The Yucatan (Motmots, Mayans and Margaritas), January 13th - February 1st 2004

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


Richard C. Carlson, Tucson, AZ & Lake Tahoe, CA

We spent three delightful weeks touring the Mayan ruins and birding spots of the Eastern Yucatan in January 2004. The birds were great, the ruins incredible, and the people wonderful. I couldn't recommend this trip more highly. Everything worked without a hitch. This is an incredible area, still mostly undiscovered by the tour mobs. We had many delightful spots to ourselves. We birded about half the time and saw nearly 200 species. Our range and birdlist were limited by the fact that my wife was recovering from a broken foot. The total cost, staying and eating in the best places, renting a big car and hiring local guides was a roughly $125/day per person.

Starting from the youngest Mayan ruin at Chichen Itza in dry thorn scrub forest, we worked our way south through older and older ruins - Uxmal and Calakmul - to the magnificent early Classic period site of Palenque. As the ruins got older, the habitat became closer to true rainforest and we saw more exotic southern birds. Palenque was incredible. On the return, we stayed at Campeche, an unknown gem and the best-preserved Colonial city in Mexico We ended our intensive birding at Celestun in pampered luxury on the beach surrounded by flamingos. Finally, we spent the last week helping build a library with the Palo Alto Rotary club at Chicxculub, (of killer meteor fame) near Merida.

We made many of the reservations online ourselves, and the tough ones were made through Mayan Quest They were wonderfully helpful, and it 's a lot easier letting them make the calls in Mexico than trying to do it yourself. The best car deal we could find online was $80/day for a big sedan to comfortably carry all 4 of us plus luggage. We later found a smaller car at Mexico Rent A Car for only $40 a day in Merida. Gas cost about $2.50 a gallon and must be paid in cash. We flew via Continental through Houston which has by far the best service if you 're coming from the West - flying all the way through Miami with the other carriers adds a day each way. Continental also lets you skip Mexico City, a real plus. We planned the trip with a lot of on-line help, but ended up mostly copying the itinerary of an elder-hostel tour. (I love to read tour itineraries.)

January 13 Tuesday - Merida

Leave Tucson at 2:30 Arr Merida 8:59

Taxi to Hotel (Don 't even think about picking up your car the first night and driving to your hotel in the dark.)

Hotel Colon: This was clean, cheap ($60/night), centrally located, comfortable and birdless. I though we would hate the place, but downtown Merida is just fabulous in the evening. The town square area is surrounded by lovingly restored colonial buildings with free entertainment and great restaurants. A step up would be the Grand Hotel.

January 14 Wednesday - Chichen Itza

We picked up the car downtown and only got lost once navigating the labyrithine downtown streets out to the freeway. The freeway was under construction, so it took about 2 ½ hours to get to CI. (It 'll be done soon.). We stayed at our beloved Hotel Hacienda Chichen - stay nowhere else! The Hacienda is over a century old, with massive trees and has been protected for decades. The birds know they are safe here, and act accordingly. It was about 11 a.m. when we arrived, but the place was still hopping with birds. Warblers, tanagers, flycatchers and Indigo Buntings were everywhere. Best birds were a Yellow-bellied Elaenia and Yellow Olive Flycatcher from the parking lot. As we ogled the birds, two Mexican birders wandered up, and it turned out to be David Bacab, probably the best bird guide in the Yucatan. We made arrangements to meet him in Celestun, and then my companions dragged me away (kicking and screaming) to lunch. Lunch at the Hacienda requires binoculars and takes forever. The birds just kept popping up, and I had to be reminded to eat.

After lunch, we went to see the ruins. We hired an archeology guide, who patiently let us interrupt his talks to watch the birds. He even found a Turquoise-browed Motmot for us. Again because of the protection, the birds were pretty tame. We saw Rigeway 's Rough Wings, Summer Tanagers, Altamira, Orange and Hooded Orioles, and a Golden Olive Woodpecker. Anywhere without crowds was full of birds. We saw Black-and-white, Hooded, Parula, Yellow-throated, Black-throated Green, and Magnolia Warblers, plus an Ovenbird, several White-eyed Vireos and Green Jays.

That night I went out with my spotlight. I wasn 't having much luck until I heard what sounded like rain coming down from one tree. I looked more closely and it turned out to be a Ceiba tree in blossom. The blossoms were being picked off by a flying horde of bats - hundreds of them! I dragged my companions out of bed to watch the show.

January 15 Thursday

Got up early to bird the Ceiba tree. It was hopping with Summer and Yellow-winged Tanagers, Hooded, Altamira, Orchard, Yucatan and Black-cowled Orioles, Yellow-throated Euphonia, Parula, Black-and-white, Magnolia and Yellow-throated Warblers and Cinnamon and Canivet 's Emerald hummers, plus White-fronted Pparrots across the street.

