Mexico: The Yucatán, Cozumel, and Calakmul

The Yucatán Peninsula is a land of endless turquoise seas and ancient Mayan ruins hidden beneath dense jungle. We’ll visit a wide array of habitats, from mangrove-lined salt flats and desert scrub to lush rainforest. We target endemics such as Cozumel Vireo, Yucatan Jay, Mexican Sheartail, and Yucatan Woodpecker along with scores of more widespread but equally intriguing species like Ocellated Turkey, Gray-throated Chat, and Rose-throated Tanager. It’s also an archaeologist’s dream, and we will visit several spectacular Mayan ruin sites, including Chichén Itzá, Cobá, and Calakmul. It’s tough to beat seeing trees full of toucans an ancient pyramid! Mexican cuisine is delightful and not always spicy as myth often has it, and we’ll have the chance to sample some truly amazing dishes during our visit.



Day 1: Arrival in Cancún; transfer to Playa del Carmen After arrival in Cancún, a transfer will be available to Playa del Carmen, where we spend the night. Our hotel is well situated and not in a closed-off resort, so it’s a great place to be if you want to come in a day or two early to relax or enjoy some fun in the sun.

Day 2: Cozumel. We’ll take the fast passenger ferry to Cozumel Island, home to several endemics including Cozumel Vireo and Cozumel Emerald. There are many endemic subspecies on Cozumel as well: Western Spindalis, Bananaquit, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, House Wren, and Rufous-browed Peppershike all have distinctive populations that should pique our interest, and Black Catbird is more common here than on the mainland. Cozumel offers a unique mix of these mainland species plus Caribbean birds like Caribbean Elaenia and White-crowned Pigeon. An added bonus is a slew of migrants, such as Black-throated Blue, Prairie, and Cape May Warblers. We will spend one night on Cozumel. The passenger ferry only allows small pieces of luggage, so please only take essential items needed for our short visit; the rest of your luggage can be safely stored in the hotel in Playa del Carmen.

The endemic Cozumel Vireo is a major target on the island of the same name
The endemic Cozumel Vireo is a major target on the island of the same name (Nick Athanas)

Several Caribbean island species, such as Western Spindalis, can be found on Cozumel
Several Caribbean island species, such as Western Spindalis, can be found on Cozumel (Nick Athanas)

Day 3: Cozumel to Río Lagartos. We’ll have an hour or two early in the morning trying to clean up any Cozumel specialties we might have missed the day before. Then it’s back to the mainland and northwest to Río Lagartos. Situated on the north coast of the Yucatán, it features varied habitats 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 arrive in time for some late afternoon birding, and then spend one night in this small, coastal town.

Small groups of Yucatan Wrens can be found in the thorn forest near Rio Lagartos
Small groups of Yucatan Wrens can be found in the thorn forest near Rio Lagartos (Nick Athanas)

Day 4: Río Lagartos and Chichén Itzá. The cool early morning hours will be spent in the thorn forest looking for the local endemics along with other species such as Yucatán Jay, Orange Oriole, Black-throated Bobwhite, Mangrove Vireo, and Lesser Roadrunner. Later on, we’ll head back to town and board a boat to cruise tidal flats and mangrove forest. Colorful flocks of American Flamingos are normally abundant, and we should see a nice variety of waterbirds including gulls, terns, pelicans, and herons, hopefully including the shy Boat-billed Heron and Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. After lunch we’ll drive south and enjoy a late afternoon visit to the breathtaking ruins of Chichén Itzá. We have one night in Valladolid.

Colorful American Flamingos inhabit the coastal lagoons
Colorful American Flamingos inhabit the coastal lagoons (Nick Athanas)

Bare-throated Tiger-Herons lurk in the mangroves at Rio Lagartos
Bare-throated Tiger-Herons lurk in the mangroves at Rio Lagartos (Nick Athanas)

Late afternoon can be a great time to visit Chichen Itza as the crowds disperse and the light improves
Late afternoon can be a great time to visit Chichen Itza as the crowds disperse and the light improves (Nick Athanas)

Day 5: Cobá and Felipe Carillo Puerto. As the day dawns, we’ll have a field breakfast on the shores of Coba Lake, where lucky birders sometimes see rails and crakes among the more common Northern Jacanas, Limpkins, and Least Grebes. Among the ruins we’ll search for Ocellated Turkey, Black-headed, Gartered, and Collared Trogons, Black-headed Saltator, Green Jay, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, and others. We continue south to Felipe Carillo Puerto for the night, where we’ll have time in the late afternoon to bird in the nearby rainforest.

