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A Report from

Casual birding in the Yucatan, December 9-22, 2007,

Peter J. Metropulos

My wife, Katherine, and I enjoyed a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, December 9-22, 2007, beginning in Merida and ending in Tulum. While planning the trip I assured Katherine that this would be the vacation we both needed, not an “extreme birding” trip, besides I had just undergone hernia surgery ten days prior to departing and was under doctor’s orders not to over-exert myself. We looked forward to exploring Maya villages and archeological sites, walking in the jungle, swimming in the warm Caribbean, sampling local cuisine, exploring shops, and just relaxing. Without trying too hard I managed to see 143 species of birds including several endemic to Mexico and northern Central America, as well as four “lifers” for me. This is a narrative of our trip, followed by a list of birds and other animals observed, and a list of resources utilized.

Prices mentioned are in U.S. dollars and distances in miles.

December 9:   Departed San Francisco on a 3.5 hour Continental Airlines flight to Houston, with a 2-hour connection to Merida. Round-trip fair was $768. A taxi ride ($14) took us to our hotel in central Merida, Hotel Maison Lafitte, which we chose because of its location, within a few blocks of the central plaza, many restaurants, shops, and cultural attractions. It has a nice colonial-style feel, with a leafy courtyard, tiled pool with waterfall, and outdoor tables near a bubbling fountain. The rooms were rather basic but clean and quiet. We felt the $75 per night price (including breakfast buffet) was a good value. The staff here was friendly, attentive and helpful. After checking in, at 10 PM, we took a stroll down the street to the Plaza, passing three small parks and numerous open-air restaurants. People were dancing to a live band at one of them.

December 10:  We spent the day exploring the heart of Merida. This city of nearly one million is rich in history, culture, music, and art. It is especially-festive in these days leading up to Christmas, with multi-colored lights strung up on poles, trees, and buildings; abundant decorations, and manger scenes here and there. Colorful banners announcing upcoming concerts, museum openings, dances, and plays, are posted everywhere. The center of activity, and the heart of the city, is the central Plaza, variously called “Plaza de la Independencia” (in the Moon Guide), “Plaza Grande” (in the Lonely Planet guide), and “Plaza de la Constitucion” (in the Rough Guide). This is the best place in town to sit on a bench beneath shady trees and people-watch. Vendors approach selling hammocks, kids chase pigeons, old white concrete “S”-shaped love-seats beckon young couples. Towering above is La Catedral de San Ildefonso, the most prominent building on the plaza. It is said to be the oldest cathedral in the Americas, with construction started in 1562 and completion in 1598. An awesome sight it is, both inside and out, with immense stone columns, a latticed stone ceiling, and an enormous wooden crucifix behind the altar. Ironically, stones from Maya temples were utilized in its construction. Next we visited Los Palacios Gobernales, the government offices for the state of Yucatan. There was a loud (but peaceful) protest taking place at the entrance, with machine gun-wielding soldiers standing guard. They gestured that it was okay if we entered, so in we went. Inside the walls were covered with stunning, enormous modernist-style murals, by famed local-born artist Fernando Castro Pacheco, depicting the violent history of Yucatan. At mid-day we found a table at an outdoor restaurant on the Plaza for lunch. I enjoyed a bowl of the region’s delicious specialty soup, Sopa de Lima, a mildly-spicy chicken and vegetable soup containing fried tortilla strips and pieces of lime. We spent the afternoon continuing our exploration of central Merida, peeking into shops and markets, while fending off hawkers and vendors trying to lure us into their places of business (mainly offering hammocks, clothing, and reproductions of Maya artifacts). Our senses were overwhelmed at the cramped and jam-packed Mercado Municipal where we spent an hour wandering the massive complex, a full block wide and two stories tall. Here everything imaginable is offered for sale: stacks of colorful fruits and vegetables, piles of aromatic herbs and spices, cut-flowers, toys, jewelry, clothing, shoes, belts, hammocks(of course ), religious icons, etc.  Food stalls offer tacos, soup, hot dogs, shrimp cocktails, fruit juices, sodas, etc. As cleanliness and proper hygiene are lacking “dining” here is not for the squeamish.

There is a conspicuous police presence around the Plaza, literally a cop on every busy corner observing and directing traffic. Police cars, lights flashing, zoom here and there throughout the day, as clusters of rifle-toting soldiers guard entrances to banks and government buildings. Still, I have the impression this is a relatively safe city for its size.

Merida seems both bustling and calm simultaneously, and the people friendly and open.

During the evening white, wooden, horse-drawn carriages gathering by the Plaza add to the charm.

During the day I saw a few birds in the parks and squares near the center of town: Black Vulture, Rock Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Great-tailed Grackle. I also heard a Northern Cardinal singing in the hotel courtyard at sunrise.

December 11:  We spent the morning investigating shops and enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells, of Merida’s main Plaza. We paused for lunch and coffee at Cafe La Habana, a very nice, neat and efficient local cafe/restaurant popular with businessmen and students. We were impressed by its extensive and varied menu.

