Chapter 2. El Cielo Biosphere
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2001 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Not surprisingly, I'm up at 4:15 in anticipation of our departure. I check my e-mail and see many more have logged on to the new RVFrenz group that we are now using for distributing these journals. While I'm outside dumping our tanks, I see Ben already pulling out of his site at 6 AM, a half-hour before the stated time. Lights show in the other RV's as well: everyone is anxious to get going. In the dark, under the street lamps, our RV's queue up and we test CB's in the order of the numbers on our rigs. We leave ahead of schedule, reach the border in good time and find the office closed until 9 AM. A few days ago we asked when the office opens. One worker told us 10AM, another said 8AM. Curiously, the doors open to us at 8:30, none of the above times, our first taste of the differences in American and Mexican cultures. Everything proceeds smoothly until Ralph and Dorothy are denied entry: the titles of both of their vehicles are only in Ralph's name and the Mexican government does not allow one person to enter with two vehicles. Again Carmen is our translator as we attempt to unravel our options. It seems the best hope is for Ralph and Dorothy to call their son to see if he can fax a copy of his birth certificate thereby proving that they are his parents. He actually does one better: he finds their marriage certificate, establishing Ralph and Dorothy are married. The snafu costs us time and it is now 10:30 when we depart the border but everyone is in bright spirits, glad that we all made it over the first hurtle. Surprisingly, we encounter our second hurtle only a few minutes later, although it takes us longer to realize the mistake. Confused by the directions in our travel log, we pick the wrong U-turn, miss our exit and head east when we should be going south. Were we traveling in a small car, the error could easily be corrected. But turning around a 14-rig, mile-long caravan, is another issue. Nonplussed, we see an alternate route south that has little traffic, reasonable roads and interesting views of the flat agricultural lands of coastal Tamaulipas. After lunch, while lined up on a wide shoulder outside Valle Hermoso, we head toward San Fernando de Presas. The land rises, gently rolling, and the fields transform into a complex brushland ecology. Here the caleche soil makes farming untenable and the land remains in the same state it has for thousands of years. Cactus, mostly Prickly Pear, and thornbrush close in every piece of ground. Beautiful emerald green Texas Ebony trees poke out above the lower plant life. We thread our way south to Cd. Victoria, refuel at a Pemex station and then Shari and Scotty guide us effortlessly into our RV park for the night. The relief of finishing our first day of travel results in a spontaneous party at Larry and Carmen's rig where they share a large bottle of champagne with the whole caravan.
(Shari) Getting up in the dark of the early morning, we feel the anticipation of the trip. Rigs start to line up at 6 AM, a full 30 minutes before the time announced. Others must be excited also. CB check begins at 6:50 and we count out numerically the number posted on our rig. We are out of the campground by 7 AM, heading for the Mexican border. Arriving at the check station at 7:45, we are told the bank does not open until 9 AM. The guard wants us to park in the itty bitty parking lot but "No podemos estacionar, muy grande." My Spanish spelling may be as bad as my Spanish knowledge but I think I said, "We cannot park, too big." The guard tells us to park along the curb to wait. In untypical Mexican fashion the bank opens at 8:30, a full half hour early. Everything goes just fine, until Ralph and Dorothy. It seems that Ralph has both the car and the motorhome in his name. He cannot bring two vehicles into Mexico. (They think he might sell one of them, you see). He is unable to cross the border unless Dorothy can prove she is his wife by either a marriage certificate or birth certificate of one of their kids. Right! As if we all carry those papers with us! He calls one of his children on his cell phone and unbelievably his son finds their marriage certificate and faxes it over. We are ready to roll at 10:30. Seven miles later we make our first wrong turn. The travel log states "Make a U turn to the left and back to Hwy 97. The birding guide that Bert hired to take the group birding at El Cielo, says we must turn around and head back. I am thinking this is at least 3 miles early but who am I to argue with someone who has traveled these roads before. The short of it is that we made the turn early and therefore missed Hwy 97. Plan B. We take another road south, then east and then south again, a 