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E-mail: font@focusonnature.com
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 or 302/529-1876


relating to the focus on nature tour in guatemala
in december 2006 & january 2007:

Travel: Guatemala
An Adventure Through the Eyes of A First-Time Visitor    
text by: Thomas Grahame, and photos by Marie Z. Gardner
in the March 2007 edition of the "Capitol Hill Rag", 
a community newspaper in Washington DC.


Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Guatemala


Guatemala is a country I've always wanted to visit. There are mountainous highlands; 33 volcanoes paralleling the Pacific coast 50 to 75 miles inland (three are active); world-renowned Lake Atitlan (surrounded by three of those volcanoes); tropical jungles; and abundant wildlife, with hundreds of bird species, plus spider and howler monkeys, agoutis, coatis, 4-foot long iguanas, and crocodiles -- that's just what we were able to see in a short visit. The colonial Spanish capitol of Antigua is a world heritage site, and there are many extensive Mayan ruins, the best known being Tikal. And Guatemala has the largest percentage of indigenous peoples in Central America, direct descendants of the Mayans whose highly developed civilization collapsed in the 9th century AD.

There is much to get to know and see in this small Central American country -- and the gap between photos, and the reality, is astounding.

But we can’t paper over history: a three decade civil war ended in 1996, after about 200,000 people died (current population is almost 15 million). While these scars will endure, the sense I had is that the people understand that tourism -- ecotourism, archeological tourism, adventure tourism -- will likely be their ticket out of grinding poverty.

My wife, Jan, and I were going to visit Guatemala several years ago, shortly after the end of the civil war, but a brief episode of violence caused us to change our minds. So finally, in late December, I took my first trip to real tropics (heat sickness felled me to unconsciousness in the Caribbean 35 years ago, or I would have gone earlier). This trip was technically a birding trip, but it was mostly an adventure with great birding a constant theme.

I was blown away by pretty much everything -- almost all of it good. Here's a look at Guatemala through fresh eyes.

Antigua: an old church
& street scene


Let the Adventure Begin

Our small group was led by Armas Hill, founder of Focus On Nature Tours. He’s a veteran of about three dozen trips to Central America, about one-third of them in Guatemala. We arrived in Guatemala City in early evening and took a van to the more charming Antigua. The rooms of our old hotel surrounding a courtyard garden open to the sky, festooned with flowering plants hanging from the second story; much of Antigua’s intimate beauty is in such places.

We woke to a compact town with streets of well-polished cobblestones, and with views of three volcanoes. What first strikes you is how nearby and large they are (about 11,000 to 12,000 feet each), and how perfectly conical. Three Mount Fujis, absent the snow, but with the added drama of visible volcanic activity; smoke puffs are visible for 50 miles in any direction from Volcan Fuego.

At first, I saw Antigua as run down, compared to another exceptional Spanish colonial city, Oaxaca (in bordering Mexico) -- mainly because several spectacular old churches lie in ruins, only parts of walls and columns still standing. They are almost like Greek ruins. Was Guatemala too poor to rebuild?

Later, I came to understand the portent of the volcanoes. Antigua is far more earthquake-prone than Oaxaca. A huge 1773 earthquake destroyed the city, causing the capitol’s relocation to Guatemala City. While some people stayed behind and rebuilt homes, many churches remained as they were to this day.

One other aspect of Antigua is that armed soldiers are visible, especially in the main square. Guatemala's main growth engine is tourism, and the government is taking no chances.

Near sunset, coming back from birding intact mangrove marshes near the Pacific Ocean, we looked inland. Afternoon clouds hid most of the land, but four huge cones breathtakingly rose above them -- a fourth volcano, further to the south, joined the three near Antigua. Lesser Nighthawks pivoted effortlessly around our open craft.

The local man with a flat bottom wooden skiff whom Armas had found to be our guide lived on the river with his family, in a cement structure with a ceiling and just two walls. We returned after dark, docking into mud, to a blazing fire, chickens and a naked young child running around. Only once before have I been this close to such poverty, in rural Nepal. The man was an excellent guide, subtly changing speed and direction as he followed our gazes. Saying our goodbyes, we put our hands on each others' shoulders. I really liked him-- he had great spirit.

In the highlands, many people are walking by the roadside, most carrying loads, most dressed in the highly colorful, distinctive Guatemalan clothing found nowhere else. Women have full baskets on their heads, most not using a hand to balance them. Groups of children wave at our van, older ones holding infants. I came to understand that they wave in hope you will stop and give them something -- not begging, but they have very little up here. The birth rate is high, but the land can't support the growing population unless they destroy more forests on steeper slopes, increasing the danger of killer mudslides during hurricanes, such as occurred with Hurricane Stan in 2005. Ironically, the word "Guatemala" in a local Mayan dialect means "land of trees." Thank goodness many still remain.

We stayed that night in San Lucas Toliman on the south shore of Lake Atitlan, right under one of three volcanoes surrounding the lake, near a second volcano we would visit for birding. Our hotel was clean and new but not luxurious, with rooms echoing the feel of the local structures and culture; the food was basic but very tasty.  Armas had chosen to stay here rather than in Panajachel, the locality with the best views of the volcanoes from across the lake, partly because Panajachel is overwhelmed with tourists -- like Gatlinburg, Tennessee is to Great Smokies National Park.

A real highlight of birding on Volcan Atitlan was the White-throated Magpie Jay, with a body larger than a Blue Jay's, but with two streamer feathers trailing behind, adding another foot to the bird's length.  Higher up the volcano, we saw a turkey-sized Crested Guan eating fruits on long limbs.  The considerably rarer Horned Guan is in habitat several thousand feet higher, but we didn’t have access rights on this day.  We were consoled, however, by a soaring Black Hawk-Eagle, a Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle, and then a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles -- that is 3 species of hawk-eagles, all large and rarely seen raptors. 

Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Ocellated Turkey

Mayan temple at Tikal


After two days of birding around Volcano Atitlan and coffee farm edges, we returned to Guatemala City for a short New Year's eve flight to the tropical Peten area. Our New Year's was quiet in tiny El Remate, on sixty-mile long, crystal-clear Lake Peten Itza. We stayed at La Casa De Don David (an American who married a Guatemalan woman and built this excellent little hotel/restaurant years ago). Nearby was the local nature preserve we would visit for parts of the next two days.

This area has much lower population density than the highlands, and seems considerably wealthier. Are tourism dollars per capita higher? More children are playing -- do children in the highlands have to work more? Laughing couples ride newish motorcycles -- more smiles all around.

On our first day here, we drove south to a town on the Rio Pasion, renting a boat and guide. We birded up the river until coming to a landing; 200 wooden stairs higher was the ancient Mayan site, Aguateca. Most of the large structures were destroyed when Aguateca was sacked, but magnificent stellae remain. These flat-faced limestone panels are about 15 feet high, carved with intricate Mayan stylized jaguars, hawks, snakes, and Mayan rulers in various poses. These exceptionally beautiful stellae were about 1300 years old, but seemed not to have eroded (as have those in Tikal). I was glad Armas surprised us with this destination -- it was more magnificent for being unexpected.

The last two days we birded within Tikal itself, staying at the Tikal Inn. Electricity was on from 6 to 10 in the evening, and for an hour in the morning. Strangely, this wasn't a hardship -- you could take a hot shower, but if you took a shower during the day -- humidity close to 100%, it seemed -- cold was definitely best. At night, with cross-ventilation and screens, sleeping was comfortable, so no need for AC. And we had pocket lights for reading after dark.

Tikal (or Tik’al, according to the more current orthography) is the largest of the ancient ruined cities of the Mayan civilization.  According to NOVA (PBS), at its height it covered 25 square miles and might have had 100,000 inhabitants. You can visit seven temples, numbers 1-6, and 38, which suggests at least 30 temples have yet to be unearthed. On our full day in Tikal, we walked about 5 miles on the temple grounds, birding and sightseeing, without visiting the furthest uncovered site. The wide, well-marked major pathways between the points of interest are very important, because you do not want to end up lost at the end of the day in the real jungle which surrounds everything. But Armas knows the little-used minor paths, better for birding, where we saw many exquisite birds of Guatemalan jungles.

Soon after entering the park, we spotted a couple of Keel-billed Toucans and stopped.  A tree with ripe fruit was attracting many different birds: we had great views of  several Collared Aracari (a small, extremely colorful toucan) and of a lovely Violaceous Trogan (different shades of purple to teal on the bird, against a canary yellow breast, and with a large yellow eye ring) willing to pose from many angles.  Black-cowled Oriole, and several more species new to me made the stop complete.  Despite their abundance here, most birds are hard to observe without a "draw," like a fruiting tree or an ant swarm.  But there are exceptions: the next day, a multi-hued Gray-necked Wood Rail (brilliant magenta legs bordered by black; a yellow bill; and a chestnut cap on a gray head) wandered over from the nearby crocodile pool to grab some potato chips.  The Orange-Breasted Falcon, a striking and much sought-after forest raptor, is seen reliably only in Tikal; we saw ours high in a tree by the Mundo Perdido ("Lost World") ruins.

Ocellated Turkeys, easily seen here, have heads covered with bare blue skin, from which 1/4-inch orange balls irregularly protrude. Crimson circles each eye. Iridescent feathers -- sparkling different shades of turquoise, green, magenta, and salmon -- cover the rest: psychedelic turkey would be more like it!

There is lots of other wildlife in Tikal. Coatis (raccoon-sized, with long snouts, brown fur, and long, erect tails) rooted for food without concern for nearby people. A huge crocodile sunned on a tiny island in a small pond. Quiet, inquisitive spider monkeys gazed at us from 60 feet up. Active howler monkeys noisily moved around. A large male howler monkey, after scaring away a lesser male, broke branches off trees and dropped them in our direction, then turned his backside to us and defecated!

Blue-crowned Motmot

Armas of the Jungle

On our last half day, walking down an overgrown path where a small airstrip used to be, we ran into an ant swarm, perfect for birding. Thank goodness they weren’t army ants, which travel in multitudes, are fast, and bite anything in their way.

People who hadn't been to the tropics -- like me -- have no idea how important ants are to the ecosystem, as providers of food, directly or indirectly. Tens of bird species, for example, have names which begin with "ant" -- ant tanagers, antpittas, antbirds, antthrushes, antwrens. Now I understand why....

When the ants erupted from the ground, climbing every bush and tree in large numbers, about 15 species of birds we would normally not see suddenly appeared. Birds scrambled around to feed, and we jumped around to follow the action, pinpointing new birds as they arrived. Armas was transformed from laid-back guide to commander, barking out the names and directions of birds instant to instant.

Most of the birds seemed to eat ants directly, although some birds prefer larger insects which the ants drive from the forest litter. One bird species -- the Tawny-winged Woodcreeper -- specialized in a particular type of 1 & 1/2 inch spider, which no other bird seemed to have taken.  

I would like to spend more time getting to know Guatemala. The people are eager to help, the food is good, and accommodations are inexpensive. If you find nature and history and archaeology interesting, this is a great place. Next time I will read up more extensively before I go, because of the richness of this small but varied country.