Going to Guatemala to volunteer with Project Chicchan in December 2013 was the experience of a lifetime. After going whale surveying in Italy last year, I was determined that this year, I was going to go on another tropical herpetological expedition and expand my experience further. I looked over a few options, weighing up the pros and cons – and in the end, I decided the best option was to go with my old friends on Project Chicchan again! Or rather, Indigo Expeditions, as it has since been re-named after the indigo snake.
This time, however, the expedition I signed up for wasn’t going to Las Guacamayas Research Station. The planned herpetological survey was going to take place around the Community Cloud Forest Conservation agroecology campus at the Sierra Chilaxha reserve, Alta Verapaz. The centre itself is around 1300 metres above sea level, surrounded by a combination of cloud and pine oak forest, and home to a range of reptile and amphibian species. The only surveying previously done there was by the Project Chicchan team for three days in June 2014; in that short time, they made some exciting discoveries and were very keen to continue studying the area. The highlands of Guatemala are home to many endemic species – that is, species found nowhere else. Cloud forest habitats in this area are under serious threat, largely due to the expanding human population requiring more land for farming; fortunately, the CCFC centre does its part by educating people on sustainable farming and other issues.
More than anything, it was the idea of the unknown that appealed to me here. We really didn’t know what we would find – this was proper exploration! Rowland Griffin, the project leader, had warned me that it would be more challenging than Las Guacamayas, but you won’t get many places by staying in your comfort zone. Come the middle of May, it was off to Central America once again!
Unlike my last Guatemalan expedition, I only had to take three flights instead of four, but it was still draining. By the time I landed in Guatemala City on the morning of 15th May, having come via Miami, I wasn’t feeling my best – but I was certainly excited to be back. I headed straight to the Hotel Princess, which proved very comfortable despite being in the middle of renovations, and hung around until I could reunite with Rowland.
But we weren’t just going to stay in the hotel and chat: Rowland had planned for us to visit the La Aurora Zoo, located close to the airport. We got to look around the reptile house, where I could finally get a look at the Bothrops asper that had eluded us when I was at Las Guacamayas. Also on display was an attractive palm pit-viper, Bothriechis aurifer, which could potentially be found at our site – and, in fact, was one of the expedition’s main targets. This rare snake is known locally as Rax k’aj (pronounced ‘rash-kaa’), which means ‘green lightning’.
There was a new caiman exhibit – which Indigo Expeditions had collaborated on – and a brilliant otter exhibit right next door. The penguin exhibit was very good; it came up higher than most I’d seen before, making for optimal viewing. It was also a slightly surreal experience to see mallard ducks – a familiar sight to anyone in Britain – in a zoo.
Getting back to the hotel again was a bit of a struggle: it was late afternoon and the city streets were extremely congested. I went to sleep for an hour and woke up to the sound of a torrential downpour. This made arrival at the airport pretty shaky for the other three volunteers – Graeme, Kasper and Kelly – who got in that evening. We all got together for dinner that evening, but I was feeling unwell again and couldn’t eat much, so I took an early night. I knew that there wouldn’t be too many of those in the next two weeks!
After breakfast, and a brief stop at a nearby mall for some last-minute supplies, we climbed into our bus for our long journey to CCFC. It wasn’t just us herpetological volunteers; we were also joined by Lawrence, a Canadian volunteer who would be helping with the construction on-site for a month.
The journey – which took about five hours, including a stop for lunch – was an interesting one. As we proceeded north out of the city, we headed down into the Motagua Valley. Apparently this valley gets around 50mm of rain a year thanks to the mountains in the north taking the lion’s share; it was extremely hot and dry, and the air was thick. This was particularly striking considering we had been told how wet it was in the mountains, not that far away.
Eventually, we started climbing, and left the dry scrub behind. The scenery became greener and greener, as well as more and more cloudy. There was some pretty serious rain as we proceeded, but by the time we turned onto the shaky dirt track leading to the CCFC campus, there was just overhanging cloud and a slight drizzle. Rob and Tara Cahill, the American couple who run the centre, welcomed us to what would be our home for the next fortnight.
It soon became clear that it would be a comfortable home; Rowland was impressed with how far along it had come since he had last been on site. There was plenty of room – though I shared a bedroom with Rowland and Graeme – and as with Las Guacamayas, a range of healthy food was provided for us. There were some very friendly dogs on site – plus limited mosquitoes due to the altitude (though still plenty of other insects). Solar power was used to provide electricity. One particularly unconventional aspect of life there was using the toilet: you had to do your business in a bucket, then cover it with sawdust – the contents would be used as compost.
Meanwhile, the hills surrounding the campus displayed the misty, humid cloud and pine-oak forests which we would be exploring. Following a quick afternoon walk which yielded nothing but insects, we waited until sunset then headed out along one of the trails. Heading out into a dark, humid forest armed with a headtorch and various data-gathering tools was familiar now – but while trails at Las Guacamayas were mostly level if sometimes muddy, this one was a bit more challenging. Some careful climbing along rocky slopes and gaps was required, which made me a bit nervous – I don’t have too much faith in my feet. We did at least find our first herps: a few frogs, some Norops cobanensis (endemic anole lizards), and a pool of tadpoles.
As far as tropical field biology goes, Las Guacamayas was very much beginner’s level; I was now on intermediate. And this trail proved to be easy compared to what was coming later!