Chapter 10. Chiapas
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2001 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Still dark, we use our headlights and move to the road to start the morning line up. Everyone is sorry to leave Belize and many express their desire to return. Henry accompanies us to the border and we start the exit procedure. First we show our passports and pay BZ$10 per person exit fee. Armed with a hand written receipt we move to the next line and each pay BZ$3.75 conservation fee. We take these two pieces of paper to the next line along with the papers we received when entering Belize. Here the stamp allowing our vehicles into Belize is canceled. Next we hop into our vehicles and show our paperwork to another guard who looks at them and waves us on. Our intention is to drive to the free zone and fill up with cheap gas, but I'll let Bert tell that story. We cross the bridge to Mexico where we show our Mexican vehicle papers and the tourist visas that we received in January. About two miles down the road we get fumigated (Mex$50). At 7:20 we are off. Traveling on a buddy system, Gene and Sandy, Ben and Willie, and Bert and I take the lead. We make good time on a straight, relatively smooth road. Gently rolling green hills are a change from the landscape we had been seeing. A few small towns with topes and three military checks slow us. After questioning where we are from and where we are going, looking at my passport, and sometimes boarding to see what it looks like inside, we are waved through. Each time we are stopped I inform the guards that "Trese casa rolanden" are following. The remainder of the group is usually waved through. We stop for a ten-minute break at 10:30 and a 30-minute lunch break at 12. We reach our destination at 3, with only 20 minutes separating the first from the last. Traveling scattered is much easier on everyone, including the locals who do not have a moving traffic jam to pass. As soon as we are parked, I start making margaritas. Everyone is thirsty and it takes eight batches to satiate them.
(Bert) Getting out of Belize goes a lot smoother and quicker than getting in. In a little over an hour we each pay our Belize departure fee, pay our conservation fee, drive our vehicle to the border guard for paperwork inspection, cross over the bridge to Mexico, pass through customs, and get our RV's sprayed with pesticide. The only hang-up comes when I try to get fuel in the free zone. With the hope of getting cheap tax-free gasoline and diesel, Henry and I walk to the entrance gate and ask the attendant what the entrance fee will be. He gives us a variety of numbers and then Henry points to the size of our RV's. The attendant informs us the fee will be $US1 or $BZ2 for the motorhome with attached car. I return with both, jackknife the vehicles on a sharp U-turn and stop to pay the fee. Now a second attendant informs me the fee will be $US5 or $BZ10. To no avail, I tell him we were just quoted a fifth of that price. Getting Henry to join in the disagreement has no effect on the arbitrary price the attendants demand. Since I only intended to top off the tanks, I decide not to enter the free zone. But to get out of my jackknife position I have to disconnect the Pathfinder, meanwhile backing up the traffic from Mexico trying to get gasoline and also backing up the RV caravan coming over from Belize. While Shari and I jog the vehicles back and forth to get the hitch to unhook from its unnaturally acute angle, dozens of drivers watch from their waiting vehicles. Once detached, I back up, align with traffic to Mexico and reattach. What a hassle! Fortunately, the rest of the day goes smoothly. After the flatness of the coastal areas of Quintana Roo, we climb slightly and travel in Campeche through hills densely covered with short trees, encountering few villages and people. Numerous, tall Cassia trees in full bloom with masses of pink flowers brighten the landscape. Many other trees are still leafless, some are evergreen and others are now yellow-green with fresh leaves: evidence of the arrival of spring. Halfway through our journey, the forests give way to farmland and ranchland. Here and in the marshes of Usumacinta we encounter many birds beside the smooth straight highway: Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Wood Storks, Black-collared Hawk, to name a few. Running as a scattered caravan, we make good time and reach Palenque by 3 PM, with the last RV arriving only 20 minutes later.
