20-22 March 2014
Copan Ruinas (the town) is located just across the Guatemalan border and is home to the Copan ruins, the southernmost major Mayan settlement. We have seen a lot of ruins on this trip and I would have to say that Copan ranks among the best we have seen. The number of well-preserved and incredibly detailed stelae (large blocks of rock that are carved to depict import events) and sculptures that are scattered throughout the ruins sets this site apart and is truly something to behold. Copan is also home to the largest hieroglyphic text in the Mayan world. The Hieroglyphs cover 72 stairs that lead to the top of Temple 26. It is a pretty impressive sight! In addition to the ruins, the birding is quite decent, though honestly not as amazing as a site like Tikal. Upon entering the ruins you are greeted with the raucous cries of Scarlet Macaws. While not wild, these captive bred Macaws are pretty awesome, especially when you get to see them up close and personal. The day that we were there, the forest surrounding the ruins was pretty quiet and bird activity does die down early as the heat builds. We had a couple of flyover Red-throated Parakeets (subspecies of Green Parakeet) as well as Turquoise-browed Motmot, Collared Aracari, Blue-throated Motmot, Rose-throated Becard, and more (see eBird list). Birding is also pretty good in the surrounding areas especially if you have not been to the tropics yet. We checked out the road that leads to the Macaw Mountain Park and the Luna-Jaguar hot springs. Robert Gallardo (a local guide and birder) told us that he frequently sees Great Swallow-tailed Swifts, a species we have been looking for, coming to roost in the evenings along the road near the Macaw Mountain Park. We headed up late afternoon and staked out the road for almost 2 hours, scanning the skies for swifts. Just when we were about to give up on the umpteenth chapter of our quest for Great Swallow-tailed Swifts, Josh yells swifts and lo-and-behold there they were, two Great Swallow-tailed Swifts effortlessly soaring over the canyon just in front of us. We got fantastic looks as they soared overhead but within five minutes they came down closer and we got even better looks which was pretty amazing considering that most of your views of swifts are of very distant birds that are brutally backlit. For those travelling by car to the Copan area and wishing to camp, we recommend staying at Balneario Escondido a few kilometers east of Copan Ruinas on the right side of the highway (watch for a large red wall with a big metal gate, the name Escondido is painted on the wall after you have passed the gate). The Balneario Escondido will let you camp in the parking lot which is gated and well-hidden from the road for 100 Lempira ($5). Although the bathrooms are not glorious they are halfway clean, functional and at least offer the opportunity to take a cold shower even if it’s only a pipe coming out of the wall. We found this Balneario to be the best option in the area. The larger and more well-kept El Jaral Balneario is actually less private (right next to the road and secured with only a wire fence) and more expensive. We also stayed at a small hotel in Copan Ruinas called Cuna Maya (on the main street through town) which offers nice rooms with square toilets oddly enough, wifi, and secure parking for 400 Lempiras. Overall Copan Ruinas is a cute town with some good food and a few gringo-approved niceties available like unsweetened yoghurt, decent bread, good cheese, etc, the ruins are quite nice, and the birding is definitely worthwhile if not a true standout.
Leaving Copan, we headed to Lancetilla Botanical Gardens near Tela along the northern, Caribbean coast of Honduras. In order to get to Lancetilla in time to get in the park and camp, we woke before the sun, as the park closes at 3 pm. It didn’t seem like a long drive, but given that the roads in Honduras are less than perfect we wanted to make sure we got there in plenty of time. It took us approximately 7 hours to drive about 260 Km. Lancetilla Botanical Gardens were created by an employee of United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) as a research and testing station that now has one of the largest collections of fruit and flowering trees, palms, and more. The gardens are pretty extensive and there are several paths that wind through the gardens. We birded the gardens in the evening but the next morning we birded the entrance road which cuts through fairly mature second growth forest and found the birding here fantastic and far better than the gardens themselves. There is an extensive forest reserve back up in the hills behind the gardens of Lancetilla that looks pretty amazing, but the only access to the reserve is with a guide, so we opted for the road given our limited time there. Birding along the road was, in truth, quite spectacular. In one morning, covering only a mile and not trying for every species under the sun or varying our habitat at all (I think we are some of the slowest birders around) we saw 80 species in 3 ½ hours. Our list at Lancetilla definitely brought us a lot of tropical species (eBird list). Highlights include Olivaceous Piculet, Great Antshrike, Passerini’s Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, White-collared Manakin, Great Tinamou, Blue Ground-Dove, Tropical Gnatcatcher, a surprise Prothonotary Warbler, Green-breasted Mango, Dusky Antbird, a female Lovely Cotinga, and a heard only Uniform Crake. We wanted to bird all day long but the heat set in quick and by 10 am we were dripping and ready for second breakfast. If you are looking for a place to camp near Tela, it is possible to camp at Lancetilla. We parked in the parking lot and paid 230 Lempira (about $12) and had access to the toilets (no shower). There was a guard on duty all night and the area is certainly safe.