Chapter 11. Veracruz: Heading North
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2001 All rights reserved.
(Bert) We begin our journey north this morning just as the bright full moon sets and the first rays of red light of the rising sun show in the east. By the time we reach the Chiapas military checkpoint just north of Palenque, the traffic has built up. So while the military guards detain us, the cars and trucks pile up behind us. The two young men don't speak or understand a bit of English and their Spanish comes out like a machine gun, totally unintelligible to us. Shari offers answers, typical of those she has used at other military checkpoints, but she has no idea whether the answers match the Spanish questions. Finally after much hand waving, pointing to places on the map and the soldier's recording of details from Shari's passport, the guards let us through. Fortunately, in Spanish, Shari informs the men of the other vehicles - "casa rolanden" - following in the caravan, so the rest pass through without incident. Out of Chiapas and into Tabasco, we ride through rolling ranch lands and besides hundreds of workmen and women scattered along the roadsides, mostly waiting for local buses. School kids, dressed in matching uniforms, cluster at corners, waiting for school buses at 7 AM. The road is thick with truck traffic, mostly semis all anxious to pass the few dump trucks and others that crawl along at 40 mph. On the double lane cuota road we pick up speed, arriving at our lunch stop early and, ultimately, at Catemaco by 3 PM, earlier than we anticipated. Over Happy Hour the group lays plans for tomorrow's birding trip. We've seen so many birds on this trip, that new possibilities northward are a short list, so we target the most likely birding habitats for the remainder.
(Shari) It is still a little dark when we pull out of the RV park. I wave to Sid's camera as he films our departure. We have 292 miles to travel today and want to get an early start. We are stopped 17 miles from town at a military check. Here the young man asks questions in Spanish and I respond, "No comprendo." Finally he understands that we are from the USA going to Catemaco (as shown on a map). We have 13 rigs following. He takes information off my passport and lets us through. I see that the next six are just waved on so I assume the others will be also. Our first scheduled rest stop is at a Pemex outside of Villahermosa. My plan was to get there in three hours and it takes us three hours and five minutes. Not bad, eh? We travel another 2½ hours and stop for lunch. We are making wonderful time and should get to our destination in 8 hours. Since the whole caravan is together outside of Villahermosa, we deviate from the log I made up and take the toll road. Supposedly it will be faster, but not smoother. The toll road is full of shallow potholes that we must dodge and therefore our speed is decreased. Getting off the toll road at Acayucan, we follow signs to Veracruz and Catemaco. This is an adventure for sure as we wiggle and squirm our way through the center of town. Sandy mentions that we found a new meaning to the term "window shopping." A policeman sees us coming and with his mouth open in awe, he stops traffic and waves us through. I think we will be the talk of town around the dinner table tonight. Back on the main road, we make good time up the mountain and arrive at the RV Park by 2:30 PM. I mean, no sweat! I think this park is my favorite of the whole trip. We have Happy Hour around the round tables down by the pool and the lake. Scotty makes popcorn and between the peacocks and us, we finish the whole bowl while Bert discusses the birding plans for tomorrow with the group. We eat in tonight - seems like a rare occurrence, I suppose. The soy burgers I brought from Texas, along with a salad, are a welcome change.
(Bert) The toucans are out early this morning, but so are we. We drove for nearly an hour in the dark along the bumpy UNAM road to arrive at the jungle by sunrise. Now two toucans feed high on a tall broad tree, and as the morning wears on we see more than a dozen, including one group of six - a tympani of toucans. Standing on the road beside UNAM, I can hear two Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls and four Mottled Owls calling from different directions. From UNAM we hike along the gravel road to Laguna Escondida, a cluster of half a dozen houses overlooking a pristine valley and kidney-shaped lagoon. Along the way, the birds are numerous - Collared Aracari, Red-lored Parrot, Long-tailed Hermit, Long-tailed Sabrewing. Above the road, in a tall, almost barren tree, a colony of Montezuma Oropendola builds nests. At the tiny village, Violaceous Trogons favor a cluster of trees and on one of my photographs I am so close I need to turn my camera vertically to keep from chopping off a tail in my viewfinder. We spend an hour without moving more than a few dozen feet, enchanted with the panoramic view. Far off, above the valley, hawks, vultures and frigatebirds circle together. We identify ten species of hawks and falcons, including Black, Gray, Red-tailed, Zone-tailed, Swainson's, Roadside, and grandest of all: a pair of White Hawks. On the way back, I stop to look at a big nest on a tall tree overlooking a valley leading to the open sea. When I line up my spotting scope on the nest I am surprised that the bird is not a hawk, but a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron instead. It takes five of us nearly the whole day to return from UNAM because we stop so often to see the scenery and the birds. When I reach our campsite next to Lake Catamaco, I tabulate my sightings and count 94 species. I decide to walk around the campsite and along the lake and within an hour I hit 100 species, calling it a day - a very successful birding day that is.
