Chapter 11.  Guatemala II

Day 66 – March 18 – Amatitian

(Shari) “Oh no, go away”, I mumble as I hear Tailgunner Bob thump tires at 4:30 AM. We want to get an early start today since it is a border crossing day and also a 200-mi. trip. Darkness barely lifts when we pull out of the gate. Making good time we reach the El Salvador - Guatemala border by 9:30. I ask permission to park the whole group before beginning paperwork processing and we are directed to a rocky parking lot. I gather papers and passports and take them to the official who initials us out of the country. In less than an hour we can move on to Guatemala. Again I ask an official where we can park the group and he directs me to a parking lot around the immigration building. Many young men hang around trying to help us but I seem to know more about getting vehicles out than they do. I follow my border crossing procedures and take all 22 passports to immigration. Here the passports are scanned and handed back to me. The passengers are now done. The hardest part of any border crossing is the paperwork needed for the vehicles. Here we are asked for copies of El Salvador vehicle paper, driver’s license, title, and passport of the drivers. Luckily I have them all in a folder and we pull papers one by one in rig order as the official staples them together. He then inspects the vehicles, matching license plate and VIN numbers with the paperwork. At this point I always think we are almost finished but he disappears inside an air-conditioned building. I am disappointed he does not ask me to join him as it is 101º by our RV thermometer. Bert gets my little 3-legged stool and I wait. And wait. And wait some more. The pesky young man says it will be 15 min. Thirty minutes later he tells me they are almost done and only 5 min. to go. Thirty minutes more pass. We are asked to pay 480 quetzals at the bank. A little while later the official realizes that Gilford has a trailer and we need to pay 40 more. The official squeezes his thumb and index finger almost shut, indicating he is almost done. Ten minutes later, we have to pay 40 more quetzals for Tom’s trailer. We wait another 15 min. and then another. Finally we have our paperwork and we can affix a sticker to our windshield and stuff a piece of paper in our secure plastic bag with our passport, get checked at the gate and move on. It was not a bad border crossing and it took only 4 hr.

We leave as a group and travel as a group for the next 100 mi. I know we are tired and would like a rest break but it is very difficult to find a parking place big enough for all 12 rigs. I find a wide spot on the road and we barely fit but we get our break. While the group waits at a gas station a half-mile from the campground, Bert and I check it out. At first I am concerned since the gate guard does not seem to know that we are arriving. I am asked for a contract, which luckily I have handy. We are allowed inside the park. I notice armed guards are dressed in uniforms with red berets. We are shown the facilities and are pleasantly surprised to have water, electric and sewer at every site. The sites are small and narrow and it takes 2 hr. to park the group calling them in one at a time. Bert tells me who he wants to come. I stand in the street waving so each rig knows where the turn is located and Arlene stands at the bottom of the entrance hill to show the location of the left turn. Meanwhile Bob and Bert park the rigs as quickly as possible. I have just enough time to make popcorn and piña coladas before our 5:30 meeting. After the meeting I go around asking individuals if they want a tour to Antigua on Saturday. I don’t get any takers at the $50 per person our contact wants for a bus and guide. Pat and I do decide to go with Panama 2 tomorrow on their tour. They are parked at a water park right next door to us.

(Bert) This morning’s drive along CA2, the coastal highway, changes my impression of El Salvador. Weaving through mountains before they drop into the sea, we see steep cliffs, palm-studded playas and occasional views of the blue Pacific. Poor housing is absent, replaced by inviting resorts and estates and cute ocean side villages, each named after a different playa: Playa San Diego, Playa Conchalio, Playa El Majahual and a dozen more. Vegetation is still dry, yet easier to imagine as lush in the rainy season. The highway is good again, although a perpetual serpentine path rounding the mountain folds and traffic speed reduced to 10-30 mph as we follow numerous overburdened semis, some “doble”, carrying sugar cane to the factory.

