FLY LONDON-GUATEMALA CITY & TRANSFER TO ANTIGUA
Our birdwatching tour to Guatemala begins with a morning flight from London Heathrow to Madrid, where Limosa guide Fernando Enrique will join us for the onward connection direct to Guatemala City. Arriving in the late afternoon, we will be met by our Guatemalan local guide and drive west (about an hour) to Antigua, where we stay for two nights.
The small colonial city of Antigua is situated 1500m (5000ft) above sea level, and ringed by inactive volcanoes. Our hotel here comprises three lovingly restored Spanish colonial residences - one of which, the 300-year-old Casa de Los Leones, is a national historic monument - and perfectly captures the essence of old-world Antigua. The rooms are uniquely decorated, featuring original artwork, hand-painted ceilings, fireplaces and furniture hand-carved by local craftsmen.
After a delicious evening meal at the hotel, we'll get an early night so as to be ready for an early start tomorrow. Night Posada de Don Rodrigo
FINCA EL PILAR
After an early breakfast this morning, we'll head straight to the hummingbird feeders at nearby Finca El Pilar, just 20 minutes drive from our hotel. This splendid private estate ranges from 1600m to 2400m (5250-7870ft) above sea level and protects a variety of bird-rich habitats - from dry forest in the lower section, up through moist pine-oak woodland to cloudforest at higher elevations.
El Pilar's hummingbird feeders are located at the start of the trail and are notable for five key species attending: Rufous Sabrewing (which is endemic to the Pacific Slope mountains of Chiapas (Mexico), Guatemala and El Salvador) and the recently-split Rivoli’s (formerly Magnificent), Azure-crowned, Berylline and Blue-tailed Hummingbirds. The regionally endemic Green-throated Mountaingem is also frequently seen along with White-eared Hummingbird, Green Violet-ear and the impressive - and large - Violet Sabrewing.
Having taken our fill of 'hummers', we travel on to the upper reaches at El Pilar. The clearing near the top can be alive with Grey Silky-flycatchers, Rufous-collared Thrushes, Black-headed Siskins and many more - though we may not linger here for too long as the montane oak forests host even more species! The beautiful Mountain Trogon will be high on our list of specialities to look for, as will the equally appealing - and difficult! - Hooded Grosbeak. Other good birds include the always elusive Singing Quail, Black-capped Swallow, Bushy-crested Jay, Bar-winged and Black-vented Orioles and the ‘hot’ Flame-coloured Tanager.
An exciting and bird-filled day is assured before we must head back down to Antigua for dinner. Night Posada de Don Rodrigo
RINCÓN SUIZO & QUETZALTENANGO
Leaving Antigua first thing, we travel northwest (about an hour) to Tecpan. Just to the north of the city of Tecpán, Rincón Suizo is a restaurant along the Panamerican Highway, at an elevation of 2500m (8200 ft) - and our first port of call today. We will spend the morning birding near here... after first enjoying breakfast at the restaurant.
Nestling behind the restaurant is a small mountain forest reserve of pine, cypress, oak and alder. Less exotic and exuberant than the humid cloud forests on the Guatemalan Atlantic Slope, the forest at Rincón Suizo may remind visitors of North American or European woodlands, but the birds are very different! Trails offer access to a site that's home to a number of sought-after northern Central American highland endemics.
High on the list is the fantastic Pink-headed Warbler, but specialities also include Green-throated Mountain Gem, Blue-throated Motmot and Rufous-browed Wren. Like many tropical forests, at times birding here can seem quiet - but sooner or later we will come across one of the mobile mixed feeding flocks. Joining the resident forest species then can be an assortment of Nearctic migrants, including Townsend's, Wilson's, Black-and-white, Hermit and Red-faced Warblers along with the resident Slate-throated Redstart, crest-like Hutton's Vireo and Crescent-chested and Olive Warblers, too.
As we search eagerly through the restless flocks for the much-wanted Pink-headed Warbler, the likes of Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and Brown Creeper are likely to come our way – the latter a southern form that may yet be split. With careful searching, we might also discover a colourful Chestnut-sided Shrike-vireo within the troupe as well as Bushtits passing through the forest - sometimes in flocks of more than 30 birds.
While walking the trails we may cross a Tufted Flycatcher territory and these can sometimes be joined by Pine, Buff-breasted and Hammond’s Flycatchers, along with Greater Pewee and the local races of Plumbeous Vireo and Mountain Trogon. Lowering our gaze to the understorey, sharp eyes might detect a furtive Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush, the bright and rusty cheeked Golden-browed Warbler or a smart Chestnut-capped Brushfinch.