After a birdy breakfast, we drove to Uxmal (4 hrs) through pretty birdless scrub. Many Grey Hawks.

UXMAL is a Classic Mayan site -900-1100 AD. It 's a lovely site, but short on birds in afternoon. We took the tour and our guide took us to the edge where we saw more Yucatan and Green Jays. There was the usual huge flock of Cave Swallows. A large flowering tree had Hooded, Parula and Magnolia Warblers. (Magnolias were probably the most common birds on the trip.) I also found a Yucatan Flycatcher, a Yellow-throated Vireo and an Olive Sparrow near the hotel.

We stayed at Hotel Villas Arqueologicas small and charming with great food for $90/night. That night I searched for owls but found only another horde of bats by the parking lot lights.

January 16 Friday

Got up early to bird the grounds. Found a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl perched by the parking lot. The road south of the ruins had many orioles plus a Rufous-browed Peppershrike and both Kiskadee and Boat-billed Flycatchers.

After breakfast we visited Sayil - the parking lot had Motmots, a Rose throated Becard, a Black- headed Saltator and a Tityra. The site itself had few birds.

At about 11 we started the 6 hour drive to Calakmul through mostly birdless scrub and farmland. The road was badly pot-holed in some stretches, but easily driveable. The only decent looking farmland was occupied by an Amish colony. Much of the rest was being abandoned to the reviving jungle as the locals gave up trying to compete with cheap Iowa corn imported via NAFTA - tough on farmers, great for the environment.

Enroute there is one Gas station after Uxmal - Don't Miss it! It 's way on the West side of Hopelchen. We spoke Spanish, but few people in Mexico know where the gas station is. They 're so darn friendly they try to help but they 're usually wrong. Many new Pemexes are far out of town. Long drive few birds - Laughing Falcon the only bird of note. We didn 't have time to stop at the many ruins off the road. Once we got to the main road at Xpujil we had another search for the Pemex. This one is miles east of town.

Our next search was for the hotel. It was supposedly on the main road, but it 's so cleverly hidden, that it took us an hour of searching to get there. The hotel is just east of the entrance to Calakmul, after you drive 50 yards on the entrance road but the hotel sign is so obscure and broken down that we assumed that place had closed. It also hangs over the wrong road that leads you into a dead-end gravel pit. The secret entrance is just south of the sign and it 's a long drive in on a poor gravel road. After several hundred yards of all my companions muttering "You 're lost, this can 't be the place ", we were reassured by a tiny hotel sign. Then you keep driving on this awful road and the muttering "We 're lost " starts again.

Hotel Puerta Calakmul Jungle and Safari lodge (reservation phone 011-52-998 874 0254) was designed by geniuses but is run by the sweetest group of utterly clueless staff we 've ever experienced. The place is just lovely; it has individual cabins with bathrooms and shower nestled into the jungle. The cabins are charming. There is even a pool, and they left the canopy of trees overhead. The tiny pool had an Ochre bellied Flycatcher, Hooded Warblers, Redstarts & bats. On the nearby entrance road to the ruins was a huge parrot roost, but we never found a good place to see them - they were heard and seen flying birds only.

The problem with the Jungle Lodge is the food - they don 't believe in it. There is no alternative for 20 miles in either direction. After we got settled, we asked "What 's for dinner. " After a hurried staff conversation, they informed us that they had no food because there was no money to buy food. There was all the beer you could drink, but no food. (We should have skipped the food and just drunk the beer.) They finally agreed that if we would pay for dinner in advance, they 'd go to town and find some food. After an hour, they came back with some meat and eggs. The meat brought new meaning to the word tough. It tasted like petrified lizard. I recommend it for tank armor; nothing could dent it. After that experience, we agreed to survive on an all egg diet. (Except for this one exception, the Mexican food was great.) Then we started negotiations for breakfast. We were the only guests, but they couldn 't possibly have breakfast before 9. Since we wanted to leave before 7 we finally agreed they 'd make ham sandwiches for breakfast and lunch.