23-mile circuit out of our way but on a well-paved road, albeit skinny. My GPS system is working great and tracks us perfectly. We were never lost; we just were not following the logbook. I call this an unplanned scenic route. We stop for lunch when we find a section of road that has a gravel shoulder. A man tends a herd of about 50 goats that are also having a lunch break of the long grass growing along the roadside. At a big Pemex, we stop for fuel and get a taste of the local specialty: pan Bustamante. Maple-flavored bread with a few pecans in it, I pass some around for everyone to taste. Most people like it, but I find it dry. We stop again at the Pemex station in Victoria at 5 PM. Scotty and I drive on ahead the three miles to the RV park, to check it out. We encounter a man that does not speak English so here goes my pidgin Spanish again. "Donde officina," I ask. He points to a building that Scotty and I circle, but find no office. I go back to the man and shrug my shoulders. That gets me a gesture and some fast flowing words that include "Palapa" in the mix. That word I understand and Scottie and I drive to the Palapa, a thatched open-air gazebo area. Inside, another caravan is having a meeting and at least they speak English. Again I am directed to the building that we had just finished circling. The office is apparently on the second floor via a winding staircase. Before we climb the steps, Russ, the owner of the park, comes up and introduces himself. He thought our caravan had been canceled and was not expecting us. He warns us to get the rigs off the highway as quickly as possible so Scotty and I reconnoiter the area. Scotty comes up with a good plan and we drive back to the Pemex to lead them in. Scotty hops out of the car in the street and directs the group into the campground. I travel a bit farther, hop out of the car and direct the group into their respective spaces. We are not parked all together but we all are parked. The owner is sooooooo impressed with the way we handled it, he just praises our procedure up and down. Carmen and Larry then treat us all to some champagne and we unwind from our first day of travel in Mexico.
(Shari) Wide-awake at 3:30AM I get out of bed and write yesterday's journal, read tomorrow's log and plan for today. Soon Bert joins me in the predawn darkness. He is taking the group birding, planning to leave at 7 AM. I have the luxury of returning to bed if I want to. But not yet, since I am not tired. Since my thyroid surgery in November, I sure have turned into an early bird. While the birders are staging outside, I collect camping fees from the three that I could not get last night. Later this morning, I must pay for all the rigs for two nights. About 8 AM I take a walk around the park and notice Sid and Alice have their door open. I peer through the screen and say, 'Buenos dias.' They offer to take me to the grocery store later this morning. As we pull into the parking lot of the store, we notice two platforms built high around the light poles like turrets. Here two guards walk around, observing the lot below. At first I feel scared, but realize they are there for my protection. After all, our mall at home has security guards too where they walk and/or drive little golf carts around our lot. Soriano is the name of this very large nice grocery store, similar to a Super Walmart, and sells clothing, appliances, office supplies, etc. Plus, it has a huge grocery section with a wonderful fresh produce, fresh meat, fresh bakery and fresh deli department. I would like to linger more but Sid and Alice only came for a few items and I do not want to keep them waiting. I hurry along, buying only produce, some delicious Mexican baked goods and wine. After lunch Glorian and I walk to the mall and do more looking. I get some money from one of the two ATM's located there and notice an Internet cafe among the stores along the perimeter. A McDonald's is just on the other side of the parking lot. Soon the birders arrive home and I hear tales of their adventure. The birding was not at its best since the mountain was fogged in and the valley had drizzling rain. The road to the river was extremely muddy and slippery also. Surprisingly everyone could laugh about the conditions. We SOB's (spouses of birders) that stayed behind were very glad we did not go along. Birding in the best of conditions is not all that fun to me. I would have hated today. I am told the plans have changed for tomorrow and Bert, along with Ralph and Dorothy have stayed back to check out a hotel parking lot for a possible campsite tomorrow. We figure Bert will be back within two hours. After 2-1/2 hours and darkness, I am a basket case for 30 minutes until I see him pull up. Jim comes out and gives me a beer, realizing that I need it right now. How sweet!
