Mexico: Yucatan - Birding the Land of the Maya 2019
Saturday 30th March – Thursday 11th April
Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula gives birders and photographers the opportunity to experience such Neotropical families of birds as tinamous, flamingos, jaçanas, motmots, toucans, spinetails, woodcreepers, antbirds and manakins. Finding such a nice variety of tropical birds, without being completely overwhelming, our tour is the perfect introduction to the wonders of birding and nature photography in tropical climes. Exploring large, exotic forests, snorkelling amidst scenic coves and beautiful bays, white sand beaches in the moonlight and exploration of several significant Mayan ruin sites combined with the natural wonders of the Yucatan provide the perfect birding getaway.
We take care to examine all creatures encountered during our travels across this historic peninsula. We’ll see many colourful species of butterflies, enjoy exotic flowers and experience the unique culture of the Yucatan and the Maya who call the region home. Birds are, perhaps, the most obvious of the region’s special animals. The Yucatan is home to a nice selection of endemic bird species, while our itinerary is set to give us the best chances of finding each of them. Ocellated Turkey, Yellow-lored (Yucatan) Parrot, Yucatan Poorwill, Yucatan Nightjar, Red-vented (Yucatan) Woodpecker, Cozumel Emerald, Yucatan Flycatcher, Yucatan Jay, Yucatan Wren, Cozumel Wren, Yucatan Vireo, Cozumel Vireo, Grey-throated Chat, Rose-throated Tanager and Orange Oriole are a few examples.
We’ll explore the largest of the Yucatan’s offshore islands on a day filled with birding, snorkelling and other tropical adventures. Cozumel Island is home to several species of birds found nowhere else in the world—Cozumel Emerald, Cozumel Wren, Cozumel Thrasher and Cozumel Vireo—plus a number of distinctive subspecies. We’ll search for them all. Additionally, Cozumel’s distinctively Caribbean flavored avifauna means we’re likely to encounter Caribbean Elaenia, White-crowned Pigeon, Black Catbird, Western Spindalis (Stripe-headed Tanager) and Smooth-billed Ani during our visit. Our early morning hours are spent birding with the afternoon reserved for the REAL specialty of the island—enjoying the island’s coastal areas. One of the largest barrier reefs in the world has its northern terminus off Cozumel Island and that, combined with the incredibly clear water, make this one of the best snorkelling and diving areas in the world.
Interesting birds observed on Kim's previous Yucatan tours include Boat-billed Heron, Crane Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Blue Ground-Dove, White-fronted Parrot, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Green-breasted Mango, Canivet's, Cozumel and White-bellied Emeralds, Cinnamon Hummingbird, trogons (Collared, Gartered and Black-headed), Lesson’s (Blue-crowned) and Turquoise-browed Motmots, Collared Araçari, Keel-billed Toucan, Golden-olive and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, Ivory-billed, Tawny-winged, Ruddy and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, Barred Antshrike, Mexican (Black-faced) Antthrush, Yellow-bellied and Caribbean Elaenias, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Bright-rumped Attila, Rose-throated and Grey-collared Becards, Masked and Black-crowned Tityras, Mangrove Swallow, Spot-breasted Wren, Long-billed Gnatwren, Yucatan Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-throated, Olive-backed and Scrub Euphonias, Red-throated and Red-crowned Ant Tanagers, Buff-throated, Grayish and Black-headed Saltators, Blue-black Grassquit, Melodious Blackbird, Black-cowled, Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed Orioles.
Birding and snorkelling are only two of the attractions of our Yucatan tour. Butterflies are numerous and, depending upon winter rains, we should see many attractive species. Because of the region’s many butterfly gems, during the heat of the day, when the traditional Mexican siesta is an attractive option, we’ll offer outings to search for butterflies.