Gray-throated Chats are pretty residents of the rainforest interior
Gray-throated Chats are pretty residents of the rainforest interior (Nick Athanas)

Day 6: Felipe Carillo Puerto to Xpujil. A dirt road northeast of town passes through superb rainforest, and offers some of the best birding of the trip. We stand a good chance to find Yucatan specialties such as Rose-throated Tanager, Yucatan Flycatcher, and Yellow-lored Parrot along with many other birds that might include Lineated and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers, Tawny-winged and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, Masked Tityra, Rose-throated Becard, Brown Jay, Green-backed Sparrow, Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Gray-throated Chat, and Grayish Saltator. In the afternoon, we’ll skirt the Belizean border, and then head west to our hotel near the village of Xpujil, where we spend two nights.

Wedge-tailed Sabrewing is a large but not very colorful hummer
Wedge-tailed Sabrewing is a large but not very colorful hummer (Nick Athanas)

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 the rare Black-headed Shrike-Tanager, Great Curassow, Stub-tailed Spadebill, and Royal Flycatcher. Mottled Owls are sometimes spotted sleeping among the ruins, and if there is an accessible Ornate Hawk-Eagle nest in the area, we’ll make an effort to visit it. This is a long but exciting day, and the area is so remote that we will need to take a packed breakfast and lunch with us.

Ocellated Turkeys are not shy at all in protected areas, and often allow close approach
Ocellated Turkeys are not shy at all in protected areas, and often allow close approach (Nick Athanas)

The view from the top of one of the tallest pyramids in Calakmul
The view from the top of one of the tallest pyramids in Calakmul (Nick Athanas)

Day 8: Calakmul to Felipe Carillo Puerto. After another morning birding the road to Calakmul or another nearby archaeological site, we’ll return to Felipe Carillo Puerto for another night. If we didn’t attempt it during our last stay and if the weather is cooperative, we may make a nocturnal excursion to look for Middle American Screech-Owl and Yucatan Poorwill.

Ornate Hawk-Eagles nest in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve
Ornate Hawk-Eagles nest in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (Nick Athanas)

Day 9: Felipe Carillo Puerto to Cancún. This is a wildcard day, and the exact plan will depend on what birds we are still looking for. In the afternoon we drive back to Cancún and spend the night in a hotel near the airport.

Yucatan Woodpecker is a real beauty
Yucatan Woodpecker is a real beauty (Nick Athanas)

Day 10: Departure. The tour ends this morning; the hotel has a complimentary airport shuttle.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. We tend to be up early to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and the better birding (some breakfasts will be in the field). The hottest time of the day we normally spend in transit to the next site. Due to the nature of the itinerary, mid-day siestas are only likely on a couple of days.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Nearly all the birding is done from perfectly flat roads and trails, however there is quite a bit of walking involved when visiting the best archaelogical sites, up to several miles roundtrip, and it can be quite hot. Some people choose to ascend to the top of some of the pyramids. This can be quite difficult and it is completely optional.

CLIMATE: Usually warm to hot. Temperatures on average range from about 70°-85°F (21°-29°C), but are quite variable. Rare cold fronts can make it quite cooler so it is good to bring an extra layer or two just in case. A bit of rain can be expected.

ACCOMMODATION: Generally good to excellent with all the typical amenities including air conditioning. Wi-fi is usually available in all the hotels, though it may only be available in public areas, and is sometimes very slow.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but it’s pretty good for casual bird photography in some places, and the archaeological sites are also very photogenic. Please be aware that tripods, video cameras, and high-end SLR camera gear are not permitted in some of the archaeological sites without a special permit that is not feasible to obtain on this tour. You risk being fined and kicked out if you try to sneak it in. There is no set standard for this and it often depends on the whims of whoever is at the entrance gate when you visit, but anything bigger than a 100-400 zoom is going to attract attention and sometimes even a 100-400 zoom is not permitted. If you have an SLR+big lens, consider bringing something smaller too like a 70-300mm. Non-SLR cameras such as super-zooms and phones are totally fine.

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, EU, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, among others. Visas are required for citizens of most countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers (if a driver is used) and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 9; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 10 (if you have a very early flight on day 10, you may miss the included breakfast); reasonable non-alcoholic drinks with meals; safe drinking water only between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 9 (note that scopes are not allowed in some of the ruins); airport transfers (possibly via a hotel shuttle bus depending on the hotel used); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 9 (for smaller groups, the guide will drive, and for larger groups, there will be a driver); roundtrip tourist class passenger ferry ticket to Cozumel Island; two to three hour boat ride at Rio Lagartos; entrance fees to the 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?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; flights; passport/visa fees; excess luggage charges; 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.