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Oaxaca, Mexico Tour 2018 [Trip Report]

Oaxaca is Mexico's most biodiverse state. On this tour, we explored several ecosystems to find birds, wildlife, and plants. We also got to experience the fascinating culture of Oaxaca.

Map for Oaxaca Tour 2-01MEXICOOAXACANTeotitlanOaxaca CitySan Jose del PacificoPuerto Escondido

Check out this short video of our tour:

Day 1 – Arrival in Oaxaca

I met our group as they arrived at Oaxaca International Airport late tonight. We loaded into our comfortable van and whisked away to the quiet town of Teotitlan, east of the big city. We would be staying here for three nights.

Day 2 – Birding the Sierra Norte

After coffee and a delicious breakfast at our B&B, we headed out for a fun day of birding. Our first stop was at the Piedra Azul reservoir above the town. There we started to get familiar with some birds we would continue to see for the next few days: White-throated Towhee, Gray-breasted Woodpecker, Ruby-throated Hummingbird,  and Vermilion Flycatcher. There were lots of Least Grebes on the water as well as some mud turtles sunning themselves on exposed rocks.

We then drove along the dirt road leading up into the Sierra Norte, the mountain range north of Oaxaca’s Central Valleys. The winding drive is beautiful, passing through several ecosystems as the elevation increased: valley scrub, oak scrub, and pine-oak forest. We stopped at a couple bends in the road to do some birding. We were rewarded with sights of Blue-throated Hummingbird, Mexican Violetear, Tufted Flycatcher, and Rufous-capped Warbler.

We enjoyed lunch at the comedor in the tiny village of Benito Juarez at nearly 10,000 ft elevation then walked the dirt road nearby to look for birds, plants, etc. We enjoyed the pleasantly-mild mountain temperature and marveled at the gargantuan Giant Green Agave plants (Agave atrovirens; known locally as Malpais) along the road. Some interesting birds here included Gray-barred Wren, Yellow-eyed Junco, Collared Towhee, and Rufous-capped Brushfinch. But the star of the show was a Northern Pygmy-owl (or Mountain Pygmy-owl, a separate species recognized by some authorities). This little owl flew in close and we got excellent looks at it!

We headed back down the mountain to our B&B. Before dinner, we went out to the nearby agricultural fields to do some evening birding. It was amazing how many Vermilion Flycatchers we saw in the fields. As dusk came on, the sky seemed to be filled by swooping Lesser Nighthawks.

Day 3 – Hierva el Agua and Mitla

We got an early start this morning because we wanted to be out at our birding location shortly after dawn. We headed east, towards the iconic mountain ridgeline known as Nueve Puntas (“Nine Points”). We drove up a rough switchbacking road to a quiet, beautiful mountainside covered in oaks and shrubs. We spent the next few hours birding on foot, walking down the other side of the crest along the road.

We got good looks at the endemic Oaxaca Sparrow, whose range is almost entirely within the state of Oaxaca. We also had satisfying looks at the Beautiful Hummingbird. Neither of these exciting species is guaranteed on a birding foray in Oaxaca, so we consider ourselves lucky! Other interesting birds included Black-vented Oriole and Berylline Hummingbird. The landscape itself was worth the journey. Limestone outcroppings emerged from the sea of oak scrub habitat.

Oak Scrub habitat east of Oaxaca's Central Valleys.

Oak Scrub habitat east of Oaxaca’s Central Valleys.

Next, we visited the famous Hierva el Agua site nearby. This is a geologic wonder where calcium-rich water seeps from numerous springs on the hillside. The calcium gets deposited incrementally and has built up structures of crusty white rock, which look like frozen waterfalls from a distance.

Back in civilization, we had a fabulous lunch and actually had some great luck with birds right at the restaurant. Boucard’s Wren and Curve-billed Thrasher were the highlights.

We then went to check out the amazing ruins of Mitla. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was an important religious site for the indigenous Zapotec People for at least 2,000 years. The well-preserved temples display unique geometrical fretworks of hand carved stones.

Back at our B&B, we were treated to a demonstration of the handcrafts that Teotitlan is famous for: hand-woven wool rugs and other textiles. We learned how local plants, as well as insects called cochineal bugs, are used to make natural dyes. And to top off the day, we enjoyed a tasting of several varieties of mezcal, an alcoholic spirit made from various species of agave and for which Oaxaca is well known.

Day 4 – Tlacolula and Arroyo Guacamayas

This morning we checked out of our charming B&B and headed to the small city of Tlacolula to peruse its Sunday Market. The market offers a vast assortment of produce, cooked foods, preserves, herbs, crafts, trinkets, clothing, and so on. It is an almost overwhelming delight for all of the senses: sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste.

Heading west, we made a stop at the Tule Tree, an individual Montezuma Cypress that has the distinction of being the largest tree in the world, as measured by the circumference of the trunk. It is quite an impressive tree. It sits in the town square fo Tule, right by the church.

We continued on down the highway, past Oaxaca City to the northwest. We drove up a lovely, winding, dirt road to the high-elevation community of Arroyo Guacamayas. We strolled along the town’s main road to look for birds among the fruit trees. Besides wonderful, close looks at Gray Silky-flycatchers and several oriole species, we were thrilled to see a flock of Elegant Euphonias and a lovely Aztec Thrush.

