stay I had to change rooms because there was no water pressure.  However, to me it was the quintessential Mexican beach place to hang out.  I’d stay here again, no questions asked.  The Sotovento has a spectacular view of Zihuatenejo harbour, and a great beach in front.  I sat in the restaurant eating breakfast and watched Brown Booby, Brown Pelican, and Magnificent Frigatebirds cavort around the harbour while Yellow-winged Cacique’s flew regularly by my table.

The only thing that was a shock to me was the price of gasoline.  Gone are the days of 25 cent a gallon gas in Mexico!  I changed money for peso’s in the Mexico City airport and got 9.65 pesos per dollar (though I saw it later at 9.88).  Gasoline at Pemex was 5.8 peso’s per liter for Magna (the cheapest brand) or about $1.98 US per gallon!  The second surprise was the cost of the cuota road from Acapulco to Chilpancingo - a whopping 185 pesos ($20.27 US) each way for 130 kilometers of road.

Another real shock was how expensive flights have gotten to Mexico from the States.  I originally wanted to fly to Acapulco but Continental’s fare was $880 round trip from Washington DC, American was $980 and Delta was a ridiculous $1,188.  At the same time Continental had a roundtrip from Washington DC to Hong Kong for $707, and American had a roundtrip to Honolulu for $684.  Go figure!  I searched several websites and finally on American’s they gave me a routing on them (DCA-DFW-MEX) where I connected to Aeromar/Aeromexico from MEX-ZIH for $362 roundtrip.  Both Acapulco and Zihuatenejo would have been life airports but I got a life airline by taking Aeromar, so given that and the price, it was a no-brainer going to Zihuatenejo.  

From the United States you can reach Zihuatenejo on Continental (one non-stop daily from Houston), on Alaska (4 flights a week from LAX; one flight a week on Sunday from San Francisco), and on America West from Phoenix.  However since America West has no idea of what “on time” means, and the recent revelation that their pilots like to fly drunk, I’d search for an alternative to them.  Mexicana, Aeromar, Aeromexico and Magnicharters (the Mexican charter airline) have several nonstops daily to and from Mexico City.

Guerrero was the last of the 32 Mexican states for me to visit.  In the parts I saw I was impressed with how well preserved the lowland forest is, and almost brought to tears by the beauty of the cloud forest.  The birding is superb in the areas I visited, and the people among the nicest and friendliest I’ve encountered anywhere in Mexico.  I definitely saved the best part of Mexico for last.  I’d go back to Guerrero in a heartbeat.

Species Seen

Brown Pelican

Brown Booby

Neotropic Cormorant

Magnificent Frigatebird

Great Egret
Little Blue Heron
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture

Double-toothed Kite
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Roadside Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Black Hawk-Eagle

Barred Forest-Falcon
Collared Forest-Falcon

West Mexican Chachalaca

Long-tailed Wood-Partridge
Banded Quail
Singing Quail

Common Moorhen

Northern Jacana


Rock Dove
White-winged Dove
Common Ground-Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Inca Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-faced Quail-Dove

Orange-fronted Parakeet
White-fronted Parrot

Squirrel Cuckoo
Groove-billed Ani

Balsas Screech-Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

Lesser Nighthawk

Black Swift
White-collared Swift

Western Long-tailed Hermit
Violet Sabrewing
Short-crested Coquette
Golden-crowned Emerald
White-tailed Hummingbird
Dusky Hummingbird
White-eared Hummingbird
Cinnamon Hummingbird
Violet-crowned Hummingbird
Green-fronted Hummingbird
Berylline Hummingbird
Amethyst-throated Hummingbird
Garnet-throated Hummingbird
Plain-capped Starthroat
Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird

Citreoline Trogon
Mountain Trogon
Collared Trogon

Russet-crowned Motmot

Acorn Woodpecker
Golden-cheeked Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Smoky-brown Woodpecker
Gray-crowned Woodpecker

Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner
Ruddy Foliage-gleaner

Northern Barred-Woodcreeper
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper
White-striped Woodcreeper
Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper

Eye-ringed Flatbill
Tufted Flycatcher
Greater Pewee
Western Wood-Pewee
Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Nutting's Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Social Flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Cassin's Kingbird
Thick-billed Kingbird

Gray-breasted Martin
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow

Gray Silky-flycatcher

American Dipper

Rufous-naped Wren
Boucard's Wren
Happy Wren
Banded Wren
Sinaloa Wren
House Wren
White-bellied Wren
Gray-breasted Wood-Wren

Blue Mockingbird

Brown-backed Solitaire
Russet Nightingale-Thrush
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
Black Robin
White-throated Thrush
Rufous-backed Robin


Mexican Chickadee
Bridled Titmouse

Steller's Jay
White-throated Magpie-Jay
Green Jay
White-throated Jay
Western Scrub-Jay

Hutton's Vireo
Golden Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo

Crescent-chested Warbler
Red Warbler
Painted Redstart
Slate-throated Redstart
Golden-crowned Warbler
Rufous-capped Warbler

Common Bush-Tanager
Flame-colored Tanager
Red-headed Tanager

Blue-black Grassquit
White-collared Seedeater
Ruddy-breasted Seedeater
Rufous-capped Brush-Finch
Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch

Olive Sparrow
Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow
Collared Towhee
Black-chested Sparrow
Stripe-headed Sparrow
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Rusty Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Yellow-eyed Junco

Grayish Saltator
Black-headed Saltator
Black-headed Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Varied Bunting
Orange-breasted Bunting

Great-tailed Grackle
Bronzed Cowbird
Altamira Oriole
Streak-backed Oriole
Black-vented Oriole
Audubon's Oriole
Yellow-winged Cacique

House Finch
Black-headed Siskin
Lesser Goldfinch

House Sparrow

Species seen - 158
Mexican Endemics - 27
Mexico Lifers - 11

Craig Faanes
Falls Church, Virginia
July 12, 2002

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