Yucatan Magic

Wedding at La Palapa

We visited Puerto Vallarta in 2008, watched a fancy beach wedding being set up in the sand and decided to get engaged ourselves. On that trip, we stayed at the Mayan Palace. We were really impressed with the resort and joined the timeshare program managed by Vidanta, the parent company. Since then, we’ve revisited Puerto Vallarta and also went to the Mayan Palace in Puerto Peñasco, known as Rocky Point, Arizona’s beach.

We had heard that their resort in the Yucatan, at Riviera Maya, was something special and decided to go there in October. What we didn’t know was that our adventure would begin well before our plane landed in Cancun.

Laurel booked a room at the Mayan Palace for mid-October, and I went online to find flights. I went to our old standby, Alaska Airlines. All the flights were two and three stops, taking 16 to 29 hours! I checked out several other airlines. None good. For example, Delta took 6 to 12 hours making 1 or 2 stops, and American was 7 to 10 hours, also with 1 or 2 stops. A coworker of Laurel’s recommended Volaris, a Mexican airline that flies out of Tijuana. We looked it up. Nonstop from Tijuana to Cancun. Only 3 ½ hours. Much more like it.

A320 Volaris

And as we started doing our research, we found out about CBX, Cross Border Express. We live just a half hour from the Mexican border, and in recent years, a crossing at Otay Mesa has been built. You simply park your car in a secure lot in the U.S., enter a modern, well-equipped terminal and check in. Several Mexican airlines are located there. Then you get your boarding pass and roll your luggage into the Tijuana airport, crossing the border as you go. The airport is shiny and new with every facility and rows of duty-free shops for your return flight.

Volaris flies Airbus jets, and we had a comfortable flight to Cancun, then got on the shuttle sent by Vidanta for the hour-long ride to the Mayan Palace. Which we were to find was only one of five hotels on the mammoth property that was crisscrossed with walkways, small roads and drives, and serviced by trams connecting hotels, swimming pool complexes, beach bars and every kind of restaurant you can imagine. The entire facility grows out of stunning Yucatan jungle alive with local birds and animals. They have a flamingo pond, as well as a crocodile enclosure, which I’m happy to report is well fenced.

Salum

We looked at the map of the complex, and saw “beer bar” indicated in the area called Salum, which looked to be a centralized restaurant area. Hungry after the early morning flight and bus ride, we took the tram and found a food court more luxurious than you could believe. Outdoor, multi-leveled lounge areas with a view of the Caribbean, and everything from Japanese to tacos to hamburgers and tapas, all excellent. A creative cocktail lounge and the aforementioned beer bar, which surprised us with a dozen taps and 20 or 30 bottles of Mexican craft beer. Needless to say, we had found our lunches and dinners for the week, no need to traipse into Playa del Carmen looking for food.

Of course, while spending a week in the tropics, we had to take a look at the local birds, and we found a terrific birding guide, but I’ll let Laurel tell you about that:

“Prior to our trip to the Riviera Maya,  Vic researched Yucatan birding guides on Trip Advisor, and was very fortunate to have found Steven! Steven Koevoet speaks at least four (that we know of) languages fluently: Dutch, Spanish, English and Bird. Steven not only knows his stuff, but is very enthusiastic, cheerful, and has a great sense of humor.

Laughing Falcon

Day 1: Ría Lagartos and Various Stops
Our first birding tour was a full day’s trip over to the Gulf, to the Ría Lagartos area. Steven met us at the Vidanta Mayan Palace at 4 am on October 21st. Our driver, Zeferino, stopped to pick up another birder, Paul, who, like Steven, is a native of the Netherlands. Our first birding stop was the town of Kikil Tizimin, although we did park along the way to get a better look at a Bat Falcon, which flew away as soon as the van stopped. In Kikil, we saw a good variety and amazing number of birds (orioles, woodpeckers, warblers, etc.) in the large trees in the center of town, and on the vegetation growing on the roof of an abandoned church. It had been hit by lightning, prompting the locals to abandon it, to be taken over by birds such as the Summer Tanager and Tropical Mockingbird. Walking a road leading from the center of town, we were rewarded with other sightings, many of which were life birds for Vic and me, including a gorgeous Squirrel Cuckoo. Moving on, we stopped briefly along the highway to see a Crested Caracara and some other raptors, including a Laughing Falcon and a Gray Hawk. In fact, we named a drink after the Laughing Falcon, celebrating our duty-free purchase of some very good mexcal.