We reach the Guatemala border around 9:30 and this one we Wagonmasters and Tailgunners handle without border help and we are through by 1:30, the biggest holdup again being the time it takes for an official to type forms into the computer.

Today’s maneuvers move like clockwork, everyone paying close attention to the work at hand. Parking at our Amatitian campsite takes nearly an hour and a half, with Shari calling in one or two rigs at a time from staging at a gas station and proceeding without a hitch as each one backs into especially narrow spaces between trees and concrete picnic tables. For the first time since forever we all have full hookups, although the electricity is a marginal 15-amp 97-110-volt supply and we frequently blow the circuit breaker with only lights and computer laptops pulling power.

Day 67 – March 19 – Cerro Alux, Tecpán, Chichicastenago and Panajechel

(Bert) To reach Cerro Alux - pronounced “ah loosh” and named after a small mythical spirit form, a Maya version of a leprechaun - we skirt the edges of Guatemala City amidst crowded expressways and in view of distant conical volcanoes. We divert on a rough mountain road climbing to Sendarios de Alux in pine-oak forest at 7220 ft. As we step out of the vans, the pleasant coolness of this high elevation forest is immediately apparent. Arriving before gate opening, we walk along the road among towering pines.

We are in new habitat again, so we quickly add new birds to the list, including many life birds: White-eared Hummingbird, Tufted Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Black-capped Swallow, Gray-silky Flycatcher, Olive Warbler, Hooded Grosbeak, Elegant Euphonia and more. Chris is the first to find a Blue-and-white Mockingbird. He sees it frequently in quick movement; the rest of us keep missing it. I try a recording and eventually two of the mockingbirds fly across the road and into the tall trees at the other side, just enough of a look for us to see pure white undersides and dull blue topside. It isn’t until much later that we see them on the ground in open view and can add black masks to its field marks.

When the gate opens we are watching Rufous-collared Robins when I see a small motmot drop from a tree into the grass. Announcing “Blue-throated Motmot” causes a rush to the spot where I am standing. The motmot springs to a distant branch and poses for us, giving us opportunity to see its blue throat and petite size and a tail unnotched in contrast to similar motmots. The bird remains in the area throughout the morning and later I get close enough for photos.

For hours we hear singing Brown-backed Solitaires. The distinctive call reminds me of a cascading waterfall of tiny pieces of broken glass, falling in slow motion. Strongly incented to find the singer, we diligently search the densely-leaved tree tops. I’m hiking with Lee and Tom when I finally locate a singing solitaire. From my directions, Tom quickly locates it but I need to repeatedly reposition Lee and invent multiple ways of describing the solitaire’s position in a maze of similar looking branches and leaves. Lee is one of the sharpest-eyed birders if the bird so much as flicks its wing, but like most of us he has a tough time at finding a bird at rest in a hidden location. For many minutes, we watch the solitaire singing, an experience as rewarding as being entertained by a concert pianist at Carnegie Hall.