In the afternoon a van arrived at our hotel to pick us up for our tour with “Ecoturismo Yucatan” to the major archeological site of Uxmal, a 50-mile (1-2 hour) drive south of Merida. We were given a one-hour tour of the site followed by some time on our own for birding and photography. Nowhere near as crowded as Tulum, Chichen Itza, or Coba, Uxmal’s massive scale and intricate decorations make it one of Yucatan’s most memorable Maya ruins nonetheless. The site is surrounded by deciduous thorn forest. Among the birds we saw here were Cave Swallow, Altamira Oriole, Scrub Euphonia, White-lored Gnatcatcher; and noisy flocks of Plain Chachalacas and Yucatan Jays. We enjoyed a tasty dinner at a local restaurant nearby where I heard a Thicket Tinamou calling at sunset from the scrub across the road. We returned to  Uxmal at 7PM for the “Light and Sound” show in which colored lights illuminate various structures as Maya lore is spoken (in Spanish and Maya) and music played over loudspeakers(headsets providing English translation optional). The program is a bit hokey but with such an awesome setting, far from any towns and surrounded by a vast expanse of forest, and bright stars above, it is a worthwhile experience. We were very satisfied with this tour which costs $45, including transportation, dinner, a friendly and knowledgeable local guide, and park fees. The only setback of the evening came upon our return to the outskirts of Merida where traffic came to a crawl due to a huge bicycle rally in honor of “Dia de la Virgen”, a religious celebration in honor of Mexico’s patron saint, La Virgen de Guadalupe. We resorted to negotiating back streets in order to avoid the vehicular chaos in central Merida, finally arriving back at Hotel Maison Lafitte at 10:30 PM. The city was full of action and bustling with anticipation of celebrations the following day. Firecrackers popped all night and into the morning’s first light.

December 12:  At 9AM a van sent from Ecoturismo Yucatan picked us up at our hotel for a tour to Ria Celestun Biosphere Reserve. Cost of the tour was $45. The driver indicated there will be no guide on this tour due to insufficient number of participants (6). We headed off on the 60-mile drive to our destination, making one stop, at the town of Uman, 11 miles southwest of Merida. With hundreds of bicycle-pilgrims and their colorfully-decorated bikes, a lovely old church, and a lively market place, there was much to observe and photograph here. We spent about a half-hour here, enjoying the excitement of “Dia de la Virgen”, before moving on to Celestun where we arrived at 11:30AM. We met our boatman at the pier near the Reserve Visitor Center. It was hot, dry and breezy, when we boarded our small motorboat. The main objective of the tour is to observe Flamingos, for which the reserve is famous. Before we embarked I showed our non-English-speaking boatman the illustration of Rufous-necked Wood-Rail (a lifer for me) in the field guide. He nodded and indicated they are sometimes seen in the area we were headed. However, the tide was high with little exposed mudflats and surely the rails must be deep in the impenetrable mangroves at this time. We traveled 2 or 3 miles across the 14 mile-long estuary/inlet, pausing to get close-up views of the spectacular, salmon-pink Greater Flamingos, observing(and taking pictures of) at least 300 individuals feeding. Hundreds of other waterbirds (ibis, herons, egrets) congregated here to feed as well. We came to a stop at a crystal-clear freshwater spring (“Ojo de Agua”) within the mangrove forest at the edge of the estuary, docking the boat and then walking a short distance to observe birds. A Bare-throated Tiger-Heron roosting near the trail, and a noisy Pygmy Kingfisher fishing at the spring, were the highlights here. On the ride back we followed a course through dark reddish, tannin-stained waters within the mangroves. A sunbathing, 6-foot long Crocodile greeted us upon our return to the dock, floating along as tourists snapped photos.

The boat tour was advertised as being 90-minutes in duration but we were on the boat barely an hour. I was not happy about this, and felt cheated, but complaining would have gotten me nowhere. Serious birders should consider other options to do this place justice.

For lunch (included in the tour price) the driver took us to a mediocre seafood restaurant on the beach at Celestun, a sandy, sun-bleached fishing village of 8,000 residents. Two Eurasian Collared-Doves, a recent colonizer, were calling from wires here. In the afternoon the wind began increasing in velocity and clouds gathered in the sky. We noticed fishing boats hurrying back into harbor. Rumors were spreading of a hurricane heading in our direction! (We found out later that an unseasonal hurricane did hit the Dominican Republic but it broke up and disintegrated before it reached the Yucatan).

On the way back to Merida our driver drove at death-defying speed, breezing through traffic signs and red lights. He paused for a few minutes, upon request, in order for us to take photos at a small rural cemetery, and then delivered us back to our hotel in Merida at dinner time. First we strolled past the central Plaza where I saw an elderly gringo perched on a wooden stool playing a handsaw with a violin bow, an eerie rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore!  It was not easy locating the highly-recommended, La Casa de Frida , but finding this unique dining establishment was worth the trouble. This is a colorful place, with pink walls and Mexican art hanging all over. I enjoyed “pato en mole poblano” (duck in mole sauce), followed by a “torte de almendral” (almond torte). Meals here are lovingly-prepared by a woman chef. I noticed her small, well-behaved dog stretched out under one of the tables. The food here is variously described as “Mexican-French fusion” and “haute Mexican cuisine”. We highly recommend this charming place!

December 13:   In the morning we visited the Uxmal de Taxco silver shop on Calle 60, a few blocks from our hotel, where we were told we could find high quality silver at a fair price. We found the selection, quality, and value to be excellent at this family-run (since 1939) shop. Since Christmas was approaching Katherine and I did a little gift-shopping.

I purchased several pairs of fine silver earrings for under $20 each. This is not a “tourist trap” so haggling and bargaining (which I disdain) were unnecessary. Later in the morning a driver from Alamo Rent-a-Car picked us up at our hotel and delivered us to their office near the Merida airport. Since I was recovering from hernia surgery Katherine agreed to do the driving for the first few days, at least. We filled out the necessary forms, paid the rental fee ($600 for 10 days), then got our first taste of driving Mexican-style (neither of us have driven south-of-the-border before). We found Highway 180 to be in great condition and traffic light as we cruised east passing through miles and miles of thorn-forest interspersed with agricultural fields and scrub. We arrived without incident at our destination two hours later. We were to spend the next two nights at Hacienda Chichen Resort in a simple but comfortable bungalow which, we learned, was built in the late 1920’s to accommodate archeologists from the Carnegie Institute who were involved in the original excavation of the site at Chichen Itza. The resort occupies the grounds of a 16th-century estate and features an elegant main house, lushly-vegetated grounds with enormous shade trees towering above, an old church, ruined walls, and many historical artifacts scattered about. There is also a gift shop, art gallery, and restaurant, on the grounds. With all this a short, quarter-mile walk from the eastern entrance to the archeological site, this seemed the perfect place to stay.  The price was $170/night for the bungalow, a bit of a splurge, but we felt well worth it. I later learned that the resort is owned by the Barbachano family, a big power in the Yucatan since the early 1800’s. The same family also owns the Mayaland Hotel nearby. Even more impressive is that the Barbachano family owns the land on which sits the Chichen Itza archeological site, making this perhaps the only “Wonder-of-the-World” situated on private property!

