Trip Report Oaxaca/Chiapas, Mexico
Author: Kim Garwood
Trip Report Oaxaca & Chiapas May 2010
Participants: Judi Ross, our fearless driver, Bill Berthet, Fred Heath, and myself, Kim Garwood
Wed May 5 – Bill and I fly to Oaxaca, 2 nights in Villa del Campo, 380 pesos/single
Thur May 6 – Gucamaya Road and 5 km spot
Fri May 7 – drive to Pluma Hidalgo, 1 night in Posada Isabel, 300/double, 400/fancy single
Sat May 8 – drive to Finca Monte Carlo for 3 nights, 600 pesos/person/night w/3 meals
Sun/Mon May 9/10 – walk the trails at Finca Monte Carlo
Tue May 11 – drive to Tuxtla Gutierrez, 2 nights at Palmareca Best Western, 950 pesos/night/double
Wed May 12 – butterfly Canyon de Sumidero
Thur May 13 – drive to Palenque, 2 nights at Chan-Kah, 999/double/night
Fri May 14 – explore waterfalls around Palenque, Agua Azul & Misol-Ha
Sat May 15 – drive to Lacanja and Bonampak, 2 nights at Campamento Rio Lajanja, 490/double
Sun May 16 – worked the road and went to Bonampak
Mon May 17 – drive to Las Guacamayas, 1 night, 780/double
Tue May 18 – drive to Comitan, explore Lagos de Montebello, 1 night El Castellano, 490/double
Wed May 19 – drive to Tapachula, 2 nights Hotel Loma Real, 2014/4
Thur May 20 – explore Volcano Tacana, up to about 1800 meters
Fri May 21 – transfer to Finca Hamburgo 1300 meters, 2 nights, 710/double
Sat May 22 – walk trails at Finca Hamburgo
Sun May 23 – get driven to Finca Argovia for the day, 700 meters, then back to Loma Real
Mon May 24 – drive to Tuxtepec, 1 night 580/double Villa Esmeralda
Tue May 25 – to Valle Nacional, 1 night 380/double, and work Hwy 175 up the hill to 1700m.
Wed May 26 – work back up Hwy 175, 1 night at Ixtlan Ecoturixtlan Center, 550/double
Thur May 27 – work road off about Km 138, drive to Oaxaca for last 3 nights, Andrium Hotel 550/single, 700/double
Fri May 28 – Guacamaya Road north of Oaxaca
Sat May 29 – Valle del Teotitlan
Sun May 30 – fly back to Texas
Expenses – The 3 of us paid for all gas and tolls, which was about 6400 pesos for the entire trip. The current conversion rate is about 12 pesos/1 US$. So our gas and tolls were about $530 for the 3 of us, not bad considering how much driving we did. Our hotels ran from the cheapest at 300 pesos/double to the Loma Real in Tapachula, which was 2014 for a 2 bedroom suite for the 4 of us, so about 1000/double. Most of them were around 490 to 700/double. My total was 9300 pesos, or about $775 for 25 nights. Our food was reasonable, and we ate in nicer restaurants, not the cheap roadside places. It ran between 100 to 200 pesos each for breakfast and dinner, and we usually only ate 2 meals/day. And we were generous tippers, as Judi’s family runs a restaurant and like most folks in the business, they appreciate the waitpeople’s efforts. So if we estimate 200-250/day for food, that’s about $20 x 25 = $500. I don’t think it was that much, but I didn’t keep track of food. This gives us a total budget of about $180 for the gas, say $800 for hotels and $500 for food, or $1500, plus snacks and cokes (and Bill’s shopping!) I had estimated $100/day as a budget, and we were well under that, more about $60-70/day. Of course we didn’t have to rent a car, which would have added considerable to the cost, as cars are about $100/day.
Wed May 5 – We fly Continental nonstop from Houston, about $400. Judi meets us at the airport and takes us to Villa del Campo, a simple but perfectly acceptable hotel in town. Oaxaca has tons of places to stay in every price range, but this is ok w/me. Inexpensive and close enough to town so you can walk to the center and lots of restaurants, quiet and safe.
Thur May 6 – We spend the morning at Gucamaya Road, north of town. It’s very dry, as we expected, the rains haven’t started yet. But we have a surprisingly good day, lots of crescents, patches, both blue and white morphos, several species of swallowtails and some very fresh skippers. Then we go to the famous 5 km trash pullout just up Highway 175 east, where we have lots of Mylitta Crescents, which we didn’t see up at Gucamaya. Oaxaca is about 1500 meters, the wet turn in the road at Guacamaya is a bit over 1900m. It’s very hot in Oaxaca, much more than usual, so we’re happy to get up the next morning to drive up 175 west of town.
