For many years, southern Mexico has been one of my favorite places to travel. The diverse habitats, species richness, history, and unique culture combine to give one a well-rounded and memorable impression of this special part of Mesoamerica. Chiapas is Mexico's most southern state and also one of its richest in terms of plants, animals, and indigenous cultures, and this itinerary has provided us with an exceptional opportunity to see, learn about, and enjoy that richness. One of the special aspects of this trip is that it is co-led by my good friend from Oaxaca, Benito Hernandez. Benito's knowledge of culture, history and art in southern Mexico is now supplemented by his ever-improving skills as a birder and photographer.
We begin in the capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, where the main attraction, other than the many green parakeets and white-fronted parrots flying around town, is the Parque Nacional del Sumidero. Here the extensive tropical deciduous forest of Mexico's west coast penetrates eastward while at the same time ecological influence from the east penetrates westward as it works its way up the canyon of the Rio Grijalva from the Gulf slope lowlands. The result is an interesting overlap of Pacific and Gulf slope birds and plants that meet only here and nowhere else in Mexico. In the drier parts of the 54,000-acre park, we've found "western" birds such as white-throated magpie-jays, streak-backed oriole, banded wren, white-lored gnatcatcher, russet-crowned motmot, and Nutting's flycatcher, while on the moister north facing slopes we've seen "eastern" species including eye-ringed flatbill, northern bentbill, gartered trogon, barred antshrike, yellow-billed cacique, and spot-breasted wren. Sumidero has an interesting mix of hummingbird species - azure-crowned, berylline, plain-capped starthroat, Canivet's emerald, slender sheartail, - and many neotropical migrants - blue-headed, yellow-throated, and warbling vireos, western tanager, indigo bunting, black-and-white warbler, northern parula, and others.
Several understory skulkers always provide a challenge as well as great excitement. While olive sparrow is fairly common and not too difficult to see, orange-billed nightingale thrush, blue-and-white mockingbird, red-breasted chat, and belted flycatcher are not so easy. The flycatcher, whose only close relative is the endemic pileated flycatcher found north of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, is a gorgeous little thing that is adept at working dense thickets. Fortunately, its distinctive call and fairly reliable territories have allowed us to enjoy great views in Sumidero which is the only place on this route that it can be found. The mockingbird is similarly elusive, but, again, we've enjoyed some nice views here and also outside of San Cristobal. The chat pretty much just requires a lot of luck, and sometimes we've had it. Green jay, ferruginous pygmy owl, Couch's kingbird, varied bunting, and rufous-capped warbler are a few more of the 100+ species we've seen here. The winter months are a fairly good time for flowering plants, including Bauhinia, Cochlospermum, several Acanthus species, and the perennial bird magnet, Combretum fruticosum. In addition to the interesting birds and flora, the canyon itself is an attention-getter. At about 8 miles long, and 2000-3000 feet deep in some places, Sumidero's limestone cliffs are a dramatic background against which to enjoy the area.
From Tuxtla, we head east to the mountains around San Cristobal de Las Casas where we stay at the lovely Casa Felipe Flores which provides a comfortable home base from which to explore the area. While in San Cristobal we do a guided tour of the Na Bolom Museum, the former home of archaeologists Franz and Trudy Blom who worked extensively with the Lacandon people (who we meet later in the trip) of the eastern lowlands. We also visit the beautiful textile museum, which highlights the stunning art of Chiapas' indigenous people (primarily the Tzotzil in the San Cristobal area), do a short tour of the colorful city center, and enjoy local cuisine.
From San Cristobal we make outings to nearby spots in the mountains. The Chanal Road has a cloud forest feel with pines, oaks, madrones, bromeliads, and salvias that are habitat for many montane species. It even has a butterfly called the cloud forest monarch, a true Danaeid that has little resemblance to its well-known cousins. Here we've seen hooded grosbeak, brown-backed solitaire, gray silky-flycatcher, mountain trogon, blue-and-white mockingbird, white-naped brushfinch, cinnamon-bellied flowerpiercer, the regional endemics pink-headed warbler and rufous-collared thrush, greater pewee, the short-crested race of Steller's jay, amethyst-throated hummingbird, and many warblers, including three sort-of look-alike warblers - black-throated green, Townsend's, and the rare golden-cheeked.
From San Cristobal, we also visit Pronatura's nearby Huitepec Reserve. This forest here, dominated by oaks and with a few alders and madrones, is quite beautiful and rich in epiphytic bromeliads, orchids, ferns, and Piper. Birding can be good but, like many forests, varies from day to day. We've occasionally had good luck right at the entrance with white-naped and chestnut-capped brush-finches, russet nightingale-thrush, rufous-browed wren and amethyst-throated hummingbird being seen quite well. After an initial steep stair climb, the trail levels out and the understory becomes more dense. Flocks amidst the oaks include migratory Townsend's, hermit, olive, black-throated green, and red-faced warblers (a wintering migrant in this part of Mexico) traveling with resident crescent-chested warbler and slate-throated redstart. Pairs of spot-crowned woodcreepers are fairly common as are yellowish flycatcher, Hutton's vireo, and brown-backed solitaire, the latter at least by voice. In one of the particularly moist and dense areas, we once heard a rustling of the leaves. Thinking it might be a singing quail, we patiently waited....and waited...... for a possible view, but no luck. While trying for alternate views through the thicket, my wife Karen suddenly said "Get over here, now!" Of course, by the time I got there, the bird, a scaled antpitta, was gone and not to be seen again..........until I finally saw it several years later in El Triunfo.