(Bert) A chorus of Brown Jays greets me in the predawn darkness. They call from all over the forest, but have not yet taken flight. At 6 AM we drive the two miles to the entrance of the ruins park. Palenque lies at the first rise of mountains and, through the tall jungle, it overlooks a broad marshland. From about 600-900 AD this was a power center of the Maya people. As we bird around the ruins, the buildings emit that power and I can imagine the awe in eyes of visitors seeing it for the first time in ancient times. Tomorrow we will take a guided tour of the ruins; today we bird. Our list of species has grown large and finding a new one is more difficult. But I still add another to my life list: Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, a drab bird easily ignored when more colorful birds attract me. Others in our group of birders discover a Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, but when I reach where they are birding, the prize bird is gone. I hope I can find it another day. All of us get to see a Bat Falcon that has claimed one of the tall ruins, the Temple of the Sun, as his own. At one of the corners of the roof, the falcon stands sentinel for hours this morning. It seems that birds around ruins are much more used to people and this gives us a chance to study them more closely and for longer times. We see the finer details of White-fronted Parrots, Collared Aracaris, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Southern House Wrens and many others.
(Shari) In a rut, the birders leave at 6 and I cannot sleep in. Instead I write journals, write logs, and write e-mail. I chat with Glorian and Scotty about the next leg of the trip wondering how best to handle it: scattered, convoy, split into two parts? After lunch Bert and I tour the area. The drive from our campground to the ruins is beautiful with rolling hills in thick jungle. It is really so different from other parts of Mexico just in its green color. Maybe we are in a Mexican Spring because I notice many trees in bloom with pink or yellow flowers and spectacular big bougainvillea trees in a myriad of bright colors. Trees are also putting out new leaves and the jungle is a shiny dark green. The town of Palenque is bigger and busier than I anticipated, but typically Mexican. Dirt streets and bumpy pavement are common. Unfinished houses sit next to nicer fenced ones, but none have a well-manicured lawn. I see lots of people walking or on bicycle, but few cars. The military has a noticeable presence with a base on the outskirts of town. We drive around looking for pollo asada. Spying Scotty and Glorian's car stopped next to smoking charcoal, we realize they are looking for the same thing. We talk on the street while our chicken cooks.
(Shari) Fascinated by the pictures in the bird book, Cecelia and Juanito gently turn the pages, pointing at familiar birds. Cecelia points to a picture of a bird and then to a tree in the parking lot of the museum and says, "mucho este ahi." Sure enough, there sticking out of a hole, sits a Lineated Woodpecker. Bert sets up his scope and for the next half hour the two children are fascinated by the close-up look at the bird. Everyone that sees us has to smile because we make a cute picture. We visit the ruins of Palenque and I think it is the best I have seen. Set at the foot of the mountains, with the jungle as a backdrop, the scene is straight out of a postcard. Again I get that wish for a time machine. I want to go back to experience this place at its time in history. I would skip the time when a human sacrifice was about to occur, however. Our guide takes us around and inside the palace where the royal family lived. Stone beds in small rooms indicate the sleeping area; two stone holes above a drainage system show us the "banos." The jungle has claimed many of the buildings and those reconstructed are in a constant state of repair. Arches abound, carvings on stucco and steps-everything has steps to climb and descend. Steps that are so small, my size 7 foot hangs over the edge. Steps so steep that at the top it looks like none exist. Some of the original colors peak through in places and I would truly love to see a small wall or carving reconstructed in color. The paintings on leather that are sold in the courtyards only whet my appetite for the real thing. Later in the afternoon we sit in the shade enjoying each other's company. We are a family now and able to laugh and joke with each other. Ed tells us the story of an obstetrician who took a mechanics course. On his final exam he got 150 points out of 100. He was very confused and asked the instructor how that could be. The instructor said that he took the engine apart and put it back together just perfectly. The instructor just had to give him 50 extra points because he did it all through the tailpipe. After a wine or two, that joke is hilarious and is even funnier because Carlyn has such a cute laugh.