Fri May 7 – Drive west to Pluma Hidalgo and look for a hotel Judi has been told is in town. You take a dirt road off Hwy 175 about km 200 or 202, it’s signed 12 km to Pluma Hidalgo if you’re coming from Oaxaca, not if you’re coming up from the coast. This can be an excellent road to butterfly. But they’re doing lots of construction, so there are guys everywhere working, and lots of traffic. Everything is very dusty, so we don’t spend much time on the road, though we do stop a few places and see several species of crescents. Most of what we’re seeing is very fresh, I think everything is ready for the rains to hit. We find the Posada Isabel, a large bright green building w/out any signs behind the church on the centro. We have to ask to find it, but once we get there, after parking Judi’s monster car in the square and walking around, we find our gracious host who welcomes us to very nice rooms, especially the fancy matrimonial suite on the 2nd floor which Bill takes for 400 pesos. Judi and I get one of the 6 2 bed doubles on the ground floor for 300 for the 2 of us, hard to beat. We walk back for dinner at the very simple little restaurant for 135 pesos for the 3 of us, black beans, mystery meat and onions, but ok. Except we have slight diarrhea the next day, but we recover quickly. I would go back to Posada Isabel, it’s a great location for working the road there. The butterflies are much better between the Hwy175 turnoff and Pluma Hidalgo, once you get below PH the habitat deteriorates quickly. We check out another potential place to stay, if Posada Isabel is full. A ways south of Pluma Hidalgo, continuing on the dirt road, you see a regular green street sign for El Refugio, pointing to a dirt road off to the left. It’s quite steep, and looks a bit intimidating if you’re not in a truck, but we made it in the intrepid van. El Refugio has 26 rooms, some w/nice windows and views over the pool, some musty and dark w/out any windows. They all seemed to be about the same price, based on the number of beds. 1 bed was 300 pesos for single or double, 2 beds was 450 or 500 pesos. I would get the 300 as a single, much nicer rooms.
Sat/Sun/Mon May 8/9/10 – drive on through Santa Maria Huatulco to Hwy 200, near the airport, and turn left, east, for about 40km and turn left just before the Puente Zimatan (bridge) about km 274 or 275 and drive about 27 km on a dirt road that gets progressively worse, especially past the village of Xabani or Xadani. Be sure to fill up w/gas at the gas station on 200 just east of where you join, as there aren’t any more gas stations until you get quite a ways east of the turn off for Finca Monte Carlo. The last several km up is steep with tight switchbacks. Judi got stuck on the last one in her Ford van and almost shredded one of her new Michelin $200 tires, and then we had to get pulled out by some friendly locals who just happened to have a nice Toyota truck. She had driven here twice before and made it in her car, even when it was wet. She thought it would be easier when it was dry, but no. I would suggest 4 wheel drive in the future. We finally made it to Finca Monte Carlo, www.fincamontecarlo.com, a lovely old coffee finca run by Efren and Anna. Efren’s email is email@example.com. They’re located at the end of the road, up against a hill of great looking habitat about 900 meters. There is a sign in the village saying Finca Monte Carlo 9 km, then a second sign saying 3 km to the left at a small bridge, but it’s more like a good 3 miles from the second sign, and took 30 minutes. Anna is a great cook, so it’s a wonderful place to spend some time. The cost is 600 pesos/person/night w/all meals, hard to beat. We’re here for 3 nights, fortunately, as there’s lots to explore. The rains should have started here, but they haven’t, so it’s dry but there’s still a good selection of butterflies flying. Judi says there are many more on the wing if you come in the wet season, probably best in November after the rains. She’s been here in October and November. Efren will pick you up at the airport in Huatulco, if you want to fly down, or you can drive and he will arrange for you to leave your car lower down at a friend’s and come get you in his jeep, or arrange a transfer. Efren tells us the best time for butterflies is August and September, in the wettest time of the year. He says it’s typical rainy season, with clear sunny mornings and cloudy afternoons w/rain most afternoons/evenings.
We have 2 full days to explore the trails, and find lots of stuff. They have irrigation canals running down the valley surrounded by all sorts of plants and bamboo, and it’s very pretty. You can walk on the edge of the canal up the ravine and there are large limestone cliffs We find the best places are down by the stream where they’re building a new irrigation canal, and probably the workers have peed. You have to ford a small stream (could be bigger in the wet season) w/your car about 200 meters before you arrive, and this is where you walk back down and cross over the rocks then go right, paralleling the stream. We found several places where lots of species were mudpuddling at the edge of the stream. Lots of crescents, one of my favorites, 2 new species of Dalla, lots of spreadwing skippers, sulphurs, even the white morphos were coming to the mud. The 2nd day unfortunately some campasino came down from the hills and was hanging around the stream crossing, waiting for a friend in his truck. The only problem is he had 4 mean dogs who attack Bill while he’s kneeling down photographing by the stream and he was bitten 3 times. This is unusual in Mexico, but that doesn’t do Bill any good. The bites aren’t bad, but they do break the skin and bleed. We’ll just assume none of the dogs are rabid.
Efren shows us his butterfly photos, and he has a huge cycad in his front stone garden area that is the host plant for Superb Cycadians. He has shots of all the stages, and we look the next morning and find egg casings and a big batch of larvae, plus empty pupa cases. The cats are bright red w/raised white stripes, they look like pieces of candy. They must taste bad, to be so brightly colored.
Tue May 11 – drive 400+ km to Tuxtla Gutierrez. It takes about 6 hours, with a few toilet stops. Bill has a newer map which shows a new cuota (toll road) from Arriaga up to Tuxtla, so we drive an extra 40 km or so to get to Arriaga rather than go our original planned route up from Tapanatepec. This turns out to be a wise decision, as it’s a nice new road and the old road is steep and twisty through the mountains. We still need to get a new tire, after shredding one of Judi’s on the way up to Finca Monte Carlo. Judi had planned to go Wed morning to find a Goodyear/Michelin shop, but eagle eyed Bill spots one as we drive in on the main road. Fortunately they have it in stock and do the swap in about 30 minutes, a world class record for Mexico tire shops. This frees us up to do Sumidero Canyon as planned Wednesday morning. Fred flies into Tuxtla Gutierrez and joins us at the Best Western hotel that night, so he’s ready to go the next morning.
