Critters and Creepy Crawlers Around Atitlan
by Tom and Dru
(Lake Atitlan, Guatemala)
I've been an avid amateur naturalist since I was a child, and when I first came to San Marcos, I thought I'd found bug heaven. However, not everyone shares this enthusiasm for things with more than two to four legs, so I thought I'd write a page or two on what you might expect to encounter in the way of life organisms here in this part of Guatemala.
The good news is that in my experience, ninety five percent of the insects and other creatures are perfectly happy to go their own way and have you go yours. I'll get to the other five percent in a moment. Over an eight year period and not including domesticated species, I've seen, heard or smelled the following animals up here in the wild (el monte): skunk (zorilla), squirrels (ardilla), bats (murcielago), big toads (sapo), one racer snake (vibora), mice (raton), and lizards (lagarto).
The bird population is so numerous, it deserves its own book, but I will mention owls, Aztec doves, turkey vultures, hawks, cranes, coots, many types of hummingbirds, orioles, goldfinches, flycatchers, a local whip-poor-will (who literally hollers “whip-poor-WHEET” at night) and the pee-wee, who calls out, depending on your ear, 'burrito, burrito” or 'tengo frio'. But my favorite is the great-tailed Grackle, a gigantic type of blackbird. We have one who visits the garden most mornings and marches up and down emitting loud grackle cackles as well as wolf whistles and various shrieks.
All right, now to the scarier bits. There are many types of spiders here, but most could care less about humans. And I've been told that the true monster of the spider world, the Brazilian Wandering Spider, does not come as far north as Guatemala, remaining content with the banana plantations of Costa Rica. However, I've met three Wolf spiders so far, and these fellows are a bit daunting, even to an fan like me. They are fast moving night hunters and they are quite large – 6 to 8 inches stem to stern. Now all spiders have fangs and are venomous, but the Wolf is more aggressive than most. I once had one come under the kitchen door and I had to sweep her out three times before she gave up. The locals tell me the bite is painful, although not dangerous like the U.S. Brown Recluse.
Another large spider you'll often see is called a Huntsman, but these guys are harmless sweeties (although a bit on the ugly side.) When it gets dark, they come out from door and window cracks and pretty much stay put on the walls of the house. They are a type of crab spider and are easy to recognize because with their sideways curved legs, they look very much like flat gray crabs. They are also big scaredy cats and will zip out of sight if you come close to them. Leave them be and they'll kill gnats and mosquitoes for you all night long.
Some scorpions have a deservedly bad reputation in Mexico and the southern U.S., but the Guatemalan scorpion is a different story. They are small (one half to three inches long), black with orangeish legs, and they too are night hunters. I was stung by one about a month ago, and, although it hurt like the dickens for about three minutes, there was absolutely no after effect – no swelling, itching, nothing. Others have told similar internet stories to mine. A Maya stone mason we know picks them up by the stinger (not recommended) and throws them over the wall, but I scoop them into my handy bug jar and toss them outside with a stern warning.
The real insect annoyances here are the smallest ones: the mosquitoes, biting gnats, and black flies. Back in the good old days before globalization, mosquitoes had manners and only bit you in the early mornings and evenings. Now the Asian Tiger is on the scene, and she bites anytime she feels like it, which unfortunately is often. Tom is fairly unaffected by these little vampires, but they used to eat me for lunch. I tried every repellant, natural and unnatural, to no avail until a friend recommended Banana Boat Sport sunscreen, which doesn't wear off easily and apparently tastes nasty to the bugs. This stuff has really worked for me.
Most of the rest of the insects I've met here are charming. I haven't mentioned leaf-cutting ants, the bane of local gardeners, but I'll save them for a future article on plants and gardens. Meanwhile, we're left with fabulous butterflies, amiable bees, colorful beetles, and this last little chap, a leafhopper with a snazzy paint job.