Once checked-in, we enjoyed lunch at one of the outdoor tables of the restaurant. A Cinnamon Hummingbird entertained us as it built a nest in a shrub hanging within inches of the table next to us. Just before sunset I took a walk toward the nearby Mayaland Resort where, from the road, I could get a view of “El Caracol”, the ancient observatory at Chichen Itza. As the sun was setting and daylight faded I scanned the ruin’s rocky dome and spotted what appeared to be a trio of large white ducks or geese (!) standing motionless atop the structure. Unable to get a closer look at this unlikely apparition I started to doubt my skills of observation (was this a hallucination?). I vowed to return at dawn’s first light to solve the mystery of the strange ghost-like forms atop the ruin. Returning to the grounds of the hacienda, in the rapidly-fading light, I spotted a Kinkajou swiftly slinking along a limb in the tree canopy overhanging the entrance road.  I reported my sighting of the nocturnal, arboreal cousin of the raccoon, to the resort’s manager who told me that she sees them regularly here. Since hunting is no longer allowed in this area, and since native vegetation is starting to recover from centuries of degradation, several wild creatures have returned to Chichen Itza after being absent for years (javelina, turkey, and toucan, for example).

Tonight was Katherine’s birthday which we celebrated by enjoying cake and coffee at the outdoor restaurant while being serenaded by a trio of local musicians. After singing the mandatory “Happy Birthday To You”, I requested one of my personal favorites, “Cielito Lindo” which they performed perfectly, earning them a generous $20 “propina” (tip) from me. Back at our bungalow, Katherine had an encounter with a large spider in the bathroom which resulted in a restless night for her.

December 14:   Before sunrise I quickly made my way down the road toward Chichen Itza’s eastern gate hoping to solve the mystery of the apparent white waterfowl I saw the previous day at sunset perched atop the observatory ruins. What a relief it was to find them still there. The birds were far away and lacking any size comparison perspective I was thinking the birds to be either Snow Goose or Ross’ Goose. The entrance gate to the site would not open for another hour so I could not approach for a closer view. Either of these species would be a new record for the Yucatan, and of all unlikely locations, perched atop an ancient Maya archeological site with no bodies of water nearby! After a few moments of frustrating observation the birds became restless, started flapping their wings, then took off, circling once directly overhead, before disappearing. They appeared to be large, pure-white ducks completely lacking any black in the wings, or other markings, and were flying strongly and swiftly. No native waterfowl fit this description so I assume these were domestic birds that escaped captivity. Why they chose to roost for the evening atop the rocky ruins of an ancient Maya observatory will continue to baffle me forever.

Chichen Itza is the most famous and heavily-visited of all Yucatan Maya archeological sites, and also the best-restored. It is especially-breathtaking early in the morning before it gets quite hot and covered with sweaty, t-shirt wearing, camera-toting tourists and hordes of local vendors. This is one of the reasons we chose to stay at the hacienda, just a few minutes walk from the site’s “back entrance”. We made a point of arriving as the entrance gates opened at 8AM to avoid the throngs of tourists that arrive on mammoth buses from Cancun later in the day. Through the hacienda we hired a local Maya guide, a pleasant and knowledgeable fellow of about 30 years, who spoke good English, a resident of the small nearby town of Piste. He charged us $35 each for a two-hour tour of the site, which we felt was a good deal. Katherine and I lingered for an hour or more afterwards to take photos and watch birds. By the time we left there were tourists everywhere we looked. Dozens of vendors, offering replicas of maya artifacts, wooden and stone carvings, hammocks, clothing, and miscellaneous tourist-trap trinkets, lined the paths leading to the temples from the site’s main entrance. My best birds here were: a Bat Falcon which circled above us in the clear morning sky, uttering its shrieking calls, above  “El Castillo”, the main temple; and a Canivet’s Emerald which I glimpsed briefly as it hovered to investigate a red flower growing from a crack in one of the temple’s walls. We also saw two Yucatan Squirrels, the only ones of the trip, here. The remainder of the day we spent exploring the grounds of the hacienda and relaxing. We returned to the archeological site at 7PM to watch the 45-minute “Sound-and-Light Show” (in Spanish). As the Rough Guide says: “…it’s a bit of a yawn. But to be at this sacred place under the star-filled sky is an awesome experience with or without the special effects”.

December 15:   I awoke before sunrise, quietly creeping out of the bungalow, umbrella in hand, to spend a couple of pre-breakfast hours scanning the hacienda’s tall trees, lush gardens and woodland edge, in search of exciting birds. There were light rainshowers during the late night and early morning, and the sound of “drip, drip, drip….” of big drops falling down from the large-leafed trees above. A soggy Common Opposum appeared, waddling along the side of the road. I followed trails into the scrub forest, walked the main paved road, and birded throughout the hacienda’s many acres. As the sky lightened, the entire landscape before me became filled with flying, feeding, and vocalizing birds: parrots, flycatchers, orioles, etc..  I followed one grown-over trail through the scrub forest to a gravel road which lead to an archeological site in the middle of the forest (evidently part of the Chichen Itza complex) in the process of being excavated. There were no signs posted, no fences, and no people present, so I enjoyed time alone wandering among what looked like a set from an Indiana Jones movie. It was captivating being in such a sacred place watching close-up a group of 5 Keel-billed Toucans plucking small, round fruits from the outer branches of a shiny-leafed tree, while they uttered their curious, throaty, frog-like calls. But soon growls in my stomach reminded me breakfast time was approaching, and I snapped out of my tropical trance, heading back to the hacienda’s restaurant where my wife would be waiting. Luckily, Katherine already had consumed her morning cup of coffee so she consented to following me back to my “secret Maya temple birding site” before we sat down to a proper breakfast. Unfortunately, my plans were foiled when a couple of security personnel came bumping along the gravel road on a motorcycle as we neared the site. I was told I was in a sensitive, prohibited area and must leave immediately. I said I encountered no warning signs or fences and saw no harm in watching birds here. Luckily we walked away with no more than a minor verbal reprimand.

