Friday, April 28, 2017

Post #102 - Guatemala, Part 4 (of 4) - Birding Lake Atitlán and the volcanic highlands, Guatemala summary

This is the fourth and final post recapping my recent birding trip to Guatemala. We're in the home stretch, but there's plenty of birding excitement left, don't worry! At the end of the last installment, I flew from Flores and the Petén lowlands (400 feet of elevation) to the highlands at Guatemala City (4,900 feet of elevation). Driving west out of that metropolis, we gained yet more elevation before dropping into a huge, water-filled basin to reach the shores of Lake Atitlán at ~5,100 feet. With a depth of 1,120 feet, the lake is the deepest in Central America. Now surrounded by 3 volcanoes, the lake bed is itself a caldera that resulted from a mega-eruption over 80,000 years ago (Wiki). Several small towns now dot its shores, and the entire area is a poplar tourist and adventure destination.A

Topographic map of Guatemala

A view of Lake Atitlán from high on the slopes.
The cones are inactive volcanos.

We shacked up at the Hotel Jardines del Lago in the town of Panajachel. The stunning property is right on Atitlán's shores, and it provided a comfortable and centralized birding base for our 3-day stay. The hotel was also - and not by coincidence - hosting the 2017 Guatemalan Bird Forum, a gathering of tourism ministry folks, international tour operators, and international birders. The goal of the forum was to bring these constituents together to discuss how to increase bird-based tourism in Guatemala, an end that The Audubon Society has been helping to further. The general idea, like similar Audubon-directed efforts in Colombia, is to help local communities establish ecotourism as a sustainable and environmentally-friendly revenue source. The hope is that those communities will then have the incentive to conserve that revenue source against more invasive, less sustainable forms of economic development such as logging, mining, and oil drilling. Here is an Audubon snippet about the program. Guide training is a fundamental pillar of the Audubon program. All the guides who escorted us around were great, and I fully expect them to get even better as they improve their already serviceable English.

Gardens behind our hotel

View of lake and volcanoes from our hotel

The most recently trained and certified guide crop

I had two morning birding outings, each followed by afternoon presentations and panel discussions at the hotel. The first outing took me me to Parque Ecológica Corazón del Bosque (Heart of the Forest Ecopark, loosely) high above the lake. The habitat was mixed oak and pine forest and was strikingly similar to that in the mountains of Southeastern Arizona. The birdlife supported that notion with Red-faced Warbler, Steller's Jay, Greater Pewee, and Yellow-eyed Junco appearing on our walk. We also observed - in their usual ranges - species that occasionally wander into Arizona: White-eared Hummingbird, Tufted Flycatcher, Brown-backed Solitaire, Crescent-chested Warbler, and Slate-throated Redstart. It's always good to familiarize oneself with common birds in one place as they could show up as rarities in another! A full checklist from that stop can be seen here. We made a second stop in similar habitat on the way back, and that checklist is here.

Chiricahuas? Nope - Guatemalan Highlands!

Crescent-chested Warbler (backlit, heavy crop, UGH!)

We also managed to find a number of highland specialties, including Blue-throated Motmot, Rufous-collared Robin, Rufous-browed Wren, and Pink-headed Warbler. It is here worth nothing that while Guatemala does not have any true endemics, it does have a number of highland endemics that it shares with its neighbors. While the maps below show that these species can be seen elsewhere, finding all of them above Lake Atitlán was a fairly straightforward process. Horned Guan is also in the Atitlán area though I didn't go to those areas on my two highland birding outings.

Ranges of selected/representative Highland Endemics

Blue-throated Motmot

Rufous-collared Robin

Rufous-Browed Wren

Pink-headed Warbler

My field trip on the second day took me - by boat - across the lake to reach Los Tarrales, a private preserve with onsite lodging. The preserve literally runs from the bottom of a volcano to the top, an elevation gain of several thousand feet. As a result of this elevation change, Terrales encompasses many different habitats. Over 340 species have been recorded on the property, so there's no shortage of birds. Our outing was confined to the lower portions of the preserve. We turned up approximately 70 species, 65 of which are shown on my checklist. Highlights included White Hawk, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Yellow-naped Parrot, Northern Bentbill, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Rufous-naped Wren, and White-winged Tanager. We hardly dented the place so I can only image what other birds are hiding in the preserve!

Birding at Los Terrales

After returning to the hotel, I took a short walk through Panajachel. The town was charming, a perfect example of Guatemala Highland living. The Guatemalan Highlands are world famous for their colorful, woven textiles, and these were on full display in the street stalls as I wandered my way around.  

Panajachel Sreet

Fresh made tortillas!

I must say that I really liked the rhythm of life in Panajachel and more generally in Guatemala. Life in the US is largely about consumption and competition; It's a rat race unlike any other in the world. Life in Guatemala, by comparison, seems more concerned with family and faith. Everyone I met was incredible friendly and displayed a warmth, particularly on the Panajachel streets, that I will never forget. I saw more smiling faces in Guatemala than in any other country I've ever visited.

I know that some readers might find all of this at odds with their perceptions of Guatemala. One of the things we discussed in the afternoon sessions at the Bird Forum was why some foreigners, but particularly Americans, view Guatemala as unsafe for travel. Guatemala has had some issues in the past, but these episodes were generally confined to the largest cities. This is no different that anywhere else on earth, the US included; Guatemala City isn't terribly different from Chicago at the end of the day. Birder aren't going to spend much - if any - time in Guatemala City, so whatever happens there (if anything) it's unlikely to affect them. I felt completely safe leaving my expensive camera in my hotel rooms at all the places we stayed. I can imagine that theft could be an issue if I left my rig exposed on the back seat of a car while eating lunch, but - again - that's no different that anywhere on earth.

The point in all of this is that Guatemala is a fantastic destination for birders and more general tourists included. Birders will find more than enough species to keep them occupied, and the Mayan sites and contemporary Guatemalan culture should provide sufficient distraction to keep non-birders interested. I personally had 236 species listed for my stay, and I kno that our cumulative group list was closer to 300. Think about this; It took me 4 (FOUR!) posts to chronicle my 6 days in the country, so there certainly isn't a lack of things to see and do! Again, the Petén region couples particularly well with Belize, so those looking to visit a couple of countries in one hit should keep that in mind. With that I'll leave you and wish you happy travels, travels that will hopefully included both Belize and Guatemala moving forward!

Goodbye from Yaxha!


  1. Hi Dorian,
    Seems like a wonderful and very rewarding trip, with stunning birds.
    These would be fun places to visit, but for a non Spanish speaking gringo, the prospect seems daunting. Birding in Central and Latin America for those of us in that category requires a tour group to manage the logistics. Thus far, those seem to focus on Costa Rica and Panama.
    Did your group have representatives of outfits such as Field Guides or VENT who would be candidates to run such tours?

  2. Hi!

    Most of these places have figured out that people in the tourism industry need to speak English to stay in business. My Spanish is good enough to communicate basic thoughts, but I never had to use it as everyone else's English was better than my Spanish (I used my Spanish for practice only!), particularly in Belize. I kinda like the adventure and authenticity of a language barrier, but that's coming from the guy who biked around the US for a year!

    As for tour operators, we had representatives from Rockjumper and Holbrook with us and both now offer Guatemala tours. Disclaimer: I have no vested interest in either company!