Mexico – El Triunfo, Chiapas, Mar 2010

Trip Report for El Triunfo, Chiapas, Mexico March 2010

Participants: Kim Garwood

Author: Kim Garwood

The trip was arranged by my friends Will and Gill Carter. There were 7 of us plus our Canadian guide, a knowledgeable young bird guide named Amy McAndrews, aemcandrews@yahoo.ca. The regular guide is a Mexican called Jorge who leads birding trips all over Mexico and is also Amy’s partner. But due to conflicts in scheduling, Jorge wasn’t available and Amy, who had met Will and Gill last year, was able to help out. She was very good, knew all the bird calls, and was interested in butterflies as well.

The prime time for the horned guan is the spring before the rains, in Feb/March. Then the guans are calling, a low humming, blowing over a bottle noise, and when they’re not calling they’re much more difficult to find. Amazing how such a large bird can hide in the trees, but they do. Several bird tour companies run tours, VENT has done it the longest, since the late 70’s, and Legacy Tours also does trips every spring, but Will and Gill have done it several times and they arranged it directly with the Mexican foundation that runs the reserve.

Claudia Virgen is the director of Ecobiosfera, the NGO in charge of tourism. Her email is cvirgen@ecobiosfera.org.mx. My understanding is that Ecobiosfera doesn’t want tours in after March, because that’s when the guans are nesting and they don’t want to disturb them. I’m thinking of trying to do a trip in the late fall, after the rains, maybe November, as the butterflies might be quite good then. Vamos a ver.

Wed Mar 10 We flew to Tuxtla Gutierrez from Reynosa through Mexico City, which was cheaper than going through Houston if you live in the Rio Grande Valley. We went one way on Mexicana and the return from Tapachula was on Aeromexico, for about $500 total. The flights were fine and relatively on time.

The Reynosa airport is easy to get to from the Pharr bridge, it took about 45 minutes-an hour from Mission, including crossing the bridge. It takes longer coming back, as entering the US is slower. You could leave your car at the airport for about $10/day, but my friends preferred to drop their cars at my place and John dropped us off and came back and got us when we returned.  Mexicana charged me 440 pesos for my 2nd bag, which just had my sleeping bag and a pad. Fortunately Aeromexico was more relaxed and I didn’t have to pay it on the way back, even though their sign said only 1 piece of luggage.

We spent the first night in Tuxtla Gutierrez at the Best Western Palmareca, cost about 1,000 pesos or about $75 for a room. Nice hotel, very comfortable and they have a great brunch which is included.

Thur Mar 11 We went to Sumidero Canyon for the morning and the Tuxtla zoo in the afternoon. It was very dry and not too many butterflies on the canyon. Compared to last July when I was there before, there were much fewer butterflies to be seen. Good birds, however. We were there early, and Amy had arranged permission so we could go in before the normal opening time of 7am.

We heard buff-collared nightjar calling before dawn, unfortunately it didn’t come in. This is still one of my jinx species. Good looks at belted flycatcher, one of the specialties there. The zoo is good for the great currasows wandering around, we had males calling and walking right up to us. There were also some tigerwing butterflies hanging out near some water. After a late brunch (it goes to noon) we did the zoo, then drove to our basic hotel for the night at Jaltenango, about 4 hours. This is quite cheap, 200 pesos/double, 150/single, but it was fairly quiet and it had hot water.

Fri Mar 12 an early 5:30am breakfast, which we had ordered the night before, and we load all our luggage into the heavy truck and we’re off. It’s about 3-4 hours drive on dusty bad roads to where we start walking, and of course we birded along the way, so we didn’t start the hike until just after noon.  We had white-faced ground-sparrows, a beautiful sparrow.

The horse guys are there waiting for us at Finca Prusia, an old coffee finca that they tell me was who originally created this trail over to the Pacific; they load all our gear and luggage on horseback and we start off. They have a guy w/a mule carrying water who stays w/us, so you don’t need to carry all the water for the entire hike.