Wed May 12 – We spend most of the day on the 22 km road inside the National Park at Sumidero Canyon and exploring the 5 miradores (viewpoints). It costs 25 pesos/person, well worth it. It’s still very dry, so we don’t see lots of butterflies, but some real goodies. We have 2 new species of Codatractus flying around, C. uvydixa, which Bill gets some good shots of, and C. cyledis, which gets away. The cyledis has a bright white area on the edge of the hindwing which looks like it’s been painted or enameled on, very striking. There are lots of fresh blue morphos flying around, but not a single white one. The day ends with huge thunderheads towering over the sunset on our way back from dinner at Appleby’s, first clouds we’ve seen on this trip, so maybe the rains are coming.
Thur May 13 – another driving day, as we take the cuota to San Cristobal de las Casas then wind through the mountains through Ocosingo to Palenque, only about 300 km but it takes a good 6 hours and is a tough road to drive. Judi does yeoman duty, avoiding big trucks and doing death defying passes, and we make it to Palenque just fine. We turn left and head to the ruins, and check out the fancy hotel Chan-Kah, about 3 km below the ruins. This is a snazzy place to stay, w/nice rock cabanas scattered around in the jungle. The guide book says $145, they ask for 1400 pesos, and we negotiate them down to 999/double. Bill and Fred take off to go up to the ruins, while Judi and I check in. We wander around the grounds a bit, take a swim in the fancy pools, and enjoy our large shared porch. We get 2 rooms connected w/a porch that look out into the jungle, very nice. Bill comes back w/some good photos from the ruins, while Fred was exploring the temples. Bill got some good shots of Red-spotted Firetip and our first Mexican Cycadian.
Fri May 14 – we backtrack on Hwy 186 (or 199, depending on which map you use) towards Ocosingo to visit a couple of the famous waterfall spots, hoping for butterflies by the river. We don’t have much luck, as there are lots of people at both Agua Azul and Misol-Ha, but they are beautiful spots. The local ejidos, or communities, have learned to ask for money from the flow of tourists coming to the waterfalls, and we repeatedly run into groups holding a string across the road, blocking our way. Some are on the main highway back to the turnoff to the falls, but these we just say no to, and eventually they let us through. Once we turn off to Agua Azul, which we do first as it’s the furthest back on the road away from Palenque, we have to pay 10 pesos/person at the first stop, then 25 pesos each at the second stop. They’re all ‘official’ and you must pay to gain entrance. I would pass on Agua Azul in the future, as it’s mostly lined with vendors selling clothing which mostly looks like it’s from Guatemala and snacky things to eat. The vendors are pleasant, they don’t hound you to buy, but it’s not exactly a nature experience. The falls and the water are beautiful, but they’re full of folks swimming, and not a butterfly to be seen. Judi was here in August, in the rainy season, and she says then the water was mud colored. Now it’s the beautiful turquoise color you see on the posters, so it is very pretty and we take lots of photos. This is about 60 km from Palenque, and on this twisty road, behind slow trucks, that can take considerable time. On our way back we stop at Agua Clara, 10 km closer to Palenque from Agua Azul, and they want another 20 pesos/person, and tell us there are more toll stops on our way in, and it’s only 2 km in, so we turn around. We get to Misol-Ha, about 18 km from Palenque, and again have to pay twice, 5 pesos/person at the first stop, then 15 pesos/person at the waterfall. This one is beautiful, and a lot less people and no vendors. I would recommend you skip Agua Azul and just do Misol-Ha, plus it’s only 18 km from Palenque as compared to 60+. Bill gets a few good bugs here, several new for our trip: Euptychia westwoodi, and Red Rim. That night as we eat dinner at the open air restaurant the dark clouds build up, and just as we get back to our rooms the skies open up and there is a lovely thunderstorm w/lots of rain. The next morning is much cooler and fresher, and everyone is happy, the first rain of the season.
