Guatemala: Quetzals, Pink-headed Warblers, and Tikal

Guatemala is a tiny Central American country that has a lot to offer. The country’s name means “land of trees”, and it certainly offers that, from the humid tropical lowland forests surrounding the World famous ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal (that host tame Ocellated Turkeys and Orange-breasted Falcon); to broadleaf forests on the foothills of volcanos (that hold Azure-rumped Tanager), to highland forests of Oak and Pine, which are home to the spectacular Pink-headed and Goldman’s Warblers, to the wet cloudforests, the realm of the fabled Horned Guan.



Day 1: Arrival in Guatemala. After your arrival at Guatemala City’s international airport, you’ll be transferred to our hotel. There, you’ll meet the leader and the other participants before heading off for supper.

Day 2: Guatemala City to Los Tarrales. An early morning departure will be required to transfer to the Los Tarrales reserve, one of Guatemala’s premier birding areas, located 130km west of Guatemala City. The reserve is situated on the south slope of Atitlan Volcano (conspicuous from the lodge), and boasts a bird list of 400 species. This is due to the elevational range the reserve covers, from 1640ft/500m at the lodge itself, to 11,480ft/3500m at the peak of the volcano, comprising three different biomes where the volcano abuts the Pacific lowlands. Habitats that we shall cover during our time in Tarrales include lowland rainforest, foothill forest, and cloudforest on the lower slopes of the volcano.

A Russet-naped Wood-Rail poses in the open
A Russet-naped Wood-Rail poses in the open (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

As one of the country’s most revered birding sites, it holds a number of regional specialties, and much-wanted birds like, King Vulture, White-bellied Chachalaca, Azure-rumped Tanager, Bar-winged Oriole, Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Tody Motmot, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Green Shrike-Vireo, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Prevost’s Sparrow, and Long-tailed Manakin. Guatemala, and Tarrales, are also major wintering sites for American Wood Warblers, with 20 species found in the area.

We will arrive by mid-morning, and so have some time morning birding and some afternoon birding near the lodge after a break and lunch during the heat of the day. Our first day will concentrate on the lower portions of the reserve. Near the lodge itself we may find Bushy-crested Jay, Rufous-capped Warbler, and the hummingbird feeders can attract species like Rufous Sabrewing, and Mexican Violetear. Two nights will be spent at Los Tarrales Lodge, in full view of the Atitlan Volcano.

Collared Aracari is found in the lowland and foothill forests
Collared Aracari is found in the lowland and foothill forests (George Lin)

Day 3: Los Tarrales. On this day our focus will turn to the foothill forests, a little higher than the lodge itself, at around 3280-3940ft/1000-1200m. In order to get there when activity is highest, we will leave the lodge with a packed breakfast, after coffee at the lodge. In order to reach the area, we will take 4 x 4 vehicles to get into the forest, where key target birds like Azure-rumped Tanager, Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, and Bar-winged Oriole await. Raptors are also represented by the magnificent Ornate Hawk-Eagle and Black Hawk-Eagle, so we will keep our eyes to the skies for them. We will also check areas of bamboo for the erratic Blue Seedeater, and incredible Long-tailed Manakin. After a busy morning, we’ll return to the lodge for lunch, visiting another forest trail in the afternoon, depending on what we are still looking for. At night, for the keen, we can go in search of Common Parauque, and Mottled and Black-and-white Owls. A second, and final, night will be spent at Los Tarrales Lodge.

White-winged Tanager is one of a host of Technicolor birds on offer in this tropical destination
White-winged Tanager is one of a host of Technicolor birds on offer in this tropical destination (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 4: Los Tarrales to Santiago Atitlan. Most of the day will be spent birding again around Los Tarrales, focusing on whichever areas now require our most attention for new birds. After lunch in Los Tarrales, we’ll depart for San Pedro in the afternoon (a 2-hour drive away), checking Lake Atitlan for waterbirds on the journey there, which can include Least and Pied-billed Grebes, Belted Kingfisher, and others. The night will be spent in Santiago Atitlan, in a hotel overlooking the lake. Some downtime will be allowed on this day to prepare us for the mountain hike the next day for the revered Horned Guan.

