Ocellated Turkey. Photo: Peter Waechtershaeuser/BIA /Minden Pictures

International

Where to Go Birding in El Petén, Guatemala: Part 1

Located in the Maya lowlands, Uaxactun is home to an astonishing diversity of birdlife and a growing network of trained guides.

“Exotic birds and ancient ruins are a great combination,” says guide Jóse Barrientos, who is among the first residents to welcome me to Uaxactun (pronounced "wah-shock-tune"). Located just north of the sprawling archaeological complex at Tikal, Uaxactun has some of the oldest known structures in the Maya World, including an ancient temple adorned with colossal masks representing sky serpents and jaguar gods. Once a celestial observatory, its sacred geometry is oriented to predict solstices and equinoxes.

Just a stone’s throw from the ruins, the village’s thatch-roofed houses surround a cleared area that was once an airstrip and is now a soccer field shared by barefoot children, chickens, dogs, and horses. Many of the village’s current residents are chicleros (gum collectors), who make a living sustainably gathering chicle, xate palm leaves, and allspice. The abundant wildlife in the surrounding forests includes monkeys, jaguars, deer, and anteaters.

And then there are the birds. The diversity here is astonishing, with jacamars, leaftossers, oropendolas, and puffbirds darting among the ruins. In the surrounding forests you can see and hear many of Central America’s most sought-after species, such as the Tody Motmot, Ocellated Turkey, Pheasant Cuckoo, and Yucatan Poorwill.

The Astronomical Observatory, Guatemala Uaxactun. Photo: Realy Easy Star/Alamy

“We have several great birding guides and many high-quality birds, and we charge about half of what guides charge at Tikal,” Barrientos says. “We even have a woman who cooks food for visitors.”

Unfortunately, most visitors to the area don’t hear about Uaxactun, and many of those who do know about this special place arrive on buses, with box lunches and their own guides.

“When that happens,” says Barrientos, “the community is not earning anything.”

Tody Motmot. Photo: Charles Nolder/Alamy

That might be about to change. Audubon has partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society-Guatemala and the country’s Tourism Board (INGUAT) to develop and promote bird tourism in communities like Uaxactun. Focusing on bird-rich areas where a large percentage of the populace lives below the poverty line, the Bird-Based Tourism Initiative is designed to build niche markets that support economic development, empower communities, and improve local lives—all while preserving and creating value for natural habitats.

In addition to training guides like Barrientos, the Audubon Society and the Petén Birder’s Club have been working with the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism to offer a birding-specific tour guide certification, which will further differentiate trained birding guides from generalist guides.

Since the project began in 2013, the number of people employed in bird-related tourism at project sites in Guatemala has increased 20 percent—and among trained bird guides the average yearly income grew from $2,123 to $4,590. Thus far, guides at nearby Tikal have seen most of the income growth. But Uaxactun’s guides hope that a new website and new trail signs (courtesy of the Audubon) will help to attract more visitors to this lush and vibrant birding locale. 

Marcial Córdoba of WCS-Guatemala believes that it will take some time for bird tourism to gain traction in Uaxactun. “The area has great tourism potential, but most people are not aware of its proximity and easy access from Tikal,” says Córdoba. “We need to market this as a place where people can see birds and have adventures. We’re close to so many things to do: archaeology, camping, hiking, artisans, and restaurants.”

In their free time, Uaxactun’s guides have taken it upon themselves to promote conservation in the community. They’ve built recycling bins, organized village cleanup days, and put up anti-littering signs. “All of this helps to create a mentality that our natural resources here are worth protecting,” Barrientos says. 

Marciál Córdoba, who coordinated the bird-guide training program in the Petén rregion, is a field coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Photo: Tom Clynes

Birders who have visited Uaxactun say it’s one of the best-kept secrets in Central American birdwatching. “But if it stays a secret too long our trained guides have to go someplace else to find work,” Córdoba says. “Without any economic benefit the conservation ethic in the community will be much harder to sustain.”

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If You Go . . . 

Where to start: Uaxactun is located in the Petén region, about 20 kilometers north of Tikal. Flores is the starting point for most adventures in Petén, which is known for its archeological richness as well as its flora and fauna.

Where to arrive: Avianca and TAG serve Mundo Maya International Airport via Guatemala City.

Who to contact: Petén Birder’s Club offers birding/archaeology tours to the region’s major archaeological sites, including Uaxactun, Tikal, and Yaxha—as well as local birding hotspots such as Ixpanpajul Park, Cerro Cahui, and Las Guacamayas Biological Station. Contact: info@petenbirdersclub.com

How to find more information: Check Audubon’s Birding and Ecotourism in Guatemala page for general info.

Take a tour: If an all-inclusive tour is what you’re after, Rockjumper offers Guatemalan birding adventures that can include a Tikal extension.

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