Sat May 15 – we depart Palenque and head south towards Bonampak, stopping at a couple of balnearios (swimming holes) and taking a few dirt roads off to the side looking for butterflies. We pay more cuotas to get to the river, find a beautiful spot but very few butterflies, and continue to Lacanja, where I’ve been told is a nice place to stay w/the Indians in the forest. Campamento Rio Lacanja is simple but nice, and the people are helpful. 490 pesos for a double room w/a fan, no a/c but lots of very hot water, and they cook a tasty chicken soup w/all the rice and tortillas we can eat, plus good lemonade. www.ecochiapas.com They have a trail through nice forest, mostly second growth but it gets into some taller old trees as well. As we drive in, after turning off the main highway towards Bonampak, then turning off again to the right at the well signed intersection and driving over the bridge onto the caliche road, we start seeing lots of dark kite-swallowtails flying up and down the road, dozens and dozens of them. We drop off Fred and Bill and then Judi and I continue on to find the place and see if they have rooms. We have been told by 2 people, oh don’t worry, you don’t need reservations for this place. I had emailed them a few times and they had first said ok, then it was full for Sun and Mon night, but they had rooms for Saturday. So we decide to show up and see what happens. Now they only have 1 room in the ‘upscale’ enclosed rooms (of which they have 3 in 1 building) and only 1 of their rustic cabins, which are pretty rustic. Shared toilets/showers quite a ways along rocky paths from the cabins, and the cabin is a small wooden hut on the river w/a small mattress in an open door. These are very trusting folk, as even in our room, which has 2 doors and a deck, and push in locks on the doors, there are no keys. So everything is left open all the time. Anyway, we take the 1 enclosed room and walk to the next place right up the road and get a 2nd room there for Fred and Bill. Same architect, basic design, and theirs is only 325 pesos/double. So the guys stay up the road and come eat meals w/us, as our kitchen looks much better. The best butterflies we see are 2 Eurtyides salvini, or beautiful Salvin’s Kite-swallowtails, hanging out at the steps to our cabin. Judi scores and gets some great shots, life bug for both of us. I’m hoping to find some of the yellow and orange kites on this trip, as well as the Salvin’s, so I’m happy. Bill scores with a great Historis archeronta that he finds outside the shared toilets, always good places to check out. We have rain again that evening, right after dinner, it’s nice to sit in the room w/the windows open and listen to the rain.
Sun May 16 – we walk back along the caliche road this morning, before it gets too hot, but we don’t find tons of stuff. It looks good, puddles on the road, lots of snow square stem blooming, but not large numbers of butterflies. As the day gets hotter more start to appear, and in the hot afternoon there are quite a few, mainly pierids and kite-swallowtails, flying up and down the road. The problem is they rarely stop. I don’t know why they’re not mudpuddling, lots of puddles to choose from, but we only find a few puddle parties, and they scatter once and don’t come back. So photography is tough. Judi, Fred and Bill go down to Bonampak in the middle of the day and see some stuff, but not great numbers. They visit the ruins, while I stay at the camp and work the forest, but don’t see much that we didn’t see yesterday. I do get a fresh Carrhenes calidius that poses nicely, and the others manage to get some good shots of dark kite-swallowtails, but overall it’s not as good as we hoped. The people at the lodge (the Indian family that runs it) look through our butterfly books at dinner and point out lots of goodies, including some of the orange kites, and say June is the month to come, they’re everywhere. They point out crackers and make crack-crack noises. It appears that we’re a bit early coming in May. We’re seeing a lot of 1’s of each species, so the numbers should go up over the next several weeks. The locals say this is the start of the time of butterflies. Some friends have told me they have stayed at Frontera Corozal, where there are 2 simple hotels. Some people use Escudo Jaguar, and others have used Nueva Allianza, but we decided to move on. The only down side to these is they are in town, so you have to drive to get to the forest, while at Rio Lacanja you’re in the trees and can walk roads. Most people who stay at Frontera Corozal are taking the boat trip to Yaxchilan.
Mon May 17 – drive to Las Guacamayas, about 4-5 hours from Lacanja. Be sure to gas up at Benemerito de las Americas, the only official Pemex station between Palenque and Comitan. There are lots of folks selling gas in little containers along the roads, and this gas station was only recently built. We are all amazed by how badly cut over the entire area is, nothing by cattle pasture, and not even many cows, all along the road. We take the smaller road just south of Benemerito de las Americans that cuts west, thus avoiding the longer road that hugs the border. Las Guacamayas is well signed, official green road signs, and when we get there, about a km off the highway on the right, we find it hard to believe there’s much here as decent habitat. They have lots of signs about preserving the selva, but few trees. We do see a small family of howler monkeys on the grounds, eating mangos, and across the river, where the reserve is, we see some spider monkeys in the trees. But the grounds themselves are very manicured, the rooms are on wooden platforms connected by walkways, 2 rooms sharing a porch. We watch rufous tailed and green sided hummers fight over heliconias in front of our shared 2 room cabin. We get a cabin that does not have a river view for 780/double, the river view cabins are 900/double. The restaurant is very tasty, and it’s a beautiful view over the river, but not many butterflies in this sanitized area. The reserve is across the river and it looks beautiful, tall trees and wild looking, but no access. They do offer a boat trip for almost 1500 pesos (!) for 2 to 3 hours, where they take you up a tributary and maybe let you out to walk around for a short while. But they have no trails, and they don’t appear to want you to wander around much by yourself. They have a couple of guided walks, for ridiculous prices of 600 pesos for 2 hours, so we just explore along the river, looking for mudpuddling parties. We don’t find much, but we do see a very fresh whitened bluewing that Fred and Bill get some nice shots of. There are some things flying, kites going by and common pierids, but nothing worth getting excited about. They have some macaws in a small cage, and some deer in a bigger cage, but it feels very much like a zoo, and a not well run one at that. We do see a pair of wild scarlet macaws fly over from the restaurant at breakfast, they head across the river and disappear into the reserve, so at least there are some macaws there. I wouldn’t go back.
