The Volcano, the Hike, the Guan

This was one of my most wanted birds in the world and after reading many blog posts and trip reports found many entertaining stories, but not much in terms of logistics. Here I provide some logistical information and descriptions that should help future guan seekers. I also don’t think the hike is as difficult as has been described. I hope this is entertaining and useful.

The Horned Guan has to be one of Central America's most spectacular birds Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Horned Guan has to be one of Central America’s most spectacular birds Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus) has to be one of the most spectacular birds in Central America. Nearly the size of a turkey, its plumage is a conservative black and white with a wide band across the middle of the tail. But its unique, reddish horn, striking white iris, and small yellow bill render the Horned Guan unmistakable. It is relatively distantly related to other guans and placed in a monotypic genus.

It feeds mainly on fruits and leaves and, unique among cracids, raises two chicks on a vegetarian diet. It is mainly arboreal, spending most of its day feeding, preening, and resting in the canopy, but will descend to the ground for dust baths or during inclement weather.

The species occurs in isolated populations in the higher mountains and volcanoes of southern Mexico and western Guatemala. The total world population is estimated to be around 1,000 individuals and the species is listed as endangered. The famous and traditional place to see one of these mythical birds has been the El Triunfo Reserve in southern Mexico. The reserve lies in a remote highland area that requires a long hike in and out with camping along the way. The volcanoes and mountains in Guatemala are easier to access and have now become the premier location to see Horned Guans.

The entrance to the park and trail Photo Stephan Lorenz

The entrance to the park and trail Photo Stephan Lorenz

In preparation for the trip I read several blog posts and plenty of trips reports in order to piece together the logistics for our attempt. While I found paragraph after paragraph espousing the difficulty of the trek, I found rather little in detailed logistical information. Several guan trekkers wrote extensively, and quite lyrically, about the steepness of the path, the thinness of the air, and the slippery return track. Many related stories of close and fantastic encounters with guans and a few described close and frustrating misses of the bird. Some folks had even trained for the hike and still related that they were barely able to schlepp their bodies up the dramatic incline of the volcano. Death march, horrendous, and brutally exhausting were common descriptors for the hike.

Volcan San Pedro from the town of San Pedro la Laguna Photo Stephan Lorenz

Volcan San Pedro from the town of San Pedro la Laguna Photo Stephan Lorenz

Horned Guans occur on several high volcanoes and mountains in Guatemala, but one of the most accessible and arguably the easiest place in the world to see this species is San Pedro Volcano at the edge of Lago Atitlan. We had just over a week in Guatemala and Horned Guan was not surprisingly high on our list. We planned on climbing San Pedro Volcano and had made arrangements to climb Volcan de Atitlan also in case we missed the bird on our first attempt.

The San Pedro Volcano is the obvious cone seen across Lago Atitlan from Panajachel, the main hub on the lake. To the left rise the higher cones of Volcan de Atitlan and Volcan Toliman. The easiest way to reach the village of San Pedro La Laguna (or simply San Pedro to locals) is by boat from Panajachel. Boats leave roughly on the hour from the main dock in Panajachel (or Pana) and the crossing of the magnificent lake takes about 35 minutes depending on other stops en route.

Lago Atitlan at sunrise from the slopes of Volcan San Pedro  Photo Stephan Lorenz

Lago Atitlan at sunrise from the slopes of Volcan San Pedro Photo Stephan Lorenz

We decided to drive around the lake to reach San Pedro, since it made it easier for us instead of parking the rental back in Panajachel. The route leads partially along the Interamericana (CA-1) before swinging south through the small towns of Santa Maria Visitacion, San Pablo La Laguna, and San Juan La Laguna. Apparently there is good birding around the drier slopes of the latter town.

The road was steep and had lots of potholes in places, but despite the slow going in certain sections we made in just two hours from Pana to San Pedro. Plus the scenery en route and views of the lake were stunning. Parking is limited in San Pedro, but fenced parking lots are available for around 25 GTQ a night. San Pedro also offers a wide array of accommodations, lots of restaurants, stores for supplies, and several tours companies, all of which can arrange hikes up the volcano. The town makes an ideal base for two or three nights. Views of the lake and marshy areas near town also offer some birding.

Lago Atitlan as seen from halfway up Photo Stephan Lorenz

Lago Atitlan as seen from halfway up Photo Stephan Lorenz

It is probably easiest and most cost effective to arrange a hike up the volcano through the Inguat office located right by the main dock in San Pedro (this houses the local guide association). Here it is possible to hire a local guide for the hike up San Pedro Volcano. The majority of visitors are only interested in hiking to the top of the volcano and enjoy the memorable views. The trail leading to the top is straightforward and while guides are not strictly necessary, it is a good idea to support the local guides, which collect trash and maintain the trail. It is actually not cheaper to go without a guide since the entrance fee to the park alone is almost equal to the whole tour.

