Yucatan Birds and Builders

Rancho Encantado.

I’ve never been to Mexico, which seems amazing to me, considering how far I’ve travelled around the world. But lovely Mexico—just a relatively short trip away—just never made it to the top of my A list. I’m not sure why.

Earlier this year, however, I finally started putting two and two and two together and realized that Mexico’s Yucatan is not only accessible, but allows me to combine several of my interests in one trip. Birds, of course (578 species, including 7 endemics), but also pre-Columbian architecture (over 4,400 Mayan sites alone; phew!), local culture, road tripping, and swimming. Add to that cheap flights via the uber-popular beach town of Cancun and reasonably good infrastructure throughout the region and you have a pretty attractive package.

We’ll spend our first few days on the laid-back, hopefully sargassum-free beaches of Isla Mujeres doing absolutely nothing. A ferry ride back to the mainland to pick up our rental car and we’ll head down the coast to the region of Tulum, where we’ll have a couple of nights at La Selva Mariposa. The attraction here is the natural rock swimming pools on the property. We have a couple of birding sites planned plus the possibility of a visit to the Tulum or Muyil sites, but I suspect those pools will lure us into spending time at the bed and breakfast.

We then head northwest to Valladolid, which we’ll use as a base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza and enjoy the festivities surrounding Revolution Day. Our accommodations here will be Casa Hamaca. Driving north, we’ll visit the ruins at Ek Balam en route to the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. We’ll stay one night in Rio Lagartos and take a dawn birding tour via boat with Ria Maya Birding Lodge. Apparently, flamingos congregate in this area and I hope to get photos of the pink waders.

The colonial capital city of Merida will be our home for six nights, staying at the Hotel Luz en Yucatan. I’m looking forward to exploring what sounds like a charming city with tons of culture and entertainment, much of it free. If the city pales, we can always take a trip north to a beach or find a local cenote.

Back on the road to ruin(s), we’ll drive south to Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). As with most of the Mayan sites, there should be decent birding on the site in addition to the ruins. We’ll sleep at the appropriately named Flycatcher Inn.

I was keen to visit the port of Campeche (one more UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Yucatan west coast and walk the old city walls that were built to keep out pirates, so we’ve booked a couple of nights at the Casa Mazejuwi. We may also take in the nearby Mayan site at Edzna.

Next, we’ll take a long plunge south with a 5.5 hour drive to complete our “grand slam” of World Heritage Sites with Palenque. Here, we’ve opted for an Airbnb room at Villas Adriana. If time permits, we’ll check out Cascada de las Golondrinas, a pair of nearby waterfalls that look enticing. The jungle surrounding Palenque should yield some different birds, as this will be the southernmost point of our journey.

Back up north in the little town of Xpujil, we’ll stay in the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort while we explore the area around Calakmul (you guessed it, another UNESCO Site). One of the more intriguing attractions is the famed bat cave, where every evening millions of bats fly out for their evening feed.

We then finish up our loop through the Yucatan with a couple of lazy days at the Rancho Encantado on Bacalar Lake (yup, the website photos got me on this one), and a final night within easy drive of the Cancun airport at Jolie Jungle (despite the obviously fake Photoshopped shots on their website).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but we have several weeks and plan to drive no more than 4 hours per day on most days. With this basic structure in place, I can relax and enjoy each day as it comes, knowing exactly where we will lay our heads each night.

Hmm…why does this shot seem Photoshopped to me?

Ecuador for Lazy Birders

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. We hope to see this funky dude on our trip–as long as it doesn’t take too much effort. Image source: neotropicalecuador.com

So, the Great Big Map of Ecuador is up on my kitchen wall, coloured dots marking destinations. After months of planning, the itinerary is finally in place. The central focus of this trip will be seeing and photographing as many birds as possible—within the constraints of a fairly leisurely and comfortable journey. Ecuador boasts over 1600 species of birds, so even without lengthy or steep hikes, extensive domestic travel, or rough locations, I figure we should tally a good number. Yes, even without visiting the Galapagos, which we decided had to wait for a future trip. Although the itinerary is built around birding, I hope to include dashes of local culture and points of interest.

After much research and dithering, I settled on flights from Vancouver to Quito via San Francisco and Panama City. The price was significantly better than one-stop flights (partly because I used points for the YVR to SFO leg), the departure and arrival times more convenient, and the total flight time not bad, considering the two stops. This plan also allowed me to build in a couple of nights in San Francisco to take in the sights and it falls within my winter travel imperative to avoid east-coast routes with their attendant risk of snowstorms and nightmare layovers.

My immediate goal upon arriving in Quito is to rest up and acclimatize to the altitude, so I’ve kept the first few days simple and quiet: three nights in the San Jorge Eco-lodge and Botanical Reserve just outside the city. We’ll spend those days checking out the bird feeders and walking their private trails and probably not much else.

The San Jorge group of lodges form what their promo likes to call “The Magic Birding & Photography Circuit.” It’s a smart idea: offer travellers a variety of lodges located in different bioclimatic zones (read: more species) with comfortable accommodations that cater specifically to birders and other nature nuts. I admit, I fell for it and ended up booking three of their properties, starting in Quito.

Just before the weekend, we’ll head off for one of Ecuador’s must-do’s, the Saturday artisan market at Otavalo, staying two nights at the Hostal Doña Esther. If time permits, we’ll try for the Parque Condor bird of prey centre housing rescued raptors.