Tues May 18 – We depart and drive west to Tziscao and Lagunas de Montebello. We pay 10 pesos/person to enter the town of Tziscao, and be sure to keep your ticket as we use it to get into all the other string of lakes as we proceed westward. We were thinking of staying at Tziscao for the night, the town is full of cabanas, but we checked out a few of the ‘nicer’ ones by the lake and were not impressed. We had hot chocolate at the 2nd one, where the guy proudly told me he learned English when he spent 3 years in jail in Atlanta, Georgia for robbery, which didn’t lead to much confidence in staying at his establishment. So we moved on, pulling into each of the following lake spots along the road, and butterflying the short roads off the main highway. We found a number of bugs, but not big numbers. Got good shots of Hedemman’s Satyr and cooperative Crimson Patches and a few other fairly common species. A beautiful day and we were up at elevation in the pines about 1500 meters+, so much more pleasant temperatures. We drove onto Comitan, 1900 meters, where we looked for an inexpensive hotel mentioned in the Moon handbook, Posada El Castellano. We hadn’t realized that Comitan has small narrow cobblestone streets, much like San Cristobal, and in Judi’s large van it was a challenge. Glad she was driving and not me. Fred navigated the streets and she drove, then we realized the street our hotel was on was being rebuilt and we couldn’t get there. So we decided to try the nicer hotel where other tour groups stay, Hacienda de las Angels. They were almost full, and only had a double for 1000 pesos and a junior suite for 1400, so we kept looking. We managed to find our original goal, got some rooms, and even found a place to park. Nice little hotel, tasty restaurant, splashing fountain in the courtyard, I would go back to this place. If I did a trip again I would probably come stay at Comitan from Tuxtla Gutierrez and work the lake area as day trips. Then drive across to Bonampak and stay at Rio Lacanja, where there’s decent forest. I wouldn’t bother w/Palenque, probably turn around and drive back to the west.
Wed May 19 – Drove back past our turn from Lagunas de Montebello and headed south over the mountains to Tapachula, on the Pacific coast near Guatemala. This was a beautiful drive, about 5 hours on some twisty mountain roads, lots of gas stations. Got to our hotel, the Loma Real, just off the main highway 200 up on a hilltop overlooking the city in nice gardens w/a good restaurant, and found out they were full due to a convention. Fortunately they had some 2 bedroom suites, so we get to live together for the next couple of nights, at 2014/4, including their snazzy breakfast buffet. We watched giant wrens from the restaurant w/our large pizzas, way too much for one person, and Fred found white-bellied chachalacas later on the grounds, while Bill got nice shots of Cissia themis. Some nice stuff, in spite of being mostly a travel day. Plus we were able to get hold of the folks at Finca Hamburgo, one of the coffee fincas up above Tapachula, and they’re picking us up Friday morning for 2 nights at their place. The road up is bad and requires 4 wheel drive, and after our experience w/tire eating roads going to Finca Monte Carlo, Judi is a bit cautious w/bad mountain roads.
Thur May 20 – We’re off to explore the Volcano Tacana. The road is very well signed to Union Juarez and Santo Domingo, and it takes an hour or two to get there. We drive paved roads all the way above Union Juarez, steeper and steeper, to another small pueblo of Txxx, find a place to park the car and walk down a trail into the woods. Unfortunately it’s quite cloudy, with fog right over our heads rolling up the valley at 10:30am. It doesn’t get any lighter as the morning wears on, so we don’t walk in too far. We do see golden-banded dartwhites and mountain whites, and Judi gets a shot of our first Consul excellens or Black-veined Leafwing, which then sails down the trail in front of the rest of us. Then a school group comes up of teenagers, who are amazed to find gringos up the trail, and have to stop and talk and get their pictures taken with us. We talk to their guide, who lives in Union Juarez, and who also says the verano (summer) or time of no rain is much better for butterflies. That would be Dec/Jan/Feb, maybe to March. It would be very interesting to come back here after a trip to El Triunfo in March, as that trips ends in Tapachula. You could come up and check it out for a day, see if what they say is true. We head back down, check out Santo Domingo but don’t find much, stop a few places along the road but there are few places to pull off the twisty road, and no dirt side roads to explore. Crimson Patches are the most common bug of the day, they’re everywhere. We stop closer to Tapachula at INIFAP (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestal, Agricolas y Pecuarias), talk our way past the guard at the gate (Judi has to leave her identification) and ask for someone who knows something about mariposas (butterflies) in our limited Spanish. They’re very helpful, and get us a woman who is an expert in ornamental flowers, like heliconias. Aida Olivera de los Satos spends quite a bit of time with us, graciously taking us out and showing us her test plots of cacao, orchids and many types of heliconias. She also says come back in Dec to March, not many butterflies now. Maybe they’re right, as we don’t see many, or maybe they just don’t notice them.
