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? Don’t they have lots of birds, too? Of course, these countries are deservingly famous for their birding, but let’s 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-rumped 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 M’am), 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.
We hope that you will become
as nuts about Guatemala as we are! If you are curious about birding
in Guatemala, or simply have any questions or comments, please feel free
to write us.