The Magic of Tikal – part 2

Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 2020

The early morning was warm but humid. The kind of humidity that makes you feel cold and clammy even though it’s nearly 80 degrees fahrenheit (26C). My phone alarm sounded off from beside my head, but I was already awake. The Howler Monkeys beat my phone to the punch, waking us up well before sunrise.

There is something deeply gratifying and almost spiritual about waking up before the first light of dawn, especially when you’re camping. Hearing the rainforest wake up while sipping your coffee is something that I think everyone needs to experience. It can remind us how much this planet is truly not only ours. It belongs to everything. And that morning in Tikal, it belonged to the rainforest; to the Brown Jays, the Howler Monkeys, the Chachalacas, and the Social Flycatchers.

Our group was meeting us at the little comedor at 6:30am before we started the guided Tikal tour. We had booked the tour with the help of our hostel, and since we planned to be in the park already (benefits of camping), we arranged to meet the group when they arrived to the village.

Right on time, at 6:52am, a van arrived with tourists and few tour guides. Louis was to be our guide for the English-speaking group. Immediately we knew it was going to be a great day, Louis was quick and funny, and his accent when speaking English would flow from a more typical Spanish-speakers accent to a Texas accent and then to a strong Australian accent!

The morning remained humid and steamy. Fog hung over the forest like clouds. Our first few stops were to get an idea of how incredibly skilled the Mayans were when building the temples. Louis talked about one complex that would create perfectly-aligning shadows on the winter and summer solstice, and the vernal and autumnal equinox!

our first view of the mighty Temple I
Ocellated Turkeys around the base of Temple I

We walked down the trails and towards the main plaza of Tikal, picking up a few good birds along the walk like Gartered Trogon, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, and Ocellated Turkey. We even saw all 3 species of toucans: Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Araçari, and Northern Emerald-Toucanet!

Once at the central plaza, I started looking for the Orange-breasted Falcons that were rumored to be nesting on the tall temples. Louis saw my binoculars and long camera lens and deduced that I must be a birder, saying he was a birder himself! In fact, he is a bird guide along with his son! After about 20 minutes of walking around the plaza in total wonderment of the the whole thing, Louis asked us if we found the Orange-breasted Falcon yet. I replied with an optimistic “not yet!”

He motioned over to the tall trees on the other side of the plaza.
“You might want to check out that bird. I don’t have binoculars but I think that might be a good one.” he said as he pointed to a large bird sitting on the bare branches of the tallest tree.

“THAT’S IT! THATS THE FALCON!” literally erupted from me as I pulled down my binoculars with a huge smile. I thanked and high-fived Louis before Stephanie and I hurried closer. We climbed the steps of some structures under the bird to get a better angle. Ultimately, we got incredible looks at this one bird perched overlooking the plaza full of people.

the Orange-breasted Falcon!

With my main target bird found and photographed, we walked back to meet the group and show Louis our photos. Excitedly, we brought our group in to look at my shots and point out the bird across the plaza. He used it as a moment to talk about the falcon and bird conservation in Guatemala. We could not have gotten any luckier with who our guide was!

standing in front of Temple I

We worked our way through the trails linking the main plaza to Temple III, and along the way we found a small Army Ant swarm! The swarm was being attended by a group of Ruddy Woodcreepers and a Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, both of them life birds!

Temple III has a fantastic viewing platform on the top. The stairs leading up to it are pretty steep, but the view from the top is unreal!

the view from Temple III of the tops of Temple I (right) and Temple II (left)

At Temple IV, Louis and his son ended the tour at the small drink bar. We tipped and thanked him a million times for being such a great guide and steward. From there, we climbed up to the viewing platform on Temple IV, where I saw the pair of Orange-breasted Falcons fly by! Along with my lifer Slaty-tailed Trogons and Central American Spider Monkeys near the base of the temple, this was a great way to end the official tour before we started the 30 minute walk back to camp.

On the walk out, I found my lifer Eye-ringed Flatbill! An oddly-but-appropriately named flycatcher of the lowland rainforest around Tikal.

We exited the archeological site, got a delicious smoothie from the restaurant at the visitor center and relaxed. It was mid-day and getting truly hot. Vultures circled above the clearing of the village, including a few King Vultures.