We drove back down the mountain to Oaxaca City, where we would be staying for the next two nights.

Day 5 – Monte Alban and Oaxaca City

After a relaxing breakfast at a cafe in Oaxaca City, we made the short drive up to Monte Alban. This is Oaxaca’s most famous ancient archaeological site. It was occupied by thousands of Zapotec people for several thousand years. Its numerous large temples rival those of any seen elsewhere in Mesoamerica. We birded the grounds for a bit before it got too warm to be productive. We heard, but didn’t see, Ocellated Thrasher there.

We enjoyed walking among the ruins and climbing the steep steps of one temple to get a panoramic view of the whole site. We ate a tasty lunch at the museum cafe on site, watching Berylline Hummingbirds and Western Kingbirds cavort in the trees around us.

Back in the city, we were all free to enjoy the historic downtown however we pleased. The old city center is, like Monte Alban, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are beautiful colonial-era churches, museums, cafes, and plenty of great spots to sit and people watch. It seems there’s always some kind of parade or celebration in the city.

Day 6 – Alebrijes and drive to the Sierra Madre del Sur

We left Oaxaca City this morning and headed south. We spent our morning at the amazing workshop of Jacobo and Maria Angeles. This husband-wife team creates some of the most intricate and sought-after alebrijes in Oaxaca. Alebrijes are hand-carved and painted animals or fantastical creatures. They have become another iconic craft of the state. At the workshop, were given a tour of the process from carving to painting.

After lunch, we had a long drive into the Sierra Madre del Sur, Oaxaca’s southern mountain range. Once at our mountain lodge, we had a little time to look for birds before dark. The prize this time was the Bumblebee Hummingbird. We had great looks at this bird right outside our lodge. For a change of pace, we had dinner at a local Italian restaurant.

Day 7 – Birding the Sierra Madre del Sur

We did a lot of birding today. We started before breakfast on a bird walk near our lodge. This yielded nice looks at Crescent-chested Warbler and a brief look at Rivoli’s Hummingbird.

On the road to our next lodge in the mountains, we made an extended stop to look for birds in a patch of cloud forest habitat, complete with beautiful tree ferns. This was an exciting stop, where we got our first glimpses of Northern Emerald Toucanets as well as a good sighting of the Blue-capped Hummingbird (i.e. Oaxaca Hummingbird), an endemic species found only in Oaxaca. Other fun birds at this site included Green Jay, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-throated Thrush, and Rose-throated Becard. It was a beautiful place to explore.

Arriving at our lodge in Pluma Hidalgo, we were delighted with the sweeping views from the terrace and the comfortable, charming setting.

Day 8 – Birding Pluma Hidalgo and road to the coast

This morning we did some pre-breakfast birding around the lodge which turned up some good species: Northern Emerald-toucanet, Blue Mockingbird, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird, Masked Tityra, and White-throated Magpie-jay.

A massive male Green Iguana near Oaxaca's southern coast

A massive male Green Iguana near Oaxaca’s southern coast

Then we checked out and descended the mountains to the southern coastal plain. We had a long, relaxing lunch at a picture-perfect beach cafe. We picked up a few new birds that were flying over the water, including Brown Pelican and Neotropic Cormorant. A large group of rays (perhaps a species of eagle ray?) was splashing around close to shore and a few would leap out of the water every so often. Pretty cool to watch.

In the evening we enjoyed drinks and dinner at our beautiful hotel on the beach in Puerto Escondido.

Day 9 – Birding the Mangrove Lagoon by boat

We got a really early start today, so our only breakfast option was a whirlwind stop at the local Oxxo mart. Then it was off to Manialtepec Lagoon, where we met Lalo the boat captain. Lalo took us on a magical 3-hour ride through the rich mangrove habitat encircling the lagoon. It was incredibly birdy!

We ticked off every one of the herons and egrets on our list, including the gorgeous Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. Several other highlight birds were Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Amazon Kingfisher, Common Black Hawk, Roseate Spoonbill, and Mangrove Vireo. It was a magical experience. Along the way, we even had time to relax in the shade at the beach, sipping coconut water straight out of fresh-cut coconuts.

Back in Puerto Escondido, everyone had free time to enjoy the beach and the town.

An Anhinga dries its wings in the mangrove lagoon.

An Anhinga dries its wings in the mangrove lagoon.

Day 10 – Birding the coast and drive to Huatulco/Crucecita

Leaving Puerto Escondido, we had a great bird walk near town this morning. In the scrub vegetation near Playa Bacocho, we saw some great birds: Citreoline Trogon, Golden-cheeked Woodpecker, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Spot-breasted Oriole, Northern Cardinal, Orange-breasted Bunting, and Grayish Saltator.

As the air temperature began to rise, we loaded into our trusty van and drove a long way to the east. Our charming hotel was perched on a beautifully-sculpted granite headland on the coast near Huatulco. We shared our last dinner together after a beautiful sunset.

Day 11 – Birding Copalita and farewells

Many of us chose to do a little birding near our hotel this last morning. We visited the lovely archaeological site of Copalita, where we got great views of West Mexican Chachalaca, Boat-billed Heron, Citreoline Trogon, and White-lored Gnatcatcher. It was a really nice way to end our trip.

We all said goodbye and “adios amigos” at the Huatulco Airport. What a great trip with a great bunch of people!

Photos from the tour:

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