A Horned Guan stares out of the canopy on San Pedro Volcano. Photo: Luke Seitz
The highlands of Guatemala’s Pacific slope are famous worldwide for holding a host of regional endemics. The improbable-looking Pink-headed Warbler might top the list, but it’s hardly outdone by other gems like Blue-throated Motmot, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, and Wine-throated Hummingbird. With an expected split happening soon, one more species will soon be added to the list of specialities: the only true Guatemalan endemic, the incomparable Goldman’s Warbler. Less well known are the astonishing concentrations of boreal migrants - especially wood warblers - that share these cool montane forests with the vast selection of key Central American species. Though our tour specifically targets the resident endemics, we’ll also take time to enjoy fully the diversity of the region’s birdlife and to appreciate the charm of baroque Antigua.
Our Tikal Extension takes us even further back in time and into tropical lowland habitats with a completely new suite of birds. Watching Ocellated Turkeys, parrots, and perhaps even the local pair of Orange-breasted Falcons among the ruins of one of the greatest cities ever built in the New World is a treasured experience.
Day 1: The tour begins in Guatemala City with a transfer to our hotel in Antigua, often described as the most beautiful city in all Central America. Our introductory meeting will be at dinner at our hotel, followed by a night in Antigua.
Day 2: After breakfast we’ll make the 30 minute drive to Finca El Pilar, a shade coffee plantation and nature reserve on the outskirts of Antigua. We’ll drive up the mountainside to the lower cloud forest, home of Green-throated Mountain-gem, Blue-throated Motmot, Tufted Flycatcher, Black-capped Swallow, Rufous-collared Thrush, Gray Silky-flycatcher, Crescent-chested Warbler, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and Black-headed Siskin. After spending the morning walking easy trails and roads, we’ll be picked up by our vehicle and return to the lower portions of El Pilar, where we’ll make a stop at a set of hummingbird feeders frequented by Magnificent, Berylline (Deville’s), and Azure-crowned Hummingbirds and Violet and Rufous Sabrewings. We’ll descend back into Antigua for lunch, followed by a free afternoon to explore the city. Dinner will be in one of Antigua’s many excellent restaurants. Night in Antigua.
Day 3: After early-morning coffee and tea at our hotel we’ll make the hour-long drive to Rincon Suizo. The open high-elevation forest here can be filled with a riotous mix of resident species and boreal migrants: Tennessee and Townsend’s Warblers roaming in mixed flocks with Crescent-chested and Red-faced Warblers while Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings share the woodland edge with Rufous-browed Wrens and Elegant Euphonias. Our major target, though is one of the strangest and most beautiful of all the parulids, Pink-headed Warbler - a bird for which no painting or photograph can prepare the visiting observer. The species is fairly common in these woods, but it may take us a couple of hours to find a flock with them in attendance. Once our search is complete, we’ll return to a nearby restaurant for a lavish lunch, followed by a bumpy couple-hour transfer to Los Andes (perhaps with a couple stops along the way for birds such as White-throated Magpie-Jay). We might have a little time before dinner to look for birds in the gardens, including Blue-tailed Hummingbird at the feeders. Night at Los Andes.
Day 4: The private reserve at Los Andes is an excellent place to enjoy some volcano birding, with a fine suite of montane specialities awaiting us. The remarkable variety of birds right around the gardens can include Pacific Parakeet, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Yellow-winged Tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-faced (Prevost’s) Ground-Sparrow, and White-collared Seedeater. Our main goal this morning, however, will be a visit to the promisingly named Quetzal Trail. This is our best chance to see the famous Resplendent Quetzal, the namesake of Guatemala’s currency. We’ll also focus on finding the rare Azure-rumped (Cabanis’s) Tanager, which can often be found in small flocks in the canopy. There are many other possibilities here, including Highland and Crested Guans, Spotted Wood-Quail, and Lesson’s Motmot. After lunch at Los Andes and perhaps a little more birding around the lodge, we’ll transfer over to Los Tarrales, with hopefully an hour or two free to explore the grounds before dinner. Night at Los Tarrales.
Day 5: Our entire day will be spent birding around the lower elevations of Los Tarrales, focused on finding several special species that we won’t see elsewhere on the tour. We’ll wander the trails around this private nature preserve and shade coffee plantation in the morning, hoping for species such as White-bellied Chachalaca, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, Long-billed Starthroat, Barred Antshrike, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Long-tailed Manakin, and White-winged Tanager. Tody Motmot is a distinct possibility, although it’s become much more difficult here in recent years. After lunch and a siesta we’ll further explore the lodge grounds and trails, watching Cinnamon Hummingbird, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Rufous-naped Wren, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Yellow-throated Euphonia, and Spot-breasted Oriole among others. Night at Los Tarrales.