Too soon, we leave Cerro Alux in pursuit of Pink-headed Warbler at Tecpán, perhaps the best location in Guatemala to find this rare warbler. Our transit is slowed by a tedious traffic jam in Chimaltenango. We pass McDonald’s and Burger King, passing up the opportunity mostly because it is too early for lunch. By the time we reach Tecpán we are hungry. However, the three restaurants proposed by our van driver each are slow dining and we are anxious to continue birding. In Spanish, Chris asks for a fast-food restaurant, getting a response that there are none. In the process we also learn that the van drivers do not know where the birding site is. How can that be? The tourist bus company was contracted by a Guatemalan birding tour company specifically to take us to the forests of Cerro Tecpán. I dig out my notes, taken from a bird-finding guidebook, on how to get to the bird site. The directions are vague yet good enough to follow. However, Chris’s translation is ignored by the driver and he walks into a restaurant instead. When he returns he drives off without saying a word. We assume he found a fast dining restaurant and the location of the forests. Instead, he turns down a different road than my directions dictate, wanders aimlessly through the narrow and congested streets of Tecpán and finally comes to a standstill at a street too narrow to enter. Again asking for directions we eventually realize he is mad at us for skipping the restaurant he suggested because unlike the rest of us he has not eaten breakfast and now he intends to drive up the nearest mountain in frustration. Passing a tiny shop we ask him to stop so that we can buy snacks and drinks. Among three adjacent shops we buy enough to suffice and continue out of the back side of Tecpán and up a rough mountain road. The road peters out and we suggest he stop before he gets stuck or we fall off the cliff. We walk from the vans farther uphill, now doubtful that we are high enough elevation to find the Pink-headed Warbler. Nonetheless, the birding is interesting and we add Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Greater Pewee, Yellow-eyed Junco and Black-capped Siskin. Soaring over the canyon, a high-flying Hook-billed Kite, is identified by profile, and a bit later we watch an unusual form of Red-tailed Hawk, this one being completely jet black except for a bright rufous tail, a form I only remember seeing once before, not far from home in Texas. While we wait for everyone to return to the vans, Nelda spots a Red-faced Warbler and we all rush to her location to watch this very attractive bird. Our departure is delayed once again when I see an Empidonax which I think is Pine Flycatcher. Chris and I quickly take dozens of photos as others study the bird. Pine is remarkably similar to Hammond’s, a species that winters in this area. Chris and I believe this one is Pine Flycatcher and when it calls briefly, Chris is convinced it cannot be Hammond’s. I’m glad we also have excellent photos to back up our identification. I wish I had the same for the Empidonax I saw this morning at Cerro Alux that I thought was Hammond’s.

Amazingly, the afternoon ends with Chris getting seven lifers, Lee and I each four, and the others many more – evidence of how different these Guatemalan mountain habitats are from other areas we have birded.

(Shari) Pat accompanies me on an outing to Chichicastenago and Panajechel, riding with Panama 2 on their excursion. Bob and Gilford remain at camp and the rest go birding. At 6 AM, Pat and I walk the short block to the water park that the Panama 2 calls home these days. We board the bus and drive through beautiful country. We are going into the mountains and the road twists and turns more than cooked spaghetti. Sometimes the bus driver has to honk his horn to let others know he is coming around the curve. The scenery is gorgeous: canyons, rivers, volcanoes, valleys with individual plots cultivated with crops in varying shades of green. We enter Maya country and start to see tradition dress. Out in force are women wearing colorful blouses and skirts carrying babies on their backs in colorful wraps. Men also wear colorful garb and carry bundles on their backs. Today is market day and people by the thousands go to town to buy supplies. If they cannot walk, they ride the “chicken buses”. These buses are U.S. school buses painted red, yellow and other bright colors, generously trimmed in chromed topside racks, handles and bars and loaded with dozens of people. Some buses are so full that the younger boys and men ride outside hanging on to ladders. Goods are piled on top of the buses if there is no room inside. Pat and I actually see a woman with a live chicken board the bus. The chicken is not happy and wiggles and shakes to get loose from her grip and the ties on its legs.

We arrive at “Chichi” to throngs of people. Many tourists go here yet I find most of the people dressed in native garb. The shopping area covers about four square blocks, but because of the crowds Pat and I stick to the outskirts. We make as many purchases as our 2-hr. time allotment allows, plus we visit a church. Individual vendors come up to us, are in our face and try to hawk their goods. “Good price for you; only 100 quetzals”. “For you I make it 80, but you can pay 200 if you want”. One girl follows us for blocks trying to get us to buy a tablecloth. We try to get rid of her by stepping inside a shop but to no avail. We try to get rid of her by telling her no. Later I get forceful with the no and tell her to go away. Even that does not even work. Only when we go inside the church grounds does she leave. Vendors are everywhere. They are in shops, outside the shops and down the middle of the closed-to-car streets. Besides stepping between goods for sale, we have to avoid people sitting on the ground, eating food or selling their stuff. It is a zoo but a zoo I am glad to experience.

