Oaxaca, Mexico Part I – City and Mountains

I have mixed feelings and mixed reviews about this trip – probably why I have waited so long after returning to write this post. It was the first time that Cindy and I have traveled as part of a tour group. We chose the tour as a mix of birding and cultural attractions in an appealing place that neither of us had visited before. Promotional materials promised great weather, great food, great birds, great culture, interesting archaeological sights, vibrant arts and crafts, and a chance to visit local marketplaces and an interesting city. The tour would be 10 days (not including travel), was very reasonably priced and it seemed like the right mix of birding and other activities – a great first tour together. It did not exactly work out that way as the birding was disappointing – both objectively and compared to my expectations perhaps unduly influenced by my experience on many other tours that were admittedly focused on just birding for serious birders. Fortunately the other activities were great, so a good trip – just not a great one.

I am not going to identify the tour company because my negative review of the birding should not take away from the excellent job they did on all of the other parts of the tour. And I will add that it is not one of the larger major companies that I have traveled with before. It was just not a good match birding wise for me. The other people on the trip were either new birders or people with interests in birds but definitely not a driven interest to add to their lists, to get photos (I was the only person with a camera) or to push for closer/better views. Too often (almost always) the group settled for distant observations, often through scopes only, and spent far too much time looking at the same birds over and over. Repeatedly it was “What is that bird?” “It’s a Cassin’s (or Tropical) Kingbird”. (Yes, just like the dozens of Kingbirds that we saw before.) There were a couple of brief early morning walks before breakfast but too often (again almost always) the day did not start until well past the prime time for birding and big/long breakfasts and long lunches meant that less than ideal time was spent birding. That would have been fine on our great visits to archaeological sites or to craft studios – but birding is an early morning game – just not the game we were not playing.

My last negative comment on the birding part of the trip – but one that is emblematic of my disappointment relates to both quantity and quality. In a pre-trip analysis of possibilities, I identified over 80 species that were possible lifers for me. In the promotional material 27 of those species were highlighted as birds that “might be seen”. Of those 27, 16 were not seen at all. Another was seen only by myself and one of the leaders – apart from the group and then only for a split second. I saw four of the others on my own early morning walks (before the group breakfast) and had barely ID quality looks at two others. Not a great batting average. And it is not because the birds were not around. Some friends visited pretty much the same area about two weeks later. Granted they are great birders and their tour was hard driving looking for special birds and was not including other non-birding activities. I don’t have their final counts but know that in addition to all the birds we saw, they saw more than 50 species we did not that would have been lifers for me. (Sigh…) We did have some good birds and one extraordinary visit to a magical lagoon (which will be reported in the second part of this post). Others may have felt it was a great birding experience. Just not a good match for me. So much for the negative. Enough of that as there were lots of positives to share.

Wednesday November 10 – Cindy and I arrived in Oaxaca City a day early both to get some rest and to work better with flight schedules. We stayed at the Hotel con Corazon an OK hotel near the central market area and got in around 9:00 pm. We had not had dinner and asked the hotel folks for a recommendation. They sent us to a place about three blocks away called Tlayudas El Negro. Tlayudas are a Oaxacan specialty sometimes called a Oaxacan pizza. They are basically large tortillas flat on the plate with varying ingredients on top and usually with a sauce – mole or salsa. Although it was 9:30 when we got there, it was a festive atmosphere with local costumed dancers, music and a fun Day of the Dead theme. Many patrons joined in. We were tempted to join in but refrained. Maybe if we had had Margaritas earlier… Welcome to Oaxaca!!!

We were to be picked up the next afternoon and taken (with three other tour members) to the village of Teotitlan del Valle, where the tour would formally begin, so we had the next day to explore Oaxaca City – also called Oaxaca de Juarez. The State of Oaxaca has a population over 4 million and the Oaxaca Metropolitan area is about 700,000. Guidebooks describe special places to see, but mostly we wanted to just experience the atmosphere of the city, its markets, its restaurants and shops.

Thursday November 11. After breakfast, we headed to the Zocalo – the heart of the City with arcades, market stalls, parks, no cars, thousands of people – local and tourists, restaurants and cafes, music and color everywhere. It could hardly have been more different than our Edmonds home – people, goods, economy, architecture, food and everything else. Really fun.