I am glad that we splurged for a two-night stay at this charming and historic resort. The birding was great, the surrounding environment beautiful, and the accommodations much to our satisfaction.

I saw 5 bird species here not listed as occurring at Chichen Itza in Howell’s, A Bird-Finding Guide to MexicoBat Falcon, Red-billed Pigeon, Keel-billed Toucan, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and Orchard Oriole.

According to locals we talked with, the toucans have only been here a year or so, they say driven here in search of food after their traditional coastal haunts were ravaged by a powerful hurricane.

In the afternoon we checked out of the Hacienda Chichen Resort. The resort manager showed us on a map the most direct route to our next destination, Tulum. Heading east, we passed through the town of Valladolid. We planned on stopping here for lunch and a brief look around; having been told it is a charming, typical Maya town. However, from what we saw of it (heavy lunch hour traffic, noise, run-down buildings, and lack of parking) we found no reason to linger, so onward we traveled. A black-masked Long-tailed Weasel darted out across the road directly in front of our vehicle as we entered open country just past Valladolid. We stopped for lunch at Coba, where we scanned the nearby lake for crocodiles while we dined at outdoor tables (yes, we saw one). From here it was a 45-minute drive on well-paved roads to our next destination, Tulum. We had no problem locating our hotel, Posada Luna del Sol, right off the highway in the center of Tulum “Pueblo” (town). For dinner we chose La Nave, an Italian restaurant run by authentic Italians. We enjoyed a superb, wood-fired vegetarian pizza at this bustling, friendly dining establishment, and for $15 (including drinks and tip), we rated this meal a good value.

December 16:   Our first morning in Tulum, our home for the next week. With a resident population of 8,400, and a two-hour drive south of Cancun, Tulum consists of two distinct districts: the beach and the “pueblo” (town). The town, where we chose to stay, offers a tiny bit of charm and little of beauty, but all the necessities (restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels, markets, pharmacies, money exchange booths, and a gas station) for the semi-adventurous traveler. No glitz or high-rises here.

We began our day at 8AM with a simple breakfast of coffee, fruit juice, and “pan dulce” (sweet rolls), with our host hoteliers, Janet and Jack Kushner, and fellow guests (an international selection). Relaxing at the beach was our plan for the day. Our hosts recommended the one at Hotel El Paraiso, just a 10-minute drive (a mile or so) from the hotel. Once there we found a nice spot to spread our blankets beneath the shade of palm trees on a “confectioner-sugar sand” beach with warm turquoise water and a balmy Caribbean breeze. The Rough Guide says this place has a “friendly hippie vibe”. Maybe years ago, but no more. I’m from San Francisco so I know a hippie when I see one. Instead we found mainly middle-class European and American tourists, many of which were women lacking the upper half of their swimsuits, frolicking and sunbathing on the beach. Later I checked the location of this beach on various maps and found it popularly referred to as “Nuddy Beach”. And here I was walking onto the scene with a pair of binoculars dangling around my neck!  (“Honest man, I’m just looking at the frigatebirds”). Swimming was pleasant but since the reef is further offshore snorkeling is not productive here. Restrooms and showers are available to beach-goers. We took a table at the “palapa bar” and ordered some ceviche. Accustomed to the tiny portions offered in most seafood eateries back home, we were delighted when a large bowl of succulent, tangy chunks of super-fresh grouper (“mero” in Spanish) arrived at our table. For the main-course of our lunch we shared a broiled filet of grouper seasoned with spicy-sweet chipotle shavings. The meal was not cheap ($42 for the both of us including soft drinks and tip), but was very tasty, and the entertainment priceless: beautiful half-naked young bodies, plus a bartender who could masterfully juggle bottles of rum and tequila in the air while dancing-in-place to loud euro-rock music. After lunch we walked north towards the Tulum Archeological Site, less than a mile away, across a garbage-strewn stretch of beach. Evidence of the previous year’s hurricane was conspicuous: wrecked buildings, heavily-eroded sections of beach, freshly re-planted palm trees. The only birds I saw during our visit to the beach were Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Double-crested Cormorant, Royal Tern, Great-tailed Grackle, Hooded Oriole, and Yellow-throated Warbler.

After returning to the Posada Luna del Sol for a shower we opted for a late-afternoon walk through the south end of town near the hotel where we were told there was a “jungle” that might be worth checking for birds. We followed an unpaved road into a rather depressing, trashy, and oddly-quiet degraded patch of remnant scrubby forest. A few cars passed us with suspicious people inside. Creepy vibes and poor birding here. We saw only Vaux’s Swift, Tropical Kingbird, and Tropical Mockingbird. On the way back to the hotel we passed a dilapidated and crumbling cemetery where two small dogs were copulating atop an ancient crypt (and me without my camera!). Later, feeling carnivorous, we headed into town for dinner at El Pequeno Buenos Aires, an open-air Argentine steakhouse located on the main road. There were mountains of meat on every table. Stray dogs gather on the sidewalk to salivate, sniff, and stare longingly at the human feeding frenzy.