It’s about 12 km, or 7 miles, and you gain about 1,000 meters, starting about 1,200 and ending around 2,200 meters. The trail is wide and not too steep, so it’s a fairly easy hike, just long and uphill. We made it to camp just at dark, about 6:30pm. We had our headlamps but we didn’t turn them on. You come to a crest about 9 km up, then the last 3 km is slightly downhill or level.

The camp is about 1900 meters. They have 2 large rooms w/mattresses on the floor, we had the bigger room. We also had 2 smaller rooms off our big room, and 2 of the couples took those. Will put up his tent outside, so there were just 3 of us in the big room on the mattresses.

We had 2 communal toilets and showers, which worked out fine. They even have hot water, not a large quantity of it so you wet up, shut off the water and soap up, then turn it on again to rinse. The first night or two it wasn’t very warm, then Lico, the camp guy in charge, managed to fix something on the boiler and we had hot water for the last couple of nights, enough to wash my hair which was great.

There are 3 main trails from the base camp: the one we came up on, the one we left on for the Pacific, and the one that runs up the valley, crossing the stream several times. This is where we found the horned guans our first full day, but we heard them several times in our 3 days/4 nights at the base camp. We found a fruiting tree a half a km or so back on the trail we had hiked in on, and that was a magical spot.

Watching highland guans eating in the trees, a stunning male quetzal swooped in and posed perfectly, taking everyone’s breath away, then a horned quan walked out on a branch. We went back to this tree several times, and there was always something fantastic there.

One of the most memorable aspects of this trip are the sounds. You are surrounded by brown-backed solitaires singing constantly, quetzals calling in the morning, yellow grosbeaks, blue and white mockingbirds, the songs never seem to stop. I had heard that this was a magical trip, and it lived up to all my expectations and more.

The butterflies weren’t abundant, but I saw several species I had never seen before. One of my favorites was the stunning red w/black veins Fountainea noblis, or Noble Leafwing. I only saw it once, after flushing it up from the trail (probably on a pee spot) but it landed about 10’ up in the tree in the sun and let me watch it for a while. Not close enough for a photo (if only one of my friends w/a longer lens had been there!) but a great look. We did see Abderus or Magnificant Swallowtails frequently floating through the canopy, and another Leafwing, Consul excellens, were common when the sun was out and it warmed up. Last July I had seen these for the first time at Sumidero Canyon, this year not one because it was so dry, but they were up here at El Triunfo.

One of the local guides told me the rainy season is much better for butterflies, as I would expect, but getting up slick, muddy trails wouldn’t be much fun. I’m thinking of trying to come back right after the rains, in November. The guide said it doesn’t get cold until December, and November is usually the best time for butterflies in northeast Mexico and south Texas, so it probably is the same here.

After 4 nights at base camp, with very tasty food, we woke up to rain on our departure morning. Our only rain the whole trip, and it had rained fairly heavily all night, lots of standing water on our way to breakfast. They had tarps for our luggage to go on the horses, and we put on our rain gear and took off about 6:30am. We had to climb a km or so out of the bowl and over the continental divide, where we walked out from under the clouds into the dry, just as Lico had said we would.

Then we wind our way down to 3 nights of camping at various elevations as we work out way down the pacific slope to the lowlands on the coast. The first camp is Canada Honda, home of the azure-rumped tanager. We had 10 people supporting our group of 8, so we had lots of horses and helpers. They went on ahead and pitched our tents and had food ready when we showed up, after birding our way down slope all day.

The camp is about 1400 meters, and it’s interesting as you cross through different habitats on the way down. We had solitaires nesting in the banks next to the trail, and they would bomb out as we passed, almost running in to folks a few times. We found the nest w/the white and brown speckled eggs, very nice.

About 1500 meters, an hour or so above the camp, we started seeing lots of butterflies, including our first morphos. We had stopped for lunch at a creek where we had my first Anthanassa drymaea or Weak-banded Crescent, one of the last Mexican crescents I hadn’t seen. If I was to do the hike again I would let the others go on to camp and spend a couple of hours stalking butterflies on this last part. It drops fairly steeply, so you don’t want to hike back up once you’re in camp. It crosses several ravines, and if there was water there could be butterflies everywhere.