We talked to and ended up being guided by an older man named Peneleu. He seemed to be in charge at the office at least at the time. We explained to him that we were mainly interested in looking for the Horned Guan and all the local guides seem to be familiar with the “Pavo de Cacho” (the Spanish name is useful to know). Make sure you also include a taxi “tuk-tuk” to the trailhead, since it takes 40 minutes walking to the entrance otherwise. The price per person including the local guide, entrance fee, and tuk-tuk round-trip was 150 GTQ (about $20). After some discussion, we finally settled on 4:30 am as a starting time. I can greatly recommend staying in San Pedro for the night, since it really cuts down on the time needed to reach the trailhead.

cloud forest home of the guan Photo Stephan Lorenz

cloud forest home of the guan Photo Stephan Lorenz

The following morning we groggily arose at 4 am and stood outside our hotel entrance, backpacks loaded with food and water, 25 minutes later. To our amazement a tuk-tuk with our guide Peneleu pulled up just 10 minutes later and off we were, racing through the silent streets of San Pedro. Twenty minutes later, in the pitch dark, we shouldered our packs at the trailhead and started walking. We started walking just before 5 am and with heads down, flashlight illuminating the narrow path, followed our guide.

At first the trail rose gently, had some flat sections, before becoming steeper, including some sections with steps. I had no trouble keeping up with the guide, but we took some short breaks. We reached the often cited viewing platform 45 minutes later and took a longer break there. We ate some food. The platform offered great views, overlooking the shimmering lights of the small towns fringing the black of Lago Atitlan.

With crimson rising in the east and the mountain silhouettes morphing into defined valleys and ridges we continued up the trail, which became significantly steeper with more steps and switchbacks. Twenty minutes later, we had reached the lower extent of the guan range and Peneleu told us to take the lead so we could watch for birds along the trail. The exploding chandelier song of Brown-backed Solitaires emanated from the moss-draped trees above and a Ruddy-capped Nightengale-Thrush hopped along the trail.

Horned Guan food was found in many places along the trail Photo Stephan Lorenz

Horned Guan food was found in many places along the trail Photo Stephan Lorenz

We walked slowly and checked every visible branch carefully. We were happy to have beat the crowds, believing we were the first at that elevation that morning. We were worried too much traffic on the trail would scare away any nearby guans, which could definitely be a problem later in the day as dozens of groups huff up the trail. Incredibly, a single tourist turned the corner and came down the trail. He smiled at out flabbergasted stares and loped on down the trail. He literally must have been on the top in the dark.

Another small group descended and we became a bit worried. The local guide noticed our binoculars and gazes towards the canopy and informed us to look for the “pavo” higher up along the trail, but no he had not seen any that morning.

the trail passes through fields of maize along the lower section Photo Stephan Lorenz

the trail passes through fields of maize along the lower section Photo Stephan Lorenz

We kept climbing and the trail was not that difficult at birding pace. I scanned the canopy, stared at gaps in the dense foliage, and checked distant trees in clearings. The trees grew noticeably taller and laden with epiphytes as we ascended. It looked perfect for a Horned Guan. We listened, checked for fruiting trees, and kept our hopes up. Stopping near a clearing, I noticed that we had gotten ahead of Peneleu and lost sight of our local guide. I joked that he was probably looking at a Horned Guan when we heard muffled yells from below us. I turned to go back down when Peneleu came running up the trail, saying “pavo de cacho”. The magic words, but where was it, how had we missed it, and we sprinted back down the slope.

An intense minute later we closed in on the spot. Fortunately one of his acquaintances, on his way to collect trash, had caught up with us earlier and remained at the spot to watch for the bird. Peneleu told us it had been right in the open next to the trail. A few moments later, his friend spotted the bird high in a tree right next to the trail and just seconds later we both saw it. The bird is every bit as incredible as pictures, photographs, stories, and accounts suggest. There it was, sitting still on a thin branch right over our heads. The streaked white underparts were clearly visible. The dark back obvious and there was the broad tail with the distinct band. The small head came into view as the wind moved some branches and the bird turned to look at us. We saw the gleaming white iris and undersized bill first and then that red horn. Luckily it was an adult bird with significant ornamentation.

