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”, which is entirely appropriate – we bird humid tropical lowland forests surrounding the world famous ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, that host the spectacular Ocellated Turkey and rare Orange-breasted Falcon. Broadleaf forests in the foothills of volcanos have the very local Azure-rumped Tanager, and highland pine-oak forests are home to the likes of Pink-headed and Goldman’s Warblers. The wet cloudforests are home to some of the most wanted species of all, the outrageous Respendant Quetzal and the fabled Horned Guan.



Day 1: Arrival in Guatemala. You will be met at the airport and transferred to a hotel in Guatemala City for the night; no birding is planned for today.

Day 2: Guatemala City to Los Tarrales. An early morning departure will be required to transfer to the Los Tarrales Natural Reserve, where we spend two nights. It is one of Guatemala’s premier birding areas, located 130km west of Guatemala City, on the south slope of the Atitlan Volcano. It boasts a bird list of 400 species due to the elevational range the reserve covers, from 160 ft. (500 m.) at the lodge itself, to 11500 ft. (3500 m.) 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 warblers, with 20 species found in the area.

We’ll spend the first day 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 Natural Reserve. On this day our focus will be the foothill forests above the lodge itself, at around 3300-4000 ft. (1000-1200 m.). 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, then bird 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.

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 Lake Atitlan. Most of the day will be spent birding again around Los Tarrales, targeting whatever we are still looking for. After lunch in Los Tarrales, we’ll drive about two hours to Lake Atitlan, checking for waterbirds on the journey, which can include Least and Pied-billed Grebes, Belted Kingfisher, and others. Two nights will be spent in a hotel overlooking the lake. We’ll get to the hotel fairly early to prepare us for the tough hike the next day.

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 on a difficult trail up the San Pedro Volcano, in search of the revered Horned Guan. The day will start with 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), then pine-oak forest, before reaching cloudforest, the preferred habitat of the guan, at about 8500 ft. (2600 m.). While the trail is only around 2.5 miles (4 km) each way, it is a steep hike and so will be taken at slow pace. 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. Depending on our luck with the birds, we will probably be back in the hotel by 5:00pm.

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

Day 6: Lake Atitlán to Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes. We’ll have a relaxed morning to recover from the previous day. After breakfast, we’ll travel north to the Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes. The journey will take much of the day, although this will be broken up with a very important stop at Puerta del Cielo National Park, our first spot for some of the main targets of the trip, including Black-capped Siskin and the amazing Pink-headed Warbler. At the end of the day, we’ll arrive at Unicornio Azul Lodge, and there will be an optional owling session to search for one of the most difficult Neotropical owl species, the Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl.

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 National Park. Today we will use 4×4 vehicles to go after one of Guatemala’s most localized birds, the stunning black-and-gold Goldman’s Warbler. This species was recently split from Yellow-rumped Warbler, but bears little resemblance to it. It is confined to specific areas at high elevations in this park, where the pine-oak forests give way to open grasslands, known as páramo. While searching for our principal target, we will also have a chance to find the rare Ocellated Quail and more widespread species like Crescent-chested Warbler, Broad-tailed Hummingbird and local forms (future splits?) of Yellow-eyed Junco, Red Crossbill, and Northern Flicker. After lunch, we will drive to San Rafael Pie de la Cuesta.

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

Day 8: San Rafael Pie de la Cuesta to Tecpan. We will visit a nearby reserve for another very special bird this morning, the emerald-and-scarlet Resplendent Quetzal, which haunts the oak-dominated cloudforest. Along with the quetzal, we hope to see Highland Guan, Slate-colored Solitaire, Black-throated and Unicolored Jays, and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush. In the afternoon, we’ll have a long drive to Tecpan, where we spend one night.

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

Day 9: Chichavac to Antigua Guatemala. Our birding for the morning will again focus on highland birds, where specialties like Pink-headed Warbler, Hooded Grosbeak, Black-throated Jay, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, Blue-throated Motmot, and Mountain Trogon are all possible. After lunch, we’ll drive to Antigua Guatemala; depending on when we arrive, there may be time to visit a private reserve for a first chance at Rufous Sabrewing, and there will be optional nightbuilding to look for Fulvous Owl.