The bird specialities of this camp are the azure-rumped tanagers, which we had come right into camp to bath in the stream. Due to the dryness, probably some of the only water around, and we watched 5 or 6 birds for quite a while, the Carters getting stunning photos. This is a bird that looks better from the back, and we got lots of wonderful looks. Watching a wet tanager preen and organize it’s feathers was great.

The next morning we get up to a hot breakfast and head off on a shorter hike, about 4 km to the 2nd camp, Limonal. The day before we had hiked about  9 km, so this is the easiest day. We found a blooming tree, or a tree covered in vines, and there were lots of hummingbirds coming. We must have spent an hour or two at this vine, saw 9 species of hummers, and killer looks at both sparkling tailed woodstars and a fabulous male black-crested coquette. Both posed very obligingly on favorite perches, so we could set up the scope and get more killer photos. Best look I’ve ever seen at a coquette, you could see the tan and black individual feathers around his face.

The 2nd camp was my favorite, more spread out w/lots of room for the tents. They have 2 outhouses, very clean and not odiferous, and a shower using stream water. A bit chilly but very refreshing. You could have used stream water at the 1st camp, but it was still cool and the water was cold, so I passed. The 2nd camp is about 1100 meters high, so it was getting a bit warmer, but my sleeping bag still felt good at night.

The 3rd camp is in the lowlands, about 500 meters and 10 km away, so we didn’t have as much time to dawdle and look at birds. The day before we took 6 hours to do 4 km, so we had to move a bit faster today. It was overcast, fortunately, so it wasn’t as hot as it could have been. We dropped down through oak forests, where along a ridge we had lots of butterflies. Some coming to the sapsucker holes in the oaks, we had 5 orions on one tree, plus crackers and blomfild beauties.

We had several species of our first metalmarks on a particular bush on the ridge, including Hades noctula or White-rayed Metalmark. The trail was steeper with lots of rolling rocks, like walking on ball bearings buried under 6 inches of dry leaves, so you had to pay attention to where you were walking. Tough on older knees and toes, but we all made it. We were tired by the time we reached camp, and it was hot and dry, not particularly pleasant. But they had a small river, and some of us went swimming. It felt great to just sit in the water, even though you had to look to find a spot deep enough to cover yourself.

The last morning we birding a couple of hours, seeing lots of great birds in the dry brush. Here’s where we got our last 2 species of motmot, for a total of 5 for the trip, and we had been surrounded by the ‘to-le-do’ calls of long-tailed mannakins the last 2 days, some folks even saw their bouncing, whirling display. We had to cross our swimming creek and walk the final 400 meters to the waiting trucks, where we said goodbye to our faithful support crew, horsemen and cooks.

We were driven in 2 small pickups an hour or so to the main highway at Mapastepec, where we had a cold drink and changed to an air conditioned van for the hour or so drive south to Tapachula. Before they had eaten lunch at the simple restaurant where we met the van, but Will suggested waiting until we got to our snazzy hotel in Tapachula, much better food, so we did.

We stayed at the Loma Real right outside Tapachula for the last night, very nice. http://www.allmexicohotels.com/hotel/loma-real-tapachula/
About 1100 pesos including breakfast, and the food was tasty. Plus they have giant wrens on the extensive grounds, and white-bellied chacalacas, which we saw easily wandering around that afternoon. We also had turquoise browed motmots in the trees and scrub right in back of the hotel.

It’s a bit outside of town, so it’s quiet, and they also have a nice pool. I would definitely use this hotel again if I go back. We got taxis to the airport the next morning and flew back to Reynosa, where our friend met us and brought us back across the border to Texas. No problems

All in all a great trip to some fabulous isolated mountains in Mexico. We went through lots of beautiful scenery, it was nice to know there are still areas like this left. One of the nicer hikes I’ve done in a long time, well worth doing. The people work hard to take care of you, and it’s quite comfortable for camping.