10-16 September 2013
We spent a fabulous week exploring the Oaxaca Valley, partaking in the terrific local food, making fantastic new friends, and seeing some amazing birds. We found a great place to stay just outside of Oaxaca City in Santa María del Tule called Overlander Oasis. Here, we were met with such a warm welcome we decided to stay for the week and relax a bit. Overlander Oasis is a small park that is perfect for smaller vehicles and has great facilities (hot showers, clean bathrooms, internet).They even have a cute casita complete with a kitchen and bathroom that rents for an extremely reasonable 500 pesos/night. The hospitality of the owners Calvin and Leanne can’t be beaten and if you are looking for a place to stay get in touch with them. Since their space is small they ask that you contact them first (52) 951 144 3099, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Overlander Oasis is perfectly situated for birders as it is outside of Oaxaca proper and much closer to Teotitlan del Valle, Hwy 175 and Yagul, though a touch further from Monte Alban. From our home base we explored all the prior sites, as well as La Cumbre, Benito Juarez (great pine oak forest above Teotitlan del Valle) and made a brief trip to La Esperanza (the cloud forest above Valle Nacional).
We had good birds at all of the sites we visited, finding White-throated Towhee everywhere, including our campground, Dusky Hummingbird, Bridled Sparrow and Boucard’s Wren in most locations, Oaxaca Sparrows at Teotitlan del Valle, Slaty Vireo, Pileated Flycatcher (apparently hard to find in Oaxaca Valley in the winter and we found just one during a week of birding in September) and Ocellated Thrasher at Monte Albán, Dwarf Vireo (also just one in a week, finding this bird took some work!), and Slaty Vireo, Oaxaca Sparrow and Ocellated Thrasher again in the scrub along the lower stretches of Hwy 175. Unfortunately we didn’t find a single Beautiful Hummingbird during our week stay in Oaxaca Valley, but we’re still on the prowl in the Tehauntepec area! We also had great luck with frequent and large mixed flocks in the humid pine-oak between Teotitlan del Valle and Benito Juarez, finding Hermit, Townsend’s, Golden-browed and Crescent-chested warblers in huge numbers along with Red, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Gray, Red-faced, Wilson’s and Olive Warblers, Cassin’s, Warbling, and Plumbeous Vireos, Bridled Titmice, Painted and Slate-throated Redstarts, Mountain Trogons, Rose-throated Becards and Rufous-capped Brush-Finches (in just an hour or two during mid-afternoon no less!). The area above Benito Juarez looks like good Dwarf Jay habitat, and we found both Stellar’s Jays and Gray-barred Wrens, with which Dwarf Jays frequently associate, but no Dwarf Jays. We did finally find Dwarf Jays after a couple days of searching in the pine-oak cloud forest along Hwy 175 above La Esperanza and Valle Nacional. We spent about 8-10 hours over and evening and a morning from Km 80 (La Esperanza) to Km 110 (over the hill from La Esperanza, below the mirador). Along with the common cloud forest birds (Common Bush-Tanager and Golden-browed Warbler and the like), we had the good luck to get great looks at Crested Guan, Strong-billed Woodcreeper and Garnet-throated Hummingbird before finally finding a trio of skittish Dwarf Jays in a stand of dense, young, reforested pines at Km 110.
A few quick notes on access/trails/etc. at the various sites in Oaxaca Valley. Teotitlan del Valle and Yagul are just the same as described in Howell’s birdfinding guide. Monte Albán has changed a bit. What Howell calls tomb 107 is now called tomb 7, but the trails and hillside beyond it are fenced off. You can get to some trails on that side of the hill from within the ruins, but that necessitates waiting until they open. However, just below the main parking lot there is a bus parking area on your left with a picnic area. Leaving from the downhill side of this is a “Sendero Ecologico,” or a trail through the scrub. We had great luck along this trail and found all of the birds mentioned above here.
Access at La Cumbre is via a road that is owned by the village of Santa Catarina Ixtepeji. The village declared this area a protected area. There is no gate or sign but you are supposed to check in at the little store and pay to drive along the road. They charged us 50 pesos/person for birding. When birding the cloud forest above La Esperanza and Valle Nacional, we were told numerous times that permission is required to enter the forest or use the trails into the forest. Permission can only be acquired in Santiago Comaltepec which is a good 30 kms from the birding sites. There are also cabins in the area to stay in, but again you can’t arrange it readily there, you’d need to go back to Santiago Comaltepec. While we were stopped along the roadside birding, the local authorities drove down the road, stopped, and checked in on us to make sure we were not going into the forest. After we told them that we were only birding the road they turned around and headed back up the road. With the number of ecotourism signs up in the area you’d think it’d be a little easier to bird and stay here, but we don’t know the full story or make the rules. We just wanted to pass along what we experienced. Fortunately (for us at least!) the road was closed below La Esperanza due to a huge landslide when we visited, so there was almost no other traffic and birding from the road was good while we were there. We ended up sleeping in our truck in front of the comedor (basic restaurant) in La Esperanza.
Beyond just being bird dorks, while in Oaxaca we took advantage of being in one of the most culinary rich places in Mexico and enjoyed two wonderful meals in the city.
Along with some traditional moles and the local, ubiquitous, and delicious Tlayudas (big stuffed jobbers in an oversized corn tortilla, sort of between a quesadilla and a burrito but toothier and fantastic), we had a really nice meal with some fancier takes on the local flavors – cheese filled hierba santa leaves, the best black bean soup of our life with bits of chepil (a local green) tamale in it, and an exotic baked pasta in a stunning guajillo chile sauce. Oaxaca certainly has the most outstanding cuisine in Mexico!
We also had an opportunity to meet some fellow overlanders (people traveling and living in their vehicles throughout the world) at Overlander Oasis, that made our stay so much more fun and enjoyable. We traded travel stories, laughed at the number of times we hit sneaker topes (hidden speed bumps), and picked up some great travel advice.
We also celebrated Mexican’s Independence on the 16th of September with a traditional homemade meal of Chiles en Nogada (thank you Leanne!) and Mezcal. After stuffing ourselves we headed to the town square in Santa María el Tule for the parade and festivities. The party went until the wee hours of the mourning, but we barely made it until midnight.