Amongst a plethora of possible hummingbirds zapping about the forest, the White-eared Hummingbird is frequently found, to be joined by Amethyst-throated and Rivoli’s, while the stunning Garnet-throated Hummingbird also occurs. In open areas we will seek Yellow-eyed Junco, Spotted Towhee and the endemic, dapper and strikingly bibbed Rufous-collared Thrush. If we are very lucky and with our eyes to the skies, we may spot the elusive White-breasted Hawk, soaring overhead with the local race of Red-tailed Hawk.
Reluctantly tearing ourselves away from Rincón Suizo and continuing west, our destination this evening is Las Cumbres, an enchanting Posada Rural in the province of Quetzaltenango. We’ll pause along the way to take lunch at a local restaurant, then in the afternoon explore one of the many trails near our hotel.
Situated at an elevation of almost 2000m (6500ft), the fine mix of montane and tropical forest around the hotel is excellent for Nearctic migrants such as warblers, vireos and tanagers. It’s also a picturesque and relaxing spot, affording great views of the surrounding mountains that are also home to the endangered Horned Guan. Night Las Cumbres
DAYS 4 - 5
FUENTES GEORGINAS & FINCA LOS TARRALES
With the Horned Guan firmly in our sights, we set off early this morning, leaving the hotel before sunrise (06:30am) and driving a short distance west to Fuentes Georginas. This hot spring resort is not only popular with the locals, but the pristine cloudforest here is also well preserved and offers our first real chance to find the near-mythical Horned Guan. Although the chances of seeing one here are smaller than in the San Pedro area later in our tour, birds have been present recently so it's well worth a look!
Even if we don’t manage to find the elusive guan, this place hosts an extraordinary array of cloudforest birds - with many of them easily seen around the car park or after a short walk along the road. Highland Guan, Amethyst-throated and Garnet-throated Hummingbirds, Mexican Violetear, Blue-throated Motmot, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer are among mouth-watering possibilities, along with a fine collection of warblers including Olive, Crescent-chested, Hermit, Townsend’s and Pink-headed.
Having enjoyed at least some of these amazing birds, we'll return to the hotel for a late breakfast before looping first south and then east to reach our next destination: Finca Los Tarrales.
Los Tarrales is a birder's paradise - if you had to pick just one place to bird in Guatemala, this would be it! More than 350 bird species have been recorded from this superb private protected area, where primary rainforest and cloudforest is interspersed with coffee and flower plantations on the southern slope of the Atitlán volcano.
The economy of this enlightened finca is based on shade grown coffee and ecotourism. While it's important to support and encourage that, one of the great things about staying at Los Tarrales is that this place is very 'authentic'. The guest accommodation is rather modest, although clean and very comfortable, and you'll see the families working on the finca on their way to the coffee plantations. The homemade cooking is among the best we'll have anywhere in Guatemala; the scenery is spectacular - you can see the Atitlan Volcano from the lodge... and there are birds everywhere. Indeed, it's not unusual to see 100 species here before lunchtime!
At Los Tarrales, we will bird from a number of accessible trails that run through the excellent forest, seeking out species that are restricted in Guatemala to the Pacific Slope. Pacific, Orange-chinned and yellow-spectacled Orange-fronted Parakeets, Rufous Sabrewing, Blue-tailed Hummingbird and the cobalt-backed Long-tailed Manakin will all be high on the list - and we have a great chance of seeing the rare and range-restricted Azure-rumped Tanager here, too!
Having arrived at Los Tarrales in time for lunch (Day 4), we'll then check the feeders for White-bellied Chachalacas before heading out for our first look at birds in the surrounding forests and plantations. The tricky Rufous-breasted Spinetail and Spot-breasted Wren will no doubt occupy some of our time this afternoon, while at a small plantation, a pair of stunning red-billed Blue-throated Sapphires sometimes set up territory – the male often calling and performing from small sticks. As the day draws on, the likes of Lineated Woodpecker, Collared Aracari, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper and White-winged Tanager will come our way and we should see Yellow-naped Amazon, too.
For our second day here, we'll spend the whole time at Los Tarrales, leaving our lodgings 30 minutes before sunrise so as to be at the right spot in the half-light of pre-dawn to await the Highland Guans displaying. As the light slowly improves we should be treated to better views before they slope off to be replaced by Crested Guans and White-bellied Chachalacas. Nearby, we will search for the tricky Tody Motmot and with patience will hope for ‘scope views of this wonderful little bird! Concealed within the local trees, our guides might also find a day-roosting Mottled Owl before we head back to the finca for a well-deserved breakfast.
