| Birding Regions of Guatemala | Western Highlands (El Altiplano) |
Pacific Coast Foothills (La Boca Costa) | Pacific Coast Lowlands (La Costa)
Why Bird Guatemala?
Rising up from sea level on its Pacific and Caribbean coasts to over 14,000 feet along its volcanic chain, and straddling the North and South American continental plates, Guatemala is the result of a lucky coincidence of geographic and geologic circumstances that have created a profusion of biodiversity concentrated into an area the size of Ohio: at least 8000 species of plants, 300 species of mammals and reptiles, uncounted numbers of butterflies and, of course, 700 species of birds.
Why so many birds? There are many reasons. Not only is Guatemala a flyway or destination for 239 North American migrants, but, more importantly, it is a busy intercontinental nexus: this is the place for species from North and South America to meet and mingle! Also, there are 19 different ecosystems in Guatemala: beaches, mangrove swamps, wetlands, flood plains, desert thorn forests, savannahs, humid lowland jungles, cloud forests and cool highland pine/oak woodlands just to name a few. Thankfully, these ecosystems are still largely intact: Guatemala comes from a Mayan word meaning land of many trees, and in spite of deforestation, the country still richly deserves the name. With some of the largest tracts of undisturbed rainforest in Central America, the largest wetland on the isthmus, and over 30 protected areas, Guatemala has designated about 15% of its land as national parks, national monuments, wildlife sanctuaries and biospheres.
Why not just bird Costa Rica, Mexico or Brazil? Dont they have lots of birds, too? Of course, these countries are deservingly famous for their birding, but lets look at some good reasons to consider Guatemala as an alternative.
For years, Guatemala went relatively unbirded, in part due to the military dictatorships and 36-year civil war that were ravaging the country. Birders simply did not come for fear of the violence. Thankfully, things have changed. It has been over three years that the peace treaty was signed, and Guatemalans and tourists alike are now enjoying the benefits of a politically-stable democracy. After decades of relative obscurity, a few birders are now re-discovering Guatemala as a fresh alternative that has not been over-birded.
Thanks in part to its obscurity, birding Guatemala is significantly cheaper than birding other countries. You can fly to Guatemala from almost anywhere in the United States for under $500 round trip. And once in the country, thanks to a favorable exchange rate and relatively few tourists, you can easily and comfortably get by on between $25 and $50 a day. Despite being much cheaper than, say, Costa Rica, Guatemala besides its famous hospitality has a well-developed, modern infrastructure to accommodate tourists: air-ground-water transportation, restaurants ranging from funky hole-in-the-wall diners to fine dining, every class of hotel accommodation, and computerized international financial services.
The size of Guatemala and its tourist infrastructure make it possible for birders to easily access and explore all those eco-systems and habitats, with their respective endemic species. After chasing down the Black-capped Siskin, White-breasted Hawk, Rufous-collared Thrush and the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl in the crisp highland air of a pine/oak woodland on the flanks of a volcano, you can be in a cloud forest 45 minutes later stalking the Pink-headed Warbler, Blue-throated Motmot, Horned Guan and the Resplendent Quetzal; you can then head off to mountain rainforest an hour and a half away to look for the Azure-throated Tanager, Rufous Saberwing, Muscovy Duck and Pacific Parakeet, and after another two hour drop down to lowland mangrove swamps and the beach, track White-breasted Chachalaca, Roseate Spoonbill, Pygmy Kingfisher and Collared Plover. Small is beautiful.
For those hardcore birders who can bird two weeks straight, sunrise to sunset or beyond, Guatemala can certainly keep you busy. But the country can also accommodate those of you who like to mix up your birding with other activities at an economical cost: white water rafting, climbing volcanoes (both the quiet and lively types), caving, alpine trekking, sunbathing, mountain biking, horseback riding, deep-sea fishing, bungee jumping, kayaking, scuba diving (salt and fresh water), archaeological touring (of course!), studying Spanish, reading in cafés, dancing. And relaxing.
Another reason to consider Guatemala is that it is simply an interesting country, not quite as Americanized as other birding destinations. In a way mirroring its natural diversity, Guatemala is a busy cultural intersection of Mayan tradition, the colonial past and modern life, making it, at times, a land of startling contrasts. As the heart of the Mayan world, Guatemala is still the home of 23 distinct languages and nearly as many ethnic groups. It certainly has the richest indigenous tradition in all Central America and, with Bolivia, in all Latin America. The highest concentration of indigenous people is in the Western Highlands (speaking Quiché and Mam), where they make up 60% of the population and 100% in most rural communities. Here, most women and many men still use their traditional dress. In short, besides its great birding, Guatemala offers a richer and more memorable cultural experience than you might get elsewhere.
