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 Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo. 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 Central American specialities. Though our tour specifically targets the resident endemics, we’ll also take time to enjoy fully the diversity of the region’s birdlife.
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: Our tour begins this evening at our hotel in Antigua, near Guatemala City. Night in Antigua.
Day 2: After breakfast at our hotel 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 two- to three-hour drive to the town of Panajachel. Night in Panajachel.
Day 3: Our morning will be spent birding the dry scrubby forest at Finca Santa Victoria, with our primary target being the rare and shy Belted Flycatcher. There are no guarantees with this difficult species, but we should see plenty of other fun species in the meantime, perhaps including specialities like Blue-and-white Mockingbird or Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo. Depending on timing, we might visit one or two other birding sites nearby before heading to lunch in Panajachel. After lunch, we’ll embark on the three- to four-hour drive to Huehuetenango, which will be our base for exploring the unique high-elevation pine savannahs of Los Cuchumatanes. Night in Huehuetenango.
Day 4: Our morning will begin with bundling on all our layers as this will surely be the chilliest 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! The Goldman’s 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). After lunch, we’ll continue on our journey to the far western reaches of Guatemala, a drive which will likely take four to five hours. We’ll arrive in the town of Sibinal for the night, preparing for an early wake-up the next morning at one of the most exciting birding spots of the entire tour.
Day 5: We’ll have an early breakfast and head to a trail on the slopes of Volcán Tacaná. Our primary target today is the enigmatic Horned Guan which is usually, but not always, present – depending on recent weather conditions, we may or may not encounter the fruiting trees favoured by the guan. This is a steep hike, but much easier than the other available options for Horned Guan. We’ll take it slowly, birding on the way. The forest here is beautiful, full of Pink-headed Warblers, Amethyst-throated Hummingbirds, and Blue-throated Motmots. We’ll spend a full morning on the trail, followed by lunch at the house of our local guide. Our afternoon plan will depend on what birds we see in the morning. We’ll be back in Sibinal for a relatively early dinner and much-needed sleep!
Day 6: Our second morning around Sibinal will be spent birding some nearby roadsides, which are thick with Pink-headed Warblers and Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireos. We’ll try to clean up some of the highland species we’re still missing, perhaps including the uncommon and shy Black-throated Jay or the skulky Rufous-browed Wren. Black-capped Siskin is another target in this area. In the late morning, we’ll drive about two hours to the town of San Marcos, where we’ll have lunch and then continue driving to our lodgings outside Quetzaltenango (Xela). Night in Zunil.
Day 7: Our birding destination this morning is an area known as Fuentes Georginas, which offers us some final montane birding before we descend to the foothills. This is a popular hot spring so many species are 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 to see Wine-throated Hummingbird, although they undergo some seasonal movements and are not always present. After lunch at the hot springs, we’ll drive the two-and-a-half hours to Los Tarrales, with some roadside birding along the way. Night at Los Tarrales.
Days 8-9: We’ll have two full days to explore Los Tarrales, a private nature reserve that encompasses a wide elevation range and lots of special birds. We’ll try to cover as much habitat as possible, exploring the trails around the lodge for lower-elevation species like White-bellied Chachalaca, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Orange-fronted, Orange-chinned, and Pacific Parakeets, Long-billed Starthroat, Barred Antshrike, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Long-tailed Manakin, and White-winged Tanager. Tody Motmot is a distinct possibility, although it has become much more difficult to see here in recent years. The higher elevations of Los Tarrales are often productive for some of the hardest specialities of the region, including Azure-rumped Tanager, Bar-winged Oriole, and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird. Nights at Los Tarrales.
Day 10: We’ll make an early departure from Los Tarralesand drive to the edge of Lake Atitlan, where our primary target will be the unusual Slender Sheartail at one of the local gardens. After looking for the sheartail, we’ll spend the rest of the morning birding at Mirador Rey Tepepul, which might include a 45-minute hike on a fairly narrow and steep trail. We’ll have lunch in the town of Santiago, before making our way back towards Guatemala City in the afternoon. Night at Hotel Tikal Gran Futura 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 the 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 for King Vulture, and the resident Bat Falcon is likely to greet us too. We’ll have lunch near Yaxha and 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 probably 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, which 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 localized 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 shier 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 Owls. Night in Flores.
Day 14: We’ll have a final day of birding to clean up 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 take a flight back to Guatemala City in the mid-day or evening, and enjoy a scrumptious farewell dinner. Night in Guatemala City.
Day 15: The extension ends with transfers to the airport for flights home.
Updated: 17 November 2020