Mark Smith Nature Tours
Natural History   •   Birdwatching   •   Flora   •   Wildlife   •   Travel Photography

Birds, Ruins, Reef and Rainforest

led by Mark Smith
and regional naturalists

March 11 - 25, 2015

The eight pyramids of Tikal tower above a vast rainforest that engulfs this largest of Mayan sites. From the heights of Temple IV one looks down onto the forest canopy and sees eye to eye with eagles, parrots and spider monkeys. Myriad paths wind through the tall forest connecting many small overgrown ruins. We'll have four days at Tikal, during which there will be ample time to study the ruins (with a fine resident archaeologist), pursue photography (as from the pyramids at sunrise and sunset), and search out spectacular rainforest birds and mammals. Tikal is the finest birdwatching site in Northern Central America. Toucans, trogons, antbirds, cotingas, manakins, puffbirds, and woodcreepers are all here. Even large species like ocellated turkey, great currasow and crested guan are still easily found at Tikal.

monkey clip art

Twelve miles north of Tikal in the remote Peten rainforest we experience another 1500 year-old Mayan city, Uaxactun, where we also visit the present Mayan village of chicle gum tappers, and have a traditional lunch.

Belize is a "Latin" American anomaly. There are only 300,000 people in this small English-speaking country. This low population density combined with the activities of conservation groups and a sympathetic government has resulted in Belize having an excellent system of parks and natural areas. During our 10 days here we'll visit many of the natural areas, including a boat trip on the forest-lined lagoons of Crooked Tree Sanctuary, rainforest walks in the San Ignacio region, exploring the Pine Ridge Mountains, and visit the Mayan ruins of Uaxactun, Altun Haand Caracol. Caracol is a huge, impressive ruin that once rivaled Tikal and has recently been added to this itinerary. There is also an opportunity to visit an undisturbed ceremonial cave with ceramics and other artifacts.

In each of these areas there will be different scenery and birds, including the mighty jabiru, spoonbills and parrots, and forest birds like motmots and toucans. Three days will be spent on Ambergris Caye at the north end of the Barrier Reef. Here we will have time to relax and swim, watch wintering warblers and waterbirds like Reddish Egret, shorebirds and terns, and snorkel amongst splendid corals and an endless variety of colorful fishes. Guides can escort beginning snorkellers in life jackets. The water is warm with great visibility.

This tour presents a unique combination of beguiling archaeology, enchanting avifauna, and relaxing tropical waters.


Antonio Ortiz is a Guatemalan archaeologist who grew up at Tikal where his father, originally an organizer of chicle gum tappers, provided logistical support to hundreds of archaeologist-excavators that worked at Tikal in the 1950's and 60's. Tony worked in the digs beside famous scientists of the time. After university in Florida he returned to Tikal to study and guide. His great knowledge and affable nature make him a favorite leader.

Mark Smith has led numerous Nature Conservancy, Audubon and Oregon Museum trips over the years. Since his studies at Oregon State University he has worked as a researcher and educator for a variety of organizations, including the National Science Foundation, Portland Public Schools and the National Marine Fisheries Service. For 25 years he has operated Mark Smith Nature Tours and has led over 100 tours to Latin America, as well as tours to Australia, Eurasia and Africa. He has guided 20 tours to Belize and Tikal.

An experienced Belizean naturalist will co-lead in Belize.

Activities, Lodgings, Transport and Expectations

All overnight accommodations and all but four (one dinner) meals are included. All lodgings have attached bathrooms. Transportation will be by van. Driving distances are seldom over four hours, and this with stops.

Freshwater boat trips and park entrances are paid by the tour. Gratuities to staff at all hotels and restaurant staff during group meals are included.

The maximum group size is eight.

Most days we will have morning and afternoon walking or driving outings. Before breakfast optional birdwalks are also usually offered. Rain and mud may occur somewhere during the tour. Temperatures may reach the high 80's a few days. Mosquitoes are never terrible. Walks will seldom be over three miles, and terrain is generally flat. Travelers can often choose to remain near our lodgings for all or part of the day, or to go halfway on longer walks. Often a short and long walk will be offered by the two guides. No Visas are required and the border crossing into Guatemala is simple.