Replete, the rest of our morning will be spent looking for the many other avian specialities Los Tarrales has to offer. It's an immense property, one that encompasses a large portion of the Atitlan Volcano from the lower grounds around the base, all the way up to the top.
There should be a great assortment of hummingbirds about, with Green-breasted Mango, White-bellied Emerald, Long-billed Starthroat and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird among many delights in store. The brilliant orange Spot-breasted Oriole is often about, as we try for the rather less showy White-faced and Ruddy Quail-doves, Rufous-breasted Spinetail and the delectable Prevost's Ground Sparrow. As the day warms, the skies above Los Tarrales are home to large raptors such as Black and Ornate Hawk-eagles and the impressive King Vulture.
After lunch (and a short siesta for those that want it), we'll pick up a new trail, hoping for views of the shy White-throated Thrush and keeping a sharp eye out for the diminutive Northern Bentbill and Worm-eating Warbler. Returning before dusk, we can again try for Highland Guan and, as we wait for them to appear, groups of Yellow-naped Amazons may pass over to roost and neat Prevost's and White-eared Ground Sparrows may be picked out on the ground.
Night birds at Los Tarreles include the stunning Black-and-white and Mottled Owls, and there's often a Common Pauraque about, hawking for moths. The strange Northern Potoo sometimes appears and can give great views, while other nocturnal creatures we can try spotlighting for after dark include Kinkajou, Possum and several interesting amphibians. Two nights Los Tarrales
DAYS 6 & 7
LOS TARRALES TO LAKE ATITLÁN & THE SAN PEDRO VOLCANO
Bidding a reluctant farewell to Los Tarrales, we transfer the short distance north (about an hour) to Santiago Atitlán, where we'll spend the next two nights at the superb Posada de Santiago, on the shore of Lake Atitlán - ringed by volcanoes and often described as the world's most beautiful lake. The cloudforests that cloak the immense Atitlán and San Pedro volcanoes which rise up from the lake are the best place to look for Horned Guan - and we'll make a special effort to find this spectacular bird first thing tomorrow!
Prior to that little adventure however, and after settling into our comfortable lodgings beside Lake Atitlán, we'll spend a leisurely afternoon birding the hotel grounds, enjoying the many ‘garden’ birds. The hummingbird feeders here can be buzzing with Azure-crowned and Berylline Hummingbirds! With a big day in store tomorrow for those wishing to try for Horned Guan, we'll take an early dinner and bed tonight.
The rare and endangered Horned Guan is a relic of the Cracidae family that persists today only in small fragments of its previous range. Its sole habitat is limited to cloudforests above 1650 metres (5400ft). As big as a turkey, adult males have a 3cm scarlet ‘horn’ projecting straight up from the top of the head.
Horned Guans are active first thing in the morning so a very early start (optional for those who wish to take part) will be essential on Day 7 if we are to have any real chance of seeing one. Our adventure begins with a boat trip across the emerald and blue waters of Lake Atitlán (from Santiago Atitlán to San Cristobal La Laguna), it being much quicker to take a boat than to drive around the shore. The boat trip takes only 20 minutes or so, but is both beautiful and scenic for the caldera lake is surrounded by dramatic volcanoes which soar to 3000m (9800ft).
Birders have two bites of the Horned Guan cherry at San Pedro: one at a relatively easy 'new site' discovered nearby; the other at a traditional area high on the slopes on Volcan San Pedro. As luck would have it, the 'new site' has recently proved to be the best place to find the guan - and has the added attraction that the walk to this area is both shorter (about an hour) and much less arduous than the very steep hike to reach the 'old site' on San Pedro.
After (hopefully!) having seen the Horned Guan well at the new site, we have a chance to pick up a few more of the volcano's special birds. Wine-throated Hummingbird, the diminutive and highly localised Belted Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Wren and perhaps even orange-bellied Elegant Euphonia - all are possible up here.
As we descend again, in drier areas lower down we have a great opportunity to find the tricky Blue-and-white Mockingbird (looking not unlike an outsize Black-throated Blue Warbler) before catching the boat back across Lake Atitlán and relaxing after a well-deserved lunch back at our lovely hotel.