At noon we walk to our restaurant for lunch. This place has been in existence for over 100 yr. and our waiters look as if they have been there that long. They are dressed in traditional colorful Maya garb and we learn that one is 81 yr. old. We are served soup, an avocado salad, a traditional plate of chicken, steak, pork, rice, beans, cauliflower, corn on the cob, bread, and ice cream and coffee. We are very full after eating all that and I think many on the bus take a snooze while it drives to Panajachel. As we approach the town, we see Lake Atitlán far below, a beautiful site with the volcanoes on the sides playing hide and seek in the mist. The town is clean and not all that crowded. Here we are only allowed 30 min. and Pat and I dash around making quite a few purchases before our time is up. Our guide has told us to bargain. If a vendor starts out at 200 quetzals we should offer 80 and work our way up to the middle. I get everything I want for less than half of the starting price. My, oh my, do I wish I could be here longer. But then I guess I may go broke. Our ride back is very tedious due to a 1 hr. traffic jam and slow moving traffic on the crowded highway, so we don’t get home until 7:45.

Day 68 – March 20 – Los Tarrales Reserve

(Shari) We load into two vans for our overnight trip to Los Tarrales, a private reserve about 2 hr. from our campsite. This is Holy Week and is celebrated with much fanfare south of the U.S. border. Today we are treated to small parades almost a cross between Mardi Gras, Halloween and Easter. Parades of people pour from the side streets, many wearing costumes and masks carrying differing props from pompoms to pig heads and baby doll heads, strange but interesting to look at. I am pleasantly surprised at our accommodations at Los Tarrales. The group goes birding with a guide while I accompany the manager around the grounds to look at the rooms. I find that each of us will have a private room with bath, except Judy who shares with me and John who shares with Bert. I make room assignments based on a deck of cards. I assign each room a number corresponding to a number on a card. Again the group draws a card to determine where each couple will sleep. Simple, but I also think fair. Our meals are good with plenty of cooked fresh vegetables, homemade bread and watermelon and pineapple for dessert. Since I was up at 5 AM, I turn out the light by 9. Judy has been asleep for about 20 min. already.

(Bert) Our early start precludes getting stuck in Maundy Thursday traffic and it is not until we drive through the small village of Patulul that we encounter holiday evidence. We are at a standstill when men in frightful masks, toy guns and flowing costumes accost our van windows. Children line the streets watching the action and hurriedly scamper down an alley when a bogeyman chases after them. Ten minutes later we see what everyone is waiting for, when a parade of costumed characters passes beside our stalled vehicles.

We arrive at Los Tarrales, dump our bags in one of the rooms and are anxious to begin birding. With so many birds already seen, we are now selective on what we are after. Clay presents our birding guide Josue – pronounced “ho-sway” which would translate into Joshua in English – with a marked list of want-to-see birds. After a quick survey of the list, Josue tells us that almost all are high elevation birds. We begin formulating a plan to seek these out with an early morning start tomorrow. Meanwhile, Josue will go for the few that occur at our present 2523-ft. elevation. Soon we find Berylline Hummingbird, a much duller bird than I had envisioned for such a jeweled name. Climbing on a forested trail, we stop at a lookout over a partially cleared area centered by a platform feeder piled high with overripe bananas. After spending an endless time trying to understand directions to a White-winged Tanager that everyone sees except me – I was looking at the wrong tree fork – a brilliant red male lands on the feeder where a White-throated Robin fed moments earlier.

Continuing on the trail, we see Blue-tailed Hummingbird, another hummer duller than I expected. Perhaps it takes a sunlit feeder to bring out its colors, not the shaded forest where we find it. We are approaching a bamboo stand when Josue asks us to wait while he goes ahead. The bamboo grows in dense clumps, rising tall above us and arching over to make a complete canopy. Two people at a time, Josue motions us forward to stand behind him as he aims his laser beam near where the Tody Motmot rests in bamboo. The tiny motmot changes perches and more of us can see it now, still in the dark shadows of the bamboo.

After a leisurely lunch served in the long porch that serves as a dining room, we start birding again at 3 PM. We pass an old stand of native bamboo called Tarral, or in the plural los tarrales, the namesake for this private reserve and former estate. We try persistently to see a continuously calling Rufous-breasted Spinetail that flies once across the path, otherwise being content to remain well hidden only a few feet into the dense stands of tall grasses.

A species we have been pursuing with keen interest these last few days is Pacific Parakeet, so far eluding us. Several times this afternoon, flocks have flown over and we can discern their large size – more like parrots than parakeets – and long tails. Finally, a small flock comes to rest on a fruiting tree 100 yd. ahead and low enough for us to watch feed. After everyone gets a good look, John and I proceed cautiously, taking photos as we get closer and closer until we are only 20 ft. from a parakeet that seems oblivious to our relatively close approach.

Another bird we want to see, rather than only hear, is White-bellied Chachalaca. Here we have no dense canopy, only scattered trees, and once Josue leads us to appropriate habitat we find the chachalacas easily. We bird until darkness, enjoy a 7 PM dinner and most of us are asleep shortly after 8 PM, in anticipation of tomorrow’s early rise.

Day 69 – March 21 – Los Tarrales Reserve

(Bert) Coffee and tea at 5 PM, on the dirt up-mountain road by 5:15 in the dark, four ride in the Land Cruiser and two in the truck cab and seven on wooden plank benches on the truck bed. A half-hour later sunrise backlights volcanoes Acatenago and Fuego, one of them puffing smoke and flowing lava. We continue bouncing up Volcán Atitlán for another 15 min. The vehicles have made the first 2400-ft. ascent and we eat our packed breakfasts at 1500 m. (4838 ft.). Surveying the continuous forest below and the peaks beyond, we hear the first sounds of morning: singing Spotted Wood-Quail and a distant pig-like grunt of the Highland Guan. Now we continue uphill on foot, just barely past the collection of houses and shacks when we stop at a tree with an Emerald Toucanet. I announce I’m watching a yellow oriole with a black hood and that immediately gets Josue’s attention. We zero in on the oriole for a better look and find the white dotted line across its black wings, marking it as Bar-winged Oriole.

The steep trail alternates between dense forest where we find Emerald-chinned Hummingbirds and hear White-faced Quail-Dove, openings where we get Greater Pewee, and dramatic views of the mountainsides over which fly Violet-green Swallows and White-collared Swifts. I finally get a good photograph of a Paltry Tyrannulet. A Rufous Sabrewing is a life bird for everyone and an attractive hummingbird.

We are nearing the top of our climb when Josue says he hears an Azure-rumped Tanager, a bird we were discouraged of seeing since it normally occurs at even higher elevation then we are now. I get a good look at the tanager and step aside so others can look through the peephole between the branches through which I saw it. Others see this and another one and I soon find I can see the tanager from multiple angles and then get a good view of its speckled breast. We hear Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and Tawny-throated Leaftosser, but cannot get either to come close enough to see them. Just about ready to turn around after a 1000-ft. rise in elevation during our hike, we encounter Mike and his guide coming downhill. As always, Mike elected to hike the most rigorous and adventuresome trail. This time even he admits it was a tough climb. We reached 5918 ft. and I wonder how high Mike got.

Back to our vehicles, we ride down to 4158 ft. to a place where Josue saw a Black-crested Coquette a few days ago. We watch a large feeding flock of warblers, Western Tanagers and Red-legged Honeycreepers. At first the only hummingbirds we see are Berylline. In a flash a Black-crested Coquette appears, perches for a second, and continues on its way. For those of us that were quick and luckily looking in the right direction, we got a good, if short, view. It is our only chance before it is time to finish our descent in time for lunch and departure.