Fri May 21 – Pablo, the driver from Finca Hamburgo, picks us up at our hotel at 9am. The Loma Real hotel lets Judi leave her car in their parking lot for 150 pesos/day, or 300, about the same it would cost her to leave it in a parking lot in town. We had hoped they would let us leave it here for nothing, as we’re staying a couple of nights before, then 1 more afterwards, but they don’t like the idea, and we’re lucky they let us leave it at all. So we head up to Finca Hamburgo, about a 2 hour drive. www.fincahamburgo.com We pass Finca Argovia after about 50 minutes, which is where the paved road ends. You can drive a regular car to Argovia, but they recommend 4 wheel drive beyond that. The Hamburgo van isn’t 4 wheel drive, but the driver is very experienced on this road. These 2 fincas work together, and are on La Ruta del Café, which is their attempt to draw tourists. We get to Hamburgo about 11am and immediately wander around their manicured garden at the top. Bill finds the bug of the place as he finds a lek of Symmachia probetor, a different subspecies than the one in Boquete, Panama in Dan and Kay’s backyard. We all get great shots, as they are low and cooperative, a beautiful bluish/green riodinid w/red edges on the hindwing. We even see a female later that day, very different looking, but she just pops in and pops out, so no photos. This is at the far edge of their garden near the restaurant, at the top of the stairs in the dirt. Bill also finds another great riodinid at this same location later in the day, Mesene crocella. It’s overcast and the fog comes and goes all afternoon, but we manage to scrounge up some goodies. There is a flat area down the road a bit where several species of swallowtails are hilltopping, so some of us spend time there. The Polydamas Swallowtail is landing on bushes and spreading flat, which they almost never do, and Bill and I both get decent dorsal shots, one I’ve tried to get for a long time. There are also Orions, Variable Crackers, and our first Archaeoprepona, A. demophoon. Our rooms are up on a higher hill top, so we have some stuff up there as well. This is a very well maintained coffee finca, and the rooms, 3 to a building with 3 buildings, have nice porches from which you can enjoy the view. At night we can see the lights of the town down below, when the fog lifts. There are fireflies and lightning and thunder, so it makes for a spectacular evening. The restaurant is also very nice here, someone has spent a lot of money developing this finca for tourism. Some of the fincas are more homegrown, where you stay in somebody’s bedroom and feel like you’re part of the family, but this is an actual lodge. We wander the trails Saturday, looking for bugs. That morning when we woke up there was heavy fog, we could only see about 10’ off our porch, but after breakfast it broke up, the sun came out, and there were butterflies flying. The weather seems to change here every 10 minutes, as the clouds move up and down the foothills. We kick up some new ones, but it seems slow, though this would be a lovely spot to come back to. We see the Broad-banded Page flying around, sometimes briefly landing on the coffee flowers, but none of us manage to get a photo. The coffee flowers smell wonderful and are a beautiful white cluster. Bill scores w/several new bugs, he gets Theritas mavors and our first Theope. We’re going to try and leave early tomorrow, about 9am, and have them drop us at Finca Argovia, the one closer to town. So we can explore there, then get a lift back to the Loma Real in Tapachula. That way we can compare the 2 fincas. You can stay at both of them. This one the owner, who we talked to ahead of time, offered us a ‘Texas’ discount and charged us only 710 pesos/double, while he said the normal price is 1000 pesos/double. This would be a nice place to bring a group, as they have 18 beds in 9 rooms, in groups of 3, plus you pay for your food at the restaurant. He included the roundtrip transfers, which the Moon book says is $12.50/person. Everyone here only speaks Spanish, and they seem to have a tough time understanding Judi’s and my Spanish, but we manage. The trails are just the farm roads through the coffee, with red clay dirt, the kind that gets very slippery when wet, especially when the moss grows on it. So you have to watch your step.
Sun May 23 – for an additional 450 pesos for our group, Finca Hamburgo takes us down to Finca Argovia www.argovia.com.mx in their safari truck, an experience in itself, about an hour trip, then the Argovia people will take us back to Tapachula. If we had gone straight to Tapachula, there would not have been any extra charge. The folks there are waiting for us and seem quite eager to see what we’re doing w/the butterflies, and a young biologist from Mexico City, who is there for a month studying birds, comes along. He gets pretty bored watching us photograph a bunch of swallowtails we find at a mud puddle, several Polydamas and a big Ruby-spotted Swallowtail. We also find a beautiful Eunica mygdonia, and all of us get great shots, after being patient w/it. This is another fancy finca, about an hour from Tapachula, and the 2 fincas compliment each other, as Argovia is about 700 meters and Hamburgo is higher, about 1300 meters. We eat lunch at Argovia, and it is delicious, if not very cheap. We check out a room, and it is very romantic, w/a beautiful private porch, for 1250 pesos. They might be open to a discount if you’re not on a weekend, which is when they get most of their visitors. There are several species of tigerwings flying in the shaded ravines, and Bill also finds several new hairstreaks for our trip. We also see, and photograph, Iaspis castitas. There are 2 of them, and 1 lets Fred and Bill get some good shots. Then their driver takes us onto Tapachula, about another hour, where our Hotel Loma Real is waiting for us, our 2 bedroom bungalow, and Judi’s car is safe and secure. The next 2 days will be travel days, first to Juchitan, about 400 km, then up to Tuxtepec and west to Valle Nacional, about another 250 km.
Mon May 24 – Judi drives like a demon, 250 km from Tapachula to Arriaga in 3 hours, a great 4 lane divided highway. Then about another 1.5 hours to the turnoff at La Ventosa, so we were there shortly after 1pm, and we’re making such great time we decided to head on to Tuxtepec, another 250 km. It was funny, today several times we were pulled over at the military checkpoints and questioned, especially coming out of Tapachula. They thought we had been in Guatemala, and were very confused by Judi’s Missouri plates on her car. But she convinced them we weren’t doing anything sneaky, and we continue on. The 2nd part was on more windy, slower roads, but we still made it to Tuxtepec and were in the Villa Esmeralda by 5:30pm, 9 long hours on the road but now we’re in good position to hit Valle Nacional tomorrow, only about an hour away. We’ll snag the hotel rooms in town, then head up the mountain on Hwy 175. From Valle Nacional it’s about 6-7 hours to Oaxaca, but we’ll spend probably the next 2 days walking the roads and photographing. This stretch goes through great habitat which changes quickly as it climbs steeply.