For anyone who doesn't wish to participate in the early morning excursion for the guan, our hotel is located on the shore of Lake Atitlán, with the most amazing views you can imagine. The cabins are very comfortable and food at the hotel's restaurant is excellent. But perhaps the best thing (from a birdwatcher’s point of view) is the amazing diversity of birds to be found on the grounds. On his last visit, Fernando spent one afternoon birding here and saw more than 70 species! Two nights at Posada de Santiago
LAKE ATITLÁN TO MOTAGUA
Departing Santiago and the Lake Atitlán region after breakfast today, we travel east, fringing the outskirts of Guatemala City on our way to the Motagua Valley. We'll break our journey with a stop for lunch at Guatemala City and also to visit a local reserve there in search of Buffy-crowned Wood Partridge and other highland specialties.
Continuing east, we'll aim to arrive at our next hotel, in the hot, dry Motagua Valley around 5.00pm, with time to enjoy a little late afternoon birding around the hotel. The habitat here will be totally new to us - and so too will be the birds! Night Hotel Camino Largo
MOTAGUA VALLEY – BIOTOPO DEL QUETZAL & CENTRAL HIGHLANDS
The central valley of the Motagua River is the hottest and driest region of Guatemala - and indeed, is the driest area in Central America. Located on the lee side of the Sierra de las Minas Mountains, very little precipitation reaches the Motagua Valley, with just enough rain falling to allow sparse thorn scrub and dry forest with a 3-5m tall canopy. Characteristic plants include spiny shrubs, cactus (including tall columns), acacias and Guayacan trees.
Making the most of the lower temperatures first thing, we'll set off early this morning to visit the dry forest reserve at Estación Biologica Heloderma. As the sun begins to rise and bird activity increases, we'll await the arrival our first feeding flock. White-lored Gnatcatchers, argumentative Northern Beardless Tyrannulets, Nutting’s Flycatcher, Streak-backed Oriole and the gorgeous Varied Bunting are among likely component species.
Taking tracks down by the river, we may spot a fleet-footed Lesser Roadrunner darting across the road, while the more verdant riverine forests hold Squirrel Cuckoo, Cinnamon Hummingbird and a good selection of northern migrants, such as American Redstart and Northern Parula.
Of the many bird species that make Motagua's thorn scrub and dry forest their home, we shall be watching for Spot-bellied Bobwhite, Russet-crowned Motmot, Lesser Ground-cuckoo, Plain-capped Starthroat and Stripe-headed Sparrow. The handsome Turquoise-browed Motmot is one of the most conspicuous valley residents and we can also hope to find Altamira and Spot-breasted Orioles, Rufous Hummingbird, White-throated Magpie-jay and Rufous-naped Wren. Checking the skies might reward us with a Black Hawk-eagle or a passing White-fronted Amazon.
From here, we travel on to the Reserva Natural Privada Rio Escondido, home to the rare and endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler which overwinters here and migrates north to Texas where it breeds. We will enjoy lunch on the reserve before travelling the short distance (12km) to our next hotel, on the northeast slope of the Biotopo del Quetzal.
We stay at Ram Tzul, a rustic eco-lodge that was set up to help fund and preserve the habitat of Guatemala's National Bird - the Resplendent Quetzal. The lodge enjoys panoramic views to pristine cloud forest. We'll aim to arrive here in time to spend the late afternoon walking the grounds and check out the commoner bird species in the mountains. Night Ram Tzul
BIOTOPO DEL QUETZAL, RETURN TO GUATEMALA CITY & FLY LONDON
It's our final day in Guatemala so we'll set off early to explore La Reserva del Quetzal in the Biotopo del Quetzal, a vast swathe of cloud forest that safeguards the threatened habitat of the quetzal. Only a small section of this reserve is open to visitors, with access via two trails that begin at the Visitor Centre and follow a circuit through the forest.
The reserve offers good opportunities to see birds of mid-elevation cloud forest, but our main focus will be on finding the smart Azure-hooded Jay, Chesnut-headed Oropendola and of course, the exquisite Resplendent Quetzal. Though it is indeed spectacular with its long tail and bright emerald-green colouration, this species can also be elusive! But as we wait a fine supporting cast comes in the form of Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Spotted and Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Slate-coloured Solitaire, Common Bush Tanager and Blue-crowned Chlorophonia. We have another chance here of seeing Golden-cheeked Warbler.
Leaving La Reserva del Quetzal mid-morning, sadly we must return to the hotel to collect our bags and depart for Guatemala City. We'll stop to enjoy a farewell lunch along the way, before continuing on to the airport. Our flight home departs Guatemala City early this evening, travelling overnight to Madrid.
Afternoon arrival at Madrid and onward connection to London, where our birdwatching tour to Guatemala concludes late this afternoon.