By December 2014, participants will be sent maps, an equipment list, health suggestions, entrance requirements (simple), bird lists, selected articles and a list of suggested readings.

Cost and Reservations

A deposit of $1000 is required to reserve one of eight available spaces.

$ 1000 Initial reservation deposit
$2575 Final Payment (due 60 days prior to departure)
$3575 Ground Fare Total (double occupancy)

(Single supplement)

Air fares from US cities via Dallas or Miami range from about $450 to $750; three short internal flights total about $325. Mark will buy this for the whole group and bill you in December to include with the final payment. Airport and departure taxes are not included, and are about $100, but may vary.

Travelers are encouraged to make flight arrangements through Pam Davis of Willamette International Travel in Portland.

One dinner and three lunches are paid individually; all other meals are included. Snorkeling excursions are not included and run about $25. Group snorkeling excursions will be organized but often not all travelers participate! So snorkeling is paid individually, about $35 per trip.

Please make the deposit and final payment payable to Mark Smith Nature Tours and send to:

Mark Smith
PO Box 3831
Portland, OR 97208

Phone: 503-475-1978


Any cancellation for which a suitable replacement is found receives refund in full. Other cancellations are subject to the following: forfeit of $600 if cancellation is received between 60 to 30 days prior to departure; and forfeit of 60% of ground costs for cancellations received within 29 days of departure. Participants are encouraged to buy trip cancellation insurance, available from Willamette International Travel.


Meals paid for separately by participants are indicated by "individual dinner," etc.

Day 1 Wednesday, March 11 Dallas to Belize
Travelers from the West Coast depart this morning to rendezvous in Dallas, arriving into Belize City about 3:30 p.m. By van, we drive north one hour through pine savannah to Crooked Tree Lagoon, where we relax at our waterside hotel.
Day 2 Thursday, March 12 Crooked Tree Sanctuary and Altun Ha Ruins
toucan clip art We depart early from our hotel by boat for morning on the lagoon. The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1984 by the Belize Audubon Society. In a small motor boat we'll explore the lagoon and its tributaries, searching for black howler monkeys, crocodiles, jabiru and wood storks, bare-throated tiger and boat-billed herons, sungrebe, black-collared hawks, peregrine falcons, and American pygmy kingfisher. We may meet local fishermen, and with our boatmen we will discuss local life, including the history of the logwood industry, which was harvested for its dye in the 1800's. After lunch and a break at the hotel, we'll drive to the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha, exploring the temples and pyramids and watching for toucans, tanagers and parrots, which often gather at fruiting trees. We return to Crooked Tree for a second night.
Day 3 Friday, March 13 Belize City/Belmopan/San Ignacio
After an early birdwalk we drive south through palm/pine savannah, watching for yellow-lored parrots, lesser yellow-headed vulture, fork-tailed flycatcher and Aplomado falcon. We'll have a drive through colorful Belize City, the largest city in this former British Colony, before continuing to the delightful Belize Zoo, which features native species and is deeply involved in education. Shortly after the zoo we reach the limestone plateaus and escarpments near Belmopan, the planned inland capital. We'll have a drive through Belmopan and continue west into the Maya Mountains where we spend four nights at a beautiful lodge with private cabins in tropical moist forest.
Days 4, 5, 6 Sat. - Mon., March 14 - 16 San Ignacio -- Mt. Pine Ridge -- Caracol
bird clip art These three days we explore the Maya Mountains region. One day we'll leave early and drive up to the Caribbean Pine forests of the Mountain Pine Ridge. Here we visit waterfalls and beautiful Rio Frio Cave, where the river cuts through a limestone ridge. The forests host pine specialties like Grace's warbler, hepatic tanager, yellow-backed oriole and rusty sparrow. On this day we'll also visit the Mayan site of Caracol, recently made more accessible. Caracol, one of the largest Mayan sites, is on a trade route from the coast to Tikal. Like Tikal it dates from the classic period from 300 to 900 AD. In 563 AD Caracol conquered Tikal and dominated the region for a century.