(Bert) Centuries of the sometimes trickling, sometimes rushing, crystal clear water of Arroyo Muriélago has rounded the limestone boulders and etched shapes that resemble molten lava frozen in time. Streamsides climb steeply on each side, profusely covered in ferns and vibrantly green leaves. Above, rising to overpowering heights, the muscular jungle trees stand on elephantine legs. The dense canopy closes off light and excludes heat, so I stand in the coolness brought by last night's rain, absorbing the lush sensuousness of the jungle. Insects purr the background noise behind the more striking birdcalls that echo through the jungle like from a deep tunnel. Orange and black butterflies flutter nearby; a few red-orange and yellow flowers add contrast to the otherwise green environment. Further along the jungle path, I come to stone walls of a Mayan ruin, here only marking the perimeter of small rooms. But beyond, the jungle opens to the park setting of Palenque: broad lawns stretch between towering ruins, most restored enough to give us a glimpse of what their former grandeur must have been. Victor, our guide, tells us 1423 temples comprise Palenque, but obviously we see only a small fraction of them, the others buried in the jungle. Reaching its prominence during the Classic Period, 200-800 AD, Palenque is "pure Mayan", without the influence of the Aztec or Toltecs. And ruled by a family succession of leaders during peaceful times, the city demonstrates the height of artistry, writing, astronomy and engineering. Many features contrast with what we saw at ruins earlier in our travel. Here the courtyards are not paved - rain is plentiful - and the buildings are not just for religious purposes. We tour the Royal Palace and see the living quarters of the ruling class: stone beds, stone toilets, private rooms, and arched stone ceilings. We see the Temple of Inscriptions, a tomb for Pacal. Everywhere is the remnants of modeled stucco artwork against the stone walls, recording the history and images of the ruler-gods. Back, down the hill from the ruins, I visit the museum and see some of the artistic treasures taken from the tombs. Then while resting outside, Lee and I are watching for birds when a little Mayan girl, selling trinkets, notices the colorful plates in my open bird book. Carefully she turns the pages and exclaims each time she sees a bird she recognizes. When she comes upon the Lineated Woodpecker, she enthusiastically exclaims, "Dos!" and points to a nearby tree. Together we walk to the other side of the tree and she points to a hole in a dead limb where a pair is nesting. There, poking out her head, is a Lineated Woodpecker staring back at us. Lee and I let the girl and her little brother try our binoculars to see the bird, but they have difficulty lining up the sights, so I get out my spotting scope and adjust it to their height. The girl is overwhelmed with her full-size view of the woodpecker and she just can't get enough of looking at it through the scope. In between sessions on scope, she pages through the bird book, intent on recognizing other birds. I hope the trill of seeing wild birds in a preserved environment stays with her in adulthood.
(Shari) How many bananas do they think we can eat? As soon as we reach Agua Azul, young girls pester us with bunches of bananas. I say, "No thank you," to one girl and another takes her place. A constant stream of girls carrying bananas make their way to the cars coming into the lot. I mean, maybe someone should think of selling something different. I bet banana bread or muffins would go over too. We travel up the mountain, passing beautiful country, the prettiest I have seen in Mexico. First, stopping at a 30-meter waterfall, Miso-Ha, we are surprised at the sight. A path takes us right under the falls and if it were warmer, we would go for a dip. A cold front came in last night and when I awoke, the temperature was 63 degrees (when Bert awoke, it was 58). The locals must have frozen. We travel further through small Indian villages with people carrying loads of sticks and corn. A sling of sorts hangs around their forehead and their burden is on their back. These people are so poor they cannot even afford the 3-wheel bicycles we have seen in other areas; so they walk. They walk the roads to the forest to chop firewood or they walk to their fields to gather corn and then they walk back carrying their burden home. Men and women, alike, share in this backbreaking work. Clothes are washed by hand from water carried in buckets. Then they are hung over fences to dry. One woman put her clothes on her corrugated metal roof and turns them with a long pole. Some blankets are thrown over low bushes next to the road. Bert remarks that these old women may only be 30 years of age. About 40 miles later, we are at Agua Azul and accosted by the banana girls. I think I am so perturbed by them because I want to enjoy the spectacular scenery and not have to wade my way through vendors. Finally after walking a short distance from the parking lot, we are left alone to drink in the view. Light blue water cascades down numerous waterfalls into separate pools before converging into a blue river. We are able to walk up the river over a dirt path, sometimes uneven, to the top of the river where the first waterfall starts. Along the way, many vendors in thatched-roof stalls sell handcrafted jewelry, dolls, toys, leather art and T-shirts. Of course, the banana girls are never far from sight (just in case I get hungry for another banana). We stop for lunch at an open-air palapa with two tables under its thatched roof. There an Indian woman makes us potato and cheese quesadillas. We start by ordering one each, but they are so tasty we end up eating three each. I would like to spend all day at this location and decide to make it an excursion for next year's trip. Birding is good here too and us SOB's can always eat bananas.
