Thursday, April 6, 2017

Post #99 - Guatemala, Part 1 (of 4) - Petén birding: Yaxha

Greetings from Guatemala! Well, not really since I'm writing this from my LA apartment, but it's from here that I'll continue my account of my recent, Central American travels. I'll break my Guatemala recount into 4 posts, three to recap my time in the Petén lowland region and a fourth to share my experience in the highlands around Lake Atitlán. Here we go!

Our group crossed into Guatemala from Belize just west of Benque Viejo Del Carmen. Moving between the two countries was painless, and any traveler should manage the crossing with ease. Midday is generally the best time to cross as cues early in the morning and later in the afternoon can be long. This is because many tour operators in Belize run day trips to the ancient Mayan sites of Yaxha (pronounced yash-HA) and Tikal, and the busses they use can overwhelm the checkpoint when they arrive early and and late in the day.

OK, now that we're in Guatemala, let's stop for a paragraph to orient ourselves before we go too much further. Sound good?Guatemala is a country of 17 million folks that is sandwiched between Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Hondurus. The country is comprised of 23 departments, or states. Petén is by far the largest of these, alone occupying a third of the country's footprint (see below). Petén is generally lowland, so the birding is superficially similar to Belize. Interestingly, Petén is the least densely populated department with just 600,000 inhabitants. The dearth of population can be traced to the region's generally poor soil; The inability to grow food locally means few people live in the area. Cattle ranching and tourism are the largest industries, the Mayan sites being hugely popular international destinations. Many tour operators couple Belize to a few days in Petén, a strategy I think makes perfect sense and that I would encourage those on their own to adopt. The addition of the Mayan sites will provide the non-birder with a welcome break from woodcreepers, tanagers, trogons, and such (I know, who needs a break from those, right? RIGHT!?!?!)

Petén Department

Within an hour of crossing into Guatemala, we arrived at El Sombrero Ecolodge. Built right into the lakeshore, the lodge was very comfortable and perfectly suitable for tour groups or individual travelers. We dropped our stuff and immediately departed for the adjacent Yaxha Mayan Archeological Site. Not as well-known as Tikal, Chitzen-Itza, or Tulum, Yaxha is every bit as impressive. Yaxha thrived from 600 BC to 900 AD and was home to nearly 50,000 people at its peak. So yeah, it was a pretty big deal back in the day!

We did a bit of birding on that first visit, but our main goal was to climb the main temple for a view of the sunset. We weren't the only ones interested in the sunset as a Bat Falcon joined us atop the temple. Other bird highlights were Blue Bunting, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Eye-ringed Flatbill, and Golden-crowned Warbler (full eBird Checklist). It was a really amazing evening, one that I will certainly never forget.

Yaxha Sunset
Canon 17-40 f/4 at 23mm on EOS 7D2
1/125 at f/8, ISO 400

Bat Falcon perched high on the temple

Yaxha movie!

We spent the early hours of the following morning birding around El Sombrero. The grounds proved very productive with Green-breasted Mango, Lesson's Motmot, Gartered Trogon, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Bright-rumped Attila, and a host of wintering warblers just steps from my room. The lake gave up some nice waterbirds to round out an eBird checklist that can be found here.

(Migrant) Wood Thrush - Hylocichla mustelina
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/160 at f/4, ISO 800, handheld

A return, mid-morning visit to Yaxha yielded Keel-billed Toucan, Brown-headed Parrot, Black-headed Trogon, Ocellated Turkey, White-wiskered Puffbird, and Double-toothed Kite (full checklist here). Very impressive were both the Howler and Spider Monkeys. Most stayed sufficiently high in the trees to make photography difficult, but one or two came lower for closer inspection. Watching them swing from branch to branch with the various Mayan temples below them was magical. I couldn't help but wonder what the site looked at felt like when the civilization was at it's peak. I'm sure it was even more impressive then than now. Much of the site has yet to be excavated, so even today the jungle has yet to give up all of its secrets!

Yaxha through the trees

Spider Monkey

White-whiskered Puffbird

Yaxha, from above!

Yaxha was pure enjoyment. Birding and history were inseparable, and for a brief time it felt as though we were the only people on planet earth. As I said previously, it is certainly worth adding a few days to a Belize itinerary so as to experience Yaxha and Tikal, a second Mayan site I will showcase in the next post. Approaching these sites is significantly easier from Belize than it is from the very distant Guatemala City, so do keep this in mind when planning your visit!

OK, that's it for this installment. We'll pick up with Tikal in the next post!

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