Tue May 25 – drove to Valle Nacional, got our hotel rooms at the simple hotel right off the zocalo (the rates have increased from 280/double to 380, still a good deal), then headed up Highway 175 to km 74 and km 84, where I had good luck 2 years ago when I worked this road. We went to the higher location first, and were fogged out, but we did see our first purple and orange daggerwing, Marpesia corita. We had much better luck at the lower elevation, about 1400 meters. Km 84 is about 1700, where a small waterfall comes down the cliff, and I have seen Cloud-forest King in the past, but not this time. So we return to Km 74, which keeps us busy for several hours chasing a good variety of nymphalids, 3 species of Mapwings and our first Pedaliodes, big dark higher elevation satyrs. We finally head back down the mountain and stop at the dirt road off to the left, or north, about Km 55 or 56. This is about 600 meters, so we had tons of Crimson Patches and several species of crescents and other lowland things.
Wed May 26 – after a tasty breakfast at the big palapa restaurant across from the Pemex, the only place to eat in town, we check out and head back up the hill. This time we stop at the 600 meter spot first, before it get too warm. We had rain when we woke up, but it clears by mid morning. We get great looks at One-banded or White-banded Satyr, Pareuptychia metaleuca, which are chasing each other vigorously and fortunately we find a shrub where they like to pose with wings open. Interesting, as we didn’t see any late yesterday at this spot. We continue on up the hill, stopping at the same couple of spots, and get several new goodies at Km 74. Great shots of a very obliging Turquoise Emperor, both open and closed, and Godman’s Mapwing, plus a constant stream of 88’s, mostly Anna’s but a few Faded, with their glorious dark blue above. Today we continue up to the pass, and visit another dirt road off to the left, or south, as we’re climbing, just before Km 103. It’s easy to miss, as it drops off the main highway, but is a well maintained road down to a waterfall that’s no longer visited much, it appears. We don’t see a soul, and it’s quite cool and dark, we’re about 2400 meters. But we find a couple of species, a strongly marked Cyllopsis and Blazing Skipper, or Vinpeius tinga. Unfortunately later John Kemner corrects this to just a female Fiery Skipper, oh well. This looks like a great spot, good high elevation habitat in the pines. We were told there were 2 species of Dalla here, but didn’t see either. It’s about an hour + to Itzlan, where we spend the night in their ecotourism cabins, very nice for 550 pesos/double. It’s in the pines about 2100 meters, so it’s cool and you can enjoy the wind in the pines. Not easy to find, as you have to drive through the town and up a paved road about another 3.5 km. We eat pizza in town before driving out, as we think we have to check in at the office in town, which is closed until 5pm. But it turns out that’s not true, we can drive directly to the cabins and pay there. They have a huge restaurant there, but it’s only open when there is a large group staying. So it’s a good thing we had the pizza, which was right to your left as you came into the square. Our cheapest meal yet, 200 pesos for all of us, and we couldn’t eat it all.
Thu May 27 – John Kemner drove up from Oaxaca, about 2 hours, and met us in town at Itzlan, after we had a tasty breakfast at Jemina’s. Then we drove back up Highway 175 to a dirt road off to the right, about Km 138, that was signed for 2 villages and goes in for 60km or more. We drove in about 15-20 minutes to a wet meadow on the left filled w/yellow composites, about 9,500’ or 2800 meters. It was only about 9:30am, which was too early for this high elevation, so we drove on. We didn’t see much, as it was still too dry and we had overcast and cool weather, but it was beautiful habitat. John was full of nuggets of info, and was fascinating to spend time with in the field. At one spot we had Cloud-forest King flying overhead, but it never stopped for photos. We finally turned around and went back to the meadow, where there was now some sun and it had warmed up, and we spent a couple of hours chasing Poanes monticola and some dark frosted females which could be Poanes taxiles or Poanes zabulon or maybe Poanes melane. Interesting that we didn’t see any males. We also got good shots of Piruna ceracates and a different looking crescent, Phyciodes mylitta mexicana, much darker than the Mylittas I’m used to. This would be a great spot to come back to in the rainy season, if you were lucky and could hit a sunny day. The problem is once the rains start, it’s overcast and cool up here, so John says it’s almost impossible to hit the few sunny days this high. He feels the better time is Feb through May, but you just know if you could time it right you might find all sorts of goodies at a place like this.