American Flamingos

We stopped in another rural area and village to have William join us. He would be our local guide and panga boat driver for Ría Lagartos. We checked out some additional grassland birds such as the Blue-Black Grassquit and Rose-breasted Grosbeak, then visited another village that has an American  Flamingo colony. We also saw a White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill and a Tricolored Heron at that location, along with common birds such as the Snowy Egret and Black-necked Stilts.

Then, it was on to Ría Lagartos. The town sign (the multicolored plastic variety frequently seen in Mexico) says Río Lagartos, but “estuary” is known in Spanish as “ría.” We placed our lunch order at a waterfront restaurant, then boarded the panga for a tour of the mangrove estuary, which is a biosphere preserve that has been set aside by the Mexican government. The birds here were easy to see, since they were settled in mixed groups of shorebirds, pelicans, and waders on the few available sandbars, or perched in trees alongside the network of channels that form the estuary. We saw many kinds of waders, including a couple of Reddish Egrets and Little Blue Herons, various shorebirds including Short-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones, and various gulls, terns, and Brown Pelicans. Raptors included several Common Black Hawks and Osprey.

Mangrove Warbler

One of the highlights was a very cooperative Mangrove Warbler (subspecies of the Yellow Warbler), which posed in the mangroves and on a dock. We returned to the town, where we enjoyed a nice lunch before concluding our first day of birding. Other notable sightings included a crocodile in the mangrove swamp, and a Spider Monkey swinging through the trees on the main highway. Kudos to Paul for spotting the monkey, and to Zeferino for getting us positioned safely to see it from the van. We are eagerly anticipating being able to see the wonderful photos that Paul took, which he’ll share with Steven when he returns to the Netherlands. I will try to post some pictures, but they fall short of those that Paul took.

Tree full of birds with Paul and Steven

Day 2: Riviera Maya Birding
Our second day of birding, while closer to the resort, was no less spectacular. We met Steven at a more forgiving hour (5:50). Our driver, Elias, picked up a Scottish couple, Neil and Susan, and we were on our way. We birded a privately-owned nature preserve called Reserva Toh, which Steven had a hand in creating. He told us that he was birding this property some time ago, when it was pretty much undeveloped and strewn with PVC pipes, when the caretaker approached him to ask what he was doing. When he said looking at birds, the man wanted to know why anyone would do this. Steven said, “Why, because birds are beautiful!” and showed him a bird in the spotting scope. The man was fascinated and told him that he’d check with his boss to see if he could get Steven permission to bird the property. The owner was the next one hooked on birding because of Steven, and now the property is a nature preserve, and several of the workers have turned into monster birders. We saw some interesting species along the road in front of the property, including two species of hummingbirds (Canivet’s Emerald and Wedge-tailed Sabrewing), which are not out and about this time of year. Also seen were various flycatchers (Boatbilled, Dusky-capped, Social) and orioles (Altamira, Orange, Hooded, and Yellow-tailed). When a brief downpour came our way, we repaired to the large palapa where we would later be served a home-cooked breakfast. Steven brought out the gaiters that he thoughtfully provided for the next part of our trip, and we put them on (what did we do before Velcro?). Our truck arrived, and then the real adventure began! Vic rode up in front with Elias, and the rest of us climbed in the back and sat on the benches. We received many “Mayan massages” along the way, getting slapped with wet boughs and various vegetation, and ducking frequently. Once there, we were in a wild area with a few worker huts, lots of trees, and open areas. It was easily navigable, and Elias did a good job of assisting Vic where the going was not as easy.

Black-headed Trogon

The area was loaded with birds. We spent considerable time on one tree with orange berries, which was providing a feast for Red-Eyed and Yucatan Vireos, Red-legged Honeycreepers, and other birds. We were thrilled to see several particularly special birds, including a Turquoise-browed Motmot, a pair of Barred Antshrikes, a Black-headed Trogon, and a Collared Arakari (a toucan-like bird), found by Neil (who also is an excellent photographer). We tried for the elusive Green Jay, but were only able to hear this bird. Then, we were back in the truck, getting yet another “Mayan massage,” albeit slightly less wet. Upon returning to the main area, we were served a delicious breakfast of scrambled Mexican eggs with tomatoes, fresh tortillas and salsa, black beans, and fresh lemonade.

Collard Arakari

We enjoyed our birding trips immensely, had a great time with our fellow birders, and were very appreciative of the excellent service provided by Steven, Zeferino, William, and Elias. We highly recommend Birding with Steven, and look forward to birding with him again the next time we visit the Yucatan.”

If you’re still with us after all these birds, we’re going to give you a break. We’ll come back with part 2 and drag you through Chichen Itza with its majestic pyramids and sacrificial ball courts.

Happy travels,

Written by Vic and Laurel, Photos by Laurel

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