"Pavo de Cacho" high above the trail, an adult with an obvious horn Photo Stephan Lorenz

“Pavo de Cacho” high above the trail, an adult with an obvious horn Photo Stephan Lorenz

The bird remained in the same spot for nearly thirty minutes, just shifting around for better views. Now hikers were arriving in numbers and their curiosity got the better of them. We shared our binoculars, helped some get pictures, and explained how neat this sighting was. Go home and make your birding friends jealous. Most of them were genuinely excited and I think they could tell from of behavior how special this really was. I took dozens of pictures before the bird decided to fly to another tree.

During flight, it clapped its bill loudly, a distinct sounds that often helps birder note its presence. We caught up with it as it clambered and then ran along thick branches, calling, and we were able to notice the red gular patch. The bird flew to another tree where we saw it feeding right next to an Emerald Toucanet and Peneleu told us that both species occur together frequently, another good hint when searching for Horned Guans. Feeling like we had the full experience, we left the area after the bird clambered into dense foliage becoming instantly invisible. It was incredible to see how such a large bird could blend in perfectly. Due to its preference for the high canopy and habits of remaining still for long periods, it is easily possible to walk right past them.

Horned Guan running along branches and calling Photo Stephan Lorenz

Horned Guan running along branches and calling Photo Stephan Lorenz

We knew we had been extremely fortunate, felt a bit deflated since we had apparently walked right passed it, but thanked Peneleu for his great spotting and his friend for the help in keeping track of it. The only thing left to do was hike to the top. It took another hour and a half to reach the top, since the trail was much steeper and we lacked a bit of the motivation and adrenaline of the morning. The wind picked up considerably and birding came to a standstill, even though I had hoped to pick up a few other high elevation specialties, particularly Black-throated Jay. We only saw a few more birds en route, passed the high camping spot (an ideal place to spend a night for owls), and eventually reached the rocky top. The views were incredible and the food tasted great. I shared mine with Peneleu and his friend.

the view from the top, looking across at Volcan Toliman and Atitlan Photo Stephan Lorenz

the view from the top, looking across at Volcan Toliman and Atitlan Photo Stephan Lorenz

The wind was almost ferocious now and after twenty minutes of admiring the nearby volcanoes and expanse of the lake 4,000 feet below we headed back down. The only bird of note on the return was a poorly seen Amethyst-throated Hummingbird. Overall, we barely recorded 23 species, with many of these heard only, but it’s hard to complain when Horned Guan is on that list. We stopped a few times to take in the views during the day. Our hike was put into perspective when we ran into a local farmer tending a plot of maize halfway up the mountain, barefoot! The lower slopes were covered in second growth, then maize, and finally coffee plantations. I did not think that the return hike was steep or slippery, but maybe a bit dusty. We enjoyed more views of the distant top back at the visitor center before the tuk-tuk took us back into town. The epic was over by 2 pm. To summarize the hike overall, it is about 3 miles to the guan area with an approximate elevation gain of 2,500 feet. The hike to the top adds another 1,500 feet and approximately 2 miles.

cloud forest along the slopes of Volcan San Pedro Photo Stephan Lorenz

cloud forest along the slopes of Volcan San Pedro Photo Stephan Lorenz

We had planned a backup hike at Atitlan Volcano through Finca los Tarrales. This is probably the place with the highest success rate in terms of seeing the guan, though the hike is apparently a bit tougher. Unfortunately, due to unseasonably strong winds, which lasted for four days and rendered most of the birding unproductive, our hike was cancelled, not that we needed to go. We did hike up about halfway to the guan area on the volcano in an unsuccessful search for Azure-rumped Tanager and from what I could tell the hike did not seem that much tougher. The advantage at Finca los Tarrales is that the hike starts at a higher elevation, since a jeep track leads to Vesubio, a small settlement and the local guide is an absolute expert when it comes to the guans.

The population of Horned Guans on the San Pedro Volcano seems to be very small and Volcan Atitlan is likely a better option. I would recommend planning both during a trip to Guatemala if Horned Guan is high on the target list, which undoubtedly it will be. I can also stress the acclimatization. We spent at least four nights sleeping at higher elevations (at lake level) and completed several shorter, but steep hikes prior to tackling San Pedro Volcano. For example, we climbed the ridges behind Fuentes Georginas and Santa Maria de Jesus, both birding hotspots, twice during two consecutive days. Acclimatization hikes will greatly improve the speed on Volcan San Pedro. It is best to plan the volcano hikes towards the end of a birding trip in the Guatemalan highlands.

Map of the area

Map of the area

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