In the evening, I returned to the temples to do some more dedicated birding around the ruins. Another great benefit of staying for a couple nights is that you can explore the area in the evening, after the majority of tourists leave. It was surreal to wander the temples in the low sunlight, completely alone. It’s still one of my most favorite moments from the whole trip.

I found several good birds that evening, including Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts, White-bellied Emeralds, and a male Great Curassow! When you quietly and slowly walk the trails, you never know what you might see through the forest understory.

Day 2 inside the ruins

Our first day going inside the archeological site was to tour the area with a guide, our second day was to explore the ruins on our own and go to the areas not visited during the guided trip.

We arose early, going through the second gate and getting our last wrist band before 7am. Getting in before 7 means you beat the daily tours that usually enter the area just after 7am. The trails are dark, as the sun is filtered by low-hanging fog and the dense canopy of the massive rainforest. Birds singing from high up and down low, but remaining totally out of sight. There is almost a sense of emptiness in the trails. Paradoxically, there is more plant and animal biodiversity along that trail than in most of the world!

As we walked the trails, we heard the song of a Mayan Antthrush! Formerly considered one species, the Black-faced Antthrush was recently split, with Mayan Antthrush to the north in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras and the southern species from Nicaragua going south through South America to Brazil keeping the name Black-faced Antthrush.

That bird was the last major target I wanted to see before we left Tikal. So, we made it our morning’s mission to see it! We traced its song as close to the bird as we could get while keeping on the trails. It was somewhere just off the trail, deep in the brushy understory, singing every 20 seconds.

Straining to see the bird, we quietly played its song back to it. Suddenly, it sounded like it was singing from a high perch! The Mayan Antthrush jumped up to a horizontal branch, and through a small window in the green, we were able to watch it sing! Success!
Seeing these birds is often pretty hard, and we were ecstatic that we had quality looks at one first thing that morning!

Mayan Antthrush! Hopefully I can return one day to get a better photo!

Riding the high of actually seeing that amazing bird, we continued on the dark and (for now) empty trails through the rainforest. Gartered Trogons sang off in the distance, we spotted a Lesson’s Motmot motionless in the understory. Melodious Blackbirds, Montezuma Oropendolas, and Red-lored Parrots calling non-stop.
Through the rainforest sounds, we heard the low haunting calls of a Great Tinamou. And this one sounded close! Stephanie and I tried to triangulate where the bird was calling from. It can be really hard to locate these low sounds in the rainforest understory. After 15 minutes of walking around and starring intently into the forest, I saw movement.

“There it is!” I shouted, but in a whisper voice.
I quickly set up the spotting scope and soon we had scope views of a Great Tinamou as it stood in one place deep in the forest!

Stephanie and I watched the Tinamou (a large chunky grouse-like thing) as it walked around and called for the better part of 10 minutes. Soon, Stephanie spotted a second one! We stood in total awe as we watched these two mysterious birds of the rainforest as they jumped, hopped, and ran around each other! They jumped and spun 180 degrees, each mirroring the other! It was AMAZING! Not only to see a Tinamou, but to watch as they behaved naturally, displaying and interacting with each other!

I was able to get this really bad photo of one, facing away, mostly obscured by the plants of the forest floor.

the back of a Great Tinamou

The rest of the morning was completely divine. We wandered the ancient ruins, in awe of the complex buildings and towers and temples as the sun shown through the breaks in the masonry. We spent part of the morning in the main plaza, where again we found the Orange-breasted Falcon. This time, it was perched atop Temple I.

Temple V

My favorite spot we found was at Temple V. It’s not part of the regular tour route so make sure you take some time to walk over there on your own. It’s nearly as big as some of the main temples, but off in its own area surrounded by forest. It was, by far, the most beautiful of the temples!

It conjured images of the lost world that the main plaza did not. I could almost hear the voices and sounds of a busy community over 1,000 years ago.

The sounds of the lost world all but gone, the bird songs remain, unchanged from when this place was alive with human culture. I could be seeing the same descendent lineage of Montezuma Oropendolas that the Mayans once watched in 800AD.

Tikal is truly one of the most spectacular places I have had the privilege to visit. Maybe the single most spectacular, at least when it comes to man-made environments.

We walked the lesser trails around the complex and circled back toward the village and our camp. Along the way, we found a number of life birds in the understory! Sepia-capped Flycatchers, Stud-tailed Spadebills, Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, and Black-throated Shrike-Tanagers.

