“Over there at 11 o’clock,” the nature guide Ismael Arellano Ciau whispers without moving while he uses the dial of an imaginary watch as a reference to guide my eye towards the left where a bird is perched. I see it immediately, small and fluttering. It’s a Barred Antshrike.
We’re near Dzodzilchén, just outside of Valladolid. Ismael was born and raised in this community where everyone knows him as Ichi. As a graduate from the Bachelor of Tourism Development at UNO, he decided to stay in Valladolid and start his own business in bird-related tourism instead of finding work at a distant hotel.
The path he chose has been challenging but has brought him great satisfaction. His efforts have contributed substantially to Valladolid being selected as the official site for the 2019 Toh Bird Festival. “It has been a dream from the very beginning, I feel very proud,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
I met Ichi in 2013, when I was showing my bird photography at the former Convent of San Bernardino de Siena in Valladolid and was invited to speak at UNO about Ride Into Birdland, my bird photography blog. When I finished my presentation, Ichi was one of the few students that came forward with additional questions. I saw that he fully understood, with legitimate excitement, the potential of bird-based tourism, and since then I have been a witness to his growth as a guide.
We met again the following year at the Toh Festival bird marathon and I learned that he had completed his guide certification. Not long after, he had his first big test: guiding a group of experimented birding enthusiasts who wanted to see the Phaesant Cuckoo. He took on the challenge, but regrettably, three days of intense search weren’t enough to catch a glimpse of this longed-for species.
He was beginning to think that maybe bird-based tourism just wasn’t for him. But, unexpectedly, what seemed like a defeat would drive him forwards. “The client saw I was sad, he took me by the arm and explained that birding is like a sport, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.” He later learned that this client was a celebrity from the organization Partners in Flight. A renowned name in the world of nature conservancy had given him some words of encouragement.
Some time after, when he learned to use digital platforms such as ebird.org, he understood that he had been looking for the Cuckoo at the worst time of year. Now, he’s considered an expert on spotting this species, and he has chosen it as the image for his company Ichi Tours. “It has brought me luck,” he says, “it’s a mysterious bird that sings beautifully.”
Valladolid is midpoint between the Cancún and Mérida airports, so a couple of hours of driving on the highway will get you to this colonial city which is the perfect place to see the Orange Oriole and the Yucatán Flycatcher. “This is why I think Valladolid can be the birding capital of the Maya area,” Ichi says. “It’s also an incredible magical town, with excellent gastronomy, accommodation choices to fit every budget, and very friendly people.”
Currently, Ichi is able to distinguish 250 bird species by song, which is a badge of honor among birders. He has successfully guided British birding-enthusiasts, travelers from China, obsessed photographers, and birdsong recording specialists from the American Bird Conservancy. He puts in equal effort when he is guiding unexperienced travelers, because he is very excited to help them discover the birding world.
He has recently collaborated with biologists and added morning and night expeditions for reptile and amphibian sightings to his tour catalogue. He has also joined forces with companies from Mérida to offer 3 to 12 day tours of the peninsula.
I asked Ichi for a special recommendation for the readers of Yucatán Today and he responded that the best times to go birding are during their breeding season (April-June) and during migration times (October-February). He also extends the invitation to discover the different bird species of the peninsula by participating in the Toh Festival Bird Marathon (November 23-24), held in Valladolid this year.
What does the future hold? “I would like to have the best birding and wildlife sighting business in the peninsula and hire the best guides,” he says with conviction. “And I’d like to travel around the world to see other birds.”
I believe that Ichi’s story is the perfect example of the goals of bird-based tourism: develop sustainable local economies, stimulate an appreciation for nature, and foster an exchange among cultures. These are great reasons to seek out Ichi’s services and discover the birding and nature world in Valladolid and surrounding areas.
Ichi Tours: Calle 38 #180 x 35 y 37, Centro, Valladolid
Cel. 999 280 5117
Facebook & Trip Advisor: Ichi Tours Valladolid
10 am – 7 pm
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Editorial by Iván Gabaldón
Photography by Iván Gabaldón for use in Yucatán Today
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