(Bert) "Agua Azul", how aptly named! Hidden in the mountains south of Palenque, the blue water pours over myriad calcified boulders, rounded into yellow gray shapes that spread the waterfalls horizontally and provide multiple levels. Along the shore we can hike upstream through the tall trees and around each turn we get another view worthy of a photograph. Turquoise pools of clear water invite swimming, but the temperature is cold enough to keep most swimmers out. While Shari is attracted to the local vendors spreading their sewing handiwork, I notice the birds in the trees - few, but colorful and new. I find Green Honeycreeper: a jewel that seems to emit light, completely feathered in a bright lime green, a rare color for birds. Deeply hidden in green tree leaves, another bird calls, "Hey, you!" After a short pause, it adds, "Over here." The short phrases remind me of Red-eyed Vireo, which matches the bird's shape, but being this far south, I think Yellow-green Vireo instead. Then I see more details, especially the white eye ring, and I identify Lesser Greenlet, a new life bird for me. On the way back from the falls, Shari drives. While she is intent on negotiating the curves through the mountains, I can take note of the vast vistas from one hilly range to the other. The distant green mountains are faded blue with thin vapor gauze of moisture. Once a tall jungle, then leveled, it is now regrown. While it lacks its former grandeur, the forest spread across the folding hills still is awe-inspiring. By the time we get back and run a few errands in Palenque, it is time to leave for a birding trip along the La Libertad Road. Our target bird is Double-striped Thick-knee, but three hours of searching does not produce one. Heavy traffic along the road and, perhaps, change of habitat has limited the birds, or at least the birding. Along much of the road we hear a constant screaming and roaring coming from the distant woods. But at one spot beside the road, we know where the noises are coming from. Howler Monkeys cling to the tree limbs above and in front of us, intently watching us as we watch them.
(Bert) Walt shows up early in the morning to tell me the planned birding trip to the San Manuel Road now leads to a view of a cornfield rather than a thick forest canopy. Reconsidering, the group splits into various alternative plans, but most of us walk along a narrow dirt road near our campsite. Although we don't add new species to the list, we do see lots of birds and we are becoming increasingly skilled at identifying birds that only a few weeks ago were lifers. On the way back we encounter a caretaker mending a fence we noticed had been cut. Earlier we saw people living in tents erected inside the open-air house hidden among the trees and this is the place where we hear drums at night. Now Carmen gets an explanation, in Spanish, from the caretaker and his wife. Apparently, the tenters are squatters who have taken over the vacant house. The caretaker has asked them to leave, but they claim they do not understand. Their origin is not known, but the caretaker thinks they are Cuban. Back at camp, I decide to check out the San Manuel Road for myself, and five others decide to join me. When we reach the mountain slopes south of Palenque, we stop at any pull-outs we find along the Ocosingo Highway. In spite of loud traffic frequently passing us, the birding is surprisingly good, especially with a spotting scope pointing at the distant tall trees uphill along the steep slope. At one turn, a dead tree attracts birds as they fly from one feeding location to another. Here we see a pair of Bat Falcons and a small flock of Keel-billed Toucans. White-fronted Parrots stop to rest, and we identify one new species: Brown-hooded Parrot. The crest of a tall tree is completely covered with red blooms, and through the scope we can see a flock of 40 birds. Green and blue Red-legged Honeycreepers mix with Indigo Buntings and one Golden-hooded Tanager, all feeding on the red flowers. What a rainbow of colors that view is! Further along the highway the bushes are replete with song and we get occasional views of Yellow-throated and Olive-backed Euphonias and a flock of Collared Aracaris, and a brightly-colored butterfly I can't identify.. [In August 2002 an reader of this journal e-mailed me; Vincent identified the butterfly as a Rusty-tipped Page.] Finally, we come to the turn off for the San Manuel Road and, like Walt said, it is now a cornfield. In the evening we have our "Farewell" Dinner. Although not the end of the trip, a few in the party are heading in a different direction after Palenque, so this is our chance to have a final get-together with them. I'm sure Shari will fill you in on the details of the great party and the antics of this great group of birders and S.O.B.'s.
You may wonder what dimwits would lead us,
(A bunch of Seniors) to Belize and Yucatan,
Well, meet Bert and Shari Frenz (they're not Seniors),
And this brave and gutsy pair heads our caravan!