Lunch was at an open air café on the main square with music in the air and people-watching as a main activity. I went for some Chorizo and Cindy had Enchilada Verde – tasty but not a repeat later. There will be more on the food later in this post. More importantly though, I had a chance to try some local “hot chocolate” getting to stir it myself – rich, creamy, chocolatey and good.

We especially enjoyed the couple at the next table.

Before leaving for our trip we had eaten at a Oaxacan restaurant in Edmonds and tried a Oaxacan specialty – chapulines – fried grasshoppers. They were available (by the thousands) at many stalls in the marketplace but this time we passed – once was enough. By the way as you can see in these pictures, mask wearing was taken seriously in Oaxaca. With maybe a single exception everyone we saw in the markets, on the streets and everywhere was wearing a mask. If only such were true in the U.S.

Chapulines – Fried Grasshoppers

There were dozens, probably hundreds of small stalls and shops in many blocks of markets – stacks of fresh fruit, or vegetables and particularly peppers. There was also a lot of meat, chickens and turkeys (live) and goods of every kind. Toys, clothing, electronic goods – everything. There were many stalls with the same goods and seemingly not many buyers and we wondered how anyone made any money. The sad truth is that many people do not. At least the cost of living is pretty low (certainly compared to the U.S,) for example an excellent latte was only $1.50 and beers were maybe $3.00. Two fish tacos were $4.25 (with sides).

Late in the afternoon we were picked up and headed off to Teotitlan where we would be spending the next few nights. A stop was made along the way so that people good get beer or wine which would not be available at our B&B. Not a necessity for me but for others, yes. We ended up going to a Walmart (so much for local color) for the purchase. Every person was masked and temperatures were taken of everyone begore entering. Teotitlan, in the foothills about 35 miles from Oaxaca, is a weaving center famous for naturally dyed carpets. We were staying at the La Cupula B&B owned by master weaver Demetrio Bautista. The area around La Cupula is good bird habitat and there was no way I was going to wait until dinner to start birding, so I ventured out on my own to explore. I was lucky to pick up my first lifer for the trip, a Greenish Elaenia, but the sun was going down so it was a short exploration. We had dinner there with 3 other tour members before the remainder of the group arrived and also had a short course on Mezcal, a potent alcoholic beverage made from agave cactus which are grown and harvested in the area. The remainder of the group arrived on schedule and after introductions and a briefing on what would follow on the tour, we retired to our comfortable rooms with breakfast scheduled for 9 the next morning.

Friday November 12. That late breakfast gave the late arrivers on Wednesday time to acclimate, but there was no way I could wait that long so I got out early after some coffee (excellent). In about 90 minutes I found 20 species including 4 more lifers: Dusky Hummingbird, Gray Breasted Woodpecker, Boucard’s Wren and White Throated Towhee. It turned out it would be my best looks for all of these species. This would often be the case on the trip – finding a number of species on my own or at least getting better looks alone due to the approach for the tour described earlier – me not being satisfied with long distance views.

Gray Breasted Woodpecker
White Throated Towhee
Boucard’s Wren

There would be many other sightings with the tour group, but again my best picture was on the morning walk on my own of a favorite anywhere – Vermilion Flycatcher.

Vermilion Flycatcher

With that late breakfast the first official tour stop was not until 10:30 at a small man-made lake not far from town. Among the 19 species seen there was another lifer – one that I would see and photograph almost daily on the tour – Berylline Hummingbird. Someday I still hope to find one in Arizona, but so far it has eluded me there.

Berylline Hummingbird (picture from the next morning)

Our next stops were in the mountains at elevations over 6000 feet, and while they included maybe my favorite bird of the trip, it was also a very disappointing day as the realities of the approach of the group as well as maybe just a bird poor day were very frustrating. The favorite bird was a Red Warbler – striking with its white cheek patch. I was lucky to get a decent photo as it was constantly in and out of dense foliage and was at least 50 yards away. A tougher bird to see was a Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer. Somehow I picked it out of the thick cover and got most of the others of the group onto it – even if briefly and again at a distance.