Additionally, we plan to visit several ruin sites as we travel the length and breadth of the Yucatan Peninsula. We’ll have ample time for exploring several of the more significant Mayan ruin sites on the peninsula such as El Cedral, Tulum, Muyil, Chunyaxche, Calakmul, Coba, Ek Balam, Dzitnup, Balankanche and Chichen Itza are all, in their unique ways, magnificent. Tulum, situated atop a scenic cliff overlooking blue Caribbean waters, offers a pleasant walk near the end of the day. While many archeologists proclaim the site to be ‘unspectacular’, you cannot help but be impressed with the walled city and the aura surrounding you as you explore the grounds. Within its preserved archeological zone, Muyil has a wonderful forest with maintained trails, a flooded forest boardwalk and a canopy tower that overlooks the forest and nearby lagoons. Dzitnup and its sunken caverns offer a taste of the exotic along with a perennially nice birding day. Kohunlich with its impressive ruins and tropical forest is a dramatic departure from the dry forests of the northern Yucatan Peninsula.
Calakmul, perhaps the crown jewel of our time in the Yucatan, has thousands of square miles of undisturbed forest, an experience that has become almost unknown in Mexico. As one might expect with that amount of tropical forest, the birding is spectacular. Nowhere else are you LIKELY to encounter 40 or 50 Ocellated Turkeys, dozens of Crested Guans and enjoy daily observations of Great Curassow! Night birding is special as well because there are no houses, no villages and no roads just unbroken forest! The ruins themselves are no less spectacular. Calakmul, known as the “Snake Kingdom” after their use of a pictographic snake head to represent their domain, was a rival of the more well known Tikal located just to the south in Guatemala. With more than 6,750 individual structures identified, Calakmul is estimated to have had a population of more than 50,000 people during its Mayan Classic Period heyday. Included in this are two impressively large pyramids, one of which—Temple Two—is one of the largest Mayan pyramids known at nearly 150 feet high!
In addition, Mexico’s determination to save its ancient ruins, the protected tropical forests near the Mayan ruins of Coba offer one of the best places to look for birds in the Northern Yucatan Peninsula. Several lakes and wetlands provide a rare habitat to accompany the preserved forests surrounding this spectacular birding area. Coba, whose excavation was started only in 1972, was one of the largest cities in the Yucatan between 600 and 900 A.D. At its zenith, Coba’s sprawl covered about 80 square miles and hosted a population of about 50,000 people. Nohoch Mul, a 138-foot high pyramid, is the tallest Mayan structure in the northern Yucatan, rising even higher than Chichen Itza’s mammoth El Castillo. A nine-tiered castle, remnants of a ball court and more than 6,500 structures have been uncovered from their tropical forest blankets.
Dating from the Mayan Classic period, Ek Balam sits astride the transition from scrubby, tropical deciduous forest from the south and the dry north coast. At the time of our visit, many nesting species from the north are enjoying their winter vacation in the area and warblers, flycatchers and orioles are well represented. It also continues to provide annual surprises for our groups: Singing Quail at a few feet, Yucatan Bobwhite with young, Turquoise-browed Motmot calling from near its nest cavity and ant swarms attended by many Red-throated Ant-tanagers are examples. While Chichen Itza may not have as much to offer the birder as Coba, no visit to the Yucatan would be complete without a stop at this magnificent Mayan city. Chichen Itza has more awe-inspiring structures than any other site in the Yucatan. Many of the ruins have been impressively restored and are truly amazing works of human engineering. El Castillo, El Caracol and the largest ceremonial Ball Court in Meso-America are but a few of the more extraordinary structures.
The Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve caps the northeastern coastline of the state of Yucatan. Established in 2004, the reserve includes a wealth of eminently photographable subjects within its 120,000 acres. Waterbirds of all shapes, sizes and colors, raptors, wintering shorebirds and a healthy population of nesting American Flamingos. We’ll probe the shallow waters that the flamingos find so attractive in hopes of finding a group feeding, displaying and splashing about the shallow estuary.
Join us for a spectacular winter getaway to one of Mexico's premier birding areas. Scenery, birds, great food, historical Mayan ruins, a wonderful tropical climate tempered by winter and the excitement of finding many of Mexico's unique birds provide indelible memories to return home with you.