January 17 Saturday

Long drive nearly 2 hrs to CALAKMUL ruins - a Huge Classic Mayan site in deep jungle just opened mid-90's. Rivaled Tikal at its peak. Very wild, chance to see Jaguar, and we saw many monkeys and birds. Many local ruins only partially excavated. The road was so narrow we prayed we wouldn 't meet anyone else - we met only Occelated Turkeys, which I missed hitting, barely. We arrived at about 8:30 just as the ruins opened and we were the only people there except for 1 German. Toucans greeted us at the entrance. This is an enormous site. Since my wife was on crutches, I convinced them to let me drive her into the main ruins - which are over a mile in. There were Spider and Howler Monkeys at the main ruins, but I had to drive back out then walk in. The birds were very concentrated at a few locations. Birding earlier would be better but they don 't open 'til 8:30. We hit two feeding groups - Ivory-billed, Olivaceous, Tawny-winged and Ruddy Woodcreepers, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, warblers and a Becard. Near the main ruins we had great looks at both Black-headed and Violaceous Trogons plus a cooperative Bat Falcon. Some of the best birding was at the large, overgrown pond where we saw a Bright-rumped Attila, Linneated, Golden Fronted and Pale-billed Woodpeckers and a Great Crested Flycatcher. This is a gorgeous site, but get there early and bird near the entrance until they let you in.

January 18 Sunday

We birded the hotel grounds early, frustrated again by the huge flocks of mostly unidentifiable parrots flying over us. There were a Turquoise-browed Motmot, a Red-billed Pigeon, and Ant-Tanagers on the entrance road.

We left at 10 for the nearly 5 hr drive to Palenque. We found a fine restaurant across from the Pemex near the main hwy intersection in Escarcega. There are many waterbirds along the road S. of San Marco, but no safe places to stop. We took the side-road via Emiliano Zapata but again found few good places to stop. We finally found one barely tolerable stopping spot (translation - my companions didn 't scream "We 're going to die!! ") near a group of Fork-tailed flycatchers and also saw a White-tailed Hawk.

In Palenque we easily found the lovely Hotel Chan Kah Phone 011-52-916 345 1315. This is a lovely place, full of birds, great food, beautiful rooms and empty. I don 't think it was 10% full. The birding was so good, it was hard to leave the grounds. A Ceiba tree was flowering and it had Aztec Parakeets, Summer, Yellow-winged and Blue-Grey Tanagers, Social and Kiskadee Flycatchers and Oropendolas. The grounds also had flocks of Indigo buntings with a few Painted Buntings, plus many warblers, orioles and saltators.

January 19 Monday

We did an early bird of the Palenque ruins road. We parked at the top and then walked down the entrance road to find one tree full of Crimson-collared and Golden-hooded Tanagers, saltators and orioles. As usual, the birds were very concentrated. After breakfast we returned to tour the site itself. Palenque is a small but beautifully excavated Pre-classic site. Our ruin guide talked them into letting me take my telescope, a hassle at every site. You have to swear you won 't take pictures plus make it clear to the ruin guide that his income depends on access for the scope. This worked everywhere, except one site near Merida.

The birds were concentrated along the slope near the entrance and in some mistletoe in the center. The trail up the hill was closed. A Double-toothed Kite and Bat Falcon were in bare trees on the edge. A flowering vine had Green Honeycreepers, Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, Golden-hooded Tanagers, Baltimore, Orchard and Hooded Orioles. The mistletoe patch was full of euphonias and warblers.

After resting, we birded below the ruins at the museum. This was a great spot. There were Collared Aracaris, W-Fronted Parrots, Black-crowned Tityra, toucans and many warblers. The museum is a don't miss. We tried the roads south off the access road, but we saw little in the nearly birdless pastures.

January 20 Tuesday

We birded the ruins road again, but saw few birds, only a Violet Sabrewing, Squirrel Cuckoo and a Northern Waterthrush. We tried the trails off the road but they were an ugly combination of birdless, dark, muddy and rocky - a sure recipe for an accident. Then it rained, ending birding for the day. We tried the road to Emiliano Zapata in the rain and found a gravel road north by the dump, but saw little besides Black Vultures and Mangrove Swallows. We also found Ringed and Green Kingfishers on the road to the hotel.

January 21 Wednesday

We visited Palenque in the morning seeing nothing new and later we took the stairs down to the Museum, great habitat but few birds. The bus took us back up to the car. Try earlier?

Then drove to Campeche in about 5 hours.

CAMPECHE - best preserved colonial city in the region, if not Mexico. Dates to early 1500's First landing place of Cortez. Gates remain from once massive walls that stopped raids by Drake etc. Not many birds, but a lovely town Hotel Baluartes $100

Phone 011-52-981 816 3911. Lots of great restaurants nearby. Only problem is that they believe in neither Visa nor traveler 's checks and the bank took 2 hours to cash traveler 's checks.

January 22 Thursday

After touring Campeche we drove to Celestun, taking the "Short-cut " via Chunchucmil. This takes about 3 hours and goes through dry scrub and abandoned Sisal plantations. The road drops to one lane, but it 's paved all the way. Every town has a gorgeous abandoned hacienda and a ruined mill at its center surrounded by workers homes where everyone seems still figuring out what to do after the mills closed 40 years ago. The area is full of Mayan ruins - every hill is actually a ruin. At one random stop in mid-afternoon, we were trying to spish in a Cardinal when a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl came by to show off. He was beautiful. After the usual chorus of "We 're lost again " from the back seat we finally arrived at Celestun.