Twenty-eight people gather around one table in the restaurant for dinner. The group is
celebrating a great birding trip. The evening starts on a funny note and continues the
same tune throughout the meal. Dusty has made a T-shirt for Sid, thanking him for his
shuttle service for the SOB's. Larry gets the
Senior SOB Award and Bert and I get "Bring 'em Back Alive Award" and
"Superior Navigator Award," respectively. Bert's award has a drawing of a
motorhome pulling a car, flying over a tope bigger than both. Mine has a drawing of a
computer screen with GPS attached, both showing question marks where a map should be. Like
Olympic gold medals, we wear the paper plate awards proudly around our necks. Our meal
comes in three courses and I love my cold avocado cream soup, followed by grilled fish and
flan. Pat and Lee have written a poem about the trip and like last year, it is the
highlight of the party. Pat has a
knack for catching the essence of people in words. She summarizes the trip and I have a
sad feeling in my stomach. I am glad we still have 10 days to go, because I am not ready
for this trip to end. I still want to create more memories like the ones she writes about:
Picture those flamingoes,
The turquoise Caribbean and that amphitheater at Xcaret.
Archaeological ruins, Mayan thatched huts, boat trips we'll never forget.
Cane trucks piled high, squawking parrots that fly by, gulf sunrises and orange groves by the mile.
All our excellent guides, speedy boat rides, kindly people, and the way the cute children can smile.
(Bert) High in the canopy we can hear the Howler Monkeys climbing. Branches rustle and sway; occasionally we catch glimpses of their black bodies and sometimes we see them staring back at us. The dense jungle is truly a wonder to visit. Up the steep and rocky path called the Trail of the Inscriptions - because it leads from the Temple of Inscriptions - we hike very slowly, absorbing the sights and sounds of the forest. Even after six days in Palenque, I'm still finding new birds. My morning started with a Scaled Pigeon perched next to R-TENT and although I looked around and called for other birders to share my find, I'm the only one who saw the bird. Then, along the trail to the cascading waterfall, we see a petite bird with a stubby tail and adding our clues together, we decide it is a female Red-capped Manakin. Now, on the Trail of the Inscriptions we see Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, Little Hermit, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher. And still later, near the museum, we add Crimson-collared Tanager and Streak-backed Woodcreeper. Because of the length of our birding trip through Mexico and Belize, we have birded many times in many places. If a few of us have missed a species at one stop, we often have the opportunity to pick it up at another. Similarly, we have had time to study each bird and truly get to know its field marks and habits. At tonight's dinner with Walt and Carla, I sit next to Dusty and she reflects on the same theme. By birding with the group and repeatedly seeing the birds, she has learned that Worm-eating Warbler is usually in the dense forest at eye level, while Kentucky Warbler is almost always on the ground hidden in the underbrush. We crane our necks to see toucans and aracaris, since they are canopy birds. Woodcreepers are always against the trunks of trees and trogons perch quietly and mostly unnoticed on dark horizontal limbs at mid story. Ant-thrushes scurry through the underbrush and on the ground - anyplace they can find ant colonies. Each species has its niche, each bill is crafted to match the food source and each feather fits the light of its surroundings.
(Shari) After our Happy Hour and travel meeting, where we have a little celebration for Carmen's, Don's and Gene's birthdays, we head for La Selva, a wonderful restaurant on the road to town. Karla and Walt want to say "good-bye" to us. On our caravan last year, met in Paamul and now Palenque this year, they seem part of us. They love Mexico and travel around by themselves in their motorhome and car, intending to be back home in Texas sometime in May. We are just about the only people in this lovely restaurant. Good thing since our long table of 24 is a little boisterous. Wanting to eat light tonight, I choose the pollo al la Palenque, a wonderful ¼ chicken roasted in beer and tomatoes. Bert has fondito queso con championes, it looks and tastes like cheese fondue with mushrooms and is very good. In fact no one has any complaints about their food and it ranges from Walt's huge whole fish that takes up the whole plate, to Ben and Willie's fruit plate. Too soon the meal is over and 6 AM departure tomorrow will come very fast. All say goodnight and head home to hit the sack.
Next Day Table of Contents