December 17:   After a near-sleepless night (due to noisy dogs and cats) we departed early for Coba.  Due to me recuperating from surgery, Katherine had done all of the driving so far. Since I was feeling improved I offered to take over the wheel today and see how it goes. My first experience driving in Mexico was no great challenge: a mellow, 40-minute drive, most of the time on smooth, flat highway. I was well aware of the notorious Mexican speed-bumps called “topes”, carefully slowing down upon encountering one to avoid a bone-jarring mishap. If there is one road sign you should learn immediately upon driving in Mexico for the first time, it is this one!

We arrived at Coba Archeological Site at 7AM. After paying the parking lot attendant the $1.50 fee, we spent an hour walking around the nearby eastern shore of Laguna Coba (Coba is Maya for “water stirred by the wind”), scanning the marshy vegetation along the lake shore for Spotted Rails which are occasionally reported here. We encountered much pedestrian, bicycle, and automobile traffic here. No rails of any kind were heard or seen, just an Anhinga, Mangrove Swallow, and several Variable Seedeaters.  After paying the $3 admission fee we entered the archeological site and immediately were presented with a couple options for traversing the area: bicycle rental (for $2.50), or a “triciclo” cab (a large three-wheel bicycle, with a driver, for two, for $7.50). Local guides were also available, with rates negotiable. We chose to wander about, on foot, by ourselves at our own pace, to enjoy the calm before carloads and busloads of tourists arrive on package tours from Cancun later in the day. During the morning and early afternoon we followed dirt and crushed-stone paths for 4-5 hours, traveling perhaps two miles total, exploring the most accessible sites. We found them to be fascinating, although mostly crumbling, with little restoration in evidence. Most of the area is heavily-wooded so virtually the entire time here we were sheltered from the hot tropical sun by forest canopy. Katherine climbed up the lower portion of “Nohoch Mul”, the “great pyramid”, to get a view of the surrounding forest that seems to stretch to the horizon. This is the second-highest Maya pyramid in the Yucatan, and the only one you can legally climb. A rustic refreshment stand is conveniently-located near the pyramid, making it possible to enjoy a snack, and sip a cool drink, while enjoying the awesome surroundings. Birds were common, conspicuous, colorful, and relatively easy to approach since exposure to the thousands of tourists which walk (or ride) these trails each week have acclimated them to human activity. We encountered numerous, vocal and busy, mixed-species feeding flocks, which included Keel-billed Toucan, 3 species of Woodcreeper, 2 species of Trogon, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Ridgeway’s Rough-winged Swallow, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, 3 species of Jay, Black Catbird, Rose-throated Tanager, Blue Bunting, and Scrub Euphonia. In addition to the resident birds, there was an assortment of wintering vireos, thrushes, and warblers from the U.S and Canada. During mid-day colorful and unusual butterflies began to appear along the trail, including the famous Blue Morpho and Owl Butterfly.

We decided to have lunch at 2PM at the outdoor restaurant at Villas Arqueologicas Coba, a Club Med hotel, on the shore of Laguna Coba, a 10-minute walk from the archeological site. Both the hotel and restaurant were nearly-devoid of guests. Although we found our lunch to be delicious it was (predictably) expensive by Mexican standards: $40 for the both of us, including two entrees, bottled waters, espressos, and tip. After our meal we walked down to an observation area at the lake’s marshy shore where we watched two small crocodiles lurking in the shallows. A colorful sign warning of “Dangerous Crocodiles” on a grassy area next to the hotel was no joke: we saw a 7-foot long beast slowly cruising past this very spot earlier in the day. Also from the observation area we spotted a Limpkin preening itself, and an adult Northern Jacana attending a large juvenile.

After a 40-minute drive back to our hotel and a quick shower we took a walk around the town of Tulum seeking-out dining possibilities. We chose an open-air place popular with the locals, Taqueria Diaz. The food was tasty and inexpensive ($20 for us both). I had “achurra” (skirt steak), while Katherine chose “pollo asado” (grilled chicken), both accompanied by rice, beans, salad, a pile of tortillas and a soft drink.