(Shari) I plan on a lazy day today. Up early with the peacocks (in heat and amorously very noisy) and the chachalacas (always very noisy), and Bert (with the group birding at 5:30 AM), I defrost the freezer. After reading pages of my novel, it is only 10 AM, but I am tired enough for a little siesta. Eating lunch at noon, walking around the grounds, showering, and a little more reading occupy my day. I sit by the lakefront until 6 PM, just not able to drink in enough of that beautiful scenery. The lake looks different every day. Today the water is a calm, silvery gray and surrounded by a halo of misty mountains in varying heights. Tonight we eat at the restaurant on the grounds of the hotel. We have another wonderful meal. Bert orders garlic soup. Now that does not sound good, but it really is tasty. His whole fish covered in a tomato Veracruz sauce is also good. I have one of those whole fried fish that I like so much.
(Shari) An 8 AM start is something of a novelty, but I think everyone is already set to go by 7. I walk to the lake and sit at the tables to watch the water for one last time. A strong breeze has the water churned up and the waves splash up on shore. The drive is short, a bit bumpy, but without incident. We arrive in Veracruz just in time for lunch and a siesta. I think we meet the whole caravan in Walmart. This is almost the last stop to stock up on all the "good" Mexican foodstuffs. Our basket fills with potato chips with lime, spicy peanuts, canned mushrooms and microwave popcorn with chili and lime seasoning, flour tortillas and bouillas. Bert and I walk across the street to Benedetti's, advertised as "Los Expertos en Mega Pizzas." We order a large Mexicana pizza with Jamon, chorizo, cebolla, jalapeno, jitomate, aguacate fresco y extra queso. (ham, Mexican sausage, onion, jalapeno, tomato, fresh avocado and extra cheese). The smells emanating from the box as we carry it back to R-TENT almost want us to snack on a piece as we walk.
(Bert) Exiting Catemaco, our drive through the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas winds through steep hills dressed in tight green grass and scattered trees, like a continuous golf course. Little traffic and no trucks on this Sunday morning, our passage is easy. When the land flattens, we pass through sugar cane fields: some harvested, some standing and a few where the workers are hacking down stalks with their machetes and stacking the sticks for later pickup. We arrive at our beachside campsite before lunch. Hundreds - thousands? - of beachgoers crowd the area: families eating picnic lunches; kids splashing in the surf; older people sitting in an arc of plastic lawn chairs, talking quietly as they survey the beach scene; men on horseback trotting across the wet sand; a vendor selling piñas y cocos beneath a multicolored umbrella poking up from a tricycle cart; little boys dirty from head to foot with caked sand; a luxury speedboat crossing half way to the horizon; young men chasing a soccer ball in an impromptu game; others playing baseball with coconuts as bases; kites fluttering high above stone anchors in the sand; teenagers huddled in groups under the palm trees, joking and laughing; lovers sitting close together; Laughing Gulls surveying the scene from above as they ride the air currents. Is this Miami, Galveston, San Diego or Veracruz? Or is this just Sunday at the Beach. At night, when all the beachgoers are long gone, the sounds are only the surf and the movement is only the waves rolling over the sand and the bats careening between palm trees silhouetted against the sky. The full moon hangs tranquilly over the water, reflecting moonbeams on rolling waves. I turn off the lights, absorb tranquility and head to bed.
