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Around Guatemala in 15 days

Collecting team (From left to right): Andrew Jansen, Manuel Barrios, Guanyang Zhang, standing in front of Lake Atitlan and volcanoes.

What occurs to you when you hear the name Guatemala? Thirty-odd years of ‘civil war‘? The land of the Maya civilization? The famous Spanish colonial city Antigua? Or perhaps the 37 volcanoes for those who are geology-oriented? For we entomologists, it is beetles and bugs! But we have seen more than that during our recent field trip to the beautiful land of Guatemala. We drove across the country and collected in nine departmentos (states) in about 15 days (Fig. 1). This is a brief account of the trip.

Collecting localities in a 2014 Guatemala field trip.

Figure 1. Collecting localities in Guatemala. Click to open in Google Map.

The unique and complex geological history and biogeographic constituents of Guatemala have attracted us to make it our destination. We wanted to collect specimens of weevils in the Exophthalmus genus complex. We were hoping to find species that may have an affinity to Caribbean lineages. Because it was possibly historically connect to part of the land masses in the Caribbean, Guatemala seems the right place for finding our weevils.

The trip was joined by ASU Franz Lab Postdoc Guanyang Zhang, Graduate Student Andrew Jansen, and Manuel Barrios, a guatemalteco (Guatemalan), who is a student of molytine leaf litter weevils and currently pursuing a PhD degree at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

View of highly fragmented habitats from plane

Figure 2. Bird view from plane

We departed from Phoenix on an early morning flight on May 24. Andrew was so excited about the trip that he could not fall asleep the night before. To him a longstanding dream from the time of highschool of doing fieldwork in Central America has finally come true. We made a connection at LAX and arrived at Guatemala city in the afternoon of the same day.

The rough terrains seen from the plane were certainly inviting, but I could not help but lament habitat fragmentation, as revealed from an aerial view (Fig. 2).

Our local host, Dr. Jack Schuster kindly offered his house for us to stay for the night. Jack has a forest, as he calls it, in his property. We were able to collect our first specimens with light trapping at his forest. Jack’s car, which is almost older than Andrew and Guanyang combined, a 1960 Land Rover (Fig. 3), did not fail to convey some of the wildest imaginations of an entomologist at work. Similarly impressive was a giant species of passalid that Jack keeps as a lab pet (Fig. 4).

Andrew posing with Jack's 1960 Land Rover in front of the Universidad del Valle.

Figure3. Andrew posing with Jack’s 1960 Land Rover in front of the Universidad del Valle.

Jack keeps a giant species of passalid as lab pet.

Figure 4. Jack keeps a giant species of passalid as lab pet.

The next day (May 25, 2014) we set off to the field and made our first stop in Zacapa, a medium-size town in the eastern part of the country. The city is situated in lowland, and features a hot (for those living in American Southwest please feel free to laugh) and relatively humid weather. As seen nearly everywhere in Guatemala, natural habitat is poorly preserved in lowland. We often had to drive half a day on a dirt road to just get to a farm or park, and from where we then had to hike another hour or so to get into a relatively decent forest. For our first night in the field we stayed in a farm called “Finca Tashoro”, which has its own facebook page and a Youtube video. The next day on May 26 we moved to a departamento neighboring Zacapa, named Chiquimula. We managed to hit two collecting sites. The first was Las Cebollas, a farm in mid-elevation mountain (~1700m). The owner has a tiny but tidy lodge with two rooms. This is the first place where we collected an Exophthalmus. We also saw a pair of large chrysopids and amazingly, the female appeared to neotenic (meaning it looks like a larva or caterpillar). The second collecting site in Chiquimula was Trifinio Biosphere Reserve, which lies in a corner where Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras meet their border. This is the first place where we had the rare privilege to hear and see quetzals, the national bird of Guatemala, which has brightly colored plumage and the male has a striking long tail. Our host, Chilo, is a middle-age, short but strong man. He has a thing about nature. He purchased a sizable piece of land in the early 1980s and since then has kept it as a preserve, which is now part of the Trifinio Biosphere. Just like Chilo’s land, several other places we went are private reserves. Knowing the owners is critical for getting access, and we had the good fortune to work with Manuel, who has already worked in or known these places.

Gallery 1: Trifinio Biosphere (GT14_L07).

We then returned to the town of Zacapa and Manuel was able to hang his leaf liter samples with winkler traps. Our next stop was Cerra Pinalon (GT14_L08/09 in Google Map), which is a mountain top in the Sierra De La Minas, an extensive mountain range to the north of Zacapa. Vertical succession in vegetation is in quite evident in this place. At low elevation (~300m), there are dry forests, with Acacia and various cacti. At around 1900m, pine forest dominates and near the peak (>2300m) it quickly transitions to cloud forest. We stayed in a house of a former park ranger, a guy named Carlos. His story was a tragic one – one of his sons died in a battle with illegal loggers.

Gallery 2: Cerro Pinalon (pictures in last row were lowland plants) (GT14_L08-10).