Red Warbler
Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer

A couple of people had a brief look at a Rufous-capped Warbler. I missed it but had seen one in Arizona several years ago – so at least I had not missed a lifer.

We returned to La Cupula and did some birding in the area behind the B&B where I had birded the evening before and that morning before the group left. There were a number of flycatchers: Tropical and Cassin’s Kingbirds, Great Kiskadee, Greater Pewee and Social Flycatchers, with the best probably a Thick Billed Kingbird. I have seen them in Arizona at the famous Roadside Picnic area. There would be several others on the trip. As we were returning almost on cue a Lesser Nighthawk flew by. The people from the group who joined the walk got their first Boucard’s Wrens – possibly the same ones in the same place I had them earlier.

Thick Billed Kingbird

That evening we had a demonstration by Demetrio on how the beautiful carpets are made. All of the designs incorporate Zapotec motifs and all of the dyes are natural. It was fascinating to see how each color is made from the natural ingredients – lessons in chemistry and biology. Red comes from Cochineal beetles. blue from indigo and yellow from Marigolds with shading coming by adding acids (lime juice) or zinc. We watched him at work on one of his beautiful looms and learned that to make a single 5′ x 7′ rug could take 3 months – not including time for spinning the yarns or dyeing them.

Creating the dyes
Demetrio at work

Saturday November 13. The next morning I again went out on my own before breakfast) now a little “earlier” at 7:30. Again there were many Lark Sparrows and Curve Billed Thrashers, and Boucard’s Wrens. I got my first photo of a Dusky Hummingbird but my surprise bird was an unexpected Clay Colored Sparrow. They are seen each year in a few places in Washington but uncommon there. Regular in the Teotitlan area.

Lark Sparrow
Clay Colored Sparrow
Curve Billed Thrasher
Dusky Hummingbird

After breakfast we headed to the important archaeological site at Yagul where buildings were first constructed 500-700 AD with the ruins on site from the 13th to 16th centuries. This is an important historical site for the Zapotec culture – which is still alive in the mountains of Oaxaca. Later that day we also visited the archaeological site at Mitla and two days later we visited the much more impressive and larger site at Monte Alban. I will add much better photos from that visit. At Yagul there were also some birds with three more lifers: Beautiful Hummingbird, Gray Crowned Woodpecker and Black Vented Oriole. The view of the Woodpecker was distant and fleeting – no photo. The Black Vented Oriole was also distant but at least I got an ID photo. I can only blame myself for missing a good photo of the Beautiful Hummingbird – operator error. Nothing unusual or new bird-wise at Mitla and then it was back to La Cupula again.

Black Vented Oriole

Sunday November 14 The following morning about half the group finally got out early before breakfast to bird the area below the B and B. Maybe it was because of the size of the group, but it was very quiet with just 9 species and the only new bird being a Loggerhead Shrike. Granted I had spent much more time in the area on my walks alone but I had more than 30 species on those walks and I am sure I missed many by not knowing some calls. We bid adieu to La Cupula. It really had been a wonderful place to stay with good rooms and great hospitality. We purchased a rug from Demetrio which is now in our Edmonds kitchen. We wish we had bought others – beautiful pieces.

A little critical reflection: I had seen 12 lifers in those first three days and perhaps I should have been happy about that but I had expected many more with much better looks/interactions. But the food had been good, the archaeological sites interesting and the chance to learn about textiles had been wonderful. Cindy convinced me to lower expectations and reprioritize. So I did – well, mostly.

Our itinerary would include some more mountain birding in the Sierra Norte Highlands, a stop at the bustling market town of Tlacoula and then arrival in the City of Oaxaca. At one stop on the way to Tlacoula we had one of my favorite birds of the trip – a Gray Silky Flycatcher – closely related to the Phainopeplas of the Southwest in the U.S. – Lifer #13. We had a brief look at a Tufted Flycatcher and a few people got an equally brief look at a Buff Breasted Flycatcher – no photos. I had seen and photographed both of these flycatchers in Carr Canyon in Arizona in August 2017 so was not all that disappointed to miss photos here.