Fri May 28 – John joins us again for a day up at Guacamaya road north of Oaxaca, after we drive on into town and get rooms at the Anturium Hotel, across the street from the new first class bus station. This is a nice hotel, 550/single and 700/double, that has a very nice restaurant in the courtyard for breakfast, very pleasant, and they take credit cards, which is a plus for us at the end of our trip and cash is running low. It doesn’t have air conditioning, as only the really upscale hotels in Oaxaca have that luxury. Usually the weather doesn’t need it, but it’s been very hot, in the 90’s. The rooms do have nice ceiling fans, and you can open the window, and we sleep fine. So Friday morning Judi picks us up, after reuniting w/her dogs the previous night, then we stop at John’s house and head up to Guacamaya. This is off the libre or free road to Mexico City, you take the libre to the right where the cuota starts heading to Mexico City, then turn right on a signed road to Guacamaya and ecoturismo. It’s very dry up the canyon, but the mala mujer is blooming and this is a magnet for butterflies. We find the special hairstreak again that Judi and I photographed here last July, and John collects several of them. It’s close to Satyrium favonius/ Oak Hairstreak or Poling’s Hairstreak, but this is a large range extension for either species, and Bob Robbins suspects this is an undescribed species. I had sent him our photos from last year, and he needs some specimens to determine the species for sure. So we’re happy to find the same species flying a bit earlier. We also have a good selection of other skippers coming to the white flowers of the mala mujer. This is a plant that you need to know in Mexico, as it’s a nasty painful nettle that likes blooming alongside roadways, and the hairs can go right through pants and socks. I speak from personal experience, be wary of this plant. But it has large white clusters of flowers that stick up, and butterflies of many types seem to really like it. Or it blooms when not much else is blooming, but it’s always worth checking out. We see White-crescent and Pipevine Swallowtails on the mala, Mexican Silverspots and Gulf Fritillaries, and lots of big skippers, Gold-costa Skippers are abundant, 1 fresh Valeriana Skipper, plus some Roadside Skippers and some fresh Codatractus that I think are Codatractus bryaxis or Tawny Mottled-Skipper, but John tells us that species flies more in the east, where it’s wetter, and here it’s what used to be called Arizona Mottled-Skipper but it’s not that either. Andy Warren has named it Sally’s or Confused Mottled-Skipper, Codatractus sallyae. This is a new one for me, but John says it’s common in the Oaxaca valley. It’s very bright rufous above, we watch them flying around, much brighter than Arizona. We also have a good study of Banded-skippers, as we have both Chisos Banded-Skipper, Autochton cincta with the white fringe and narrow gold band, and Autochton cellus, Golden Banded-Skipper. John points out some of the differences with Sonoran Banded-Skipper, Autochton pseudocellus, which is a confusing pair to me. He says pseudocellus is smaller, and the ventrals are different. 2 years ago we had good looks at pseudocellus up higher, at El Cumbre up Highway 175 from Oaxaca. There is a 2nd place a bit up the road, where the water runs over the road from some drainage pipes and the road makes a big right hand turn, maybe 5 km up from the highway. This is a great spot for butterflies, as many species come to the water, especially now when it’s so dry. We have Pallid Tilewhites, lots of blues of several species, more hairstreaks, lots of sulphurs – mostly Mexican. One of the interesting aspects is how different the 2 spots are in the species composition, even though they are very close. There are Red Satyrs patrolling the road, and Red-spotted Patches posing for photos. The water spot is a great place for Checkered Scallopwings, I almost always see them here, and today is no exception. We head back to town about 3pm for a late lunch/early dinner at my favorite pizza spot in Oaxaca, Mezzaluna. They have a thin crust, crispy pizza which I really like, however Fred, being from New York, turns up his nose at it. He does enjoy his shrimp risotta, so all is not lost. Mezzaluna just happens to be next store to a fabulous bakery, Pan & More, which is European style croissants and artisanal breads, another nice place to visit here in Oaxaca. Then we wander around downtown, visiting several of the fabulous old churches and hit a few of the many art galleries and shops. You could spend a lot of time, and money, exploring Oaxaca, a fascinating and unique city.
Sat May 29 – Our last day in the field, and we go east on Highway 190 about an hour to Valle del Teotitlan, a Zapotec village and a great valley on a dirt road where there are many places to explore for butterflies. This is the weaving village where many tours go, everyone here makes their living weaving fabulous rugs, and you can see big looms in every house. More shopping, if you’re into that this is the place to do it. We work our way up the dirt road that winds its way up the valley, gradually gaining altitude until we’re about 2300 meters. John notices the blooming acacia trees with white spikes of flowers, so we stop, and hit it big time with hairstreaks. They love this plant, it is the same flower that Judi had the mystery Satyrium hairstreak on a little lower down last July, on Guacamaya Road. We have lots of butterflies, more hairstreaks today then we’ve had the entire trip. Unfortunately the trees are downslope from the road, so you can watch the butterflies easily w/binoculars, but it’s a bit far for photographs. Certainly not w/my camera, but Bill and Judi take some shots w/their longer lenses. Probably the best one we find is Atlides carpasia, a beautiful one similar to Great Purple but with red at the base of the wings and big white spots, very dramatic. We also have lots of Ziegleria and maybe some Electrostrymon, and several green species: quite a few Telea Hairstreaks, Clench’s Greenstreak, even an Erora or two. It’s a great way to end our trip.
Sun May 30 – Judi graciously takes us to the airport for an early departure, and we all make it home fine. Thanks to Judi for doing all the driving and, and to John for the 3 days he spent with us, I’ll definitely look forward to going back to Oaxaca, probably next summer a bit later in the year. Give the rains a chance to get going, maybe in June or July. But if you want the higher elevation species, you should probably plan on March/April.