Near the lodge over 200 forest and brushland species have been recorded. Parrots, trogons, toucans, motmots and myriad colorful tanagers are all here. Swimming and horseback riding are possibilities, and there is the opportunity to visit a recently discovered ceremonial Mayan cave, full of ceramics and other antiquities, which is administered on a limited-entry basis by the National Parks.

Day 7 Tuesday, March 17 San Ignacio -- Tikal, Guatemala
We leave early for Tikal, arriving with time to settle into our hotel and have a walk before dinner. Border formalities are simple at the Belize-Guatemala border.
Days 8, 9, 10 Wed. - Fri., March 18 - 20 Tikal and nearby Uaxactun ruins

Guatemala's Tikal National Park is a part of the largest rain-forest north of Amazonia. In the park animals have been protected and large species like spider and howler monkeys, agoutis (a rodent), guans, currasows, and ocellated turkeys survive and are easily observed. The archaeo-logical site is one of the largest in the Maya world and was active from 600 BC to 1000 AD. In 800 AD during the Late Classic Period, over 50,000 people are believed to have inhabited the city. The eight massive temple pyramids are the most impressive collection of structures in the New World. Many can be climbed via stairs, and from high above the trees we will observe rainforest sunrises and sunsets, when the surrounding pyramids may glow gold. Great flocks of six different parrots flash by, and in late morning raptors like ornate and black hawk eagles, king vulture, white hawks and bat falcons soar at eye level or below. Although Tikal's temple precinct is only about one mile square, literally thousands of small ruins are scattered through the forest and interconnected by trails for three miles in every direction.

During our four days, each walk will incorporate new trails. One day we will drive 12 miles to Uaxactun, another classic ruin where we visit a Mayan village of chicle gum tappers. You will become familiar with such typical rainforest phenomenon as army ant swarms (with their attendant birds, which capture the invertebrates flushed out by the ants), fruiting trees, where dozens of colorful species may come to feed, mixed species foraging flocks, where fifteen or moredifferent birds move through the forest together, and the fascinating lek (group display areas) behavior of the colorful manakins. Tikal's grandeur is unrivaled; the combination of rich archaeology, history, nature and aesthetics give Tikal a mysterious and enchanting air.

Day 11 Saturday, March 21 Tikal/Flores/Belize City/Turneffe Atoll

This morning we drive from Tikal to Flores an hour away and catch a flight to Belize City. From here a 15 minute flight will drop us in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, where we settle into our hotel on the beach for three nights.

Days 12, 13, 14 Sun. - Tues, March 22 - 24 Ambergris Caye
hummingbird clip art

Ambergris is the northernmost and largest caye of Belize's barrier reef, the largest New World coral reef system. The island is 25 miles long and rarely more than one half mile wide. On walking and boating excursions, we will sample island and reef habitats. Ten minutes away by boat is Hol Chan Reef Marine Reserve, where corals and tropical fish are protected. The water is nearly 80°F, clear and calm, perfect conditions for learning to snorkel. Most of the common marine tropical fish families are present, including angelfish, butterflyfish, tangs, parrotfish and triggerfish. Coral reef snorkeling is one of the earth's great wildlife experiences. One day we'll do a boat trip to explore seabird colonies on isolated islets.

Early morning and afternoons we'll birdwatch in the scrub forest and wetlands near the hotel searching for specialties of the Cayes, like reddish egret, clapper rail, roseate spoonbill, white-crowned pigeon, cinnamon hummingbird, Yucatan vireo, and an abundance of Eastern warblers. While in the Cayes there will be ample time for swimming and relaxing options. Bicycle use is free at the hotel. While on Ambergris there will be two individual lunches, and one individual dinner.

Day 15 Wed, March 25 Ambergris Caye/Belize City/USA
A final relaxed morning beachside before we boat back to Belize City, connecting with our mid-afternoon flight to Dallas. West Coast travelers will arrive home near midnight.
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Northern Potoo, Belize, Photo by Diana Bradshaw

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