Gray Silky Flycatcher

Visiting the Tlacoula market was really fun – much like the Zocalo in Oaxaca but much much denser with more produce and especially meats, fewer tourists and food stalls rather than restaurants – more “organic”. Here, people were seemingly buying more goods than at Oaxaca and like Oaxaca, everyone was masked. We were struck by the number of stalls selling meat – mostly pork and chicken and a little beef. Some was being cooked on open charcoal grills, but mostly uncooked with constant attention to keep flies away. Unlike in Oaxaca, our group stood out as tourists and not Mexican.

That afternoon on the way to Oaxaca we made a mountain stop at Camino La Cumbre – Oeste. There we had another Red Warbler and another lifer – a Crescent Chested Warbler. I had a decent look at the latter but was unable to get a good photo as the bird darted from branch to branch and was never in the open. One has been seen this year in Arizona and I hope to add it to my ABA list someday. I am attaching a photo of one of several Crescent Chested Warblers seen by Laura Keene and others on her tour group which I have referred to at the start of this post. A very striking bird. The most frustrating part of the day was at a second mountain stop where we heard distant calls from Jays but no visuals until a couple of flocks flew overhead chattering – brief views only. These were almost certainly Dwarf Jays (a lifer) but possibly could have been White Throated Jays (also a lifer) which can be in the same habitat but are less common and less likely to be in larger flocks. There seemed to be little interest in actually getting good visuals and certainly no playback was used to entice them. They are lovely birds, so a major disappointment. Another not very birdy day at all and another stress was that my glasses and binoculars and camera were continuously fogged up making the few chances there to actually see anything extremely difficult and sometimes impossible.

Crescent Chested Warbler – Photo by Laura Keene

We checked in to our Hotel and had dinner with the group.

Monday November 15 The next morning was the archaeological highlight of the trip with a morning visit to Monte Alban. The following is the description of this World Heritage Site on the UNESCO website: “Monte Alban is the most important archaeological site of the Valley of Oaxaca. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Albán were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography. The grand Zapotec capital flourished for thirteen centuries, from the year 500 B.C to 850 A.D. when, for reasons that have not been established, its eventual abandonment began. The archaeological site is known for its unique dimensions which exhibit the basic chronology and artistic style of the region and for the remains of magnificent temples, ball court, tombs and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions. The main part of the ceremonial centre which forms a 300 m esplanade running north-south with a platform at either end was constructed during the Monte Albán II (c. 300 BC-AD 100) and the Monte Albán III phases. Phase II corresponds to the urbanization of the site and the domination of the environment by the construction of terraces on the sides of the hills, and the development of a system of dams and conduits. The final phases of Monte Albán IV and V were marked by the transformation of the sacred city into a fortified town. Monte Albán represents a civilization of knowledge, traditions and artistic expressions. Excellent planning is evidenced in the position of the line buildings erected north to south, harmonized with both empty spaces and volumes. It showcases the remarkable architectural design of the site in both Mesoamerica and worldwide urbanism.” These photos give only a hint of the site in its current partially restored state and let our imagination try to picture what it looked like in its past splendor.

Towards the end our visit, I went off with one of our guides to get in some birding. It was “almost” a great move. The guide knew a side trail that was promising and started with a large tree against a rocky hill. As we got to the tree, a sparrow was foraging on the ground. Unfortunately the trail was closed off and as we got to the wire blocking access the sparrow flew up into the tree – in the open for a split second and then it was gone, The momentary view was sufficient to see the strong facial pattern of a Oaxaca Sparrow – an endemic that was high on my want list for the trip. Then it was gone – no photo and especially disappointing since it was the only Oaxaca Sparrow seen on the entire trip despite often being in perfect habitat. Sigh…

We returned to Oaxaca with a chance to explore the City. Cindy and I had done that on our first day so we went to different places including a visit to the Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Architecturally different but largely thematically the same as most major cathedrals. Later we visited a lovely small textile museum with truly exquisite pieces. A mélange of photos.

