Day 14 |
Sep 14, 2008

Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala

By Brent Stephenson, Ornithologist

Co-ordinates: 13 degrees 55.3’N ; 090 degrees 46.0’ W

Weather: Warm and humid, clear skies in the morning, with thunderstorms in the hills in the afternoon

Another beautiful warm morning as we cruised into the Port of Puerto Quetzal, our stop in Guatemala. Even though this was our one and only stop in this country it was, of course, still necessary to clear Customs and complete the formalities. However, this was done with no bother, even though it was a Sunday morning. The local vendors were already setting up their stalls on the dockside, and for us this was a strange situation to have the Prince Albert II alongside on a dock, the first time since leaving Fort Lauderdale. We almost missed not using the Zodiacs!

Following breakfast, we were able to disembark the ship and depart for our tours. The small birding group was the first to head off into the hinterland, towards two of the volcanic peaks that are characteristic of this country — Volcan de fuego and Volcan de agua. On the drive towards Los Tarreles Reserve, we passed through almost continuous sugar cane fields, until we came closer to the mountains where the landscape became a more mixed mosaic of crops and agriculture. It happened to be that today was the build-up to Guatemalan Independence Day — celebrating the September 15, 1821 anniversary of their independence from Spain. So, as we passed through the small towns, we saw crowds of people running torches along the roadsides and out getting ready for the celebrations.

Exactly at midday, we arrived at our destination: Los Tarreles Reserve. This private and auto-sustainable conservation area is funded by profits derived from its multiple use and through providing tourism services. We were greeted by the owner and several guides, and then enjoyed our packed lunches in the cool and pleasant surrounds of the visitor centre. Before lunch was even finished, we had spotted several new bird species for the voyage, including cinnamon hummingbird and Pacific parrot. After a relaxed lunch, we headed out to wander one of the easy trails through the secondary rainforest. Our excellent local guide, Josué, along with Fernando our tour guide, was able to spot and identify an impressive range of bird species within the short 2-½ hour walk we undertook. Brent Stephenson, our Ornithologist, was in “seventh heaven” with six species of hummingbird during the tour, as well as spectacular views of other species such as collared aracari, squirrel cuckoo, white-winged tanager, and white-bellied chachalaca. It truly was an excursion to remember, and even more so when the clouds burst in true tropical fashion with very heavy rain. “At least it’s warmer than the rain in England,” was one comment made by Rohan, one of our guests.

We then dried out a little back at the visitors centre and headed back towards the port, managing to dodge through the still ongoing celebrations, and then undertaking a little bit of souvenir shopping at the stalls by the ship.

Whilst the birders were enjoying themselves in the mountains, the other group left the port shortly after, but went to Antigua instead. Antigua used to be the old capital of Guatemala, until volcanic eruptions and earthquakes forced the Guatemalans to look for a better (safer) site elsewhere. Antigua has been partly restored and is probably the most visited site in Guatemala because of its history and interesting architecture. The little town was so full of local groups, all wanting to start their run from the “Independence flame” back to their villages, that it was quite difficult to find the way through town. Our group had been split into three smaller groups, each visiting the various sites at different times. The Capuchin Convent, the Cathedral, the Jade factory/museum, the textile market all were interesting places, but most everyone agreed that the “Casa Santo Domingo”, a former convent converted into a hotel, restaurant and museum complex, was a good enough reason to come back to Antigua! Not only was the food good, but the complex so surprising in its mix of ruins, small museums (the glass museum had outstanding pieces from Central America and from around the world), open spaces and modern conveniences all integrated into one functional entity, that a visit to this place alone would have been overwhelming.

The aforementioned torch-runs had groups from all over Guatemala coming to the main plaza, causing traffic to collapse in certain areas. Leaving Antigua for the coast, we saw dozens of groups with torches on the streets, sometimes being cheered by bystanders, and on other occasions being refreshed by bystanders who threw plastic bags of water at them or hosed them down! Had it not been for the local police opening the choked roads for us, the Prince Albert II would probably have had to wait for hours before the Captain (and one third of the Antigua group) could have returned to the ship. Barely back onboard the ship, we soon were on our way to Mexico.