Mexico: The Yucatán and Palenque

The popular resort town of Cancún lies at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, a land of endless turquoise seas and ancient Mayan ruins hidden beneath dense jungle. You’ll experience all of this on our tour, as well as a unique regional cuisine and up to 16 regionally endemic bird species. We’ll visit a wide array of habitats, from mangrove-lined salt flats and desert scrub to lush canopy rain forest and tropical savanna. An archaeologist’s dream, we will also visit an extensive list of spectacular Mayan ruin sites: Chichén Itzá, Cobá, Calakmul, Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchilán.

These Ancient ruins also offer chances to see heart-stopping birds, like Red-capped Manakin, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Ocellated Turkey, and Scarlet Macaw, as well as monkeys and even wild cats. If you’ve ever dreamed of digiscoping a tree full of Keel-billed Toucans from atop an ancient pyramid, this is the tour for you!

Day 1: Arrival in Cancún. You will be transferred to a comfortable hotel where you can take advantage of the easy-going Caribbean atmosphere and relax.

Day 2: Cancún to Cozumel. We’ll start birding this morning in a superb botanical garden just south of town. While searching for Rose-throated Tanager and Yucatán Vireo, we should be entertained by some more widespread birds like Red-throated Ant-Tanager and Black-cowled Oriole. By late morning we’ll board a ferry to cross over to the island of Cozumel. Of the four island endemics, Cozumel Wren, Cozumel Vireo, and Cozumel Emerald should show themselves without too much effort. There are many endemic subspecies on Cozumel as well: Western Spindalis, Bananaquit, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Roadside Hawk, and Rufous-browed Peppershike all have distinctive populations that should pique our interest. Cozumel offers a unique mix of these mainland species plus Caribbean birds like Caribbean Elaenia and White-crowned Pigeon. An added bonus is a load of migrants, such as Black-throated Blue, Prairie, and Cape May Warblers. Afternoon birding is optional; those wishing to enjoy the beach or go snorkeling may do so. We will spend the night on Cozumel.

Day 3: Cozumel and Chichén Itzá. This morning will be spent trying to clean up any Cozumel specialties we might have missed the day before. Then it’s back to the mainland and west to the breathtaking ruins of Chichén Itzá, where will spend the next two nights. Here we hope to see birds more typical of the Yucatan mainland, such as Turquoise-browed Motmot, Yucatán Jay, and Orange Oriole.

Rio Lagartos is world-famous as a location to see American Flamingo
Rio Lagartos is world-famous as a location to see American Flamingo (Michael Retter)

Day 4: Río Lagartos. Situated on the north coast of the Yucatán, Río Lagartos is most famous as a location to see hundreds of American Flamingos. Habitats are varied, from salt flats and mangroves to thorn forest and desert-like scrub. The thorn forest supports three birds we cannot see elsewhere: White-lored Gnatcatcher, Yucatán Wren, and the gorgeous little Mexican Sheartail. We’ll also keep an eye out for Lesser Roadrunner and Yucatán Bobwhite. A boat ride through the mangroves may yield Boat-billed Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Vireo, or even a sprightly American Pygmy Kingfisher.

Day 5: Cobá and Felipe Carillo Puerto. After an early morning rise, we’ll head south towards lush coastal forest. The first stop is Cobá, a ruins site famous for a population of Spotted Rail. Among the ruins we’ll search for Thicket Tinamou, Yucatán Woodpecker, Yucatán Parrot, and Gray-collared Becard. We continue south to Felipe Carillo Puerto for the night, where we’ll look for Yucatán Nightjar and Yucatán Poorwill after dusk.

Day 6: Felipe Carillo Puerto to Xpujil. After morning birding and lunch at Felipe Carillo Puerto, we’ll drive toward the Belizean border, and then west to our hotel in the village of Xpujil.

Ocellated Turkeys are ridiculously common and confiding at Calakmul
Ocellated Turkeys are ridiculously common and confiding at Calakmul (Michael Retter)

Day 7: Calakmul. Picture walking through lowland rainforest and stumbling upon a decaying stone staircase. The vegetation is thick, and you can only see the first twenty stairs or so. As you ascend the stairs, you’re completely surrounded by layers of canopy. Finally, you reach the top of the staircase and turn around to see untouched rainforest in every direction, studded by the tops of half a dozen ancient pyramids, complete with frolicking spider monkeys. Awesome—in both senses of the word! Five species of wild cat live here, and the birds are equally thrilling. This is the only place in Mexico where Ocellated Turkey is common and confiding. Widespread antswarms host Gray-throated Chat, Swainson’s Warbler, and myriad woodcreepers. Other exciting possibilities include Black-headed Shrike-Tanager, Great Curassow, Agami Heron, and Royal Flycatcher.

Day 8: Calakmul to Palenque. After morning birding at Calakmul, we’ll continue west to Palenque. On the way, we’ll stop in some marshes to look for Jabiru, Sungrebe, Pinnated Bittern, and Black-collared Hawk. Nearby savannas should yield Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Double-striped Thick-knee. Finally, we’ll settle into our hotel at Palenque.

Day 9: Palenque. The first few minutes of daylight here will quickly assure you that Palenque’s reputations as both a phenomenal archaeological site and an exquisite birding destination are well earned. As we traverse the ancient temples, birds vary from the ridiculously colorful Keel-billed Toucan to the subdued and enigmatic “Mexican” (Black-faced) Antthrush.

Days 10-13: Bonampak and Yaxchilán. Further east, these jungle-cloaked ruins offer birds that Palenque doesn’t, including Mealy Parrot, White-whiskered Puffbird, and Purple-crowned Fairy. Hummingbird diversity can be impressive: Long-billed Hermit, Wedge-tailed and Violet Sabrewings, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, and Black-crested Coquette are just a few of the possibilities. To reach Yaxchilán, we’ll take a pleasant boat ride down the Río Usumacinta, giving us a chance for Collared Plover and a great vantage point finding soaring birds like King Vulture and White Hawk. After arriving, we walk through the dark catacombs of an ancient temple before coming out into a grand plaza studded with fig trees that attract howler monkeys, Collared Araçaris, Lovely Cotingas, and Scarlet Macaws. These four days are based in the riverside town of Frontera Corozal, where we may find a Short-tailed Nighthawk flying over our hotel at dusk.

Many of the ruins we visit like Palenque, shown here have a resident pair of Bat Falcons. He's on the upper lefthand corner
Many of the ruins we visit like Palenque, shown here have a resident pair of Bat Falcons. He's on the upper lefthand corner (Michael Retter)

Day 14: Palenque to Villahermosa. After morning birding in the Palenque area, we’ll head to Villahermosa for a final celebratory dinner.

Day 15: Departure. The tour ends this morning in Villahermosa.



CLIMATE: Warm to hot and variably humid. Usually dry but some rain is possible.

DIFFICULTY: Easy. Almost all birding is done from roads, ruins complexes, level trails, and boats.

ACCOMMODATION: Mostly excellent; the hotel in Frontera Corozal is clean and comfortable but basic.