Next, back to the “Magic Birding Circuit” for three nights at the San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge and three at San Jorge de Milpe. Both lodges promise comfy rooms, good food, and features such as feeders, birding trails, ponds, and waterfalls. All of the San Jorge lodges offer packages with guides included, but I opted for bed and board only, preferring to explore independently.

Two nights in Quito will provide a short break from the birding lodges, although a planned tour to nearby Antisanilla Reserve should yield some sightings, including Andean Condor nesting sites (fingers crossed). We’ll try to squeeze in some time at the Museo Etnohistorico de Artesanias del Ecuador Mindalae (Whew! That’s a mouthful.), which happens to be located just around the corner from our snooze site, Hostal de la Rabida.

Heading east through the Andes, we’ll spend three nights at the Wildsumaco Lodge poised between the mountains and the lowlands. On the first morning, I’ve booked a half-day of guiding for an introduction to the area and its creatures.

Sacha Lodge. Image source: sachalodge.com

Then it’s down to the town of Coca to connect with our small boat up the Napa River to Sacha Lodge, deep in the Amazonian rainforest. Visiting the Amazon jungle is on my bucket list, so I’m trying to keep my sky-high expectations under control. I hope we get the chance to visit the clay lick where hundreds of parrots gather to supplement their diets with healthful minerals.

We’ll fly back to Quito just in time for the week-long fiesta leading up to the holiday that celebrates the founding of the city. Music, street parties, and sightseeing in the Old Town should fill up our days and we’ll spend our nights at the Casa el Eden, recommended by a friend of a friend. Somewhere along the line, I’m sure we’ll find time to check out the chocolate, coffee, and helado (ice cream) shops.

Does this itinerary sound like fun or folly? Let me know what you think in a comment.

Quito mural. Image source: muralcomunitario.com

NOLA & All That Jazz

louis_armstrong_restoredNew Orleans. Why does that name draw me? I’m not really a city person, yet I’ve always wanted to visited NOLA.

I definitely associate it with the exciting history of American music, for which I blame Ken Burns and his excellent series, Jazz.

Maybe it’s the hint of Mardi Gras that seems to linger in the air all year round. There’s the possibility of exotic Cajun food and French pastries to tempt, plus the proximity to natural habitats of bayou and mangrove that promise bird species for me to add to my list.

Since this will be a winter trip, the warm climate appeals; although I don’t expect to be swimming outdoors in December, I do hope to escape subzero temperatures for a while. I also like the idea of visiting an antebellum plantation.

The visit to NOLA will be a few days tagged on after the end of a cruise out of Tampa, not a huge amount of time, so I’m happy to focus just on the city and nearby.

I started by doing quick online research on the average Dec/Jan temperatures in that area. Double-checked that I wouldn’t have to worry about hurricanes at that time of year (whew!). I also used Expedia to compare the cost of flying into Tampa/out of NOLA versus Tampa in/out—it was actually slightly cheaper, hurray!

Next stop was my local library to pick up any available guidebooks. As it happened, they had only one on the shelf, but luckily, it was a good one: the 2016 edition of Moon’s New Orleans.

In its pages, I discovered that NOLA is the home of the Jazz National Historical Park, run by the U.S. National Park Service. According to Wikipedia, “…created in 1994 to celebrate the origins and evolution of jazz….The Park provides a setting for sharing the cultural history of the people and places which helped to shape the development and progression of jazz in New Orleans.” They actually have “ranger-musicians” who perform and educate visitors. How cool is that? They also offer a free brochure outlining an 11-stop tour of jazz history sites in the city and you can download an MP3 version of tour narration to listen to on your own mobile device. Historic education embracing modern technology. Go, U.S. National Parks! (DYK?—it’s the 100th anniversary of the USNPS. Happy birthday, you wonderful Park People!) The Jazz National Park moves onto my “must-do” list for this trip.

Thinking about a boat trip into the bayou, I scanned the guidebook’s list of tours, but didn’t see one that really grabbed me, so I Googled “birding tours Lafayette” and found The Atchafalaya Experience, which seems to tick a lot of my boxes: small tours, experienced, knowledgeable guides, philosophy of getting out into the bayou in a quiet boat and seeing what there is to see on that day, rather than chasing down ‘gators or specific creatures. I know that December likely won’t yield as many species as a spring or summer trip, and I won’t complain if I’m chilly or damp. On the up side, mosquitos probably won’t bother us much!

My companion, who has visited NOLA on business before, was keen to select our accommodations in the city, so I acquiesced gracefully; after all, I do 99% of the travel planning/booking, it’s good to let go the reins once in a while. He chose the Hotel St. Marie for its location (just off Bourbon Street), price (moderate), and streetside balconies, while I liked the reams of positive reviews on TripAdvisor. Let’s see if she lives up to her reputation.

Whenever I hit a new destination, I have to check out bakeries, pastry shops, and chocolate emporiums. I have a sweet tooth, but I have very high standards: pastries and chocolates that are merely sweet don’t cut it. They must have rich and satisfying flavours. A beautiful presentation doesn’t hurt—but I’ve had too many fancy cakes and bon-bons that were all looks and no taste to fall into that trap. In NOLA, I’ll be visiting Blue Frog Chocolates, Sucré, La Boulangerie, and Le Croissant d’Or. Good thing I have some walking tours ahead to work off all that sugar.

Speaking of walking tours, I’ll round out my time in southern Louisiana with at least one of those plantation tours. Not very politically correct of me, I know, but I will mitigate my guilt by choosing the tour of Laura, which focuses on the history of the plantation’s women, both free and enslaved. I’ll never be hungry again!

Anyone planning a trip to NOLA? Let me know what you are looking forward to doing, seeing, or eating.