“It is a real pleasure for all Guatemalans to have the opportunity to show and share the many marvels of our country: a very colorful and diverse landscape, exuberant nature, mystic archaeological sites, millenarian cultures, fascinating traditions and challenging adventure. Its 108,880 square kilometers encompass imposing mountain ranges, active volcanoes, azure lakes, raging rivers, attractive beaches, jungles and forests which are home to numerous species of birds and other fauna and flora; all these contribute to make the perfect setting for your visit. Guatemala is an exaggeration of nature!”
These welcoming words from José Miguel Gaitán, the Deputy Director of the Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo (INGUAT) were surely not an exaggeration of the Guatemala we experienced at this First Birdwatching International Encounter. From sea level on its Pacific and Caribbean coasts to nearly 14,000 feet along its volcanic chain, Guatemala can claim 19 different eco-systems which harbor impressive biodiversity including at least 8000 species of plants, 300 species of mammals and reptiles, a plethora of butterflies, and over 700 species of birds. The word “Guatemala” comes from a Mayan word meaning “land of many trees,” and this country is still worthy of its name. It has 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. There are more than 150 protected areas that cover 30% of the total national territory. Twenty-nine sites have been identified under the Birdwatching Initiative. For the avid birdwatcher, the country is a marvel, indeed, and well worth visiting.
The peace treaty that ended a 36-year civil war has enabled Guatemalans as well as tourists to enjoy the benefits of a politically-stable democracy. This First Birdwatching International Encounter was thus staged to promote tourism and birdwatching. Because Guatemala is a neophyte among established birdwatching countries in Central America, as well as eager to establish itself as a birdwatching destination, prices are comparatively cheaper without sacrificing comfort and hospitality. During the conference week we visited several impressive hotels, lodges, and restaurants. Transportation options and road conditions were excellent too, but it is the birds and the ease of seeing them that will draw us back.
Guatemala’s small size and large number of sought-after birds, including 239 North American migrants, make it a perfect destination for birdwatching enthusiasts. Because of an excellent tourist infrastructure, it is possible for birders to easily access and explore many of the eco-systems for birds seen only in Mexico and Guatemala in a relatively short period of time. For instance, after following White-bellied Chachalacas and scoping Pygmy Kingfishers in lowland mangrove swamps along the Pacific coast, you can drive for two hours and explore mountain rainforest in search of the endemic Azure-rumped Tanager and the Rufous Saberwing. Traveling ninety more minutes will put you in a cloud forest looking for the highly-coveted Horned Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Pink-headed Warbler, and Blue-throated Motmot. Another 45 minutes will put you in the highlands in a pine-oak forest on the edge of a volcano to look for the Black-capped Siskin, Bearded Screech-owl, Belted Flycatcher, or Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Guatemala is unquestionably the easiest place to see species that are endemic to the Pacific foothills and highlands.
Guatemala is a country the size of Ohio with over 700 species of birds in over 80 families. The “poster” birds that can turn any human into a birdwatcher are widespread. The Quetzal, seven of the eight species of motmots found in Central America, exotic hummers, flashy manakins, and at least 13 species of parrots, including the Scarlet Macaw, fulfill tropical expectations. In a class by itself, the Horned Guan is the prime drawing card. Logistic-wise, it is much easier to see in Guatemala than in Mexico.
Today, Guatemala’s mystical Mayan heritage remains vibrant and inspirational within the confluence of modern life and the colonial past. In all respects, Guatemala is a country replete with contrasts and variety. It is the home of 24 distinct languages and nearly as many ethnic groups. Like Guatemala’s colorful weavings, the traditional dress and customs of the indigenous people, who comprise 60% of the population, richly paints this land, and offers the visitor a rich and memorable cultural experience as well.
“This is your chance to observe and at the same time be the protagonist of a fantastic trip where you will find the most valuable asset of our country; its kind people, smiling and ready to help you.”
José Miguel Gaitán’s closing statement accurately reflects our lasting Guatemalan impression. The birds we saw were wonderful, but we agree that the people we met truly are Guatemala’s most valuable asset. The INGUAT logo calls Guatemala the alma de la tierra, the “soul of the earth.” We hope you will travel to Guatemala and personally experience this “soul” through its flora, fauna, and friendly inhabitants. Guatemala is prepared and eager to welcome you.