December 18:    At 9AM, a van from Centro Ecologico de Sian Ka’an (C.E.S.I.A.K) arrived at our hotel carrying several other tour participants and two guides. We then drove a half-hour or so down the beach road to Boca Paila Camps, a facility operated by C.E.S.I.A.K., which consists of tents, tent-cabins, a restaurant and interpretive center. C.E.S.I.A.K. is a non-profit which funds local research and ecological education programs. In addition to offering tours by boat, kayak and bicycle rentals are available. For the romantic and adventurous, tent-cabins can be rented, complete with shared compost-toilets and rain-water showers, but no electricity. Rising above the palm trees, the roof of the main building commands a wide-ranging panoramic view of saltwater lagoons, beach, ocean, and mangroves. This building, powered exclusively by wind and solar, is where groups assemble for an introductory talk before embarking on tours of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve. Our tour cost was $70 each. From the observation deck of the main building the view was spectacular: looking in one direction one faces a turquoise sea and white-powder sand. In the other direction, one sees a seemingly-endless expanse of mangroves, lagoons, and canals. “Sian Ka’an” is Maya for “where the sky is born”, and from my breezy perch it was easy to see how this place got its name. At one point I was delighted to have the opportunity to look down at a pair of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures as they took advantage of the balmy breeze to effortlessly glide past, scanning the seashore for carrion. From this lofty vantage point I obtained very satisfying views of the vultures, noting the finer points involved in the identification of the species. After the orientation talk our two guides led us through the mangroves, pointing out the four species which occur here, as well as bromeliads, which unfortunately were not in bloom at this season. I noticed that one of the guides had the pointed tips of deer antlers piercing each of his ears. His partner sported a vulture feather in his hair and a chunk of local wood through his ear. Arriving at a boat launch at the lagoon’s edge, we split up into two groups: 4 tourists, a boatman and a guide, in each of the two outboard-motor boats. We started by motoring across a vast, but very shallow, saltwater lagoon, then winding our way up narrow, natural freshwater canals, through mangroves, and savannah wetland, observing dozens of multi-colored waterbirds as they flushed-up ahead of our boats : White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Tricolored Heron, and Wood Storks, among them. Lesser Yellow-headed (“savannah”) Vultures and Mangrove Swallows soared overhead, while Mangrove (Yellow) Warblers “chipped” from the mangroves. Our guide was generally knowledgeable and competent although I did hear him say that the Wood Stork “winters here in Yucatan after migrating south from its breeding grounds in Canada”.  The only time we set foot upon soil during the tour was when we stopped to visit a tiny Maya temple located along one of the canals. We all walked through the small stone structure; its ceiling was so low there was barely enough room to stand up. These natural canals once served as trade routes, allowing coastal Maya access to interior groups for the purpose of trade. Traders would stop at this mini-temple to pray and leave offerings to the gods. On the return trip we followed a canal passing through mangrove hammocks where some of the participants(not us) plunged in for swimming and snorkeling, while others(us) stayed in the boat, snapping photos, watching birds and tossing crumbs to small curious fish that nibbled at our fingertips. Eventually the canal we followed entered an estuary that flowed into the sea. Numerous large Iguanas inhabited the stone pilings below a bridge where local fishermen were casting their lines. A Sandwich Tern rested on the white-sand beach. We paused to study an American Crocodile at the edge of the mangroves and for a few seconds I spied a Clapper Rail (which our guide called a “king rail”) skulking as it walked along the mud between stalks of vegetation at the shore of the lagoon, nearly invisible. Once ashore we returned to Boca Paila Camps for a tasty and healthful lunch at the restaurant while enjoying its colorful, muralled walls depicting jungle and Maya scenes. For lunch (included in tour cost) I chose “mero” (grouper) served with salad, tortillas, and lemonade. Everything was fresh and delicious! The smiling staff here made sure everyone was happy and satisfied. By mid-afternoon it was time for our next activity of the day, a cooling swim in a “cenote” (spring-fed freshwater pool) near Tulum Beach.  Feeling refreshed, it was then time for the guides and driver to drop us back off at our hotel. There was an international mix of people together with us on the tour that day, from Sweden, Holland, Canada, as well as other Americans. The trip cost was $70 each which I felt to be a good value considering it lasted most of the day, the local guides were friendly and competent, a delicious lunch was included, as well as pick-up and drop-off at our hotel. It’s also supporting a good cause, C.E.S.I.A.K’s environmental research and education programs, in addition to encouraging responsible and sustainable ecotourism.

That night in Tulum, the highly-recommended restaurant, Don Cafeto’s, was our choice for dinner. I tried the “camarones de ajo” (garlic shrimp), and found it to be delicious.

December 19:    We got off to a late start this morning! We had planned on beating the crowds to the Tulum Archeological Zone, but it proved difficult to drag our sleep-deprived bodies out of bed. Then we lingered at the hotel’s breakfast table to visit with other guests. By the time we drove the two or three miles to our destination it was about 9:30 AM, already hot, and getting more crowded by the minute. Each day thousands of tourists on “package” tours converge on this site, coming by bus from Cancun and Playa del Carmen. We parked near the old lighthouse (which is unfortunately fenced-off with no access) and walked the dirt road bordering the mangroves a short distance to the site entrance. Here giant buses unloaded hordes of t-shirt-wearing, camera-toting tourists.

The ancient walled city of Tulum, perched atop a high limestone cliff overlooking a gorgeous blue-green Caribbean below, has gained fame not because of its architectural grandeur but rather because of its setting. It is one of Mexico’s best-known archeological sites and perhaps the only one with great swimming “next door”.  A wooden stairway leads to the beach below. Wading out into the warm, transparent sea, and looking up at the sun-bleached stone ruins perched on the cliff above is a spectacular and unforgettable experience. Bring a beach towel, swim suit, sun hat, and camera, when visiting Tulum, and you’ll be happy you did.  The ruins themselves are not impressive, especially after visiting Uxmal and Chichen Itza, but Tulum is unique because of its location and definitely worthy of the hour or so required to sufficiently cover the site. An added bonus are the many bold Iguanas  which pose for photographs, striking dinosaur-like stances as they sun themselves on stones or scurry across paths from one temple to another.

Birds I observed in the vicinity of the archeological zone included White-eyed Vireo, Ridgeway’s Rough-winged and Cave Swallows, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Indigo Bunting, Bronzed Cowbird, and Hooded Oriole.

In the afternoon we drove south on the bumpy, hard, limestone-and-sand road, 4 or 5 miles to have lunch at the Boca Paila Camps restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious lunch the previous day. On the way a dark-colored racer-type snake quickly slithered across the road ahead of us and into the mangroves. For lunch that today we enjoyed mushroom tacos, chicken taquitos, fresh fruit salad, and lemonade.

We returned to our hotel where Katherine showered while I spent some time observing life in the local neighborhood. From my perch on the balcony one story above the street I make this entry into my notebook: “Dogs run wild everywhere, sniffing endlessly and rooting through mounds of garbage by the roadside. Cats lurk in the shade, in the background. It appears that cats and dogs live together in harmony here. I see them together in close proximity without sign of inter-specific aggression. Merchants pedal large tricycles equipped with a rack in front from which they offer for sale everything from newspapers and various sundry items to edibles such as corn-on-the-cob, pastries, and shaved ice. The vendor will sing, shout, whistle, or “toot” a horn to attract attention while announcing what he or she is selling. Each merchant has his own unique style of advertising. Groups of men stand around on the street engaged in conversation. Young women stroll down the street in small groups, giggling and talking, some tending to small children. Older women are inside cooking and performing other household chores. Strange and interesting fragrances fill the air: smelly fish, barbecued chicken, burning wood, smoldering trash. Great-tailed Grackles strut around the ground everywhere, uttering their shrieks, chatters, trills and whistles. Fireworks explode and pop at random times throughout the day and night.”