A Keel-billed Toucan rests alongside the impressive ruins of Tikal
A Keel-billed Toucan rests alongside the impressive ruins of Tikal (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 10: El Pilar to Tikal National Park. In the morning we shall visit El Pilar Reserve, with pine-oak forest at lower elevations than sites that we visited earlier in the tour. Two of our main targets will be 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, Yellow-throated Brushfinch, and a host of stunning warblers, like Red-faced, Golden-cheeked, and Hermit Warblers, and Slate-throated Redstart. After lunch, we transfer to the airport in Guatemala City and fly to Flores International Airport, the gateway to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. The steamy lowland rainforest will be totally different from the mountainous regions of the first part of the tour. We’ll spend two nights at a lodge in Tikal.

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

Day 11: Tikal National Park. Tikal is perhaps most famous for its dramatic Mayan ruins, but it is also a superb spot for tropical birds. We will set out very early in order to watch the sunrise over this impressive ancient site, and then start seeing birds and animals shortly thereafter (Howler Monkeys are often among the first!). Amazing species like Ocellated Turkey, Great Curassow, Rose-throated Tanager, Keel-billed Toucan, White-necked Puffbird, Yucatan Jay, Slaty-tailed Trogon, White-collared Manakin, Gray-throated Chat, Orange-breasted Falcon, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Gray-headed Kite, and White Hawk can all be seen in and around the complex, and there will also be time to enjoy the cultural aspects too.

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)

Day 12: Tikal to Guatemala City. After another morning of birding in Tikal, we will take an afternoon flight back to Guatemala City, where we spend the last night of the tour.

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

Day 13: Departure. The tour ends this morning with transfers to the airport. There is no birding planned for today.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Mostly moderate, but sometimes more intense. Most days will start between 5:00am and 6:00am, but especially early departures of 4:00-4:30am are needed on 3 days of the tour. There will be downtime in the middle of the day on several days, but most days will be quite full. As early breakfasts are rarely available, many breakfasts will be packed breakfasts, and one of the lunches will also be taken in the field. There is quite a lot of driving on this trip; there are three drives of 4-5 hours or more, but they will be broken up with birding stops, lunch stops, and “comfort” stops.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Mostly moderate, but with one difficult hike. Most of the birding will be along roads and on fairly easy trails. The difficult hike is on day 5 to search for the Horned Guan. It is about 2.5 miles (4 km) each way, and most of it is very steep. It is done very slowly, with a lot of birding along the way. A hiking pole is especially helpful for this hike, and anyone not wishing to do has the option of staying in the hotel and relaxing instead. Quite a bit of walking is required on this tour, so it will not be appropriate for someone with limited mobility.

CLIMATE: Be prepared for a wide range of temperatures. Most of the trip will be in areas with very pleasant temperatures, but the high mountains can be cool in the evenings/mornings (down to around 45F/7C) but warm up quickly in the middle of the day, so layers are recommended. Lowlands around Tikal can be hot and humid (90F/32C). Even though the tour is timed for the dry season, rain is still possible, so rain gear is necessary.

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

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a Birding Tour, and seeing the birds will take priority over getting photos. We do encourage photography on our tours, but the tour leader will not allow photographers to move in front of the group for a photo, or use flash, until everyone has had a good look at the bird. All of our guides are also amateur photographers, so they are happy to help you out within these limitations. Bird photography is not easy on this trip as there are few feeders and there is quite a bit of forest birding. Scenery and cultural photo opportunities will be plentiful, but please be considerate when photographing local people, particularly of young children. Before approaching children, you should check with an adult that this is acceptable. However, if you are in any doubt, please refrain from doing so. You may be asked to pay a small amount of money to take photographs of both children and adults.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required for entry into Guatemala. It must be valid for at least six months past the time of your scheduled return. A tourist visa is not currently required for citizens of the USA, Canada, the UK, the EU, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, and many others. 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, and depending on the hotel, airport transportation may be via a hotel shuttle); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 11 in suitable vehicle(s) with local driver(s); roundtrip flight from Guatemala City to Flores; 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 if you require their services; international 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; emergency evacuation; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.