On our own that night we enjoyed a potent Mezcalrita (Margarita with Mezcal) and dinner at a small restaurant and then strolled the city. It was a very lovely temperature without humidity and the atmosphere was very pleasant and we easily could have believed ourselves to be somewhere in Europe. As mentioned before, prices were low throughout the trip at least for food and drink. In general dinner for two was less than $25.00 and drinks were much less than in the U.S.

Mezcalritas

Tuesday November 16 Leaving Oaxaca we would travel to the Sierra Madre del Sur with a stop in the morning at the studio of Jacobo and Maria Angeles in the town of San Martin Tilcajete – famous for Alebrijes – beautifully and intricately painted carvings of fanciful animal figures using copal wood and mostly natural colorings. We were given a demonstration of each step of the production process and got to see many spectacular pieces – finished and in process. I would have loved to bring a piece home but found that the shipping costs were just too high. The photos are of the process and the products.

The Studio

This owl is similar to the one I tried to buy at the studio. It is available online with hundreds of other carvings at prices that range from $25 to many thousands of dollars. Tempting although not the same as buying it on the trip itself directly from the studio.

That afternoon was another somewhat disappointing birding time despite adding 5 lifers. We had checked in at the Puesta del Sol Restaurant and Cabanas and did some birding in the area – undoubtedly our best hummingbird experience of the trip. Also our best lodging in many ways – a lovely private cabana set in the forest with a lovely view. I guess it was a compliment that the leaders gave us the cabin the furthest down a steep hill. It was a challenge (barely met) hauling our suitcases back up when we left – tough breathing at more than 8000 feet up.

La Cabanas Puesta del Sol

Definitely our best hummingbirds. Species seen were Mexican Violetear, Bumblebee Hummingbird, White Eared Hummingbird and Berylline Hummingbird. The first two were lifers with great looks at the latter and maybe only a very poor two second view of the former. There seemed to be White Eared hummers everywhere but it was very hard to get photos. I guess the disappointment was mostly because it was clearly great habitat but like almost everywhere else on our trip there were no feeders. If the places we stayed (or visited) had feeders I think there would have been great birding and photo ops. It just is not done there.

Bumblebee Hummingbird

The look at the Violetear may have been poor and brief, but at least it was a look. Our guide got a quick look at a Rufous Capped Brushfinch but for me it was a single heard only – distinctive enough but it sure would have been nice to get a look and of course a photo. In the ABA I would not have included it as a new lifer. Another heard only lifer was a Long Tailed Wood Partridge. This is a reclusive species I did not expect to see on the tour. Well no visual but several very clear good calls. The last lifer was a Brown Backed Solitaire barely visible in the fading light but an okay ID photo and also again distinctive calls.

Brown Backed Solitaire

The group had dinner that night at an Italian Restaurant -La Taberna de Los Duendes – Tavern of the Goblins in San Jose del Pacifico. We were a bit tired of the Mexican fare we had until then so it was a welcomed change. Cindy ordered steak and I had a pasta dish. The food was excellent and very reasonably priced – but the servings were HUMONGOUS!! I could barely finish half of mine even though it was one of the best I have had. Cindy barely made it through a third of her meal which was also excellent. Maybe a bit more expensive than other meals we had – maybe $40 for the two together, but we would have been happy paying the same price for half the quantity. Cindy had taken a “doggie bag” intending to give it owners of a shy but beautiful dog we had seen earlier. A well fed dog was waiting outside the restaurant as we departed. Cindy could not resist and parted with part of the steak. We are sure the dog knew this drill from previous overstuffed patrons.

Excellent!!

Wednesday November 17 The next morning some of the group got out before breakfast and we were rewarded with another Bumblebee Hummingbird and another Brown Backed Solitaire (again hidden in the foliage) and views of a couple of Slate Throated Redstarts – another lifer. I had decent views but had trouble getting a decent picture of the very active warbler. It is closely related to the Painted Redstart – another Arizona specialty and a species I have seen once in Washington – the only record there. Although I have seen many in Arizona, I have always had trouble getting a good photo – partially because of its high activity level but I also think because the camera’s autofocus has trouble with its color mix – at least that’s my excuse and one I will use for this photo as well.