Our Tour Itinerary:
DAY 1 Arrival in Cancun - Playa del Carmen - 30th March You’ll be met at the airport exit doors by your leaders for this tour, Kim Risen and Nick Bray. The remains of our day are to be spent exploring the many offerings en-route to Playa del Carmen. Options include a fantastic beach, a nearby botanical garden that’s good for birds and learning some of the native vegetation and a number of shaded palapas (thatched sun shelters) on the beautiful beach for lounging. I’m sure we can find SOMETHING to do! Night Playa del Carmen.
DAY 2 Cozumel Island We’ll enjoy an early morning departure to catch the first ferry of the day. We hope to catch dawn’s first light to hit Cozumel Island, soft and gentle morning breezes are also when the birds are most active. We’ll journey into the central portion of the island looking for Cozumel’s endemic birds. While Cozumel Thrasher may be extinct (the small population’s tenacious existence may have been wiped out by multiple severe hurricanes within the last decade), Cozumel Vireo, Cozumel Emerald, Cozumel Wren, Western Spindalis (Stripe-headed Tanager), Black Catbird, Yucatan Vireo, Yucatan Woodpecker, Caribbean Dove, Caribbean Elaenia and several endemic races of common mainland species are to be expected. Flowering and fruiting trees provide great photo opportunities with every visit to Cozumel providing its own highlights.
If the group elects to visit other portions of Cozumel, we’ll rent a vehicle and explore the island more fully. There are scenic beaches, striking lighthouses, good birding, a national park that offers snorkelling and a thousand different options. In the late afternoon we’ll travel by ferry back to the bustling resort city of Playa del Carmen. Night Playa del Carmen.
DAY 3 Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve - Tulum and coastal areas Early departure for northern parts of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere reserve. Sunrise finds us traveling through coastal forests as we make a special effort to find another endemic of the Yucatan Peninsula—Orange Oriole. We found a colony of these birds way back in '94, and, although it may not be active this year, we should still be able to see several of these brilliant orioles somewhere in the neighborhood.
An area encompassing the Mayan ruins of Muyil, the village of Chunyaxche and the northern tip of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve includes seldom used trails off the beaten track that transport you back to the wilderness that greeted the first European explorers to visit the Yucatan. We’ll see impressive ruins covered in tropical vegetation, huge ‘strangler’ figs that have made these ancient limestone ruins their home for hundreds of years and tropical scenery that has made the region famous. Maintained trails provide access to the forest where Lesson’s (Blue-crowned) Motmot, Mexican (Black-faced) Antthrush, Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Red-capped Manakin and Green-backed Sparrows await.
We’ll enjoy lunch at our traditional spot overlooking the magnificently blue waters of the Caribbean before touring the ruins of Tulum from their perch above the same brilliantly colored sea. An after dark search for nightbirds is possible if folks have the energy. Night near Tulum.
DAY 4 Sian Ka’an & Calakmul Biosphere Reserves An early morning departure to visit what may be remembered as one of your favorite birding areas of the trip—the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. We make a predawn departure so that we’ll have opportunity to reach a bit further into the reserve’s tropical forests. Encompassing thousands of square miles—more than 525,000 hectares!—the Sian Ka’an supports the largest tract of undeveloped habitat along the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo. Meaning “Origin of the Sky”, the Sian Ka’an preserve’s larger forest is our best chance to encounter Yucatan Parrot, Royal Flycatcher and a host of tropical forest species. Primary species from this area also include antbirds, five species of woodcreepers, Yucatan endemics Black Catbird, Rose-throated Tanager and Gray-throated Chat and secretive species as Pheasant Cuckoo and Mexican Antthrush.
We’ll enjoy lunch at the nearby city of Felipe Carillo Puerto with an afternoon drive to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Night birding potential here is high and, if our group is up to it, we might search for owls, nightjars and potoos after dark. We’ve also found spectacular animals on our night drives, including Ocelot, Jaguarundi and Margay. Night Calakmul.
DAY 5 Calakmul Biosphere Reserve We’ll enjoy an early breakfast so that sunrise finds us amid the expansive Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. The humid forest here has much more of a tropical flair when compared to the dry, scrub forest found across the northern Yucatan Peninsula. This tropical vegetation results in more diversity of species—plants, animals, insects and birds.
