3-5 Dec 2013
Having spent an amazing week in the higher areas of El Triunfo, we were also keen to visit some of the lower areas on the Pacific slope. Fortunately, this is readily done from the town of Mapastepec, giving easy access to tropical deciduous forest where great birds such as Tody Motmot, Long-tailed Manakin, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Long-billed Starthroat and Black Hawk-Eagle are readily found. There are also chances for Blue-tailed Hummingbird as well as the outside chance for Solitary Eagle if you hike up far enough, spend time in the areas where you have a view of the sky, and get incredibly lucky 🙂
This area is reached by a paved road that is signed for Guadalupe Victoria that is reached from Hwy 200 just NW of Mapastepec. We stopped in Mapastepec to get gas and a few essentials before heading up to the mountains and had our first experience with a gas station attendant trying to change the price at the pump. A general bit of advice when getting gas, but as the attendant tried to gouge us in Mapastepec, always be sure to watch the pump (make sure it’s zeroed before it starts, watch the total at the end, and be clear about the amount you give them) to avoid getting ripped off. The turn up towards Tres de Mayo and Paval where you can find good habitat is west of Mapastepec, which would be before you get into town assuming you’re coming from Arriaga. If you were coming from Tapachula/Guatemala, it would be after you pass through town. Assuming you’re coming from Arriaga, as you come into town it is the last turn to the left before the road becomes divided with a bunch of yellow light posts. Looking up the road from the highway you can barely see a Guadalupe Victoria sign at the base of a quick rise which turns out to be an overpass over another road. If in doubt, the locals can point you towards Guadalupe Victoria and/or Tres de Mayo (the last town on the road before Paval). In any case, the paved road leads through a couple of communities without any forks or turns until it reaches Tres de Mayo. Giant Wren can be found along this road as well. We found a couple of Giant Wrens just by driving with the windows down and listening in the heat of the day.
In Tres de Mayo, the pavement stops and it turns into a single track dirt road with a couple of concrete tracks in the steeper parts. It is best to stop and say hi to the locals and ask permission to drive up the road (tell them where you want to go – Paval, Limonar or higher if you are ambitious and have sought prior permission from CONANP) and just be friendly. The first person we ran into, as it turns out, is one of the folks who takes the mules up and down from the high camp for the expensive birding trips that cross the entire reserve. He gave us plenty of great information and told us to head up and camp at the end of the road with no worries. Birding is great for several km until the road reaches a parking and turning-around area with a river on the left and a suspension foot bridge just ahead. Though it looks easily passable by a pickup ahead, it rapidly turns into just a foot path so don’t try to drive any further (luckily Kathi dissuaded me from heading blindly further up the road at dusk!). At this point you are just a few hundred meters from Paval (with several key turns unsigned!). We birded the road in briefly and more extensively as we drove out on our last day. Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow was very common for us in the last 100 m of road or so until the parking area, we found a large group and a couple of stragglers, at least 8 in total. We also found a small handful of Long-billed Starthroats, a couple of White-eared Ground-Sparrows (in a couple of spots in thick vegetation), a Long-tailed Manakin (heard and very briefly seen, this one is easier higher up along the trail), and plenty of other good birds including a large number of White-fronted Parrots and what were likely a couple of flyover Yellow-naped Parrots.
It is a bit confusing finding the correct trail from the car to head up into the reserve, and we made a couple of wrong turns in the dark. Luckily there were a number of coffee workers and others using the trails who helped set us straight. I’ve never encountered friendlier people before. Every single coffee worker that passed us on the trail eagerly greeted us with handshakes and smiles. In order to find the correct trail, you will head up the dirt track from where you parked, not crossing the suspension bridge. After a couple of hundred meters and after the trail has turned into a well-worn foot-path with vegetation just overhead, there is a prominent Y. It appears that the right hand fork is a bit more worn, while the left hand fork descends quickly down towards the river. Turn left here and head down to the river! When you get to the river, you will need to cross it (easily done barefoot, it’s about 20-30’ across but barely over a foot deep when we were there in early December). After putting your shoes back on, head up the path a very short ways to a collection of building behind a gated fence. Cross the gate, closing it behind you. It looks like someone’s yard, and there may be dogs and turkeys and chickens about, but this is Paval! There is a large concrete slab for drying coffee in front of 2-3 buildings (shacks really). As soon as you enter the yard, cross a small concrete water way and head right to another gate in the fence, closing it behind you as well. At this point, the trail is not clear. It appears the better worn trail descends to the right, then ascends a quick ridge and heads on its way. You actually want to go left here, up a steep, indistinct grassy trail for 10-15 meters until you gain a better worn trail that heads upslope to the right, it will be mostly easy to follow after this. There are a couple of spots where downed trees or (in clearings) grass and weeds obscure the trail for short stretches but it’s usually easy to find again soon after. After a couple of kilometers you come to a place where the trail crosses a tiny stream in a small area of shade coffee. Just before the stream crossing, there is a use trail cutting back up and right, this is just for the coffee, you want to descend to the left to cross the stream. As you come up the other side of the tiny arroyo, there will be a SEMARNAT/CONANP sign for “La Pila” to the right. You want to head left, away from this sign, up an overgrown path. This area is full of coffee worker use trails, but if you follow the flatter trail most of the time it is pretty easy to stay on the main path. In a few places there are better worn trails that are steeper, these typically short cut switch-backs and in all the cases where we weren’t sure, both trails ended up back together again shortly. We continued up a good way above this, probably getting pretty close to Limonar (another campsite on the Triunfo trail), but we never actually made it, as we were walking so slowly and birding so much! The birding along this trail is fantastic.
We found 4 Tody Motmots (none vocalizing, just found perched), 3 Blue-diademed Motmots (aka Lesson’s Motmot, part of the large Blue-crowned Motmot complex), Turquoise-browed Motmot, at least 3 Long-tailed Manakins, 3 White-eared Ground-Sparrows, a nest building Black Hawk-Eagle, a Yellow-billed Cacique, and a surprise Northern Barred Woodcreeper as part of a huge and terrific flock that had four species of Woodcreeper – Olivaceous, Streak-headed, Ivory-billed and the single Northern Barred, tons of Yellow-winged Tanagers and a huge mix of other birds. The Northern Barred Woodcreeper was either a bit out of range or, more likely, a very rare resident of the Pacific slope of Mexico up to about Guerrero.
In any case, this is a terrific place to bird and probably the best and most accessible bit of Pacific slope forest left in Chiapas. There are large areas conserved in the Sepultura reserve, as well, a small part of which is accessible from the free road between Arriaga and Tuxtla Gutierrez, but this trail is overall far better and has a different mix of birds. Although Rose-bellied Bunting, Orange-breasted Bunting and Yellow-winged Cacique are not found here, Tody and Turquoise-browed Motmots, Prevost’s and White-eared Ground-Sparrows make up for it and the Long-tailed Manakin is much easier to find here as well.