For dinner we enjoyed another tasty, thin-crust pizza at La Nave.

December 20:      I was promised one more day of “serious birding” and this was my last chance! Despite very little sleep we managed to depart Tulum by 6:30 AM. Heading southwest on Highway 307 for an hour or so (60 miles) we reached the outskirts of Felipe Carrillo Puerto. As we approached the town a large sign arching over the highway welcomed travelers to “the heart of the Maya Region”. Very few tourists stop to visit this run-down, slow-paced town of 23,000. Our destination for the morning was Vigia Chico Road, a site described in Howell’s “Bird-Finding Guide to Mexico”, which begins not far from the center of town. Suffering from a touch of disorientation, we stopped at a Pemex gas station and received helpful directions from a cheerful restroom attendant. When going in to use the facilities, my wife handed him a $1 tip, and he tried to return half to her. Evidently half-a-dollar is the standard tip. When she insisted he keep all of it he handed her several “extra” squares of (scratchy) toilet tissue. Within a few minutes we located Vigia Chico Road and parked at the end of the paved portion of the road. Immediately a group of scrawny dogs came over to investigate. We tossed them pieces of our stale “Bunny-Bun” wholegrain biscuits while a security guard at a nearby building seemed only mildly curious at the sudden appearance of the oddly-behaving gringos. We set off at about 8 AM, returning to our vehicle at 2:30 PM, walking 4 or 5 miles on the flat, hard dirt-and-limestone road, first passing overgrown corn-fields and orchards then into scrub forest. Several locals passed us by, mostly on bicycles. One old, toothless fellow pedaled by on a rickety tricycle heavily-loaded with firewood. Two men carrying old rifles bicycled past, evidently seeking wild game, but we did not hear them fire a shot. I smiled at them and said “ hola, buenos dias”, and they replied similarly. A few pick-up trucks passed as well. A man appeared jogging down the road in sports clothes, carrying a glass jar. He stopped to greet us. We could see a small fish swimming in the jar. He spoke no English, but from what I could understand he had captured the fish in a nearby pond and intended to take it home to raise until it was large enough to make a meal of. He politely shook my hand, pointed at his wristwatch and indicated he had to return to work. It was a pleasant walk, with lots of easy-to-see birds as well as multi-colored butterflies and a few lizards skittering off into the brush (one was a basilisk, the other looked like a skink).  Although we encountered quite a few locals passing by on the road we never felt awkward or threatened by their presence. Birds included Plain Chachalaca, Aztec Parakeet (excellent close-up views of a pair perched on a tree-limb hanging over the road), Squirrel Cuckoo, Wedge-tailed Sabrewing, Canivet’s Emerald( one watched at leisure, feeding on red salvia flowers blooming in profusion along the road), Yucatan Woodpecker, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, Northern Bentbill, Yucatan Flycatcher, Long-billed Gnatwren, Yucatan Jay, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Spot-breasted Wren, Black Catbird, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Rose-throated Tanager, Black-headed Saltator, Blue Bunting, Green-backed Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole.

Exhausted, hot and hungry, we called it quits at 2:30 PM and headed into the town center of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in search of food. The first thing I noticed was that in this run-down, slow-paced town there were no tourists or tourist- oriented establishments, a big contrast to Tulum. Consulting our guide books it sounded like the restaurant at Hotel Esquivel would be a good bet for lunch. Despite the claim the restaurant was “on the main plaza, 100 meters from the bus station”, we failed to locate the place after an hour of intense searching. Even after getting directions from a traffic policeman and a store-owner, we had no luck. Most hotels and restaurants seemed either closed or abandoned. Giving up on lunch we settled for a cold coca-cola at the corner store, then found a seat in the shade at the main plaza in front of “Iglesia de Balam Nah”. This huge stone church was built by Maya using white slave labor (captured Spanish and non-Maya Mexicans). A colorful mural here reads: “The Maya region is not an ethnographic museum, it is a people marching forward”. A woman wearing typical Maya clothing approached us here offering hand-made blouses for sale. A few hawks appeared overhead riding warm thermals above the town. One was clearly a Short-tailed Hawk, the others too distant to identify with certainty. After getting very little sleep for the past two nights and walking five hot miles with only a few biscuits and mushy bananas to sustain us, we were feeling spent. As soon as we got our bearings it was back on the road for an hour drive back to Tulum. Along the way a Roadside Hawk flew low over the road, from one patch of scrub forest to another.

After a shower at our hotel we quickly made our way to El Pequeno Buenos Aires Argentine steakhouse for a carnivorous meal of unhealthily-large portions. Even the half-order of flank steak I chose was too big for my manly appetite (good news for the local dogs!). The guide books gave this place a good recommendation, but the meat I consumed was not of the quality I am accustomed to getting back home. Quantity is the main draw at this dining establishment. Mounds of meat on every table. The grilled vegetables accompanying the “carnage” were tough and tasteless. Actually, the highlight of our meal here was the friendly conversation we had with a young couple on vacation with their 10-month-old girl, from Fishhook, Alaska. One bit of advice to tourists dining here: carefully examine your bill. The waiter, otherwise a pleasant and helpful fellow, padded our bill with an extra $2 for a drink neither of us ordered.

Several times during the evening, and into the “wee hours”, a double-decker bus be-decked with flashing lights, and blasting out very loud music, zoomed past packed with merry-makers, winding its way through the streets of Tulum. Back at the hotel I took two sleeping pills, put earplugs in each ear, covered my head with pillows, and prayed for sleep (after two nights of virtually none). I fell asleep at about 10 pm, but some time after midnight I was jolted awake by unbelievably-loud, pounding  music. Later I learned it was originating from festivities at the fairground a few blocks away. It sounded to me like a live concert was taking place next door with the amplifiers directed at our room! This window-rattling noise continued until around 4 AM.

