Project Chicchan – Part 5

Day 12 – 28th December

Tonight was our final nocturnal survey, this time back to the agricultural edge. Once again, we didn’t find a wide range of species, but the place was crawling with sheep frogs (Hypopachus variolosus), plus a few Incilius. Sheep frogs, which somehow manage to look a lot bigger in photos than they are in real life (just a few centimetres long), were often to be found sitting next to trails of ants or termites and helping themselves, as in this picture.


On the way in, we heard the croak of a red-eyed tree frog (Aglychnis callidryas) – we didn’t see it, but we reckoned it still counted towards our count of species. Then, on the way back, we did see another Oxyrhopus and a basilisk (Basiliscus vittatus), lizards which are known for being able to run across water. It was another late night, so late that by the end my head torch was fading even though I’d just changed the batteries. At one point we got a bit delayed because Rowland and Bruce had walked right over a trail of ants and suffered the consequences!



Day 13 – 29th December

Our last full day, but we were hardly slowing down. We began with a hike we hadn’t yet done, the Las Guacamayas Trail – this required starting from the river again, and making possibly our steepest climb yet to reach the top of the hill. Sadly, we didn’t see any herps, though we did make our way back to the Mirador and got another look at the view in better weather.


Some definite excitement was had when we got back, as we found our baby boa constrictor eating a bird! She was still in the same tree as before, hanging from a branch by the tip of her tail and swallowing the bird from below, her head already distorted by the massive mouthful. (Contrary to popular belief, snakes don’t actually dislocate their jaws when swallowing large prey – they just have very flexible skulls.) We watched her progress for about half an hour, but she still hadn’t swallowed the whole thing by the time she finally ran out of strength and fell from the branch. Rowland was worried she would regurgitate the bird – catching it was, after all, a significant expenditure of energy. Luckily, a check later revealed that she had got it down fine.


With all the expended energy and limited sleep in the last few days, I was feeling pretty knackered myself, and for the first time that morning I did manage to take a little siesta.

Once we had dropped off our remaining snakes in the afternoon, most of us still felt energised enough to do the Jaguar Trail the whole way round at last. As we headed west at the far end of the trail, we were just coming up a slope when Rowland stopped us. He had spotted a speckled racer (Drymobius margaritiferus) under a bush. Racers, as their name suggests, are very fast and very difficult to catch, and required special preparation. The five of us were stationed in various positions all around the snake, ready to cut off any retreat. Rowland approached slowly – then pounced. I had a brief glimpse of the snake’s body thrashing in the leaf litter, before it wriggled out of Rowland’s grasp, dodged Sheri, and was away. Rowland was absolutely fuming.


Waiting for us on the volunteer cabin steps when we got back was what I initially thought was another Incilius, but actually turned out to be a cane toad (Rhinella marina). These are the highly toxic toads that have become such a problem after being introduced into Australia, poisoning and eating the local wildlife; here, in their natural environment, they’re not quite so troublesome. This brought our total number of species seen to 38 (but still no Bothrops, sadly), with all of us hoping we could still make it a round 40 in the final hours.

With finishing off our drinks left over from Christmas, and watching a DVD of Russell Peters on Rowland’s laptop, it was a pleasant final evening.


Day 14 – 30th December


The morning saw us release one last snake – an Oxyrhopus – and then it was goodbye to Las Guacamayas. There was a last peaceful ride down the river back to Paso Caballos, during which we saw another crocodile and a green iguana (Iguana iguana – 39 species!)

The drive back wasn’t so bad, partly because I got to ride shotgun. We were just outside Flores when we stopped – somebody had spotted a lizard on a fence. Bruce caught it, and it was revealed to be a Ctenosaura similis, which we had not yet seen! We had officially seen (or heard) 40 species of reptile and amphibian!


Back in town, I checked into my hotel and joined the others for lunch at Captain Tortuga’s next door. Even though Las Guacamayas had been more comfortable than living in the forest had any right to be, I had missed some little comforts. I was looking forward to getting a pizza, but they were only doing them in the largest size, so I had to get a cheeseburger instead. At the same time, I was able to get an Internet connection on my iPod, check the news and make sure I hadn’t missed any disasters back in Britain.

In the evening, I went to meet the others again at their hostel for a drink. It was there I said goodbye to Bruce and Futha, who were heading off to Belize the next day. Then, finally, I went to sleep in a bed without a mosquito net.


Extra Day – 31st December

My Guatemalan adventure was not quite over. At Rowland’s suggestion, I had decided to stay an extra day for a visit to the Mayan ruins at Tikal. Rowland, Sheri and I had organised a shuttle the previous day, and it was about an hour’s drive (on paved roads) to Tikal.

Once there, it was a sudden goodbye to Rowland and Sheri too; they had to go check into their hotel. I bade them farewell, then headed off into Tikal alone.

Actually getting to the ruins required a lot of walking through muddy forest paths, but fortunately that was exactly what I had been doing very frequently for two weeks. The weather was on-off: at one point, I was left sheltering from rain under a tree, but then it cleared up very nicely (until I was on the way back).

Eventually I made my way to where all the other tourists were gathered: the central plaza, in which could be found Temples I and II. There was also a little more herping, as I spotted a Sceloporus on top of Temple II (from where the pictures below were taken).


A little more walking revealed a few groups of coatimundi, which I hadn’t seen around Las Guacamayas. Then there was the biggest temple, Temple IV. Unfortunately, Temple IV is positioned behind the trees in such a way that you can’t get a good look at it from the ground; you can, however, climb to the top and get a view so vast that it looks like the whole of Guatemala. A tourist at the airport the following day told me that this view was used in Star Wars, when the Millennium Falcon is flying into the rebel base.


Following some more photos in clearer weather back at the plaza, I walked back to the car park, and took a shuttle back to Flores, experiencing some serious rain along the way.

I would have liked to stay up for New Year’s but I was prioritising getting a good night’s sleep; I had four flights all in one go the next day. As it was, I was woken up by the noise at midnight anyway.

The long journey home was happily uneventful. I had been concerned about Houston, where there were only two hours between my inbound and outbound flights, but even getting stuck behind some very slow people in Immigration, I had more than enough time to grab a burger before the long-haul flight. I got about half an hour of dozing, yet I didn’t feel as bad as I have been when flying east in the past – maybe because I didn’t take my travel sickness pills. My dad picked me up in Manchester, I came home, and slept for ten hours that night.

So, what to say overall? Well, I certainly enjoyed my first taste of Guatemala, even if I didn’t see that much of the populated side of it. Maybe things would have been different if I’d actually gone into Guatemala City, but Flores was lovely: comfortable with a happy atmosphere and friendly people, and despite my initial concerns about crime in Guatemala, I felt reasonably safe throughout. I just wish I’d been able to see Flores itself in better weather. And if you ever go, make sure you know some Spanish!

As for Project Chicchan, it was a fantastic adventure that’s going to stick with me for life, and I hope I get the opportunity to do something like it again in the future!

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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