Birds observed on recent visits to the humid woodlands of this reserve include Ocellated Turkey, Ornate and Black-and-white Hawk Eagles, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Plain Chachalaca, Singing Quail, White-tipped Dove, Blue Ground-Dove, White-fronted and Yellow-lored (Yucatan) Parrots, Gartered (Violaceous) and Collared Trogons, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Mexican Antthrush, Smoky-brown and Lineated Woodpeckers, Olivaceous, Northern Barred, Tawny-winged and Ruddy Woodcreepers, the impressive Royal Flycatcher, Tropical Pewee, Rose-throated Becard, Long-billed Gnatwren, Northern Bentbill, Lesser Greenlet, several of the difficult-to-find Gray-throated Chat, Rose-throated Tanager and Green-backed Sparrow. An impressive list to be sure!
We’ll enjoy the entire day in the reserve, exploring the ruins via trails through the forest savoring all that we encounter—noisy Black-mantled (Mexican) Howler Monkeys, dainty Central American Spider Monkeys, colorful orchids, ornate butterflies, spectacular birds and thoroughly impressive pyramids rising above the endless blanket of forest. Another night drive is possible. Night Calakmul.
DAY 6 Calakmul Biosphere Reserve - Coba Our final morning in the reserve is to be spent birding areas of Calakmul we haven’t had a chance to visit or to make a final effort for species we might have missed to this point. On past tours, we’ve pushed into the heart of the taller, more humid forest as quickly as possible to increase our chances of more ‘big forest’ birds.
After lunch, we’ll retrace our path northward along the coast before turning inland to the Mayan ruins of Coba. The name “Coba” means opaque waters in Mayan and refers to the four green lakes situated within the surrounding jungle. With the scarcity of surface water in the Yucatan, it’s easy to understand why the area was critical to the Maya of that bygone era and to birds of our modern one. A bit of relaxed birding and an early dinner will end our day. Night Coba.
DAY 7 Coba
During our stay at Coba, we’ll stay at a newly constructed hotel near the village. After the closing of the venerable Villa Arqueologica, it’s the best available lodging close to the ruins. Simple, clean, with air-conditioning and hot water showers it’s our best option by far. From our hotel it’s a short drive to the nearby Lago Coba where we can scan the lakes reed covered margins for grebes, herons, bitterns, Spotted Rail, Ruddy Crakes and other aquatic birds. Our entire day is to be spent exploring near Coba, along the lake edge and in the forests surrounding the ruins. On recent visits, birding and hiking amid the ruins and along the edges of Lake Coba we’ve found Spotted Rail, Ruddy Crake, Least Bittern and other waders, Gray and Roadside Hawks, Northern Jaçana, Blue and Ruddy Ground-Doves, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Great Kiskadee, Mangrove Swallow, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and White-collared Seedeater. Later, as we walked among the ruins, flocks of Olive-throated Parakeets, Canivet's (Fork-tailed) Emerald, Red-vented (Yucatan) and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, flycatchers (Brown-crested, Social and Greenish and Yellow-bellied Elaenias), Green Jay, Clay-colored Robin, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Grayish and Black-headed Saltators and many orioles (Orchard, Black-cowled, Yellow-tailed, Yellow-backed, Hooded and Altamira to name a few). Even among the many colorful tropical birds, our wintering warblers and Painted Buntings were standouts. The arid scrub south of Coba produced Red-billed Pigeon, Squirrel and Pheasant Cuckoos, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Collared Araçari, Keel-billed Toucan, Bright-rumped Attila, Masked Tityra, Yucatan Jay, Mangrove and Yucatan Vireos and Blue Bunting.
An afternoon siesta is in order, as we’ll have our best night birding opportunities in the countryside near Coba. Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Mottled Owl, Black-and-white Owl, Yucatan Nightjar, Yucatan Poorwill or a potoo hawking moths from its perch atop a bare snag are all possible. With three nights at Coba, we have ample time to insure that the endemic nightbirds of the Yucatan are found, seen and, hopefully, photographed by all. With owls and Northern Potoo adding spice to the night, there is always incentive for a night outing with our cameras! It’s a tradition on our tours to enjoy at least one sunset from the dock on the lake watching Pauraque, Yucatan Nightjar and monstrous Marine Toads. Night Coba.
