From February 25 to March 04, 2006, I attended the Second Birdwatching International Encounter in Guatemala. Wow! What a FABULOUS country! Guatelama has suffered a great deal in the past 40 years, with a bitter Civil War ending just four years ago. On my visit I saw no sign of that conflict (one that brought tragedy to most Guatemalan families), and the resilient people are looking forwards, hoping that the World will rediscover the unique cultures, crafts, and creatures that make Guatemala the Soul of the Earth.
I was truly impressed by the breath-taking vistas of the volcanic Western Highlands that we visited, and by the warmth of the flourishing Maya communities that dominate this region. It was very refreshing to be in a country that now embraces and celebrates its indiginous peoples, instead of marginalizing them. Guatemala has 23 indiginous languages, and each "clan" weaves and wears a different style of fabulously colorful traditional dress - not just for tourists but for everyday use.
The infrastructure for Tourism was a pleasant surprise: fine roads (with no potholes!); a great selection of hotels; some of the best-organized tour operators (based on the professionalism demonstrated during this logistically complex event); tasty, well-prepared food and purified water at every location. At no time did I feel uneasy about my safety, and I'd judge Guatemala to be as safe a country to travel in as any in the Neotropics.
Of course for birders, the birds matter the most - and what great birds they have! While I've not been to Chiapas in adjacent Mexico I have talked with a number of birders who have been there, and I'd venture that some key species are easier to see in Guatemala, such as Horned Guan, Highland Guan, White-bellied Chachalaca, Salvin's Emerald, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Blue-throated Motmot, Black-capped Swallow, Bushy-crested Jay (not in Mexico), Black-throated Jay, Blue-and-white Mockingbird, Pink-headed Warbler, Azure-rumped (Cabani's) Tanager, Prevost's Ground-Sparrow, and Black-capped Siskin. Many other "south-of-the-Isthmus" specialties can be found in the highlands around the stunning Lake Atitlan, e.g. Ocellated Quail, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Fulvous Owl, Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, Bearded Screech-Owl, Rufous Sabrewing, Emerald-chinned Hummingbird, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Slender Sheartail, Wine-throated Hummingbird, Rufous-browed Wren, Rufous-collared Robin, and Bar-winged Oriole. In addition perrenial favorites such as Resplendant Quetzal, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, Orange-breasted Falcon, Violet Sabrewing, Hooded Grosbeak, and Scaled Antpitta are as easy (that being a relative term with regard to the latter species!) to see as anywhere in their ranges. Finally there are a few possible "splits" that can be put in the bank, such as the distinctive local race of Hairy Woodpecker, the Guatemalan Flicker, the blue-crested form of Steller's Jay (ssp. ridgwayi) , and the alticola race of Yellow-eyed Junco.
So, I urge all of you looking for a new birding destination to take a close look at Guatemala. Click here to see a list of locations, guides, operators, and organizations that can help you.
Horned Guan - Volcan San Pedro.
Guatemalan Flicker - Volcan San Pedro.
Black-capped Swallow - Cerro Alux and Corazon del Bosque.
Gray Silky at Cerro Alux.
Pink-headed Warblers - Volcan Chicabal and Corazon del Bosque.
Hummingbirds at the Swiss Restaurant feeders.
Bushy-crested and Steller's Jays, from Volcan San Pedro and the Swiss Restaurant.
White-winged Tanager, Laughing Falcon, and Collared Aracari from Finca Patronicio.