Dear Carl and Lorena,
I will be taking a 3 week trip to Belize and Northern Guatemala (entering and leaving from Cancun to get the cheap flight) over the Christmas break. Very low budget (by choice, we like it that way), travelling by bus mostly. My travel partner is a birder. We will be traveling with a loose itinerary. Would you have a couple of suggestions on either hotels or sights?
Mike Smith, California
Lorena and I are also birders and weve travelled extensively (and cheaply) in the Ruta Maya area. Start by taking a bus or colectivo cab from the Cancun airport to the bus station. From there, consider a direct bus to Chetumal (if you want to bypass the more crowded Mexican Caribbean coast).
If you have time and the inclination, however, bus to Tulum and from there to Coba, one of the best birding spots on the Peninsula. I birded in Coba with researchers from the Smithsonian they considered it very good.
In Coba, ask the driver to let you off in front of El Bocadito, a hotel/restaurant on the right hand side as you enter the (very small) village. The owner, Francisco Itza, is a good friend be sure to tell him I send Saludos. The Bocadito is the best cheap hotel in the area, and has the tastiest food.
For birding, go into the Archeological Park as early as possible. As a rule, the birding is best if youre actually in the jungle at, or even before, dawn. There are side trails into the Park that bypass the main entrance, but the guards get quite irritated if they find you inside before official entry hours. (For very early birding we sometimes walk the highway back toward Tulum.)
Be careful; it is easy to get disoriented if you leave major paths or roads. I have explored this area extensively and Ive been lost many times. Snakes arent a major hazard in winter, but use caution: Snakes are relatively plentiful and some are very poisonous. When it is damp or rains, be much more careful. Snakes come out in wet weather but the rain also brings out birds, especially toucans.
Birding around the Cobas small lakes is very interesting, even near the shoreline areas that see a fair amount of human traffic. Watch, too, for crocodiles there were a couple of hefty 4-footers the last time I was there. Sadly, poachers often kill the crocs when they grow to any size.
Inside the Park, go through the main gate and take the first trail to your right. It leads to another lake. Climb the low ruins that slope down to the shore. This vantage point is excellent for birds, which seem to concentrate here early and late in the day.
Now retrace your steps, to the entrance path. Continue along the trails that crisscross the central area of this heavily-forested eco-archeological park. The main path is Lorenas favorite birdwatching route. However, all of the broad trails in the Park are good for birding and (rarely) small animals and snakes.
Sian Kaan Reserve, about 15 miles south of Tulum, is famous but difficult to explore there isnt much access and the area is very wet and densely forested. Id skip it unless you get better local info or have plenty of time to poke around. You could write to Amigos de Sian Ka'an, Apdo Postal 770, Cancun 77500, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
From Chetumal take a bus directly into Belize (or even all the way to Belize City). You might get off along the way at the Crooked Tree Bird Sanctuary, though youll probably have to hoof in from the highway. (I think it was 3 or 4 miles to the village.) We camped in the village, in someones backyard. Guided boat trips to see waterfowl (including jabiru) are available but not cheap. (Check the book, Belize, A Natural Destination, John Muir Publications for details.)
The Cockscomb Jaguar Reserve was a high point of a birding trip I did a few years back. The bugs were ferocious there but it was worth it. I didnt see a jaguar but I did step in genuine, steaming jaguar scat. Be prepared to camp and take food and iodine for purifying the local water. A no-seeum proof tent is a must. Watch for snakes I saw a very large, very dangerous fer de lance there.
Placencia, at the end of a low sandy peninsula, across from Big Creek, is a friendly, picturesque, low-key resort village. At the southwest tip of the peninsula, Eileys Vacation Paradise Hotel has reasonable rates, a fine view and a friendly atmosphere. Stop by Brendas on the beach trail to the village for a wonderful Creole meal. If you feel like a splurge, the Turtle Inn, (1 mile to the north) is on Placencias prettiest beach. Their food is good and the Inn offers diving and fishing trips, and jungle camping expeditions.
My next choice is to continue south to Punta Gorda. Go to Chets Place (Box 75, the original eco-hostel, often full) and ask him for tips on birding. Chet can arrange village stays and contacts with other interesting people throughout the area. Punta Gorda is the end of the world and therefore offers lots of possibilities.
From PG take a local cargo launch into Guatemala, directly to Livingston. Try to stay at the Posada Rosada again, the owner, Jean Swanson, is a friend. She can connect you to a great young Kekchi Mayan guide named Victor he lives next door. Victor took Lorena and I on a fantastic 8 day dugout canoe trip. Talk about birds!
Ask Victor to take you up the Rio Dulce. Leave very early and explore the creeks he recommends. This trip will cost you perhaps $50 or even $100, but itll be worth it; Victor is a very good guide with excellent equipment. The photo ops are boggling but most guides race through at high speed. You can stop for lunch at a wonderful lakeside place, then continue on to the bridge at Lake Izabal.
Near the highway, I recommend that you stay at Hacienda Tijax Victor knows it; we stayed there with him. This is a relatively new eco-lodge, with birding trails and wonderful thatched houses. The birding from the porches and bedrooms is excellent. Several months ago the cost was $10 a night per person, meals extra. When youre ready to leave, theyll ferry you over to the village.
For an ambitious side trip, have Victor take you into Lake Isabal to visit Finca El Paraiso. As easy half-hour walk from the beach leads to an amazing hot waterfall. There are cabins along the lake shore, built from hardwoods that were cut and milled on the finca. (About $10 a night per person.) Home style meals are available and most of the food is grown on the finca. When you can tear yourself away, return to the settlement near the highway bridge.
To visit the Guatemalan highlands, catch a minibus (leaves just before the hour) to the Puerto Barrios/Guatemala City highway. (The 9 a.m. mini bus will connect you to the 10 a.m. first class Litegua bus to Guatemala City.
Or, if youd rather, take a bus from the bridge deep into El Peten, to Tikal. This is a long, uncomfortable trip but worth it, because youll stop for a well-deserved rest at Finca Ixobel, near Poptun. This eco-camp/lodge is famous for its inexpensive lodging, fine food, friendly atmosphere and interesting surroundings. Lots of birds and side trips Ive met travellers who dropped by for a night and stayed weeks or even months.
Continue on to Flores. Most travellers bypass the town (on an island) but we really enjoy it. There are good cheap hotels and food, and some great photos.
You can also camp in Tikal (a few bucks a night). Good Mayan fare is available at the comedor on your right just as you enter the park, El Imperio Maya. Go early and watch the tall trees across the road for parrots and toucans. The campground also offers good birding but the entire Tikal Park is a paradise. Weve seen a tremendous resurgence of birds and wildlife here since the 70s. (Go to the Lost World temple complex very early in the day and again for sunset many birds and animals.
In the early a.m. walk the forest trails to the left side of the park, watching carefully for deer, pigs, fox, tepesquintle and other critters. Tikal is huge and there are lots of trails but again, be a bit cautious; Ive been lost here for several hours at a stretch.
Dont be misled by Tikals designation as a park. This is also a tropical forest and near-wilderness. Carry two quarts of water, food, bug dope, a flashlight, matches, compass and a whistle. It also gets surprisingly chilly at night damp and foggy, too. Be prepared for cold rain.
If you have time, make a side trip from Flores to Sayaxché. There are cheap hotels and food in this small town, and access to many fine river trips, archaeological sites, birding you name it. Talk to local people about hiring boats or hitching on cayucos (huge dugout canoes and launches). Sayaxché is at the heart of the Maya Mississippi. I think youll find it a friendly, funky place.
From Flores, you might fly to Guatemala City and from there travel into the highlands. Or, ride the teeth-rattling bus to Melchor de Mencos, cross into Belize, then take a short cab ride to Cayo (San Ignacio). (Better yet, in Flores, find a few companions and share-hire a van for this trip. The price is reasonable.) Youll hear stories about bandits on this road, but they arent common.
Another choice: Weve heard that theres an express bus from Flores to Cancun. I dont have any details, however, so let me know what you learn.