(Bert) In the diffuse light of dawn, seven vehicles car pool us to our first birding adventure of the trip, and as the day turns out, "adventure" is an apt descriptor. Easterly, flat coastal plains extend from here to the Gulf and in the thin fog we barely make out the contrast to the west. But, not far south of Cd. Victoria, we can see the perimeter of the Sierra Madre Oriental rising dramatically to our right. Soon the road climbs and we thread our way through steep foothills. Twenty-five miles into our trip, a large yellow ball marks the Tropic of Cancer. As if by magic, the scene transforms to a tropical density of plant life and the good birds start making an appearance. Brown Jays glide between trees, Red-billed Pigeons perch quietly and as we make the turn toward Gómez Farías, we stop to watch a patient Roadside Hawk through Gene's spotting scope and see a substantial flock of Muscovy Ducks appear from a dense sorghum field when frightened by a dog, only to disappear again as they settle back down to feed. Now the road begins to climb as we cross into the El Cielo biosphere. From the passenger seat, Steve announces, "Good, they're here." We crowd our seven vehicles into a tight spot beside the road and walk back the hundred yards to take a look at the tall utility poles where Steve made his sighting. There, drenched in the wetness of dense morning mist, sit two Bat Falcons, one on each pole. On the left pole, a rounded hole marks their nest. We reach Gómez Farías (elevation 1238 ft. on my GPS) and proceed to where the paved road ends, to be replaced by a narrow, boulder-strewn path. Although the light rain limits the movement of birds, to everyone's delight we tally Blue-crowned Motmot, Black-headed Saltator , Crimson-collared Grosbeak and listen to the sweet song of the Melodious Blackbird. Dampened by the rain and concerned by the difficult road for the less-fit vehicles, we decide not to continue toward Alta Cima. Instead we head back down the mountain toward an alternate site along a river. But before we reach our destination we are overwhelmed in a sea of mud oozing down a slope in a little village. Like a snake caught by its tail, several vehicles swing anxiously back and forth as they slip up the hill. Two drivers decide not to take the risk, so I turn around and go back to ferry the passengers to the first creek. From here we hike through the mud, adding inches to our heights and pounds to our weight. One of the women quips, "This exercise should make us loose weight." Another retorts, "Taking off our shoes would loose as much." We find a bird hotspot, unmarked by any obvious habitat preferences, but here we watch a colorful Western Tanager, several warblers, and find a White-collared Seedeater hidden in the tall dry grass. Mostly we puzzle over a flycatcher that seems quite out of range and we are reluctant to call without further research. Time slips by as the mud slows our progress and we calculate we cannot reach the river in time for our return. So we trudge back, wash our muddy shoes in the stream and negotiate the slippery road back to the highway. First dampened by heavy mist, second threatened by a steep boulder-strewn road, third bemired in mud, this was a day that would make a non-birder shake his head in amazement of how someone could call this fun, but I only saw smiles of contentment among this group today.
(Shari) Traveling down the road that Bert logged yesterday is pretty easy. It reminds me of driving down a U.S. country road - a little narrow, but with light traffic, good surface and wonderful scenery. Going south we drive through hilly terrain, at the bottom of a cloud forest. Soon we see tropical vegetation and roadside stands selling honey and mango pies. I wish we could stop but the road is too narrow and no pull-offs large enough for all of us. It takes us over three hours to make the 90-mi. trip, however, since with all the twisting and turning, the going is slow. We pull into a Pemex on the outskirts of town and unhook our car. Bert in the motorhome, Scotty and I in the car, Larry in the motorhome, and Carmen in the car drive the first shift to the hotel about 3 miles away. Bert gets the manager to open the gate as the rest of us wait on the small street. Then I turn around to bring in the next four rigs. Once delivered, I go off to get the next four. When I return with the second group, Bert tells me to wait, since they are still parking Jim and Ann. His truck and trailer have a long wheelbase and the parking lot is tight. It must take 30 minutes to get him in. Sid, with his trailer and suburban, is next and he goes much faster. I hop in the car and return to pick up the last of the lot. As tight as an RV tradeshow in Houston, we are finally all parked. If you opened your window and stuck out your arm, you could shake hands with your neighbor. I find out later that we went down a short distance on a one-way street each of the four trips I led in. Oops! No wonder we kept meeting city buses coming out of the road while we were trying to get in. Supposedly, a big sign is at the intersection, which I missed each time. Thirty minutes later the birders are off in the cars to do their thing. After lunch Don and I walk around the town looking and "talking" to the clerks. Even shopping we see birds. A furniture shop has three cages. One cage has a cardinal in it, another a robin-like bird and the third, a squirrel. The robin and cardinal look a little worse for wear, but the squirrel is beautiful. It is half gray and half reddish brown-like wearing a coat. Too bad the animals are behind bars and unable to enjoy life the way God intended. Later the birders return, cold and frustrated because not many birds show themselves in the rain.
