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 two birds: the improbable-looking Pink-headed Warbler and the bizarre and critically endangered Horned Guan. Additionally, with an expected upcoming split, one more species will be added to the list of key birds - 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 a vast selection of Central American specialities. Though our tour specifically targets the resident warblers and the guan, we also take time to enjoy fully the diversity of the region’s birdlife and to appreciate the charm of baroque Antigua Guatemala.
Our short 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 an experience no birder should miss.
Day 1: Participants will be met on arrival in Guatemala City for transfer to our hotel in Antigua, often described as the most beautiful city in all of Central America. Night in Antigua.
Day 2: After breakfast at our hotel we’ll make the 15-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 Black-capped Swallow, Rufous-collared Thrush, Gray Silky-flycatcher, Crescent-chested and Red-faced Warblers, 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 enjoy an elegant buffet lunch among feeders frequented by Magnificent, Berylline (Deville’s), and Azure-crowned Hummingbirds and Violet and Rufous Sabrewings. After lunch we’ll explore the trails leading up from El Pilar, where we’ll hope to encounter Singing Quail, Green-throated Mountain-gem, Tufted Flycatcher, Slate-throated Redstart, and White-eared Ground-Sparrow; anyone who wishes may stay behind and enjoy the hummingbird feeders. 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 half-hour 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 common in these woods, but it may take us a couple of hours to find a flock with ‘Pink-heads’ in attendance. Once our search is complete, we’ll return to a nearby restaurant for a lavish late breakfast, followed by a a transfer to Los Andes (perhaps with a couple stops along the way for birds like White-throated Magpie-Jay). We’ll have a couple hours before dinner to look for birds in the gardens. 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, 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. Although we’ll be focused on the quetzal, there are many other possibilities here, including Highland and Crested Guans, Spotted Wood-Quail, and Blue-crowned Motmot. We’ll also have our first shot at the rare Azure-rumped (Cabanis’s) Tanager. After lunch at Los Andes and a little more birding around the lodging, we’ll transfer over to Los Tarrales, with a free afternoon to explore the grounds before dinner. Night at Los Tarrales.
Day 5: We’ll have an early breakfast at Los Tarrales, followed by some productive birding along the trails at this private nature preserve and shade coffee plantation. One of the main stars of Los Tarrales is the beautiful and range-restricted Azure-rumped (Cabanis’s) Tanager. In addition to this gem we’ll hope for species such as Orange-fronted Parakeet, Long-billed Starthroat, Barred Antshrike, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Long-tailed Manakin, White-throated Thrush, White-winged Tanager, Blue Seedeater, and Bar-winged Oriole. Tody Motmot is a distinct possibility. After lunch and a siesta we’ll further explore the lodge grounds and trails, watching Orange-chinned Parakeet, 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: Fortified by an early breakfast at Los Tarrales, we’ll make a pre-dawn drive to the shores of glistening Lake Atitlán, where a 30-minute boat ride will take us to the town of San Pedro at the foot of the eponymous volcano. We’ll then be picked up for the 12-minute drive to the San Pedro Volcano Visitor Center, where we’ll begin our (optional) ascent in search of the mountain’s famous Horned Guans. This trail is relentlessly steep, but we’ll take about three hours to cover the less than two miles to the most reliable area for the guan, pausing repeatedly to look for birds or to catch our breath; a roofed pavilion at the halfway point provides spectacular views of volcano-ringed Atitlán and an opportunity to enjoy a packed lunch. We should note that the guan is not guaranteed but our odds are surely above 50% and sightings have been numerous in recent years. However, the trail provides us opportunities for many other wonderful species, such as Wine-throated, Amethyst-throated, and Sparkling-tailed Hummingbirds, Blue-throated Motmot, Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, Hooded Grosbeak, and loads of migrant warblers, so we’ll surely experience an active day of birding regardless. Participants who prefer not to take this hike (at least five hours up and back on a steep but well-maintained trail) have the option of spending that time along the first, relatively easy stretch of the trail with one of the leaders. Along with impressive concentrations of wintering warblers, this area can produce such species as Lesser Roadrunner, Squirrel Cuckoo, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Rufous-capped Warbler, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Elegant Euphonia, and Black-vented Oriole.
The higher stretches of the walk, nearer the locality favoured by the Horned Guans, also offer the possibility of forest species like Fulvous Owl and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird. The guans themselves—one of the most severely threatened birds in the Americas—are usually found feeding quietly in the canopy, where their otherwise striking black-and-white plumage affords them a surprising degree of disruptive camouflage. If we’re fortunate, we’ll not only see several birds but also hear their buzzy, grunting booms.
From the visitor center we’ll ride back to San Pedro and then take a boat ride across the lake to the town of Santiago, where we’ll have some time to rest before dinner. Night in Sanitago.
Day 7: Today is mostly a travel day, well-timed after yesterday’s potentially tiring hike. After breakfast at our hotel we’ll have relatively relaxed birding on the way from Santiago to Huehuetenango, looking in particular for Belted Flycatcher, an attractive little flycatcher found only from southern Mexico to El Salvador. If we’re lucky we might coax one into view. We’ll also keep an eye out for Slender Sheartail. After our morning birding our drive will continue to Huehuetenango, where we’ll arrive in the afternoon with some time to relax before dinner. Night near Huehuetenango.
Day 8: Our morning will begin with bundling in 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 make our way southward to Quetzalenango (Xela), stopping for lunch along the way. We’ll break up the drive with plenty of stretches and time to check out any interesting birds we see. We’ll arrive at our hotel in Xela in the mid-afternoon with some time to relax before dinner. Night in Xela.
Day 9: Our birding destination this morning is an area known as Fuentes Georginas, which offers us some final montane birds before the main tour ends. Our targets here include gems like Wine-throated Hummingbird and Blue-throated Motmot, among others.
After lunch nearby, we’ll head back to Guatemala City with time for a rest before our farewell dinner. Night in Guatemala City.
Day 10: The main tour ends with transfers to the airport for flights home.
Day 10: We’ll fly 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 colorful parrots, trogons, toucans, hummingbirds, and tanagers. We can expect King Vulture overhead, 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 11: 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 and Plain Chachalacas wander between the ancient houses 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 under the protected conditions of the national park. White-collared Manakin, Olive-backed Euphonia, and Montezuma Oropendola are just some of the many tropical species to be encountered here. Night in Tikal.
Day 12: We’ll spend another morning among the majestic ruins of Tikal before catching our return flight from Flores to Guatemala City. Night in Guatemala City.
Day 13: The Tikal Extension ends this morning in Guatemala City.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 17 October 2017