Guatemala: Land of the Quetzal

For such a tiny country, Guatemala has a lot to offer. The birds are diverse and colorful: Pink-headed Warbler, Blue-throated Motmot, Spot-breasted Oriole, Garnet-throated Hummingbird. On this tour we’ll visit cool high-elevation pine forest, a spectacular volcanic lake ringed by dry thornforest, temperate cloudforest, and lowland rainforest. This last habitat is the backdrop for an exciting visit to the ancient Maya city of Tikal, where Ocellated Turkeys pass nearly underfoot! Though many of Guatemala’s endemic birds are shared with Mexico, here they’re easier to find and to get to. Azure-rumped Tanager, for instance, is found just above a comfortable lodge—a far cry from the 25+ miles of hiking necessary to see this species in Mexico! And need we even mention the emerald-and-red Resplendent Quetzal? The quetzal is the unit of currency in Guatemala. Could there possibly be a better place to see it?

The following is a recommended itinerary, but it can be customized to your particular needs.

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: Tikal. We leave early this morning to catch a quick flight to the picturesque town of Flores. From here we take a short ride to Tikal, one of the two pinnacles of the Maya civilization. Ocellated Turkeys are easy to see here as they walk about the lawn, and the rare Orange-breasted Falcon can often be seen surveying the rainforest from atop one of the tall pyramids. We’ll fly back to Guatemala City late this afternoon and spend the first of two nights in Antigua, an old colonial city with a lot of charm.

Days 3–4: Around Antigua. Spectacular fuming volcanoes will be the backdrop to our picnic breakfasts this morning above the city of Antigua. We will visit El Pilar and Finca Filadelfia, where temperate pine-oak forest hosts Black-throated Jay, Gray Silky-flycatcher, Bar-winged Oriole, Black-capped Siskin, Highland Guan, and even Ocellated Quail. Midday on Day 4, we’ll head to birding some wetter, higher forest at Rincón Suizo. Here we have may find Blue-throated Motmot, Yellow-throated Brushfinch, and roving flocks of gorgeous warblers, like Slate-throated Redstart, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, and Hermit Warbler. Most of the afternoon will be spent driving into the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. Night of Day 4 at Unicornio Azul.

Day 5: Unicornio Azul to Xela. This charming horse ranch lies on a frosty plateau in the high Sierra de los Cuchumatanes and is home to two very special birds: Pink-headed and “Goldman’s” Yellow-rumped warblers. Other interesting birds here include Crescent-chested Warbler, “Plain” Pine Siskin, Red Crossbill, and Rufous-collared Sparrow. We’ll spend the night in Quetzaltenango, known to the locals as Xela (SHEL-ah).

Day 6: Fuentes Georginas to Las Nubes. We have the morning to bird the gorgeous cloudforest around Fuentes Georginas. Here we hope to see Unicolored Jay and Wine-throated and Garnet-throated hummingbirds. By midday we’ll travel to Las Nubes. This active, working coffee plantation will be our base for the next two nights. We’ll have time for some evening birding and maybe even look for Fulvous Owl after supper.

Day 7: Las Nubes. This site has a lot to offer, so even our full day here will seem rushed. The most wanted bird for many here is Resplendent Quetzal, and if an avocado tree is in fruit, we have a very good chance to see a number of these emerald-tailed wonders. We’ll enjoy a picnic breakfast on a platform overlooking some nice cloudforest, so it’s likely you’ll have seen Crested Guan and Yellow-winged Tanager before you’re done with your coffee! Other interesting birds we’ll look for include Green-throated Mountain-gem, White-faced Quail-Dove, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and Sparkling-tailed Woodstar. We’ll do some more owling tonight, targetting Black-and-white Owl this time.

Day 8: Las Nubes to Los Andes. After another morning at Las Nubes, we’ll transfer to Los Andes, another coffee plantation at a slightly different elevation. At the lodge itself an abundance of hummingbird feeders make birding an extremely productive armchair affair. Rufous and Violet sabrewings and Blue-tailed and Wine-throated hummingbirds are regular visitors. The plantings in the yard attract a multitude of colorful birds, like Painted Bunting, Western Tanager, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. A massive strangler fig in the forest above the lodge here often attracts numbers of the highly sought-after Cabanis’s (Azure-rumped) Tanager. This same area is good for some more elusive forest interior species such as Tody Motmot, Rufous-and-white Wren, and Spotted Wood-Quail.

Day 9: Los Andes to Las Tarrales. We’ll target the Azure-rumped Tanager again this morning if it’s still eluding us. Midday we’ll transfer to Los Tarrales, a community farm operation that specializes in growing ornamental plants—and hosting birders. Walking through the beautiful plots of flowers should yield some new birds, like Spot-breasted Oriole, White-bellied Chachalaca, Rusty-breasted Spinetail, and Barred Antshrike.

Day 10: Las Tarrales to Panajachel. We’ll get to visit the forest above the lodge today to look for Bushy-crested Jay and Blue-crowned Chlorophonia. After lunch we’ll board a boat to cross picturesque Lake Atitlán and check into our hotel in Panajachel. Birding on the grounds and in a nearby nature park can be quite good, with Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, and Slender Sheartail being perhaps the most exciting possibilities.

Day 11: Panajachel to Guatemala City. We’ll head back across the lake this morning in order to visit a picturesque site for the charming Belted Flycatcher; Elegant Euphonia and Blue-and-white Mockingbird also occur here. If you’re not continuing on the extension, you will be transferred back to our Guatemala City hotel for the night.

Day 12: Departure. You will be transferred to the airport for your flight home.

Horned Guan Extension

Many folks just can’t leave Guatemala without trying to see a Horned Guan. This one-day extension is completely dedicated to searching out this bizarre cracid via a strenuous but not technically difficult hike up Volcán San Pedro. We will have a porter and a local guide to help us and be based an additional night in Panajachel.


Climate: From cold and crisp (frosty high mountains/boat ride) to hot and humid (lowland rainforest). Expect some rain.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate. Most birding will be from roadsides and relatively flat trails. A couple trails have moderate elevation gains but are nicely graded. The trail on the extension is similar in quality, but we’ll be at it much longer; you must be physically fit to take the extension.

Accommodations: Excellent throughout. It gets cold at night at Unicornio Azul, but heavy wollen blankets and hot water bottles make for a pleasantly cozy night.