Horned Guans live on the cloud forest covered slopes of volcanos
Horned Guans live on the cloud forest covered slopes of volcanos (George Lin)

Day 5: San Pedro Volcano. A full day will be spent hiking a mountain trail up San Pedro Volcano, in search of the much-desired Horned Guan. This will involve initially taking a boat ride across to the far side of the lake where the trail begins. Once there, we will steadily walk up through three different habitats, first coffee plantations (often rich in winter warblers and other birds), the Pine and Oak forest (at around 4920ft/1500m, before reaching cloudforest, the preferred habitat of the guan, at 8530ft/2600m). While the hike is only around 2.5 miles/4km, it is a steep hike and so will be taken at slow pace. This is the shortest of the hikes available to see this guan! While searching for the Horned Guan, we will also have the chance to find other cloudforest birds, like Crested and Highland Guans, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Emerald Toucanet, Blue-throated Motmot, Belted Flycatcher, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Black-capped Swallow, Azure-rumped Tanager, Rufous-browed Wren, and Bushy-crested Jay. An early start will be needed, and we will take a packed breakfast and lunch with us, and expect to arrive back at the hotel in the late afternoon. A second night will be spent in Santiago Atitlan, overlooking the scenic lake.

Pink-headed Warbler is one Guatemala's marquee birds
Pink-headed Warbler is one Guatemala's marquee birds (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 6: Santiago Atitlan to the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. After the activity of the day before, we will have an easier day, taking breakfast at the hotel, before departing north to the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. The journey will take much of the day, although this will be broken up with a very significant stop indeed. The drive will see us driving higher into the mountains (much of the day will be spent over 9840ft/3000m), which are cloaked in montane Pine Oak forest that is home to Pink-headed Warbler and Black-capped Siskin. A strategic stop will be made at Puerto del Cielo, a park that is a good place to find these key target species. At the end of the day, we’ll arrive at Unicornio Azul Lodge, our base for the night. This night we can search the local area for the scarce Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, a difficult bird through much of its range.

Goldman's Warbler is confined to a small area of highland forests
Goldman's Warbler is confined to a small area of highland forests (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 7: Todos Santos. Today will see us go after one of Guatemala’s most local species, the stunning, black-and-gold Goldman’s Warbler. This species was recently split from the familiar Yellow-rumped Warbler, but bears little resemblance to it at all, and is a real looker. It is confined to specific areas at high elevations in this park situated in the Cuchumanates Mountains, at around 12,460ft/3800m, where the pine oak forests give way to open grasslands, known as paramo. We’ll take 4 x 4 vehicles to make our ascent to this area straightforward. While searching for our principal target, we will also have a chance to find the rare Ocellated Quail, and more regular species like Crescent-chested Warbler, Broad-tailed Hummingbird and local forms (future splits?) of Yellow-eyed Junco, Red Crossbill, and Northern Flicker. At the end of the morning, we’ll driver back down to Huehuenango town for lunch, before departing for Casa Xara Lodge, in Tecpan-Chimaltenango, a journey that will take up much of the afternoon.

Resplendent Quetzal occurs in Oak-dominated cloudforest
Resplendent Quetzal occurs in Oak-dominated cloudforest (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 8: San Marcos San Rafael. Day 9: Chichavac. Our birding for the morning will again focus in highland birds, within the Pine-Oak forests of Finca Caleras de Chichavac, where specialties like Pink-headed Warbler, Hooded Grosbeak, Black-throated Jay, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, Blue-throated Motmot, and Mountain Trogon all occur. After morning in this area, and lunch nearby, we will drive on to our next destination, Antigua Guatemala, perhaps arriving in time to start our birding of the area at the private reserve of El Pilar, where the Rufous Sabrewing is a major target species. At night, there will be the option to go and search for the Fulvous Owl at a local site too. The night will be spent at a boutique hotel in Antigua.