That night, I chased down the Mottled Owls that called every night around the campground, finally seeing one! After getting quite sweaty stomping around in the humid night, I braved the showers at the campground. They were possible the WORST showers I have ever had the supreme discomfort of using! Two of the three stalls didn’t even have shower heads, just a pipe shooting cold water straight down upon you. Not to mention the questionable state of the floors and walls. Probably the least problematic of the torturous shower was a giant cockroach sitting in the corner of the room.

As terrible as it was, it really felt good to get cleaned up. The cold water was quite a relief as well, cooling the body enough that when we finally laid down for the night in our tent, we were somewhat comfortable; not instantly sweating in the humid air.

For our last morning, I walked the old airstrip trail one final time to see what else I could find. Luck was on my side in the foggy air; I finally tracked down a mysterious song. The piercing slurred whistle of “PEEeeeeeewwwWIT PEEP!” I heard throughout our 3 days in Tikal at last had a source. A Northern Schiffornis! The chocolate-colored chunky bird flew into view, sat motionless for a few seconds, screamed out its song once, and then slipped back into the forest not to be seen again.
My second lifer of the morning came when I was picking through a mixed feeding flock of warblers and others. The flock was made up of a Magnolia Warbler, 2 Black-and-White Warblers, a Hooded Warbler, and a Golden-winged Warbler along with 2 White-eyed Vireos and 2 Spot-breasted Wrens. The new bird was bigger, and when it hopped into view, I could see a gray body and some red on its head and throat. It was a male Rose-throated Tanager! Too quick for a photo, it jumped out of sight and moved on with the rest of the flock.

I was happy, my last morning brought me 2 new birds, both of which are hard to find species and birds I would not see again for the entire trip.

We packed up our tent and backpacks, and waited for our bus back to Flores. We left Tikal around midday, and by the time we returned to Flores around 1:30pm, it was already quite hot and sunny. “Time a for real shower and some lunch” we said to ourselves as we dropped our backpacks back in the dorm room of Hostel La Terraza.

We spent the evening recounting our camping trip over some cheap beer and delicious food. From here, it’s on to the next part of our Guatemala adventure; Semuc Champey!

eBird checklist for guided Tikal morning:

eBird checklist for Tikal afternoon 1:

eBird checklist for solo Tikal morning 2:

eBird checklist for Tikal afternoon 2:

eBird checklist for Old Airstrip trail morning:

Cost and logistics

Entry tickets cost Q150 / $20.00 USD per day.
Entry tickets can be purchased at a BanRural bank or at the first entrance gate upon arrival.
Remember, you only need to get tickets for the days you will enter the archeological site behind the second gate!

Getting there/away
You can take a bus, taxi, or colectivo. Buses depart for Tikal from the terminal in Flores. Take a tuktuk and ask the driver to take you to a bus to Tikal. Your hostel can also help you find the right bus or colectivo.
Our bus cost us Q50 / $6.50 USD and included the return! There are scheduled returns from Tikal back to Flores. Once you are in the Tikal village, ask for the times as they seem to change.

There are 4 places to stay at Tikal; 1 campground and 3 lodges.
Camping costs Q50 / $6.50 USD per person per night. You may rent a hammock with mosquito net for an additional Q85 / $11.00 USD.
Camping offers a real budget-traveler option, while the 3 different lodges offer varying degrees of comfort from cabins to full rooms to open-air bungalows. Prices range from Q360 / $47.00 USD a night for a single bed to Q850 / $110.00 USD for a triple bed room.

There are a couple comedores (eatery) on the right side of the entrance road right as you get to the tourist village. They offer inexpensive local food from 6:30am to sometime after sunset.
The restaurant at the visitor center has more options, but is also a little more expensive. We brought enough food to cook our own meals, but getting a cold fruit smoothie during the hottest part of the day was well worth it!
There is a small shack selling cold drinks at the base of Temple IV(4), so keep some cash on you as you walk the complex.

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One Reply to “The Magic of Tikal – part 2”

  1. Joshua,

    This is an amazing journal format… and full of lifetime experiences! Thank you for sharing…I so enjoy every bit of it and congratulate you on your work!

    Best, M

    Michele Falivene 643 Bobcat Lane Hamilton, MT 59840 303.517.3301

    Liked by 1 person

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