In retrospect: Knowing what I do now, I would have opted for a hotel at the beach a couple miles away rather than in town. These are more expensive and most lack electricity and other certain comforts, but the peace and quiet would be priceless. Tulum is the noisiest town I’ve ever visited, and besides, a full week is too long to spend here for a person as restless as me.

On another topic: Mattresses and pillows. Why are they so hard in Mexico?

December 21:    At 8:30 AM I dragged my poor, sleep-deprived body out of bed and made some coffee. From our balcony I gazed out at the usual morning scene: a group of men standing around a car with its hood propped up, staring at the engine, each man offering his opinion regarding the repair of the vehicle. Along the road large heaps of bagged trash rest atop mounds of concrete rubble. Steel re-bar pokes up from unfinished, or partially-demolished, concrete walls. Broken glass and animal feces litter the roadside (This is not a town for strolling barefoot!). Stray electrical wires hang down (live?) from above the cracked sidewalk. Here and there piles of sand, gravel, and rotting vegetation. Water tanks and propane tanks sit atop flat concrete roofs. Many roofs are fitted with horizontal plastic pipe to divert rainwater from flat roofs out onto the street. Large palms and other leafy tropical trees provide shady relief from the hot sun. Turkeys and chickens cackle and gobble in the distance. Traditional Maya-style, palm frond-and-mud homes contrast among the more modern houses. Many are surrounded by tall concrete walls (some imbedded with shards of broken glass), others protected by wrought-iron gates, and scrawny, barking (but tail-wagging) dogs. From what I have read in the guide-books, and have heard from fellow travelers, crime is relatively rare here.

We had a late breakfast at a small outdoor café run by a German couple, enjoying the excellent food and ambience. Actually, I must confess we lingered until noon, finding good conversation with a pleasant fellow who was born and raised in San Francisco. After breakfast we drove to the beach at Ana y Jose Hotel where we rented beach lounge chairs ($5 each) under the shade of palm trees. Our needs were attended to by a local Maya server who brought us drinks, chips and salsa while we chatted with other American tourists and did a little swimming in the warm, clear sea. We both agreed the swimming had been better at Hotel Paraiso’s “Nuddy Beach”. In the late afternoon it was backed to the hotel for a quick shower, then a 10-minute taxi ride ($6) back to Tulum Beach for dinner at Posada Margherita. Although this is only a couple miles from our hotel, Katherine and I had agreed not to take any chances by driving after dark during our stay in Mexico. This very popular Italian restaurant is located right on the beach and operated by genuine Italians. It’s a romantic, cozy, open-air place, with candle-lit tables, famous for its freshly-made pasta and organic, locally-produced ingredients. The entire restaurant and adjoining resort are powered by wind and solar. We enjoyed hand-made linguini pasta with rock lobster and shrimp. It was very delicious, although it could have used more vegetables. Dinner for two, with lemonade and espresso, cost us $90. After our meal we took a brief walk on the beach enjoying the tranquility and the sight of moonlight dancing on the surf beneath a black sky full of brilliant jewel-like stars.

December 22 :    Time to pack our luggage and prepare to depart Tulum  and Hotel Posada Luna del Sol where we have spent the past seven nights. While waiting for Katherine to finish packing I amused myself by tossing chunks of steak off the balcony. I still had left-overs from our meal at the Argentine steakhouse which I stored in the room’s refrigerator, not for my own consumption but as an offering to the neglected and abused canine inhabitants of the neighborhood. If any of the local humans saw me they would think I was a “loco gringo” for wasting perfectly-good “carne” on a dog. I stealthily pitched pieces of meat into the yard across the street and along the sidewalk below, then watched and waited. Finally a cat appeared, nervously slinking by, sniffing here and there. When it reached a fist-sized chunk of steak it excitedly lunged at the unexpected treasure, snatched it up in its jaws, then scaled a wooden fence to disappear into the shrubby yard next door. What a feast for a skinny Mexican cat!

At 9 AM we bid farewell to our hosts, Jack and Janet Kushner. Despite our insomnia, this was a special place to stay, run by two people with warm and sweet souls.  I had a tear in my eye when we drove away.

Before we got on the highway heading for Cancun we stopped to fill up the gas tank. Tourists are warned to keep a keen eye on gas pump attendants who are notorious for over-charging unsuspecting tourists here, but I experienced no problem. Heading north on Highway 307 I saw the only Cattle Egret of the trip just outside Tulum. Massive commercial and industrial developments become conspicuous as we approach Playa del Carmen. Several huge new resorts are under construction. This area is really “booming”. The stretch of highway between here and Cancun is lined with American “mega-stores” like Home Depot, Sam’s Club, and Office Max. A Common Black-Hawk circled low over scrub forest along the highway here.

We located the Alamo Rent-A-Car office at the Cancun Airport at 11 AM, a straight two-hour drive from Tulum. After a hassle-free check-in, we congratulated ourselves: During  500 miles of driving  we had no dents, scratches, cracked windshields, flat tires, over-heated engines, traffic tickets, roadkills, or break-ins !

Our flight from Cancun to Houston was delayed by an hour. Once we boarded the plane and settled-in for our two-hour flight, the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeakers announcing “technical problems” which prevented us from departing for another hour.

The remainder of our air travel went smoothly, however, and at 9:40 PM we finally touched-down back home in San Francisco. 

List of Birds and mammals, Yucatan Trip, December 9-22, 2007 (pdf)


A Guide To The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Steve N.G. Howell and Sophie Webb

A Bird-Finding Guide To Mexico, Steve N.G. Howell

A Field Guide To The Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico, Fiona Reid

Lonely Planet Guide To Yucatan, Daniel C. Schechter and Ray Bartlett

Moon Handbook To The Yucatan Peninsula, Liza Prado and Gary Chandler

The Rough Guide To The Yucatan, Zora O’Neill and John Fisher


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