Chapter 4. Veracruz
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2001 All rights reserved.
(Bert) The traffic jam on the country road brings us to a standstill. Cars, pickups, trucks stacked high with sugarcane, buses and now RV's block both lanes of the narrow, no-shoulder, 2-lane highway to Veracruz. I CB back to the caravan about what I am observing: vehicles are driving both lanes in both directions, facing each other. On our left lane a tanker truck is zigzagging backwards as he attempts to back up hundreds of yards. Some vehicles are peeling off onto a side road that is too narrow and rough for the bigger busses and us. Finally everything settles down and we park on the road, turning off our engines. I climb up on top of R-TENT and look in both directions, vehicles lined up as far as I can see. Word comes back that we are waiting for an accident to be cleared. We spend more than a half-hour in the traffic jam before it clears and we again move forward and eventually pass the damaged 18-wheeler pushed off the road, a wrecker waiting on the opposite side. The traffic snarl continues until we reach the cuota road that takes into Veracruz.
Once assembled at the seaside parking lot that will serve as our dry camp for the next two nights, some of us carpool to a birding site northwest of the city. Although the directions were to return the same way we came, the one-way traffic in the city splits and I miss one of the turns. We end up downtown and have to ask for directions at a Pemex station. Back on the cuota road, we travel above high cliffs overlooking the sea. Overhead, large black swifts with white collars - White-collared Swifts - circle and swoop in the air currents. We reach the thorn forest at Colonia Francisco Barrios, but find the habitat is much deteriorated, the brush slashed and the small trees toppled. After an hour or two of birding, our list is very short, the best being Varied Bunting and Groove-billed Ani. Several birds go unidentified because of their ability to completely disappear in the prickly brush and cactus. One wren evades us even though Lee, Dorothy and I have triangulated it to within 25 ft. Lee takes a few steps forward, then lets out a yelp, "Snake!" and takes a few quick steps backward. It's the first time I've seen Lee's attention diverted from watching birds.
(Shari) It takes us almost five hours to travel 109 miles. We get a late start from our campground, fixing a problem. Then we take the group out half of the RV's at a time so as not to cause a traffic jam, inside and outside of the park. Slow trucks, topes (bumps in the road to slow traffic), tolls on bridges, city stoplights and an accident all contribute to our slow pace. Once we reach Veracruz, the last three rigs loose sight of us and make a wrong turn. One group goes one way, and the other goes another way. Scotty follows the first and both make it back on track. The path is complicated: "Bear right at shopping plaza and move into left lane. Enter traffic circle and exit northbound with the hotel on your right. Get immediately into the right lane. Turn right down the hill beside the hotel." I mean, it all happens very fast and traffic does not stop for you. Our camping spot is lovely and has numerous swimming pools for our use, RV parking under palm trees and a big beautiful beach to look at through our side windows. No water or electric though. An enterprising young man comes around and gathers our accumulation of dirty clothes. He promises to return them tomorrow, all clean. I learn another word in Spanish today. I need to find the dump "desague" and learn it is not far from the office. Just Bert and I go out to eat tonight. It feels like a date, after being with so many people the past week. We find a recommended restaurant in Boca del Rica by the name of Pardinos and order totally off the Spanish menu. When in Veracruz, one must have Veracruz fish so that is what I order. It comes looking like Veracruz octopus. Oops, I thought "pulpo" was a kind of fish like trout or something. It was delicious nonetheless.
(Bert) The early morning drive to Cordoba by cuota road goes quickly, only interrupted by a dramatic view of an Aplomado Falcon diving in a vain attempt to capture a jacana. Winding through the village of Amatlán, past the cathedral, we reach a tree-shaded coffee plantation on the outskirts of town. On foot, we enter the thick forest and round a bend in the path, suddenly coming upon a heavenly scene. Below a high canopy of trees a steeply sloped rock garden stretches as far as we can see. Built against the mountainside, roughly hewn boulders are laced with Impatiens in colorful pink bloom. The scene is transfixing; we step gingerly through the natural garden, soaking up the incredible beauty. Even if we had not found birds, this scene is worth the trip. Birding is feast and famine. Periods of no birds and few sounds alternate with sessions of myriad birds filling the trees like the best of spring migration fallouts at High Island and Point Pelee. We are calling out field marks and species names, but none of them match because we are all watching different birds: Olivaceous Woodcreeper, White-winged Tanager, Scrub Euphonia, Chestnut-headed and Montezuma Oropendolas, and nine warbler species including Golden-crowned and Rufous-capped. We see several trogons and a lengthy discussion ensues on which kind; we eventually conclude we've seen male and female Violaceous Trogons and a male Black-headed Trogon. A wonderful birding location and a beautiful natural site, our visit ends too quickly.
(Shari) From what I have seen so far, the eastern side of Mexico is greener, more prosperous and cleaner than the western side. I remember last year, after a few weeks, I just wanted to smell fresh air and not all the smoke. So far this trip, the air has always been fresh. I love Veracruz. Last night we went to a rather new Walmart Super Center and many remarked it is the best one they have ever seen. It was bigger, that is for sure. All the specialty departments are superb. I am an old hand at getting bakery. The custom in Mexico is to grab a pizza pan and a tongs, walk the aisles of baked goods, picking the items you want with the tongs and setting them on your tray. Then you go to a clerk, who weighs them and bags them. Of course, we buy some. It makes a very tasty breakfast as I sit writing this and listening to the sounds of the waves, the birds and the breeze through the coconut palms above me. The campground is below a very grand hotel, reminiscent of the Coronado in San Diego. The grounds are immaculate and the view superb from the terrace high above the palm trees of the campground. A wall of stained glass windows, inside the lobby just dazzles my eye and I cannot stop looking at it. Another large swimming pool, exercise room with sauna and tennis courts complete the sports amenities of the resort. Nearby is a 2-story mall, complete with waterfall, Sears and Radio Shack. Are we sure we are in Mexico? Yes! The armed guards are everywhere and we have to pay to park, even at Sam's.