Day 6: Our second morning at Los Tarrales will start at a higher elevation, where we’ll look for birds along trails through cloud forest and coffee plantations searching for a few rare species. Blue Seedeater, Bar-winged Oriole, Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, and Highland Guan are all possible here, although we probably won’t see all of them! There should be plenty of other species to keep us occupied, including big mixed flocks of migrants. After a final lunch at Los Tarrales we’ll make the hour-long drive to the town of Santiago and have some free time in the afternoon to relax at our lakeside hotel and enjoy the birds in the garden (occasionally including Slender Sheartail and Sparkling-tailed Woodstar). Night in Santiago.
Day 7: We will likely split into two groups today. Those who are interested in trekking to look for Horned Guan will be offered that option, although which location in particular depends on the local conditions and your guide’s pre-tour scouting information. Some of the best locations for Horned Guans recently have included Volcán Tolimán, Volcán San Pedro, and Cerro Paquisis. The guan hike will begin very early in the morning (likely leaving the hotel in the 4-5:00am range), and might involve a boat ride across Lake Atitlán. Depending on the location, it could involve a one-way hike anywhere between two and five miles(potentially up to nearly ten miles round-trip) up a trail that could be very challenging, relentlessly steep and possibly rocky. If you are fit enough to attempt this hike, please be aware that even given the difficulty of the trail, we will have to maintain a reasonable pace to arrive in the guan’s preferred habitat before it gets too late in the day. It’s likely one guide will maintain this pace with anyone who is able, and those who need to proceed at a slower pace will remain behind with another guide, with the full knowledge that they might be unable to reach the guan habitat in time. Of course, we’ll make every effort to share this special bird with anyone who is able to make the hike, but this is a situation where honesty and flexibility are crucial – the hike will be very challenging!
Those who do not wish to attempt the Horned Guan hike will have a separate birding option for the day. You’ll head out with a local guide to some nearby birding locations, perhaps including the first stretches of the Volcán Tolimán trail (which also starts out steep, but gets flatter after about a quarter-mile) or Mirador Rey Tepepul, which involves some easy roadside birding and an optional trail. These areas can be very birdy. Depending on the exact plan, exciting possibilities include White-eared and White-faced (Prevost’s) Ground-Sparrows, Blue-throated Motmot, Lesser Roadrunner, Resplendent Quetzal, Azure-winged Tanager, Hooded Grosbeak, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, Rusty Sparrow, Black-vented and Bar-winged (rare) Orioles, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Bushy-crested Jay, Elegant Euphonia, and loads of migrants. You’ll have lunch back in the town of Santiago, with some afternoon birding around the hotel grounds or another local site. We’ll all meet back at our hotel in Santiago for dinner (with the caveat that the longer Horned Guan hike option might involve arriving back after dark). Night in Santiago.
Day 8: Today is mostly a travel day, well-timed after yesterday’s potentially tiring hike. We’ll take a packed breakfast to a nearby birding location at Mirador Rey Tepepul, where we’ll have a couple hours of relatively relaxed birding. There is a beautiful overlook with a view of the canopy, sometimes holding Azure-rumped Tanagers. We’ll look for Bar-winged Orioles sneaking around the understory, enjoy the flocks of Townsend’s and Tennessee Warblers, keep an eye out for hummingbirds if the flowers are blooming, and might even get lucky and spot a Resplendent Quetzal. We’ll then start our drive to Huehuetenango, making a stop near the town of Panajachel for a chance at Belted Flycatcher, a rare and attractive little flycatcher found only from southern Mexico to El Salvador. If we’re lucky we might coax one into view, but it’s not guaranteed! We’ll have lunch in Pana and then continue to Huehuetenango. The drive time depends on traffic and road conditions, but we’ll probably arrive just in time for dinner. Night near Huehuetenango.
Day 9: Our morning will begin with bundling on all our layers, as this will surely be the coldest day of the tour. We’ll drive to Todos Santos Cuchumatan, the best spot in the world to see the stunning Goldman’s Warbler. Once considered a subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler, this bird has recently been shown to have substantially different genetics. To the birder, it’s different in just about every other way too: appearance, voice, size, shape, and range! Goldman’s Warbler is found only in Guatemala, and even here it is restricted to high-elevation areas with junipers and pines. Surely seeing this beauty will be one of the highlights of the tour. Other interesting possibilities up here include Ocellated Quail (rare), Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Olive Warbler, and the Guatemalan subspecies of Yellow-eyed Junco (a probable split from the northern Yellow-eyed Juncos).