DAY 8 Coba - Cenotes Tamcach-Ha - Choo-Ha
We’ll watch the sun rise over the scrubby forests covering this portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. There are several locations where we hope to find cooperative birds to photograph in the beautiful early morning light. Aztec Parakeets darting about the colorful Kapoks, dazzling orioles plucking blossoms from flowering trees, hummingbirds protectively dive-bombing any who dare intrude upon their patch of flowers and striking Yucatan Jays scolding all who care to listen are typical experiences.
With a full day, we’ll explore the more distant portions of the ruins (perhaps by bicycle?!) look for antswarms and their attendant birds to photograph and have a leisurely day afield enjoying all the natural wonders available to us. Located amidst thick Yucatan scrub forest, we may visit an impressive duo of cenotes, underground water-filled sinkholes. Introducing you to these cents and giving you a chance to experience them up close…A fun, comfortable way to pass time in the Yucatan’s midday heat. Another nightbird outing is possible if there remain holes in our list of nightbirds. Night Coba.
DAY 9 Coba - Chichen Itza Our last morning exploring the lakes and forests around Coba. We’ll target any species that have eluded us thus far. It’s likely that we’ll enjoy lunch near Coba before beginning our short drive to Chichen Itza.
Located a short distance west from Valladolid, we find the magnificent Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Perhaps the most impressive ruin site of the Mayan Empire, Chichen Itza is unforgettable. As are the birds! Colorful orioles, buntings and warblers, seldom seen goodies like Yucatan Nightjar, Singing Quail and Pheasant Cuckoo and tropical treats such as Collared Araçari, White-fronted Parrot and Turquoise-browed Motmot can all be found near the grounds of our comfortable hotel. Night Chichen Itza.
DAY 10 Chichen Itza - Vallodolid A full morning of birding and sightseeing near the ruins of Chichen Itza. Sunrise will find us walking trails near the older section of ruins. Flycatchers, hummingbirds, orioles and colorful Turquoise-browed Motmot are but a few of the avian gems we’ll encounter. After breakfast, we’ll enjoy our visit to the Post Classic Mayan period ruins of Chichen Itza. This ancient city has been impressively restored, and wandering about the magnificent structures leaves an enduring impact. Be sure to bring plenty of spare memory cards for your camera as it's difficult not to be overwhelmed when viewing these monuments of the gifted ancient Maya.
Located a short distance east across the Yucatan Peninsula from Chichen Itza, Valladolid is a smaller city with lots of typico character. Our hotel here is the historic Hotel El Meson, situated on the central square or zocalo of Valladolid directly across from one of the oldest churches in the entire Yucatan. A major attraction of any Mexican city is the zocalo. A beehive of activity, a walk around the zocalo is a feast for the senses. Colorful embroidery from local women, aromatic temptations from street vendors, the laughter of children at play in the heart of an historic city and uneven and hard paving stones smoothed by the passage of centuries of foot traffic all make their indelible impression. We’ll visit a couple of nearby sites in the late afternoon searching for Thicket Tinamou, Singing Quail, Mangrove Vireo and Pheasant Cuckoo. Night Valladolid.
DAY 11 Dzitnup - Ek Balam The nearby village of Dzitnup hosts a nice selection of butterflies and birds in the scrub habitats surrounding the quaint village. One locale in particular has been extraordinarily reliable for Singing Quail. Dzitnup is also the scene of a Mayan cenote that offers a respite from the heat. An after dark search to fill any remaining holes in our nightbird list—or to try for better photos!—is possible.
After lunch, we’ll enjoy the Mexican tradition of siesta during the heat of the day in the shaded comfort of our hotel. After our brief siesta, we’ll explore a number of other archeological zones in the area. Likely are the forested entrance to the Balankanche Caves and, if time allows, the small, yet impressive ruins of Ek Balam. Options are many, with all providing good birds & butterflies for us to admire! We’ll enjoy an early evening in preparation for a pre-sunrise departure to the Yucatan’s northern coast in the morning. Night Valladolid.