(Shari) The theory was to have a leisurely start for the short 100-mi. trip to Catemaco. That was the theory anyway. Travel meeting is at 8 AM and we are rolling at 8:15 AM. A dozen miles from town, pineapple stands line the road and, of course, we have to stop to buy some. The custom of having one-product towns struck me strange last year on the west coast. The same phenomenon occurs on this side of Mexico. We had a town that just sold oranges, then a pineapple town, we passed a furniture town, and I saw one with only jars of honey and another with jars of something round inside. Ten to fifteen stands consisting of some wooden poles and a shelf or two, maybe covered with straw, line both sides of the road. When we come to the last stand, we are out of town. The road is narrow today. We get stuck behind a slow moving gravel truck. Too dangerous for the whole caravan to pass, we decide to poke along behind it for miles just hoping he will turn off. Local traffic must hate us since we make a long train for them to pass, even though we leave wide gaps between our vehicles. The scenery is gorgeous, ever changing: cultivated farmland, grassland, sugar cane fields, sand dunes, distant mountains of emerald green and the ocean. Then we start climbing. The gravel truck stopped just short of the climb but we meet a slower one that we do decide to pass. Bob and Dusty have trouble with their motorhome and Scotty and Glorian pull off behind them. The rest of us continue on to our planned stop at the cigar factory. The logbook indicates room to park and view cigar making by hand. The plan again is to have the caravan tour the factory while Scotty and I go on ahead to scout the campground. Scotty is now with Bob 20 miles back, so Carmen graciously offers to go with me. We find the campground okay, however it is full. No way is it big enough to handle 14 more rigs in that little uneven place. Luckily, the caravan that is there, is from the same caravan company as ours, and the Wagonmaster offers to take me to another campground. It is a resort, built on a lake with a nice swimming pool, level parking lot, and two rooms with toilets and hot showers. We drive back to where we dropped the caravan, who now, over two hours later, has begun to worry. Meanwhile Scotty fixed Bob's problem and both are back with us. Off we go, slowly exiting one town and entering another. I have to take care as to not lose them since we are doing a lot of fancy footwork through the town. A right turn, then a left, then another left, then another left, then a right. Watch for water-covered potholes next to buses, grates missing from drain holes and people walking in front of us. Finally we get to the campground and are parked some seven hours after we started this morning. It is margarita time and we all gather in the open area in front of our rigs for some unwinding and social time. All seem happy that the other place was full, since the birding is great here already. Soon the chairs empty and the binoculars get strapped around necks, as the birders take off to scout out the place.
(Bert) I'm amazed on how a simple travel day can turn so complex. Can you imagine taking seven hours to travel a hundred miles? The fact that we had very good roads most of the way has little to do with our delays. First, a slow moving dump truck, with gravel spilling out the top, crawls in front of our winding path; then a large truck filled with crated furniture limits our speed and, then, yet another gravel truck. From the back of the caravan I get a CB message that Bob has pulled off the road and that Scotty will stop behind him to check out the problem. We proceed even more slowly, waiting to hear the resolution. Before we can find a place to stop, I hear Bob is back on the highway, so I continue. A little while later the problem repeats itself, but we continue slowly to San Andres Tuxla and park along the side of the main street through town, partially blocking entrances to many of the street side shops. Shari and Carmen go on ahead by car to check out our campsite. The rest of us wait, and wait, and wait. Sid tells me he saw big clouds of black smoke coming from Bob's motorhome when he pulled over, so he's sure we won't see them for some time. But after an hour waiting, he shows up and we learn his problem was a dirty fuel filter. Still no word from Shari, I surmise she has run into problems with our reservation. Another hour passes. While I wait I watch the busy activities on Main Street. A cowboy-clad man rides a burro, linked by rope to a procession of eight more burros, each carrying large milk cans, the kind my grandfather used to use in the 1950s. The last burro in line carries a 5-gal. jug of gasoline - additional fuel if they run out? A constant stream of cars and trucks pours through the city, making street crossing a dangerous act for pedestrians. Dozens of Mexicans queue at the Centro de Salud Urbano. Mechanics repair an axle for a truck jacked up in a street side spot between our RV's. A tire shop uses the street as its workshop and replaces a tire on a car. But the best circus act is the big pink pig being lead down Main Street on a leash. After 2-1/2 hours, Scotty and Willy form a search party to find Shari and Carmen. But only a few minutes later I hear Shari on the CB with the news that they have found an alternate campsite and will lead us to it. After a twisting road through Catemaco in a rainstorm that makes rivers out of streets, twisting around two open manholes and straddling a pothole the size of Lake Michigan, we navigate a tricky entrance and descend into a beautiful hotel lot built on the shores of Lake Catemaco. A spontaneous Margarita Party quells the memory of a tedious travel day and soon the birders notice the wonderful wildlife around us and don their binoculars in pursuit.
Next Day Table of Contents