The Maya Forest, the largest tropical rainforest north of the Amazon Basin, stretches across northern Guatemala, southern Mexico, and much of Belize. The region is peppered with ancient ruins, including Tikal, a ceremonial center with magnificent temples, pyramids, palaces, and public squares.
Surrounded by lush jungle, Tikal now receives hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world each year. For many visitors, a close-up encounter with a howler monkey, an agouti, or a rare Orange-breasted Falcon will be at least as memorable as the impressive architecture.
My day of birding among the ruins begins just after sunrise, when Marciál Córdoba drives us through the park entrance and immediately spots a Great Potoo, a large Muppet-looking bird posing as a tree branch above the road.
“Some people think the potoo is a bad omen,” Córdoba says. “It’s associated with the underworld.”
Córdoba was 10 years old when his father was assassinated, a victim of Guatemala’s long Civil War. Soon afterward, the boy joined his siblings in selling soda to Tikal’s thirsty tourists, carrying cases of bottles up and down hills and pyramids. Córdoba eventually became a field coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
WCS Guatemala was the National Audubon Society's partner in northern Guatemala to further the organization's Bird-Based Tourism Initiative, an innovative guide-training program that promotes conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean by creating economic opportunities in regions with exceptional bird life and biodiversity. With funding from the Inter-American Development Bank and support from the Guatemala Tourism Board (INGUAT), project planners developed a bird-guide training curriculum tailored to the local culture, as well as basic business, hospitality, and English-language training. The program also supplied materials for guiding, such as books and binoculars.
Near the park’s pedestrian entrance, the binoculars distinguish the three birding guides—Melvin Herlindo García, Kevin Reyes, and José Pinelo—from other certified guides waiting for clients. Another distinction is their fees: Whereas the going rate for a half-day architecture tour in Tikal is $60, specialized bird guides command $100.
“This project really is an investment in families,” Reyes tells me. “People are happy to pay for the combination of expertise in birds and ruins, and the money goes directly to local families. There’s no middleman company to siphon this income out of the community.”
Reyes is one of 24 Guatemalan men and women who completed advanced training; another 101 guides completed basic-level training. Each guide typically works one or two days per week. Though more work would be welcome, there’s never any jostling for clients or any pressure to hire a guide.
“This is a sacred site,” García says. “To protect the visitor experience, we have a rotation system to determine which guide is next. We don’t approach visitors; we wait for them to approach us.”
When they’re not with clients, the guides practice English together and trade information on birds and the ecosystems they’re working in. Their camaraderie is evident as we walk among the ruins, spotting tinamous, parrots, motmots, aracaris, and antthrushes. Near the edge of the forest, García spots a Keel-billed Toucan poking its multicolored beak out of a tree cavity where it has made a nest. Atop one of the tall pyramids, Reyes points out several neotropical raptors.
Though Guatemala is losing more than 10 percent of its forests annually, the forests immediately surrounding Tikal are healthy and well-protected, and the wildlife is abundant. As we make our way toward the gate, the late afternoon sunlight is just as enchanting as the first morning rays—and it seems to bring out just as many birds.
“Sixty-six species,” Córdoba says, stopping to check his tally. “That’s not a bad day of birding.”
If You Go . . .
Where to start: Flores is the starting point for most adventures in Petén. Guatemala’s biggest and northernmost department is known for its archeological richness, its fauna, and its biosphere reserve.
Where to arrive: Avianca and TAG serve Mundo Maya International Airport via Guatemala City.
For more information: Check Audubon’s Birding and Ecotourism in Guatemala page for general info.