Birding Regions of Guatemala
Western Highlands (El Altiplano)
The Western Highlands (El Altiplano) range from roughly 6500 to 14,000 feet (2000 to 4220) meters above sea level. Within this altitude range, we can find many different habitats, including semi-arid pine/oak woodlands, humid evergreen forest, and, in special undisturbed areas, cloud forest. Since the Highlands are primarily indigenous in character, much of the land is given over to subsistence-level agriculture, creating an interesting mix of habitats. Year-round pleasant temperatures (60°-80°F or 16°- 27°C), infrequent rains and a notable absence of biting insects make the birding conditions in the Western Highland virtually optimal. Of course, cloud forests often are, true to their name, cloudy, but we know the best times and locations for sunny birding.
With its altitude and habitats, the Western Highlands -- extending down from Chiapas, Mexico -- are unique to Central America, and consequently, we find many species endemic to the region: Black-capped Siskin, Rufous-collared Thrush, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Horned and Highland Guan, Pink-headed Warbler, Wine-throated Hummingbird and Goldmans Warbler. Other non-endemic highlights include Resplendent Quetzal, Brown-back Solitaire, Mountain Trogon, Chestnut-capped Warbler and Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.
The Western Highlands should leave you breathless not so much because of the altitude as the because of the birds. Nevertheless, the Highlands will challenge all fitness levels, so our tours take into account each birders ability and desires. We have less-demanding tours that are primarily downhill on well-maintained trails, as well as more-demanding hikes in remoter and steeper areas. Fortunately, between 80% and 90% of the Highlands species are accessible to both levels.
To arrange a tour, please contact us.
Pacific Coast Foothills (La Boca Costa)
La Boca Costa is what Guatemalans call the foothills of the Pacific Slope that descend from the Western Highlands (El Altiplano) and open up into the Pacific Coast Lowlands (La Costa). A lush region of coffee plantations, moist gallery forest, rivers and streams, the Pacific Coast Foothills offer splendid views of many volcanoes and the coastal plain spreading out below. The climate is generally warm sunny during the dry season (November to May) and humid during the rainy season (June to October), with most the the rain occurring in the afternoon after a clear morning. Above 5000 feet (1500 meters), we find mixed deciduous forest, and below, broadleaf evergreen rainforest. Generally, the foothills are gently rolling, but steep trails do occur.
In the Pacific Coast Foothills, one can take advantage of a phenomenon described by John Terborgh in his book Where Have All the Birds Gone? Terborgh noted that bird diversity and density is generally greatest between 500 and 1500 meters above sea level. This zone roughly corresponds to the Pacific Coast Foothills, and our experience of the outstanding birding opportunities there confirm Terborghs observation. Over 380 birds call the Foothills home, representing 58 families and subfamilies. In winter large numbers of migrating warblers descend upon the Foothills, complementing the resident bird population, many of which are endemic to the Mundo Maya: Azure-rumped (Canabis) Tanager, Rufous Saberwing, Maroon-chested Ground-Dove and Pacific Parakeet. Warm Lowland air and cool Highland air meet to create rising thermals for soaring raptors: Great Black Hawk, Grey Hawk, Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle and Grey-headed Kite.
Pacific Coast Lowlands (La Costa)
What Guatemalans call costa is not just the beach; the best translation is probably "coastal lowlands," or, "coastal plain"; really, costa is any terrain that is low, flat, wet and warm. Most of the state of Florida, for example, could be considered costa, even though much of it is far from any beach. Here, on the Pacific side of Guatemala, La Costa (or, "Pacific Coast Lowlands") consists of a long, narrow (25 mile) strip of land bordered by the ocean and La Boca Costa the Pacific Coast Foothills that eventually lead up to El Altiplano, that is, the Western Highlands.
The climate in the Lowlands is generally very warm generally sunny during the dry season (November to May) and humid during the rainy season (June to October), with most the the rain occurring in the afternoon after a clear morning.
The Pacific Coast Lowlands is blessed with a diversity of habitats. Besides its numerous rivers, lakes, streams, canals and estuaries, we can find (among others) gallery forest, ranchland, sugarcane plantations, marshes, mangrove swamps and, of course, beaches. Such a variety of habitats always makes for productive birding, but especially from April to May and August to October, with thousands of migrating shorebirds, seabirds and waterfowl passing through. Many even wait out the cold northern winter months in the warm backwaters of the Lowlands network of swamps and miles of black volcanic sand beaches.
On the Pacific Coast Lowland tours, we experience some of the most lush tropical environments available in Central America, ranging from lowland jungles studded with Mayan ruins to emerald-green mangrove forests. We will bird between 150 meters above sea level down to the beach. In the swamps, river mouths, estuaries and beaches, we can see Magnificent Frigatebird, Roseate Spoonbill, Collared Plover, Muscovy Duck, Least Grebe, Sungrebe, Limpkin, Boat-billed Heron, Pygmy and Amazon Kingfisher. Further inland, we will be looking for Yellow-naped Parrot, White-fronted Parrot, Rose-throated Ant-Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Great Black Hawk, Grey Hawk, Laughing Falcon and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. Between 60 and 120 species are possible on the trip, depending on the season, birding conditions and length of the tour.
If you are curious about birding in Guatemala, please write us: