Trip Report for Oaxaca and Chiapas
Participants: Kim Garwood
Author: Kim Garwood
Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico July 1 – 26, 2009
This trip is timed to be in the rainy season, which is the same as the hurricane season, rains start in May and go through October. One interesting comparision w/my trip here last year in May/June is I expected to see more butterflies than in 2008, but that turns out to not be the case. I see fewer species and fewer individuals, but some different ones. I now suspect that the fall may be the better time for butterflies here, same as in Tamaulipas and Texas. Guess I’ll just have to come back in Oct/Nov and see. The best butterfly locations turn out to be Sumidero Canyon outside Tuxtla Gutierrez, Ruiz Cortines road from San Andres Tuxtla and Vega del So road below Valle Nacional. El Ocote above Tuxtla Gutierrez also looks very promising.
I spent the first 10 days of July in Oaxaca with Judi Ross, a friend who lives there who’s into butterflies, then met up with Michael Carmody from Legacy Tours for his birding trip for the next 2 weeks. www.legacy-tours.com Michael’s trip specializes in Mexican endemics, and we see all of my target birds. 10 species of jays, which I didn’t even know one could do in Mexico(including white-throated and black-throated), plus Pink-headed Warbler and Rosita’s Bunting, plus both Nava’s and Sumichrast Wrens. Judi likes taking visitors around to photograph butterflies, so if you’re interested in doing a butterfly trip to Oaxaca, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also spent a day with Roque Antonio Santiago, who’s a very nice and knowledgeable Oaxacan bird guide. Peter, one of the birding guys on the tour, had hired Roque for a day before the tour began to find beautiful hummingbird, and I joined in for the day. Roque knows all the local birds and where to find them, you can reach him at email@example.com. He charges US$200/day, using his vehicle.
For the first 8 nights I stayed at Villa de Campo, recommended by Judi, a quiet pleasant little hotel close to the center of town. Their regular price is 580 pesos/night for 1 or 2 people in a studio unit with a simple kitchen that includes a refrigerator and stove and a small sitting room, they have cheaper rooms w/out the kitchen. They gave me a 15% discount for a week, would have been 30% off for 2 weeks. Nice garden where they had wireless internet if you had a laptop. They have secure parking for cars, and it’s close enough to walk to many restaurants. I would stay here again. Another nice little hotel that Judi also recommends is Las Golondrinas, about the same rate but it includes breakfast. A more upscale hotel, where we ate delicious breakfasts most mornings, is Casa Vertiz Hotel for about 950 pesos/night, with air conditioning. Most hotels here in Oaxaca don’t have it, and I didn’t need it when I was here. One tasty bakery we frequented was Pan & Co., up a block to the west from the main Santo Domingo church. They had fabulous chocolate pastries, not croissants but close, and they did have very flaky croissants, plus wonderful crusty breads and many muffins, including a chocolate one that was more like a fudge cake than a muffin. They run out of the good stuff early, so we would buy here for the following morning, if we were leaving early. Right next door is an excellent Italian place, Mezzaluna, where I had the best pizza I’ve had in Mexico, crispy thin crust, good cheese, simple and elegant. Get the chica, or small size, perfect for one.
I move to the Hotel Anturios to meet the birding group, just up the street from the main bus station on the main highway north of town. I was concerned hearing that it was by the bus station, but it turns out to be a very pleasant small hotel. It serves killer breakfasts, which are not included, with fancy crepes and waffles and excellent coffee, and good wireless internet in the rooms. Too bad we don’t have many opportunites to eat breakfast here! The cost is 55 pesos for a single and 700 for a double, all rooms appear to have 2 beds. It’s too far from the center of town to walk to the zocalo and see the tourist sights, but there is a good restaurant, El Colibri, only a few blocks away. Plus they take credit cards, which many of the small hotels here don’t.
July 2 – went to Etla, Guacamaya Road
July 3 – Mount Alban
July 4 – Teotitlan del Valle, the weaver town, then the trash pullout 5 km from Oaxaca
July 5 – up Highway 175 to the east to Iztlan
July 6 – back to Etla
July 7 – drove west on Hwy175 to Finca El Pacifico for the night
July 8 – worked Pluma Hidalgo road, then back to Oaxaca
July 9 – 5 km trashy pullout
July 10 – birding w/Roque Antonio, Teotitlan
July 11 – Legacy Tours starts, Teotitlan, 2 nights at Hotel Anturios in Oaxaca near bus station
July 12 – Guacamaya Road up high, 3000 meters
July 13 – drove to San Jose del Pacifico, Puesto del Sol 1 night
July 14 – drove to Huatulco, Hotel Flamboyant 1 night
July 15 – drove to Arriaga, Hotel IK-Lumal 2 nights
July 16 – rosita’s bunting! & fish lunch on coast
July 17 – Bocaa del Cielo am on the coast, pm drove to Tuxtla Gutierrez, Best Western Pamareca Hotel 1 night
July 18 – pm drove to San Cristobal de las Casas, Hotel Mansion del Valle 2 nights
July 19 – birded 2 Lagunas in the mountains nearby, and thistle meadows near town pm
July 20 – pm drove to Tuxtla, did El Ocote then back to Best Western Pamareca 1 night
July 21 – El Ocote am, pm drove to Coatzacoalcos/Minatitlan, Los Andes 1 night
July 22 – am drove to Sierra los tuxtlas/Ruiz Cortines, Hotel del Parque 1 night
July 23 – am Ruiz Corintes, pm drove to Tuxtepec, Gran Tuxtepec Plaza 2 nights
July 24 – worked lower elevations below Valle Nacional, dirt road to Vega del Sol
July 25 – pm drove to Oaxaca city, Hotel Anturios
July 26 – flew back to Texas
The first 2 days we had cool overcast weather. Judi told me they have had lots of rain, so it took a few days to dry out. We went up to the Guayamaca road out of Etla, which is about the best spot near Oaxaca for butterflies. Oaxaca is in a bowl about 5,000’, 1400-1500 meters, with mountains all around. There are several roads in and out. Highway 175 comes in from Tuxtepec in Veracruz in the east and continues on to the pacific coast to the west, 190 goes to Teotitlan and Mitla, and there is a cuota towards Mexico City. Etla is towards the cuota, you take the free road off to the right (coming from Oaxaca heading north out of town) instead of getting on the cuota. About 15 km from Oaxaca there is a sign for Guayamaca up to the right, and the road soon turns to dirt. You can take this road quite a ways up into the hills, plus you can turn off it down to the right several places. Nice habitat, weedy overgrown fields, grazing horses, people live all around, lots of flowers. Keep climbing until you come to a good sized stream crossing about 30 minutes from Oaxaca, a big right hand turn, this is often a great spot. Up here there aren’t any houses, just hills covered with good habitat. We had Hesperocharis here, Orange-banded Eighty-eights, lots of blues and patches, a various mix coming to the water. The road continues up to Benito Juarez, but I’ve never been much beyond the stream crossing, as it gets drier as it climbs away from the water.
Mount Alban is the big archeological ruin south of town. Not very good for butterflies, but very interesting and worth seeing. Good for birding around the entrance if you go early. Lots of vendors selling trinkets, 51 pesos entrance fee. Gorgeous views of the valley, gives you a good feel for the area.
Teotitlan is great. This is the weaving town, where everybody has looms in front of their place and beautiful rugs for sale. Drive on through and up to the reservoir, dirt road outside of town, and up into the hills. You can park anywhere you see blooms. One spot I like is up by another stream crossing, a bridge you drive over and small picnic spots on either side. I was here in late May in 2008 and we followed the stream both up and down, but now in early July the water was running quite high and we couldn’t get down to the streamside. Cordia blooms up here, a small white flower on delicate racimes of blooms, the hairstreaks love it. It wasn’t blooming in May, but just starting to bloom now. We had Calycopis clarina/White streaked Groundstreak, several green hairstreaks, some Strymons and lots of Gray Ministreaks. There were lots of Phoebis neocypris/Tailed Sulphurs, and we got photos of the beautiful greenish white females, which I had not seen well before.
One day we went up 175 to Itzlan, into the pine oak forests about 2100 meters +, but there were very few butterflies even though it was a spectacular clear day. Very twisty steep mountain road, watch for slow trucks, can be dangerous to pass. There are a number of dirt roads off to the side, Judi took me to Latuvi about km 150, down to the south side to a stream crossing. There were people camping here, which was the first time she had seen that. But we were on a Sunday, which is family day, so people were at most of the water spots for picnics. Difficult to photograph butterflies in the mud when people are around.
A great spot very close to Oaxaca City is just a short way out of town up 175 east, at a trashy pullout about km 205. There’s room for a couple of cars here on the right on your way out of town, and there is a short road down to the stream. For some reason this spot is always good. We had 4 species of Piruna here, plus 1 the day before at Etla made 5. Oaxaca is Piruna central.
One day we went west on Highway 175 to Finca El Pacifico between km 203 and 202, about 600 meters on the west slope. This is a coffee finca that has been in the family since about 1880, very interesting historically. You can email Antonio Gomez Schmerbitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or call him at 045 958 58 4-60-94, or 045 958 100-40-25. These are cell phones, and he can be difficult to get hold of. They don’t have email at the finca, so they only answer it every so often when they go into town, and the phones don’t work there either. You should contact them at least a week before going, preferably 2 or 3 weeks before. I enjoy visiting these old fincas, it’s like being a member of the family, very unique, often like staying in a museum. We just showed up, because Judi hadn’t been able to get hold of him, but they graciously took us in, put us in the sister’s room and fed us lots of food. Antonio showed us all his old coffee processing machinery, brought in by his grandfather on mule back. Plus they have beautiful habitat and good butterflies. They only speak Spanish, but Antonio loves to talk and show off his place. It cost 250 pesos/person to stay the night, plus 100 pesos/meal/person, so we paid 450 each including dinner and breakfast. They have a lovely stream you drive across about half a mile off the highway, and that can be great for bugs. I think the fall, after the rains, is best, in October/November. Judi plans to come back this fall and let me know how it is. You can hike a ways up their canyon to a nice waterfall, good for birds as well.
The morning after El Pacifico we worked the dirt road to Pluma Hidalgo, turnoff from 175 about km 210-212, so it’s higher than El Pacifico back up the hill. This turnoff is not marked when you’re coming uphill from the coast, or El Pacifico, but there is a nice sign when driving from Oaxaca. So if you drive in from Oaxaca to El Pacifico, look for the sign and notice the turnoff, as you can miss it when coming up from the west. Once you turn off the highway take the lower road to the right, 12 km to Pluma Hidalgo. This is a good road until you get to the washed out big bridge, where they are working on it, and the detour is a bit scary, but that’s in quite a ways. We stopped several places to photograph butterflies along the road. This is a popular collecting spot that the folks from UNAM have used for years, about 1000 to 1200 meters, little traffic, streams crossing the dirt road, good habitat, all the ingredients for a great butterfly day. The white morphos fly here, and many crescents and nymphalids. I don’t think there is any place to stay in Pluma Hidalgo, but maybe you could rent a room somewhere. I would probably stay at El Pacifico and come up, it’s not far.
There are a couple of other fincas I know of I would like to visit on a future trip. Finca Monte Carlo looks good, over near Huatulco, and La Gloria which is in the same area. They take some advance planning, as they are difficult to contact, and you have to make sure someone is going to be there to take care of you. Maybe next time.
Friday July 10 went birding for the day w/Peter, one of the guys on the Legacy trip, and Roque Antonio Santiago, a local Zapoteco bird guide we hired for US$200, recommended by Michael Carmody from Legacy. Roque was very friendly and knowledgeable; he took us up Teotitlan del Valle. He was born and raised in Teotitlan, so he knows the hills there very well. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or see his website at www.mexonline.com/ecotours.html. He showed us Oaxaca sparrow, after much hunting, then took us to Mitla, one of the more interested ruins near by. I always like to use local guides when possible, and it was most interesting to hear about things from a local perspective, plus he knows the birds! He took us on a different road, off from the main dirt road a short distance above the bridge Judi and I had parked at, off to the left. It got into great habitat w/almost no traffic, and lots of cordia
July 11, started the tour w/Michael Carmody of Legacy Tours, and we went back up to Teotitlan, but much higher. This day we had Oaxaca sparrow as soon as we stepped out of the car, funny how it changes from day to day. Both days were cool, overcast, and drizzly, so not much for butterflies.
July 12 – up to Guacamaya Road, same road I took w/Judi but again we went much higher. Today was the hunt for the dwarf jay, which took us over 3000 meters and into cold pine forests, but we got great looks thanks to Michael’s persistent playing of the calls. The village of Guacamaya has lots of fruit trees with lots of apples and cherries, and it was thrush heaven, including a few female Aztec thrush stuffing their beaks, plus black, white-throated and American robin.
Monday July 13 – drove west on Highway 175 to San Jose del Pacifico, km 131, and spent the night at 2500 meters at Puesto del Sol, a nice mountain hotel just before the town. It has comfortable cabins with wood burning fireplaces where I’ve stayed before several times. Boring food, but a good location for the upper elevations. They have nice gardens, if very steep trails down to the cabins, where you can get great looks at white-eared hummers and a number of other high elevation birds, often right from your porch. We had bumblebee hummingbirds as well, a few gorgeous males. Plus Michael knew where to find hooded yellowthroat and the special bird, white-throated jay. We got killer looks the next morning.
Tuesday July 14 – after the jay we drove on to the west on Hwy 175 and took the turnoff to Pluma Hidalgo, the same dirt road Judi and I had worked a week before. But we went on to the right instead of going into the town of Pluma Hidalgo, towards Santa Maria Hidalgo, which turned out to be a quite nice paved road, once we got past the scary detour around the broken bridge. There seemed to be a few more butterflies this time, at least 3 or 4 species of dark crescents. Difficult to get both top and bottom shots of the same individual. Then we continued on down the hill to Huatulco, where we spent the night in the old Hotel Flamboyant right on the zocalo. Not a good idea, as Mexican kids get out of school from the 2nd week in July, so everybody and his mother were at the beach. The hotel was completely booked, and they had ‘upgraded’ us to suites, which unfortunately only had 1 matrimonial bed each. Seeing as we were all not couples and required 2 beds/room, that was a hassle, but Michael finally got them sorted out. Unfortunately Helen and I ended up w/a regular room right across from the (very loud) bar on the zocalo which blasted music until 4am, plus loud drunks, fights, traffic and generally plenty of folk having a good time. Not a good plan for us birders getting up at 5am, so we had almost no sleep. So the 2 of us catnapped in the van the next day.
Wednesday July 15 – birded around Huatulco for a few hours in the early morning before it got too hot, which was a great place to find many of the used to be common west coast birds. We were out before dawn and heard 3 species of owls, but could only actually see pacific screech owl, and then only when it flew overhead. Great interactions with collared forest falcons, a pair responded very aggressively to Michael’s tape, plus they were being chased by the white-throated magpie-jays, quite a show. Then we drove to Arriaga, but first stopped about 40km east at a simple beach with an old guy and a little palapa where Michael called in the sumicrest or cinnamon-tailed sparrow after watching boobies on the rocks offshore. Tomorrow morning we go for one of my target birds of the trip, rosita’s bunting. Michael seems to know where each of the endemics hides out and is determined to show them to the whole group, which isn’t easy, but he does a very good job.
Thursday July 16 – rosita’s in the bag! Piece of cake, just drove up the road to the foothills, played the tape at an old bridge spot over a gully, and viola, great looks at an unbelievable bird. It looks better than the field guides. Afterwards we got a few other goodies, then headed to the coast to Puerto Arrista for a tasty fish lunch on the beach and more booby watching. We have definitely not gone hungry on this trip. I went swimming in the waves, had brought along some shorts, and it was very refreshing. Giant wren, rufous breasted seedeater and other lowland species on the open marshy road to the coast, plus some shorebirds coming back from migration already, terns, godwits, whimbrels, etc. The butterflies for the last several days have been all common lowland species, lots of sulphurs and whites mostly. Waiter daggerwings and a few different skippers up on the Pluma Hidalgo road, including crystal winged skipper, one of my favorites. I didn’t see this w/Judi, but saw it there a week later.
Friday July 17 – drove early to Boca del Cielo south of Puerto Arrista to look for owls, then on to Tuxtla Gutierrez and Sumidero Canyon, or Canyon de Sumidero, a fabulous huge canyon that drains the Chiapas plateau to the Caribbean. We went up for a few hours in the afternoon, and again early the following morning. A 22 km road goes up past 5 miradors, or overlooks, where you can park and walk around, getting killer looks over the canyon. The town of Tuxtla is about 700 meters, and the top of the canyon is a bit over 1,400 meters.
Saturday July 18 – Sumidero opens at 7am, and we were there right at the start. Traffic doesn’t start to show up until mid morning, so we just stopped our 2 vehicles wherever we heard birds. About 8:30am butterflies started showing up, and by 10 we were at the 4th mirador, and I just stayed by the cars while the others birding down the road. There were lots of good butterflies, my favorite was black-veined leafwing, of which there were many. This was a new species for me, and I got lots of nice shots, no good open ones unfortunately, but many opportunities. The previous afternoon we had a thunderstorm blow in and it rained suddenly, and the leafwings were landing on some rocky walls next to the road, so I got some good shots. More different crescents, sisters, more species than I could photograph in the limited amount of time before the birders came back. Definitely a place worth coming back to. After lunch we went to the zoo, where we found crested guan and currasows wandering around, plus tons of plain chacalacas, and saw horned guans in the cage. In the afternoon we drove to San Cristobal de las Casas, about 2,200 meters at Mansion del Valle, in the historical center for 2 nights. Very pretty inside, lovely courtyard. We went up to the microwave towers above town for black-capped swallows.
Sunday July 19 – Before dawn hunt for owls, not much luck but got black-throated jays and blue-throated motmot, and my favorite bird, pink-headed warbler. Much better looking than the guides, a real stunner, and very cooperative. Almost no butterflies, as it’s cool and high, a Vanessa and a few grass skippers, looked like fiery. San Cristobal de las Casas is a very pretty town, many Europeans go there so there are many nice little restaurants and cafes. But it’s high and cool, even in July.
Monday July 20 – more early owling, then back to Tuxtla Gutierrez. We went north 30 minutes or so to the unmarked turnoff to El Ocote, just past lots of construction. This was a very interesting road, a good dirt road with good forest on both sides.
Tuesday July 21 – early departure and back to El Ocote for Nava’s Wren, where we had splendid up close looks at it. Plus a pretty good selection of butterflies. Then we drove, a long drive, up to Coatzacoalcos, where there was some confusion w/our hotel rooms at the Best Western Brisas. Even though Michael had prepaid, somehow our reservations had disappeared. Fortunately the hotel took responsibility for it, and found us some replacement rooms that were quite acceptable at Los Andes. They even sent the desk manager and a bellhop w/us to the new hotel, where we finally got into our rooms.
Wednedsay July 22 – drive to Catemaco, had lunch at La Finca, a very nice hotel I’ve used before, just south of town on the main highway over looking the lake. We did some birding/butterflying around the lake before lunch, then afterwards went to San Andres Tuxtla where we were in the Hotel del Parque, right on the zocalo downtown. But it was quiet and ok, if a bit small. After we got our rooms we went up the Ruiz Cortines road, which takes off from the main highway towards the south end of town, across from the Goodyear tire shop and the Pemex. Another unmarked road, but it is a regular paved road that goes up to the ejido Ruiz Cortines. It’s only about 16 km to the ejido, and the habitat changes dramatically as you climb to about 1200 meters. This is a great road with lots of cordia blooming along the sides once you get up past all the agriculture and pastures. I’ve been here before in August and seen lots of hairstreaks on the cordia. Last year I was here in May/early June, and the cordia wasn’t blooming yet, but this year it’s going great.
Thursday July 23 – back to Ruiz Cortines early am. I bird w/the group until about 8:30, then start walking back down the hill looking for butterflies. Up at the top you suddently get into tall trees and lovely cloud forest, where the white morphos gracefully float amongst the canopy. This is preserved by a government program that pays the ejido to preserve the forest as a watershed, so they don’t cut it down. It appears to be working well here. The cordia grows below the cloud forest, so I walk back downhill slowly seeing all kinds of goodies. The group picks me up several hours later about 12:30 on their way back down. Then we drive to Tuxtepec for 2 nights at Gran Tuxtepec Plaza, on the edge of town and very quiet.
Friday July 24 – predawn departure to look for Slender-billed or Sumichrast Wren below Valley Nacional, off Highway 175. This is the highway that goes over the mountains back to Oaxaca, and is famous amongst naturalists, both birders and butterfly collectors, as a great road. Up about km 74 is the town of Esperanza (not much of a town) which is the home of Esperanza Swallowtail. I’ve not seen it, but they even have signs posted saying no collecting of insects. I think many collectors have come here over the years from many countries looking for the swallowtail, and the local people feel protective of their animal and plants, so collectors aren’t appreciated. Before we get to Valle Nacional Michael turns off to the left, or south, over a good sized bridge to a dirt road and knows exactly where to get out and look for the wren. Some of the area has been cleared since he was here a year ago, but he finds a big rock wall buried in the vegatation, we whack a way into it, he plays the tape and presto, wren singing over our heads. This just happens to be a great patch of flowers where I find many new butterflies for the trip right where we park the cars. Many photos of Glorious Blue-Skippers/Paches loxus, first time I’ve seen them in Mexico. This has all the ingredients of a great butterfly spot, dirt road/good forest/flowers, just missing a stream crossing the road. We have light rain in the morning, but it quits about 9 or 10, and the butterflies come out before the sun breaks through. One nice thing about butterflies after a rainy morning is they’re trying to bask and dry out, so they’re very cooperative for photos. This road continues to Vega del Sol, where it crosses another large, new bridge back to the main highway 175, about km 37. Valle Nacional is about km 45, a little further up the hill. Coming back in the afternoon, we take the same road, turning right towards Vega del Sol and Balneario Rio Zuzul. The road is dirt, but they are surveying, and I suspect it will be paved soon. We turn left to the bridge before the balneario, cross the bridge and take an immediate left again to wind our way back to the wren (and butterfly) spot, then back to the highway. No signs at the lower turnoff from the highway.
Saturday July 25 – Leave Tuxtepec for the drive to Oaxaca. Today we go past Valle Nacional and head up to the higher elevations, where I see another subspecies of White Morpho flying. Beautiful drive, about 6 hours to Oaxaca, but we stop many times and walk parts of the road. We finally make it back to Oaxaca late in the afternoon, back to the Hotel Anturias for our final night, then early am departures back to the US on the 26th.
A good trip, lots of speciality birds, and some new butterflies and a chance to check out some new locations. Several places I’ll want to return to at a different time of the year.