(Shari) "How bad can 7.5 miles be?" I ask the group at our travel meeting. The logbook seems to be wrong and from what I can gather from reading the map, there seems to be a cutoff out of Papantla to El Tajin ruins. We figure if the road is paved and there are signs pointing to the ruins, it ought to be okay. If we thought we had a scenic tour of Acayucan yesterday, we really had one of Papantla today. The funny thing is, we never were lost and always were following the ruins signs. However.......... Here's the way the day started: We leave at 6:30 AM, take a break at 9:30. We intend to stop, unhook at a Pemex close to the intersection that is in question and check out the route with the car. When we get there, the Pemex is not large enough to hold everyone while I check out the route. Bert says we should just take the road and follow the signs. I acquiesce, against my better judgment, and we get stuck - big time! I know we are in trouble when we make the left turn to Centro and I see a long narrow street climbing at least a 7% incline. Plus, the street is loaded with traffic. We have no choice but to push our way forwards and upwards. People just look. The going completely stops when a bus turns into our path and the road is not big enough for us to pass each other. Now nine rigs are stuck on the incline and not budging. Traffic is quickly backing up and horns are honking. Finally Bert shrugs his shoulders at the bus driver, I get out to direct us past and the bus backs up. A military truck backs up; some men hop out and help direct traffic. Everyone smiles and shakes their head in wonder, including me. Climb up and up, wind around and around and finally we come out on a road with a yellow strip down the center. Hurrah! We made it, but just barely. Bert and I later go back in our car to see if we can find a better way. You know, it could have been worse! That was the best way. We could have really been in deep doo doo just by making one wrong turn or by taking the second ruins exit instead of the first. Thank you Lord for looking out for us today. The group is very gracious and do not grouse a bit about the experience. They say it is just an "adventure" to tell the kids at home. The rest of the day we just vegetate in the heat. The thermometer tops out at 104 degrees before starting to cool at 4 PM.
(Bert) Like the walls of a tunnel closing in on me, with each turn the path for R-TENT narrows. Confident that a route to the Maya ruins must exist from the south, we had exited Route 180, following the El Tajin signs. In Papantla, the signs continue, coinciding with the direction to the city center, El Centro. But now, the street is narrow, parked cars block one side of the street and a line of oncoming traffic faces me. Then the driver of a bus, loaded with school children, looks in my direction, sees me coming and pulls out in front of me, blocking my path completely. An army jeep loaded with a half-dozen soldiers, the jeep driver wedging his vehicle between the bus and the concrete wall edging the sidewalk, immediately follows him. With a string of RV's behind me, R-TENT coupled to the Pathfinder, I cannot back up. So I stop in the street, cross my arms and stare at the bus driver. The school kids are excited about the diversion, the bus driver anxious, the shoppers curious and the drivers of the string of cars frustrated. The military are the first to retreat; the driver backs his jeep one block and parks on a side street. I motion to the bus driver to back up. He hesitates, but then decides he has no choice, so he slowly tries to position his bus into a slightly wider spot in the street. Still, the remaining path looks too narrow. So Shari climbs out of R-TENT and directs me along as I inch between the concrete pedestal and the busload of kids cheering me on. With a couple of inches on each side, I get through without a scrape and the caravan follows quickly behind. But all is not over. The narrow street is now replaced with a steep one and we continue for a mile through constricted streets up and down hills and around tight corners, always following the signs to El Tajin. Finally outside Papantla, the road flattens and widens and we enter the ruins parking lot, only to find the lot jammed with parked cars, two never-to-be-moved freight trucks and a set of construction sheds. There is just enough room for us to park our RV's, but the solution as to how we will get out again, we'll save for another day. Later, Shari and I reconnoiter the area, seeing if there was a better route than the one we took. To our amazement, after two hours of driving the roads in and around Papantla, we find we took the best southern route. Next year the path will be easier, since a new road is under construction. But as we drive that road now, we encounter road workers, blacktop machines and finally a grater working a hillside of gravel when we reach a standstill and have to turn the Pathfinder around in the newly tarred road. I shutter to think what it would have been like to turn a caravan of RV's around at this spot. Back at the El Tajin parking lot, the group is gathered under the shade of an awning. Thermometers register well over 100 degrees, both inside and outside the RV's and no one has ventured into the ruins to bird or sightsee - it is just too hot. Patiently, we wait until the day cools and at 5 PM we start pouring margaritas and relating the happenings of the day. Now that it is all over and the day is cooling and the margaritas are soothing, the experiences sound funny and we count the day as another adventure.
(Bert) Night has cooled the temperatures enough to make birding and visiting the El Tajin ruins a pleasant experience. The amount of restoration and the sheer quantity of buildings that have been uncovered makes this site unique among those we have visited on this trip. The architecture also is different from the others. Here the uses of ledges and platforms and the placement of numerous "windows" are striking. The buildings are so clustered together that I have the sensation of walking through a grand village. Workmen are busy constructing scaffolding, fumigating the jungle edges, setting up portable toilets, stringing electricity to portable truck-size power generators and setting up vendor booths. Yesterday, Shari and I noticed the same busy activities across the highway, where it looked like a county fair was being erected. Gene asks one of the workmen what is the reason for the activities and the man points to the T-shirt Gene purchased here yesterday and is now wearing. In Spanish, the T-shirt announces the first equinox of the new millennium, a celebration that will take place here on March 20, 2001. They certainly must be expecting a big crowd. Birding this morning is quite good. I am surprised at the number of indigenous species we are still seeing this far north: Violaceous and Black-headed Trogons, Blue-crowned Motmot, Red-lored Parrots, Yellow-throated Euphonia and Montezuma Oropendola. Lee, Dorothy and I puzzle over a brief view of a large wren, calling it a Cactus Wren, but in retrospect I believe it was Band-backed Wren - north of its expected range. By 10 AM we are on the road north, traveling the rough road to Tampico. We make good time and reach our campsite by 4:20, even with lunch and gas stop and two rest stops along the way.