After descending from Todos Santos, we’ll spend a little time before lunch in some agricultural fields to look for siskins (the strange perplexus subspecies of Pine Siskin occurs here, as well as the rarer Black-capped), and then we’ll make our way southward to Quetzaltenango (Xela), stopping for lunch along the way. Depending on traffic, we’ll probably arrive at our hotel southeast of Xela close to dinner time. Night at Las Cumbres near Zunil.
Day 10: Our birding destination this morning is an area known as Fuentes Georginas, which offers us some final montane birds before the main tour ends. This is a popular hot spring, so has many species quite accustomed to people: Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes and Chestnut-capped Brushfinches hop around the parking lots, Unicolored Jays parade around in noisy flocks, and roadside flowers could hold Amethyst-throated and Garnet-throated Hummingbirds. This might be our best chance at Wine-throated Hummingbird, although they undergo some seasonal movements and aren’t always present.
After lunch at the hot springs, we’ll start the long drive back to Guatemala City, which will take the rest of the afternoon. We’ll arrive close to dinner time. Night in Guatemala City.
Day 11: The main tour ends with transfers to the airport for flights home.
Day 11: We’ll take an early flight north from Guatemala City across impressive stretches of forest to Flores, a charming town on beautiful Lake Petén Itzá. On arriving in Flores, we’ll make the drive to Yaxha, just southeast of Tikal. Named for its proximity to the sparkling turquoise waters of the nearby lagoons, Yaxha (“Yax” = green, “Ha” = water) was occupied for some 1500 years up to about the year 900. The impressive ruins of the Maya city are aligned along an arrow-straight axis nearly a mile long and culminate in the monumental buildings of the Eastern Acropolis. The fine forest surrounding the site abounds with tropical birds, including the dramatic Pale-billed Woodpecker and a variety of colourful parrots, trogons, toucans, hummingbirds, and tanagers. We’ll keep an eye out overhead for King Vulture, and the resident Laughing Falcon is likely to greet us too. We’ll continue in the late afternoon to Tikal, where we’ll spend the night.
Day 12: Guatemala’s first national park, Tikal, is, simply put, one of a kind; a combination of nature and culture without parallel. Orange-breasted Falcons nest on breathtaking pyramids, and Ocellated Turkeys wander around unconcernedly just as they likely did in the days of the classical Maya. We also have a good chance of seeing Crested Guan and another of the prizes among the cracids, Great Curassow, which is relatively confiding (but still uncommon) under the protected conditions of the national park. Tikal is a great place to observe parrots, with Brown-hooded, White-crowned, White-fronted, Red-lored, and Mealy usually giving repeated views. Other possibilities here include Russet-naped Wood-Rail, White-bellied Emerald, Slaty-tailed and Black-headed Trogons, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Keel-billed Toucan, several species of woodcreeper including Tawny-winged and Ruddy, Northern Bentbill, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Royal Flycatcher (fairly common), White-collared Manakin, Olive-backed Euphonia, and Montezuma Oropendola. We’ll probably see well over 100 species in total! Night in Tikal.
Day 13: We’ll spend another morning around Tikal, perhaps focusing on some secondary forest nearby for more localised specialities like Gray-throated Chat, Yucatan Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, and Rose-throated Tanager. We’ll then head back to Flores, stopping for a lakeside lunch before checking into our hotel. We’ll do some wetland birding in the afternoon, which can be very productive: we’ll surely see species like Purple Gallinule and Limpkin, and we’ll try to find some shyer species like Least Bittern, American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and maybe even the rare Pinnated Bittern. After dinner tonight we’ll head out for some owling on a nearby road, which can sometimes hold Barn and Striped Owl. Night in Flores.
Day 14: We’ll have a final day of birding to find some of the dry forest and grassland species in the area. Some possibilities include Black-throated Bobwhite, White-tailed Kite, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Botteri’s Sparrow, Black Catbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Gray-crowed Yellowthroat, and Piratic Flycatcher. Depending on flight schedules, we’ll have a flight back to Guatemala City in the mid-day or evening and enjoy a delicious farewell dinner before our departures home. Night in Guatemala City.
Day 15: The extension ends with transfers to the airport for flights home.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 04 May 2018