CELESTUN is a protected beach and swamp area. Full of water birds and migrants plus Flamingos. We stayed at Hotel Eco Paradisio - Luxury resort on a beautiful shell beach. This is gorgeous but $$ Phone 011-52 (988) 916 21 000

We took the night boat tour seeing fishing bats, crocodiles, tarpon, many Boat-billed Herons, countless egrets and the eyes of a Potoo. This is a great tour.

January 23 Friday

Morning bird tour with David Bacab

He 's great, but pick him up at his house so you don 't have to wait for him to find a ride. Best birds were along the causeway into town. Flamingo flyover is incredible. David found a Tiger Heron, a Grey-necked Wood-rail, a peppershrike, a Yellow-backed Oriole, and a Linneated Woodpecker. When the traffic got too terrifying on the causeway, we went east to a small group of ponds that had Jacana, calling Ruddy Crake, Osprey, Tyrannulet etc. After that we drove the dike S. of the causeway to see a few Yellowlegs, Stilts, Avocets and a huge heron/gull flock near the fishing boats. Back in town we stopped for lunch at the first restaurant on the beach north of the pier. It was one of the best meals of a good-eating trip. While we overdosed on shrimp and crab diablo, a Parasitic Jaeger came by. There were many Royal and Caspian Terns and one group of American Oystercatchers. After lunch we went south to and through the dump. It was ugly, but we finally found Yellow-headed Vultures and Yucatan Wrens.

After a wonderful dinner at the hotel, we found a Mangrove Vireo, Hooded Orioles and Kiskadee nearby.

Janaury 24 Saturday

The next morning, we loafed on the beach and found a group of Wilson 's, Piping and Snowy Plovers along with an Osprey. We then found we had a flat tire - I seem to have a flat tire on every trip to Mexico/Central America. The biggest problem was finding a place to fix the tire after we changed it.

After lunch it was a long drive to Merida to meet our Rotary group.

The drive takes forever through many small towns. Maybe there 's a better route?

January 25

We bussed out to Chicxculub to work on the local library and help clean the beach by installing trash barrels. The beach had Royal and Common Terns, Ruddy Turnstones, and one Pomarine Jaeger.

January 26

Visited the Flamingo sanctuary east of Chicxculub and then went to Xcambo. Flamingos were easy to see from the roadside tower. Many other waterbirds were nearby. Xcambo had Summer Tanagers, a Blue Grosbeak and many Indigo Buntings. Would be better if you could get here early.

January 27 - Dzibilchaltun

This archeological site just north of Merida had many birds but this was the one place that gave me real trouble about my scope. They let me in with the scope but when I put my scope down to look at a bird, this crazy woman came screaming at me that I wasn 't allowed to use the scope. This turned into an insane game. I would go hundreds of yards away to use the scope, and then this witch would come running at me as soon as I put the tripod down. I 'd let her get within 50 yards and then I 'd take off another way and try and get a ruin between me and the maniac. This went on for half an hour until I gave up. This is the one nasty person we met in all Mexico, but she established a new record. The area was full of motmots, orioles, warblers and buntings. It also had the only swifts we saw on the whole trip.

January 28

We visited Uxmal again with the group, and this time there were more birds. The entrance trees were full of Green Jays, Altamira Orioles and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper.

After Uxmal, we went to Kabah. There were few birds at the main site, but across the street was full of birds. Here occurred the strangest event of the trip: we were watching a gorgeous T-B Motmot 20 feet away in perfect light when a group of German tourists walked up. We lent them our binoculars and they were all oohing an aahing over the bird when this 20 something German woman threw a rock at the bird. She almost hit it!! I yelled at her to stop and she looked so surprised as if she always threw rocks at defenseless birds. Human stupidity has expanded its bounds once again.

January 29

My wife finally got sick, out of 20 people she was the only illness the whole trip, and it was clearly from bad food at the best restaurant in town. Bad Karma.

January 30

We tried driving east of Chicxculub, but the hurricane had wiped out much of the area. The trees were mostly down, there were few birds and beachside restaurants were even out of shrimp. The only bird of note was a Lesser Roadrunner. We ended up at lovely Izamal.

January 31

It drizzled, so we visited the Merida Archeological museum, which was well worth the visit.

February 1

Dawn flight to Houston, then on to Tucson.

Carlson Travel Agent:
Maria Calcena
MayanQuest, S.A. De C.V.
Av. Xpujil No. 3 SM 27
Cancun, Q. Roo, MEXICO
Tel. +52 998 898-1641 / 206-2039