(Shari) We visit the ruins at El Tajin in the early morning before leaving for Tampico. Every ruins we visited has a little different character and I cannot pick a "best" one. These are lower in height, but cover a larger area and more are restored. Again I wish we could go inside one of the buildings like we did in Palenque. I notice a lot of scaffolding in a center area and Sandy says a big crowd is expected here on March 20 for the first day of spring, when the sun is in line with the buildings. I see big heavy duty speakers set up and can just hear all the loud music. A group of men want to set up food tents where we are parked and want us to move. Luckily we decided to head for Tampico a day early. Our trip north is uneventful but the road is just as terrible as it was on our way down. Fortunately we make good time. After Happy Hour, I take Woody and Willie to Walmart and we get money out of the ATM machines and buy a few groceries. I buy rotisserie chicken for tonight but it is just not as good as the Pollo Asada I have become addicted to down here.
(Bert) Previously, I would not have counted Tampico as a good birding spot, but after this morning's experience, I think it deserves honorable mention. I start at sunrise at the edge of the marsh where others spotted the Pinnated Bittern nearly two months ago. Suddenly, a likely suspect takes flight, heads in my direction and lands on a pier just 25 ft. in front of me. At first I think this might be the life bird I am after, but then it starts looking too familiar: the pale stripes are all horizontal, none vertical; the throat area is yellow, not white; the bill is grayish, not yellowish. The patient bird allows me to watch it at close range for 20 minutes and I record detailed notes of my best ever view of a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron - great bird, but not the lifer I am after. Now, at 7 AM, I get a few others to join me as we drive along the road to another marsh in pursuit of Altamira Yellowthroat. Within minutes of starting our search, we start seeing yellowthroats, but they turn out to be the common species. Then I see two bright yellow birds zip by me in keen pursuit and duck into a thick cluster of reeds. I continue walking, but Lee and Dorothy call me back in a few minutes. They've spotted the Altamira and soon I also get a good look at the yellow bird with a black mask. We continue adding birds to this morning's list of fifty species and a few more to the trip list: Grasshopper Sparrow, Common Tern. Back at the RV park, Gene and Sandy are quick to tell me that they have again seen the Pinnated Bittern and they assure me the stripes are vertical, the bill is gray and the throat area is white. With just a few minutes left before our departure, I take a quick look again at the marsh. But to no avail, I miss my bird. I guess I'll have to save that one for next year. Back on the road, we soon cross the border from Veracruz to Tamaulipas and the countryside starts to look like our home state of Texas, especially the South Texas brushlands. Yesterday, the forested hills of El Tajin and Poza Rica transitioned to the marshlands of Tampico. Today, the land is much more arid; cactus and dry brush are the norm. On good roads, we continue north until Soto La Marina and then turn east, drive through the coastal mountains and then stop just short of the Gulf of Mexico. We camp along the Rio Soto La Marina, a great site with full hookups and a swimming pool.
(Shari) We have three choices to park tonight. I have the caravan pull off about three miles from the first RV park logged for us. It is called La Gata and after a few words in Spanish with the lady in "administration" we drive to the area she pointed for parking. One utility pole and one water faucet serves the open field for its electrical needs and water needs. I find no dump and the banos look a bit raunchy. I think this is one down and two to go. Our other choice is to park right on the beach or look at a place about 28 miles down the road that Woody noticed in a book. As we pass the park, it looks wonderful, situated on a wide river catching the sea breeze. We pull in and we can stay! Since we are now only nine in number, the ten full hookups are adequate. Advertised as having 32 sites, 16 full hook-up is a bit of an over statement. Maybe if six of the units slept in tents all 16 spots could be used but not our size rigs. Nevertheless, the place is the best one on the whole trip and we call the office to ask permission to not go on to Victoria and stay here for four nights instead. As soon as we are parked, we set up for our hamburger cookout. Watching the setting sun, munching on grilled hamburgers, sipping beer with close friends, almost family: this is the best it can be and we savor the moments until the mosquitoes send us packing. Woody, Gwen and I take a quick dip in the pool before the mosquitoes get us there too.
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