San Cristóbal de las Casas and surrounding areas

Oct & Nov 2013

We started our trip with barely passable Spanish, learned over years traveling in Latin countries, studying in the car and trying to pick up bits and pieces where we could. Never having formally studied Spanish, my Spanish was a mess, and while Kathi had studied a little bit, it was long ago and years of French confused things well. Rather than just keep hacking at it and reinforcing bad habits speaking to each other and to people who are far too kind to correct us, we had decided that we’d like to spend a couple months taking intensive language classes to really make some progress and to work out our errors while we still could. We ended up taking about 8 weeks of classes at Instituto Jovel in San Cristóbal and found it absolutely invaluable.

Josh studying Spanish at Instituto Jovel

Josh studying Spanish at Instituto Jovel

We both made huge improvements, and I am really pleased to have learned so much grammar and gotten so much help with what had become habitual errors. Thank you very much Flor and Reyna!!! We also absolutely loved the city. Apparently it has grown quite rapidly in the past 10-15 years, and mixed with the colonial charm of the heart of the city are a healthy smattering of coffee shops, international restaurants, artisan shops, and the like. Many are foreign owned, and many locals begrudge both the growth and the foreigners a bit, but as visitors for 2 months we absolutely adored the intimate feel of the city combined with a great variety of restaurants, cafes, bars, wine-bars, shops, and markets.

Diversity of fresh beans at the market

Diversity of fresh beans at the market

In addition to studying Spanish, we also made a good effort to see all of the areas specialty birds, which are many. Unfortunately, in two months’ time, we still missed a few. This is partly due to the fact that several of the specialty birds are rare or nomadic, but it’s mostly due to the fact that San Cristóbal, and most of Chiapas for that matter, is somewhat of an ecological nightmare, unfortunately. While a few large preserve areas exist (El Triunfo, Montes Azules, El Ocote, Sepultura), the vast majority of the state has long since been cut over and what little habitat remains outside of the handful of large reserves exists in small patches of variable quality, and frequently with access issues. For instance, the Pronatura reserves in the San Cristóbal area proper, Huitepec, San Jose, and Moxviquil, are both small islands of habitat (around 100 hectares each), are both mostly 2nd growth, and do not officially open until 9 AM.  There are a couple of decent areas on the edges of town, such as El Encuentro, San Pedro and Los Banios, where birding can be decent and you can with luck see some of the specialty birds, but realistically these are far from intact habitat either, and even among all of these areas it’s a struggle (bordering on impossible for some species) to find the birds that are highly sought-after, such as Pink-headed Warbler, Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl (formerly reasonably findable at Huitepec but playback has been used for many, many years now and while the owls are still there, they do not respond, and Pronatura seeks to dissuade visitors from owling there), Bearded Screech-Owl, Blue-throated Motmot, Black-capped Siskin, White-breasted Hawk, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Singing Quail, Ocellated Quail (though it was likely never easy, there are very few records in recent years anywhere near San Cristóbal), Scaled Antpitta, Hooded Grosbeak, Golden-cheeked Warbler or Black-capped Swallow. Some of these birds are simply nomadic and luck was against us for a while until we finally found them (the Grosbeak and the Swallow), and we couldn’t find Black-capped Siskin in two months’ effort. However for most of the rest of the birds, including the two endangered owls and the critically-endangered Pink-headed Warbler, there’s just a tragic lack of habitat remaining. There are references to Pink-headed Warbler being one of the most common highland birds of Chiapas and Guatemala in the 1950’s and now it’s entirely gone from the majority of its range and rare in the few places it still occurs. Further complicating the issue is that some of the best remaining habitat patches (such as along the Ocosingo Rd, near the community of Dos Lagunas, aka the “km 2” area referred to Steve Howell’s bird finding guide) are areas where the indigenous inhabitants vary from distrusting of outsiders to openly hostile. Dos Lagunas and areas near the airport and along the beginning of the Ocosingo Rd are the best spots left to look for the Pink-headed Warbler and the Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl, but there have been robberies as well as confrontations and extortions by the locals. Apparently, at least in Dos Lagunas, the locals patrol the area themselves with radios and can assemble a group to block in a vehicle fairly quickly, at which point they attempt to extort the owner. With this much effort put into it, it was a wonder to me that they do not allow access and simply charge a fee, but apparently the communities lack organization and leadership and the extortion tactics are not the pursuit of the entire community. Others have had their cars broken into while birding the area. We made a couple of clandestine trips to Dos Lagunas, every time very early on a Sunday morning (arriving around 4 am), parking well into the forest (4wd necessary to use the tracks, as well as a bit of prior recon to know where they are), and leaving around first light before anyone is up and about. This is how we were able to see Pink-headed Warbler, Blue-throated Motmot and Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl. We did not encounter any problems with these tactics, but I would not openly recommend the area to anyone and certainly you should know the risks of visiting the area before trying. We found both the state of the environment and the state of access to remaining forest lands in the area very disheartening and, to be completely honest, as much as we loved San Cristóbal, and despite the fact that we eventually found most of the specialty birds of the area, it was far from a birding highlight for us.

