Picture a land with tropical jungles, ancient Mayan ruins, and volcanic highlands. Sprinkle in colorful local textiles, friendly locals, monkeys and reptiles of various sorts, and nearly 800 species of birds and you have Guatemala, a travel destination with a wonderful mix of history, culture, and nature. I recently returned from a quick spring tour of the country and wanted to share both general impressions and specific suggestions for those looking to visit the country. As I am an avid birdwatcher, this piece will admittedly slant towards a bird-minded audience. However, one of the beauties of Guatemala is how seamlessly birding integrates with the other more general attractions that the country presents.
Nowhere is this truer than in Petén, Guatemala’s largest and least populated Department. It was in that northern-most state that the Ancient Mayans had a historically strong presence two thousand years ago, and it is there that some of the most spectacular remnants of that culture remain. The once-thriving city state of Tikal is a must for any visit to Guatemala, and the nearby Yaxha (yash-HA) archeological site should also be included for those historically inclined. Both sites are huge and only partially excavated, the surrounding jungles still holding onto many ancient secrets. That which has been unearthed is both stunningly beautiful and architecturally impressive. The most notable structures are the huge pyramidal temples. Many rise several hundred feet above the surrounding jungle and some can be climbed by the particularly adventurous. With both Howler and Spider Monkeys swinging over head at both sites, a visit to either Tikal or Yaxha site is truly an unforgettable experience.
Birdlife is abundant at both sites; I tallied 120 species in just 2 full days between the two sites. Highlights included Bare-throated Tiger-heron, Russet-naped Wood-rail, 3 species of trogon, 3 species of toucan, Orange-breasted Falcon, 4 species of parrot, and a host of other tropical birds like tanagers, euphonias, and antshrikes. The ability to bird casually while exploring the ruins made the experience equally enjoyable and unforgettable. There are several nice ecolodge-type accommodations at both Tikal and Yaxha, and staying at those permits productive birding right outside one’s place of lodging.
For those inclined to deviate greatly from the beaten path, I would strongly suggest a visit to Las Guacamayas Biological Station near Flores. That property and the delightfully charming lodge of the same name is accessible only after miles on a dirt road and a riverboat connection. Nestled into a jungle hillside on the San Pedro River, it was an undisturbed paradise.
I tallied 75 bird species in just an evening and morning at the station. Black-and-white Hawk-eagle, Plumbeous Kite, 5 species of hummingbird, Pheasant Cuckoo, Tody Motmot, Black-faced Antthrush, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Red-capped Manakin, and Crimson-collared Tanager all availed themselves.
The Guacamayas, or Scarlet Macaws, for which the preserve is named were the highlight, a dozen of the 3-foot long parrots appearing overhead on our morning walk. A huge crocodile at river’s edge was an added bonus! Leaving Guacamayas, a stop in the town of Flores is a must. Cute beyond description, the small island in town’s center is the perfect concession to appease any non-birder.
While it would be completely possible to spent a week in those northern, Petén lowlands, particularly if they were coupled to a few days in Belize, I few from Flores to Guatemala City for an additional taste of the Guatemalan Highlands. I immediately vacated that metropolis for the quieter and more spectacular confines of Lake Atitlán at over 5,000 feet of elevation. Created by a huge volcanic eruption nearly 2 million years ago, the lake is Central America’s deepest. The area is still volcanically active in a non-threatening sort of way, and it is on the slopes of the mostly inactive cones surrounding the fairy-tale lake that much productive birding occurs. While Guatemala does not have any trues endemics, it does have a thirty-something specialized and geographically restricted highland endemics which it shares with extreme southern Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras. These include, among many others, Green-throated Mountain-gem, Blue-throated Motmot, Rufous-browned Wren, Pink-headed Warbler, Rufous-Collared Robin, Azure-rumped Tanager, and the equally bizarre and prized Horned Guan. All of these species can be seen around Lake Atitlán, many with near criminal ease. If you’re serious about building up your bird list, a visit to the Guatemalan highlands for the highland endemics is a must!
Though birding spoke for the vast majority of my too-brief time in Guatemala, I did take time to explore the town of Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlán. It was in that small municipality that Guatemala’s signature textiles and wonderful array of casual cuisine were on full display. The town’s street were alive with people, and everyone I encountered was friendly and welcoming.
It should here be said that Guatemala has in the past had a reputation as being unsafe. I suspect that most of that sentiment arises from incidents in and around Guatemala City, a metropolis I would anyway suggest skipping in favor of more peripheral, more natural areas. This trend, however, is the same the world over; If one avoids specific areas of urban centers then one’s travels aren’t likely to be affected by any sort of incident. That’s as true in Chicago as it is in Guatemala City. Outside of the cities, petty theft of unattended valuables can be a problem, but that’s a similar situation as in Costa Rica or any other developing country. As long as a you are smart and don’t invite temptation by leaving an expensive camera or laptop computer exposed on the backseat of your vehicle, any sort of theft is highly unlikely.
Guatemala is a wonderful destination for all sorts of folks, but particularly those interested in ancient history and birding. The wildlife is wonderful, the people are welcoming, and the experience unique. A recent Audubon Society-sponsored program has trained dozens of local bird guides across the country, so there is no shortage of eager and able eyes to help you find your most-sought bird species if that’s your thing. All of those guides and just about everyone in the tourism industry speaks serviceable English, so basic communication shouldn’t be an issue, certainly no more than anywhere else in Latin America. So don’t delay, lead the charge to Guatemala! Between birds, Mayan ruins, spectacular scenery, and a wonderfully distinct culture, you won’t be disappointed!
Head on over to see a remarkable assortment of Dorian’s bird photos from Guatemala.