Slate Throated Redstart

We birded the same area after breakfast and then boarded our van and headed out. We continued to have good birds and I added another 4 lifers and got a great photo of a species I had first seen in Costa Rica in 1997 and which only very rarely appears in the U.S. – a Flame Colored Tanager – hopefully someday I will see one there. The new lifers were Cinnamon Hummingbird, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Rufous Naped Wren and the oddly named Common Chlorospingus.

Cinnamon Hummingbird
Olivaceous Woodcreeper
Rufous Naped Wren
Common Chlorospingus
Flame Colored Tanager

It may have been our best birding day so far but there would be a big disappointment. Willy, our eagle eyed van driver had spotted a number of good birds during our trip – just great eyes – no binoculars. As we drove on a main road – with very little traffic, he spotted a trogon. Trogons are of course among the most highly treasured birds in the tropics. We stopped and strained for visuals out the windows. Had I been on my own (or possibly on a tour with a group with a different focus/approach) I would have found a way to get out of the van for a good look. It was not to be and I was only able to get a contorted view and a photo through the window in the few seconds before we moved on. Unfortunately the poor photo confirmed that it was “only” a Collared Trogon and not the more highly sought after Mountain Trogon which would have been a lifer. Sadly there would be no more Trogons on the trip.

We arrived at our next lodging Finca Don Gabriel around 4:00 and after settling in got in a little birding on the grounds. More than 200 Vaux’s Swifts put on quite a show and we added several species to our trip list including a lifer heard only Collared Forest Falcon. A Common Black Hawk flew overhead but I was not quick enough to get a photo. It is a species I have seen once in the ABA area but with no photo. The disappointment of the missed photo would be more than made up for later in the tour. We were treated to several tropical species that I have seen elsewhere: Red Legged Honeycreepers, Masked Tityra, Boat Billed Flycatcher and a Dusky Capped Flycatcher. I had seen the latter in Arizona a couple of times as well as in Costa Rica, Peru and Brazil as well as a first state record ever in Washington State. I had also seen the others in Costa Rica, Trinidad, Peru, Brazil and/or Belize.

Red Legged Honeycreeper Female
Boat Billed Flycatcher

Thursday November 18 The good birding continued the next morning beginning with two calling Mottled Owls, and several Northern Emerald Toucanets, the former a lifer and the latter previously seen in Costa Rica and Belize. A flock of lifer Orange Fronted Parakeets flew over – no picture but that would be remedied later. Everyone got great looks at an Ivory Billed Woodcreeper – another species I had seen previously in Belize. There was some dispute over a vireo sighting with it first being thought to be a Black Capped Vireo. My picture unfortunately showed it to be the more common Blue Headed Vireo.

Northern Emerald Toucanet
Ivory Billed Woodcreeper

After breakfast, we were back on the road and at our first stop Oaxaca El Zapote-Copalita I had three more lifers – heard only Russet Crowned Motmot and Golden Cheeked Woodpecker and a very distant view of White Throated Magpie Jays. I would get a photo of the Jays later and somehow either missed or deleted a photo of the Woodpecker again seen later. A Squirrel Cuckoo seen buried in the foliage was a great trip bird – not a lifer as I had seen them on Brazil, Peru and Costa Rica. We had an essentially bird-less lunch on the road and continued the long drive to the Coast and our lodging for the next two nights at Puerto Escondido. That story will be told in Part II of this post.

I had seen 119 species of which 28 were added to my World Life List. There were a few good photos but too many misses. The birding and certainly the photography would get better. There was no question however that we had some wonderful non-birding experiences: markets, ruins and craft centers being the highlights. The scenery had been beautiful, the places we stayed very nice and all the people we met very friendly. There had been no glitches, no problems. Fortunately this would continue.

One thought on “Oaxaca, Mexico Part I – City and Mountains

  1. I totally understand your frustration. I no longer go to other countries when my husband travels. They set up some birding for me, but it’s trivial compared to what I’d want with a true birding group. It looks like you did get some nice birds however. I really enjoy your blog. And I think I was just started on reading about this location in my birding magazine. If I ever get to go, I’ll make sure it’s strictly birding tours I look at. Vicki Biltz, Buckley, WA.

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