On May 30 we moved to Biotopo de Quetzal, the only place where stayed for two nights (GT14_L11-15). This is a reserve dedicated to the protection of quetzals. The visitor center has several rooms for guest and researcher lodging. After five days of collecting (May 25-31), we gradually learned and experienced the complex geography and highly varied micro-habitats and micro-climates that characterize many places in Guatemala. It can be quite hard to describe an area with any single generic or broad term such as ‘tropical rainforest’, ‘cloud forest’, or ‘dry forest’. This is the case for the area around Biotopo de Quetzal. In about 25km air distance, we were able to see three distinct habitats or vegetation types. It is a wet forest at the Biotopo visitor center. But just about 16km south, a dry oak forest became one of the most productive collecting sites during this trip. We also had a spectacular night for scarabs at this place – they filled five big whirl packs. Going northeast to Biotopo, there are several villages along a relatively well maintained semi-paved road. The habitat is heavily disturbed, and is neither quite wet as the reserve nor as dry as the oak growth. We collected a green metallic species of Exophthalmus. Apparently Champion also collected near this place. We will need to sort our specimens to see whether we collected any of Champion’s species.

Gallery 3: Biotopo de Quetzl and around (GT14_L11-15).

The next place we went to proved to be a pleasant surprise! The name is the Chelemha Lodge and Cloud Forest (GT14_L16-18). By air distance it is really close to Biotopo, just a mere 16km. However, it took us four hours to get there. The elevation is quite high, about 2000m. The lodge is very nice and well equipped. There is not only internet, but also hot water! And the food was absolutely amazing too. We could have been easily spoiled and forgotten the objective of the trip. Hummingbirds are abundant. An species with purple plumage, apparently rare elsewhere, came in dozens and would not be shy to perform feeding stunt for you. This is a popular destination for birders and also part of an important bird area in Guatemala. As for weevils, this is an excellent place too. Lots of entimines, including several species/genera we never encountered elsewhere during this trip.

Gallery 4: Chelemeha Cloud Forest/Lodge (GT14_L16-18).

We then headed towards the eastern par of the country, making a first stop in Quetzaltenango (GT14_L19-20), the second largest city in Guatemala. This is a city surrounded by several volcanoes. The soil is very rich and instead of planting corns, the locals grow vegetables here, apparently a good business. We passed a small town near Quatzaltenango, named Zunil, and followed a paved road leading to a resort called Georgina Fuente. There were not any tourists around. The resort has hot spring and we took a swim in it – there could be nothing better to soak in warm water while the ambient temperature was only about 60F (15C). Zunil is also a Champion locality as well. We had the luxury to stay in a hotel that has in-house hot spring water and sauna. The name is Las Cumbres. The entimine species were definitely quite different from the ones collected from previous localities. One of them is big, metallic, with dots on elytra.

Gallery 5: Quetzaltenango, Zunil and around (GT14_L19-20).

After Quetzaltenango, we continued heading west, and arrived at El Tumbador (GT14_L21). Champion had set his foot in this place too. Manuel’s dad is from this place and still has relatives in the town. We stayed with Manuel’s aunt for a night and went to a coffee farm, Finca Granana, to collect. It is a small patch of forest situated in the coffee farm. The habitat is not great and even worse, there is no trail. We did manage to get lost in the forest.

The next locality where we collected is among some of the least traveled places in Guatemala (GT14_L22). It is in Quiche, which is a very large departmento and has many unprotected cloud forests. We had the luck to see a Mayan ruin. The habitat was relatively better preserved in Quiche. Just like several previous places, we collected in a private reserve named ‘Finca El Recuerdo’. There is a news article featuring this place.

The last stop, before heading back to Guatemala city, was the renowned Lake Atitlan. This is said to be the most beautiful lake in the world. It sits between three volcanoes, which can be seen altogether at the same time from the right angle. We stayed and collected in a coffee farm called ‘Los Tarrales’, the name referring to the many bamboos in the farm (GT14_L24-27). The owner of the farm is from Florida and we caught a small talk with him. This was one of our most productive collecting sites, although the habitat was nothing close to pristine. One black entimine species was very common along road side, on weedy plants.

Gallery 6: Finca Los Tarrales near Lake Atitlan (GT14_L25-27).

Finally, a field trip report is never complete without the food (and of course the bacterial/amoeba it harbors). We typically had quick bytes for breakfast (although they came quite slow sometimes), Atun (Tuna) for lunch and dinner in a restaurant, if we could find one. Andrew was delighted to find this special Atun con vegetales (Tuna with vegetables) made in Thailand, which was a lot more tasty than normal canned tuna. Below is a gallery of Guatemala local and not-so-local food.

Gallery 7: Food in Guatemala.

Before concluding, I also want to remind all of us that Guatemala is still a rather impoverished country, with a large proportion of the population living in poverty. I hope the work we do in Guatemala will eventually contribute to the welfare of its people.

Just like writing a product review on Amazon.com, if you ask whether I would recommend Guatemala for doing field trips, I would definitely say Yes! But be prepare to drive and hike a lot.

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