On the other hand, El Triunfo, Yaxchilan and Bonampak, and El Ocote were some of the best locations we have visited yet, and are some of the absolute highlights of birding in Mexico. We wrote separate posts about El Triunfo and Yaxchilan and Bonampak, but El Ocote deserves a mention as well. While it is possible to access the core zone of El Ocote, unfortunately we only discovered this as we were leaving San Cristóbal, but the jist is that if you have 4wd and are interested, contact the Pronatura folks in San Cristóbal for both permission as well as information, there is a road that can get you there. However, there is a great area to bird a few kms of dirt road to the community of Armando Zebadua (accessible from the free or cuota highway between Ocozocoautla and Minatitlan). This area is sometimes call Navalandia, as it’s a great area for Nava’s Wren, but it’s also a great site at middle altitude (approx. 1000 m) on the Atlantic slope, where you can find everything from Royal Flycatcher and Crimson-collared Tanager to Highland Guan and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. The diversity is huge and the area tends to be incredibly birdy. We visited three times and absolutely loved it. One key comment on finding Nava’s Wren there – it is better to learn not just the song but also the call note very well than to try to use playback. Playback has already been used a lot at this site and the birds are not responding much anymore. Additionally, for a species with such a tiny range, the impact should be particularly considered. We were able to find Nava’s Wren every time we visited, and found it each time by ear rather than using playback (which we tried on our first visit with no success), and were able to see it just by following the call notes. The easiest way to find this site is by taking the toll road from Ocozocoautla to Minatitlan and watching the km markers. As the road starts to enter a hilly area with a few curves around km 170-171 watch closely, as you come into a tiny community/truck stop sort of area, there are large dirt pullouts on either side. If you pull out to the left across oncoming traffic, there is a dirt road that ascends a small hill from the toll road to the free road. After merging onto the free road (technically making a right on it, to continue in the same direction you were headed on the toll road), you shortly come to where the free road goes UNDER the toll road. There is a large sign on the left here which, as I recall (unfortunately we didn’t take any pictures), gives the name of the village as well as some information about the reserve area. Make a left here immediately before heading under overpass. You’ll pass one house on the left, after which the habitat is good for several kilometers until the community of Armando Zebadua. The best locations for Nava’s Wren are in the first km or two, amid the karst outcroppings.

Additionally, Sumidero Canyon should be mentioned. We visited three times, the first two very birdy and the third on a brisk, windy morning which was essentially a bust. The area doesn’t seem to have changed much from Steve Howell’s bird finding guide. We found Belted Flycatcher around km 15.5-16, as well as on Mirador El Roblar trail. Apparently the flowers behind the buildings at Mirador Chiapas (end of the road) are a good stakeout for Slender Sheartail though we didn’t find it there, and apparently there are Highland Guan near Mirador Roblar though we didn’t find them, and it doesn’t seem like anyone has seen Great Swallow-tailed Swift in Sumidero in a long time.

The gang birding at Sumidero Canyon

The gang birding at Sumidero Canyon

That said, the Mirador Roblar trail and the entire area are quite birdy and are still one of the main sites in the area. An interesting comment – apparently Harpy Eagle still occurred in lower Sumidero Canyon as recently as the 1970’s. Looking at the valley that Tuxtla Gutierrez occupies today, it is hard to imagine there ever having been a tropical forest there, for there is barely a tree left unfortunately.

Birding in and around San Cristóbal is still enjoyable and the city itself is spectacular.

1 Comment on San Cristóbal de las Casas and surrounding areas

  1. Marty Jakle // June 9, 2015 at 4:02 pm //

    I enjoyed reading your post. I’m going to San Cristobal in a wk & 1/2 to a language sch (San Cristobal Language Sch) and I am an avid birder too. If you get this post in time I’d appreciate any info you can give me about this school (I realize you attended a different one) and a feel for the overall safety of the area as I’ve never been there.


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