From San Cristobal, we head northeast to a very different world with an almost entirely new flora and fauna, the wet lowland rainforests of the Palenque and Bonampak areas. We begin with several nights at Palenque. While the birding is very good, one of the highlights here is Benito's tour of the impressive ruins and the museum, where we learn about ancient Mayan culture. The birds are great here - double-toothed kite, slaty-tailed, black-headed, and gartered trogons, ferruginous pygmy-owl, many migrant warblers, including blue-winged, white-breasted wood-wren, long-billed starthroat and violet sabrewing, olive-throated parakeet, yellow-throated euphonia, and many more. Non-avian wildlife that we've seen includes Mexican black howler monkey, spiny tailed iguana, white-nosed coati, Central American agouti, Deppe's and Mexican red-bellied squirrels, and white-lined sac-winged bat.
Across from our hotel in Palenque is a small nature education facility, the Aluxes Ecopark, where we make an enjoyable visit. The animal exhibits (jaguar, deer, peccaries, monkeys, etc.) are very well done and they merge pretty seamlessly with the surrounding forest, making it a very good birding spot. Many of the more common edge and open country species can be seen well - gray catbird, groove-billed ani, social flycatcher, clay-colored thrush, American redstart, magnolia warbler, least flycatcher, rufous-tailed hummingbird - and occasionally some of the more skulky birds come out in the open - Kentucky warbler, ovenbird, barred antshrike, crimson-collared tanager, rufous-breasted spinetail, slate-headed tody-flycatcher, yellow-billed cacique. Aluxes is also a good place to see green iguanas basking in the trees and brown basilisks running across the small ponds in the animal enclosures.
Next we head south to the Lacandon rainforest, a large and intact tract of superb lowland forest that is still home to howler and spider monkeys, tamanduas, agoutis, ocelot, brocket deer, and jaguar. We stay at the Campamento Rio Lacanja, a simple but comfortable lodge with excellent trails, easy access to the Bonampak ruin site, and great habitat and birds. The intactness of the forest in the area is such that many birds I think of as typically being found "deeper in the forest" are frequently found at the edges of the lodge grounds. We often have dusky antbird, spot-breasted wren, red-throated ant-tanager, stripe-throated and long-billed hermits, and long-billed gnatwren near the restaurant, while on a walk to the cabanas just 50 feet or so into the forest we've found chestnut-colored woodpecker, rufous piha, and rufous mourner. The well-maintained trails lead to several scenic forest streams (at one crystal clear one we've had pygmy kingfisher) and a beautiful waterfall. Birds are plentiful and include Montezuma oropendula, five species of parrot (mealy, red-lored, white-crowned, brown-hooded, and olive-throated parakeet), keel-billed toucan, collared aracari, Passerini's, crimson-collared, and golden-hooded tanagers, red-capped and white-collared manakins, lesser and tawny-crowned greenlets, smoky-brown woodpecker, plain antvireo, rufous-tailed jacamar, bananaquit, purple-crowned fairy, ochre-bellied flycatcher, yellow-bellied tyrannulet, green and red-legged honeycreepers, and green-breasted mango, to name a few. Several species of Piper grow at the forest edge, and when they have ripe fruit, we've enjoyed close views of Passerini's tanager and olive-backed euphonia feeding by day and Carollia bats at night.
While at Lacanja we visit Bonampak, one of the Mayan sites most recently known to non-Mayans (in 1946). As are many ruin sites in the area, Bonampak is set amidst excellent forest, and the nearly 360 degree view from atop the highest structure is one of unbroken trees as far as you can see. If you're going to find a lovely cotinga or white-necked puffbird in Mexico (which I haven't yet), I can't imagine In the plaza, there is a huge limestone stela, 5 meters tall, with beautiful intact carvings. The entrance road to Bonampak and the site itself are great for birds and wildlife. While howler monkeys are usually calling, birds include ornate and black hawk-eagles, scaled pigeon, black-crested coquette, ruddy-tailed flycatcher, cinnamon becard, buff-throated foliage-gleaner, scaled pigeon, and ot
At Lacanja, we also enjoy a short lecture from Ricardo Chambor Kin, a Lacandon native whose grandfather was a well-known community leader in the past. Ricardo speaks passionately about how he and his family made a living from natural forest products before electricity and roads began to change lifestyles. Like most indigenous people in Chiapas, Spanish is Ricardo's second language (for some it's their third). It's a bit tough leaving the Lacandon rainforest, but we always do so knowing that the Lacandon people continue to live "light on the land" lifestyles that result in forest preservation.
Chiapas, like it's western cousin Oaxaca, has it all - diversity, beauty, history, rich culture, great forest and wildlife, and most of all, warm, talented hard-working people who make our trips comfortable and memorable. It's been fun putting this trip together and adding it to my schedule, and I look forward to many return visits.
Photos; Belted flycatcher and red-breasted
chat by Elizabeth Lauer