Hooded Grosbeak inhabits the montane pine-oak forests
Hooded Grosbeak inhabits the montane pine-oak forests (George Lin)

Day 10: El Pilar to Guatemala City and Tikal. In the morning we shall visit El Pilar Reserve, and area of temperate mixed pine-oak forests, at lower elevations than we will have been in for much of the tour. One of our main targets will be the Wine-throated Hummingbird and Bushy-crested Jay, but a long list of other birds are possible in the area, like the near endemic Black-capped Swallow, Black and Rufous-collared Thrushes, Gray Silky-Flycatcher, Blue-throated Motmot (should we still need that one), Yellow-throated Brushfinch, and a host of stunning American warblers, like Red-faced, Golden-cheeked, and Hermit Warblers, and Slate-throated Redstart. After lunch, we shall transfer to the airport in Guatemala City and fly to Flores International Airport, the gateway to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. On arrival, we will transfer to Jungle Lodge in Tikal National Park. The environment we will be will be totally different from the montane forest that has featured before. Tikal is located in lowland tropical rainforest at around 650ft/200m.

There's more than buildings at Tikal!
There's more than buildings at Tikal! (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 11:Tikal. Tikal is famous in the wider world for its dramatic Mayan ruins, which will be front and center on this day. However, it is also a superb spot for tropical birds. We will set out very early in order to watch the sunrise over the impressive ancient ruins, and then start seeing birds and animals shortly after the sun hits the Mayan building. Howler Monkeys are prominent, both by voice and sight, and may be the first to be heard, as dawn breaks over the ruins. While the ruins will of course be of major interest and time will be taken to admire them, this will not stop us from birding right around them, as amazing species like Ocellated Turkey, Great Curassow, Rose-throated Tanager, Keel-billed Toucan, White-necked Puffbird, Yucatan Jay, Slaty-tailed Trogon, White-collared Manakin, and Gray-throated Chat.

The tropical forests surrounding Tikal are home to White-collared Manakin
The tropical forests surrounding Tikal are home to White-collared Manakin (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

A long list of raptors is hosted here too, including Orange-breasted Falcon, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Gray-headed and Double-toothed Kites, and White Hawk. While this may constitute a day around the ruins, new birds will come thick and fast, and many of these could end up being overall trip highlights. One day will barely feel like enough, but it will be a day that stacks a whole new swathe of birds to the list in the shadow of the impressive Mayan structure. Another night will be spent at Jungle Lodge, inside the park.

Dramatic temples and birds collide in Tikal
Dramatic temples and birds collide in Tikal (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 12:Tikal to Guatemala City. Being based inside the park, we will spend another morning birding the tropical lowlands of Tikal, before taking an afternoon flight back the capital for a final night.

Day 13:Departure from Guatemala City. You will be transferred to the airport for international departures.

Red-capped Manakin poised to
Red-capped Manakin poised to "moondance" (George Lin)


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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Very early starts are needed on 3 days of the tour, two of these are at 4am and another is at 4:30am; others are usually between 5:00am and 6:00am. There will be downtime in the middle of the day on several of the days. As the accommodations do not always serve early breakfasts, five of these will be packed breakfast and one of the lunches will be taken in the field. There are one night stays on three nights of the tour

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Most of the birding will be on relatively easy trails or along roads. On one day, there is steep hike (2.5 miles each way) in cloudforest to look for the Horned Guan. Hiking poles are recommended for this day. This is undertaken throughout the day, and is optional. There are a number of long drives on this tour (on two days of 4-5 hours, and another day of 8 hours). Altitudes covered on this tour range from 660ft/200m in Tikal to 12,470ft/3800m at San Pedro; four of the days will be spent above 8500ft/2600m.

CLIMATE: p>Hot in Tikal (averaging 80 Fahrenheit/27 Celsius at this time); cold and crisp in the mountains, which can be as cool as 50 Fahrenheit/10 Celsius at the coolest times of day.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity.

PHOTOGRAPHY: While this is a birding tour, there are hummingbird feeders at Los Tarrales, and the Ocellated Turkeys at Tikal are very photogenic.

WHEN TO GO: November to March is generally considered the best months to visit, which is the dry season and when temperatures are at their lowest.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and most European countries. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 12; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 13; safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 12; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 11 in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Tip to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters used anywhere; flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.