Before we leave I visit a museum-like room at the old house in which we were staying and had our meals. It relates much of the history of Los Tarrales, from its start in 1874 by a Belgian immigrant and later by Spaniard Don Saturnino Blen when it was developed for sugar cane and coffee. An English company owned it from 1922 until 1940 when it was purchased by Joseph Burge, Sr., passing later to son and grandson. The Spanish-styled house where our activities centered was built around 1890, having survived all major earthquakes. The reserve continues to grow coffee. Aside from the wonderful birding opportunities at this well preserved reserve is the pleasure of enjoying this taste of historic Guatemalan life as well as observing the current community of 200 or so that live and work here.

(Shari) Arleen tells me about the “carpets” the locals are making on the road. I walk to the area before breakfast and am treated to 14 different “carpets”. Each carpet has a number - I assume for judging purposes - and has a religious theme. The carpets are placed between two arches made of bamboo from which various dried flowers hang. Palm trees on the side of the road are decorated with yellow and purple balloons tied with purple ribbons. Each carpet is about 10 ft. by 8 ft. and made from various natural materials. White sand is often used for outlines or background material. Purple bougainvillea flowers are used for the cross or background material, pine needles and/or palm fronds again used for background material. Some have artfully arranged mangoes or pineapples on them; others use dried flowers. Each is beautiful and unique. I am told that there will be a procession at 9:30 and we are invited. I go back for breakfast and meet the group for the procession, which does not begin until 10. Four or five little girls lead the group carrying a platform where a statue of Mary or Jesus is artfully placed. They proceed down the road, accompanied by somber music played from a tape recorder. People follow behind and the procession goes into someone’s yard. Charlu had followed but was told to stop when the group entered the yard. After lunch we board our vans for the drive home. Again we are treated to carpets. These are bigger and take up one lane of the street through towns. Cars have to weave around them as they pass. We see stuffed clothes hanging from limbs in many of the yards. The people are hanging Judas.

Before we reach the campground, I ask if our driver knows of a place for ice cream on the road, “Sabe un espacio para helado en este carreta?” I find that my Spanish may not be perfect sentence construction but I get my point across more often than not. “Cuando minutos?” He does, and we stop in 10 min. at a crowded restaurant called Saritas for our treats. This group does like its ice cream. Arriving home, we are greeted with hundreds of people milling around the water park. The picnic tables next to our rigs are full of people and food. The music is blasting out of the loud speakers and the pool is loaded with standing people. There certainly is no room to swim since it is too crowded. I almost wish I was going to Antigua on the trip that Chris arranges for tomorrow.

Day 70 – March 22 – Amatitian

(Bert) A free day, half the group cannot resist another day of touring. Chris and May organized bus transportation to the shops, historic sights and restaurants of Antigua. Shari and I and the other half of the group stay in Amatitian relaxing. I catch up on journal writing and photo transfer. Outside R-Pup-Tent I hear the catchy Guatemalan music as 100+ locals enjoy the holiday picnicking, swimming, playing volleyball and basketball at the same park where we camp. In fact all of the concrete picnic tables wedged between our parked rigs are in use by the visitors. I can smell the steaks barbequing on the grill beside my door as I type this journal.

(Shari) Music starts early and by 8 AM the loud speakers are on at the water park. People are pouring in on this weekend and family groups are scattered all over the place, using the pool, basketball court, picnic tables and grills. All day long we smell cooking food from the grill next to our rig. Bert and I stay inside most of the day to catch up on things. I even have time to clean the bathroom and the air conditioner vents. About half the group is doing the same and the other half took a van to Antigua. At our potluck tonight we hear that they had a good time and did a lot of shopping. Mark and Joanie got a hand-carved chess set that has one team as the Mayas and one team as the conquistadors. It is just beautiful and a work of art in itself. Others bought hand woven placemats, purses and embroidered blouses. We relate experiences as we eat wonderful food from the dishes prepared from items that may be taken tomorrow at our border crossing.

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