DAY 12 Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve - Las Coloradas Sunrise will find us in the parched cactus thickets common along coastal Northern Yucatan. Beginning a day filled with memorable events: we’ll target two local endemics of the Yucatan (Mexican Sheartail and Yucatan Wren), enjoy an amazing boat tour of the Rio Lagartos estuary for close-up views of American Flamingos and a wide variety of waterbirds and hike a boardwalk trail through thick, seasonally flooded forest. On our boat trip through the lagoons, colorful American Flamingos (which nest in the estuary), odd Boat-billed Herons, a complete roster of herons & egrets, Roseate Spoonbill, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Jabiru (a recently arrived nesting resident) and many other waterbirds are to be expected. After lunch in the village, we’ll explore other coastal areas and scrubby habitats inland for the area’s specialties—Yucatan Wren, Yucatan Bobwhite, Mexican Sheartail, Lesser Roadrunner, White-lored Gnatcatcher and Zenaida Dove before our day is done. Night Valladolid.
DAY 13 Local clean-up - Cancun - end of tour - 11th April One final morning in Mexico! We’ll enjoy a walk around the beautiful grounds and trails before breakfast. After breakfast, our schedule will be determined by your flights—we’ll have you back in Cancun two hours before your planes depart. You’ll return home with enough memories of tropical forests, birds and ruins to last until your next visit to Mexico!
Group size: Minimum for tour to go ahead 5 and maximum 12 with 2 leaders
Included in cost: Accommodations based on two persons sharing a two-bedded room. We select good quality hotels convenient to our birding or tour destinations. All transportation, this may be by private or chartered car, station wagon, van or bus. Round-trip ferry to Cozumel Island, boat tour through Rio Lagartos Reserve and cenote visits. Tips to luggage porters, bus drivers and local guides. Expert guide service throughout your visit to the Yucatan Peninsula. All group admissions, park entry fees along with taxes and local government fees or taxes are included.
Not included: International airfare, meals, tips for restaurant waiting staff, laundry, personal tips, alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, juices, mineral waters and other beverages, room service charges, souvenirs, insurance of any kind, telephone calls and use of TV not included in the room rate, and overweight baggage fees.
Meal Costs: ARE NOT included in the cost of this tour. For our tour we eat many meals ‘in the field’ like picnics. Others are at convenient ‘typico’ restaurants while our final meal of the day is usually a sit-down dinner. As a person can eat very well for as little as $25 or $30 per day—or they can choose to spend three or four times that amount—depending upon your choices. Accordingly, we do not include meals during this tour. Zoothera has a policy of NOT overcharging one person to cover another’s meal choices—which we would have to do if meals were budgeted expenses.
UNANTICIPATED COSTS: Rarely we have had unexpected costs incurred by a tour group. Cancellation of flights has required staying in a hotel an extra night, hiring vehicles for extra birding excursions and other services. At times, when all of the birds expected at an area were found more quickly than anticipated, the tour leader proposed shortening the visit to that location, adding flights to new destinations, etc. If such changes are proposed and accepted by participants, it is with the understanding that they accept the obligation to pay any extra unanticipated costs.
On all of our tours, participants are responsible for any extra expenses incurred from deviations to our scheduled tour itinerary which result from events out of our control (i.e. additional hotel nights, transfers and transportation by air, water or ground). In Mexico this typically refers to WEATHER related delays (i.e. road closures, flash floods or landslides) but could be a result of flight cancellations, labor strikes, acts of God or the like.
Accommodation: Ranges from simple to good – please remember we are visiting areas way off the regular tourist circuit, but most rooms have private bathrooms, although some may not be up to or 'usual' western standards. We endeavor to stay in the best available accommodation close to the birding sites. For single rooms a single supplement will be charged. We try to supply roommates when possible, but we cannot always find one. If we cannot find you a roommate, you will be charged the added cost of single accommodations.
Tour Code: This is a standard birding tour for anyone with a modest level of fitness. Long days in the field with early starts are expected, but walking is easy.