(Bert) The parking problem in Ciudad Mante this morning was more eventful than this afternoon's birding. Heading again to Gómez Farías we meet up with our birding guide Steve and he shows us the Wedge-tailed Sabrewing that visits the hummingbird feeder at the hotel where he stayed the night. Steve reports many birds moved into the area where we were yesterday. Apparently, the birds don't like the rain anymore than we do, so they came down from higher elevations to the bottom side of the rain cloud. By the time we arrive, however, it seems that the cloud has descended further and we bird in a heavy mist that leaves water on our binoculars if we tilt them up too high. Listening to the tranquil sounds of the cloud forest is reward in itself. Accumulated rain from high in the canopy falls in big drops that splotch on the wide leaves of the understory, resonating with similar drops on other leaves and providing a rain chorus. A profusion of Bromeliads poke from tree notches and soak up the moisture. Below, Shrimp Plants grow here, often seen in the States as a plant sold as a hummingbird attractant. Their bright red colors contrast with the subdued darkness of the forest. Other plants, with leaves made vibrant by the wetness, look like houseplants transplanted. Deep in the thick forest we hear the thin voices of birds that remain hidden. Sometimes in their foraging they get close enough to give us teasing glimpses of their flashy colors: a coppery tail, a tomato red belly, an emerald green back - just enough clues to mark this one down as an Elegant Trogon. We piece together the puzzle of other transient images and identify Golden-crowned Warbler, Audubon's Oriole and Mountain Trogon. Descending from the rocky path we had hiked, we break into the open area where our cars are parked. In the distance my ears perk to the sound of a raucous caw. Steve notices it also and seconds later he announces, "Military Macaws." To our delight, the pair turns in our direction and they fly overhead, calling in flight. Their long streamer tails drag behind like a bride racing down the aisle. Our chance of seeing this dramatic bird at this location was remote and our chance of seeing it later in our itinerary is less likely, so we count ourselves lucky to see it.
(Bert) At the first break of light our cars and trucks are leaving Ciudad Mante, heading for El Naranjo. Sugar cane fields are the dominant landscape and many trucks carry the harvest, stacked too high in their cargo beds. We cross the border into the State of San Luis Potosi and continue our climb into the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. Palms are prominent in the forested land; the aptly named Pony Tail Palm sticks up over the continuous green growth. We stop briefly at a picturesque turquoise waterfall. Heads turn up to a chorus of Red-crowned Parrots as they fly overhead. Further down the road, we park at the hydroelectric plant at El Salto. Here a high waterfall has been diverted into a pipe and only the backbone of the calcium deposits remains. In the forested area below the falls and beside the river, we find Squirrel Cuckoo, Buff-bellied Hummingbird and Masked Tityra. From a high branch, a Greater Pewee repeatedly calls, "Jose Maria," an identification mark now firmly infolded in our memory banks. Although we are seeing birds, they are far and few between. Perhaps they are as cold as we. We've piled on two and three layers of clothes and still feel chilled. The severe dip in temperatures is unusual here and Carlyn comments, "We can't call our kids at home in the north and gloat about the pleasant weather we are enjoying in the tropics." We leave this area, but just before we reach the main highway we stop at a small pond. To everyone's delight, an Amazon Kingfisher, a larger model of the petite Green Kingfisher, entertains us from a fence post overlooking the pond. Climbing yet higher into the mountains, we reach a forested stream at 3000 ft. Crystal clear water flows quickly, so transparent that a leaf floating downstream miraculously seems to be suspended in thin air. Strangely, few birds make their presence known and after some fruitless efforts to find them, we return back to our RV's. Back at the parking lot, while we enjoy a margarita party, conversations are often interrupted by bird sightings in the trees around us. Most surprisingly, we see Yellow-winged Tanagers and Blue-gray Tanagers high in a barren tree, basking in the golden light of a setting sun.
(Shari) No route is perfect we decide, after Scotty, Glorian and I reconnoiter the possible roads out of the city for tomorrow's departure. We settle on the road straight through town with staging at the end on a wide shoulder. After lunch, Larry and I walk to the bank and back, purchasing pollo asada con sopa y tortillas - roast chicken with soup and tortillas - for dinner tonight. The birders arrive home before Scotty, Glorian and I get back from checking out a possible RV site for next year. Everybody is waiting for me to make the promised margaritas. It takes six blender batches to satisfy the group. Someone suggests eating at the hotel restaurant tonight and our group fills three big tables. The pollo asada goes into the frig for tomorrow. In the parking lot we meet a couple from Austin, who gets our e-mail journals. Can you believe it? What a small world!
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