Chapter 6. Tabasco and Campeche
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2001 All rights reserved.
(Shari) We just cannot seem to average any better than 25 mph. We only have 100 miles to go today, but it takes us 4 hours, limited by slow trucks, topes out the kazoo, lots of traffic, rough spots in the road, and some construction. Add to that a rest stop, where some get gas and I buy two sweet rolls from a man carrying a basket full of warm bakery. I wonder how long it will take us to make the 200-mile trip tomorrow. The scenery today is typical Mexico: burros tethered at the side of the road, corn growing on the easement right up to the shoulder, garbage littered all over the place, neat children dressed in school uniforms, little girls wearing all white dresses (you wonder how they stay so clean), store fronts in towns with parking lots of only a widening of the dirt shoulder, stucco houses in unfinished condition, rickety cars and trucks barely able to make it to the next block, military check points that wave us through, wash hanging on barbed wire fences, men pushing wheelbarrows of chopped wood or sugarcane, Pemex gasoline stations every few miles, open air restaurants with plastic tables and chairs, friendly people with ready smiles, waving children and topes, topes and more topes. Topes are bumps in the road built to force the driver to slow down. I mean, they do the trick! Any faster than 5 mph and the dishes fall out of the cupboards. Big 18-wheelers even give them respect. Camp today is behind a ranch house with grazing cattle. I stop traffic on the road with my hand so that the caravan can make the left turn into the place. The grass has been mowed but the place is straggly. Electricity is reverse polarity and ungrounded with amperage too low to be useful. Little bugs abound in the grass and I understand so do chiggers. This is only an overnight stopping place and at least is far enough off the road to be quiet.
(Bert) In his book, Steve Howell describes a natural savanna about eight miles outside Las Choapas. In mid afternoon we drive through the sprawling city, a beehive of activity, and into the countryside. Following his directions to within a tenth of a mile we reach the first of the two rises he describes. I am perspiring profusely as we hike along the dirt road in the hot, still air. Only the sounds of myriad insects meet my ears, a dearth of bird calls. Howell visited this area in May 1990, but what he described as "savanna ridges, with scattered oaks and palms, interspersed with forest patches along the streams," is now a broad eucalyptus tree farm, young trees tightly spaced in regimented rows. The non-native monoculture excludes all birds. Apparently the ground has been sprayed with a herbicide, since even weeds avoid the area. From a distant cluster of trees that somehow escaped clear cutting, we hear a loud call and hike in that direction. Standing at the edge of an acre of impenetrable woods, we smile as the call is repeated. A Laughing Falcon is laughing and in the distance we hear another one laughing back. We hike back to our cars and leave the area with only a few overhead hawks on our bird list after a couple hours search. On the drive back, we stop at a foul-smelling creek running through the heart of the city. Oblivious to the odor, flocks of jacanas, stilts and yellowlegs poke in the silt. We stop once more, this time at a marsh north of the city. Still more jacanas feed here, but the highlight is a Bare-throated Tiger-heron that crouches in the tall grass. Perfectly camouflaged, it takes some birders ten minutes to find the bird not more than 30 feet ahead, even after many suggestions about how to pinpoint its location.
(Shari) Crash! Bang! Boom! With the loud noise coming from the back of the motorhome, Bert and I look at each other in fear. "What was that?" we both exclaim simultaneously. I am afraid to look but slowly turn my head. The whole medicine cabinet lay on the floor and bottles and toothbrushes and makeup scattered hither and yon. This all happened yesterday, and you'd think it would have been top of mind to write about. However, darling Scotty came to the rescue. While Bert took the birders out, Scotty worked on the cabinet and had it back on the wall better than new (except for the broken mirrored door). Seems Fleetwood workers missed the studs by 1/8 inch while screwing the cabinet on in the first place. Scotty anchored it into the studs and put two extra ones on for good measure. By the time Bert came home, the cabinet was up and all put away. It sure could have been worse; nothing inside broke, the sink did not get cracked, no leaking bottles messed up our carpet and it was fixable. So now it is history. Today's drive again is pleasant through Mexican country, small towns with topes, marshland and finally the beautiful open sea with its stretches of white sandy beaches and splendid aquamarine color so prevalent in pictures of the tropics. I declare chickens and roosters to be the national bird of Mexico. Allowed to run wild, they are seen pecking all over the place scurrying from one spot to another. Our stopping point tonight, the town of Isla Aguada, is strange. I see no open stands selling anything. Small shacks, which my eye would miss (someone had to point them out to me), have a few grocery items. One nice bakery is on a side street and a beer depository along another. We find a decent restaurant and Anne and Jim join us for grilled garlic shrimp and baked stuffed fish. Most of the town is residential and I suppose fishing is the main industry, but I wonder why no one is selling grilled fish from stands along the road. Maybe it is too hot for that. I mean, it is steamy! The thermometer reads 93 degrees in the shade. That is with full humidity and we all have beads of sweat on our brow. Luckily it cools down at night.
(Bert) Slowly the veil of fog thins, revealing flat savannahs as we drive through southeastern Veracruz, then northern Tabasco and, later, western Campeche. The savannahs transition into extensive marshlands. Tracking the satellites through our GPS, on our computer screen we can see our passage follows the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico and we round the curve, starting north again as we enter the Yucatán Peninsula. But the sea is out of sight, some 2-20 miles distant. Instead, ponds, streams and marsh grasses continue for miles, populated by hundreds of egrets, herons and jacanas. Flying low over the waterways, Snail Kites are plentiful and an occasional Black Hawk is among them. Randomly, Coconut Palms stick out from the marsh and, near Cd. del Carmen, Pink Shower Cassia bloom in profusion, looking a lot like the cherry trees of Washington D.C. Carlyn identifies the Cassia tree for us. She also names the African Tulip Tree or Fountain of Flame Tree, many of which we see at home sites and lining the streets, decorative with their brilliant red-orange flowers. She tells us that the "fountain" part of the name comes from the water ejected from the unopened buds when touched. Other trees are budding and yellow-green leaves are poking forth. Spring seems to be in session, but the calendar still reads January for one more day. Now we see the calm sea, polished turquoise and edged in white sand. After paying the toll at Puenta Zacatel, I park and wait for the rest of the caravan to get through the gate. Ahead lies a new bridge that takes us to the string of islands that separate Laguna de Terminos from the open Gulf of Mexico. A profusion of terns - Royal, Forster's, Sandwich - feed over the bay. Across the bridge we pull into our campground, slowly, as the sites are tightly spaced among trees that all but block our view of the blue water.
(Shari) After the other two caravans depart, many of our group decides to move toward the waterfront. We do the same. Expecting to catch some sea breeze, I am disappointed to find the day as hot and still as an alligator sunning himself. Pat and I jokingly decide to find some air-conditioned room to rent. The park is supposed to have electricity, but the power is poor and our regulator shuts it off. We suffer in the heat. To cool off, Bert and I take a ride in our air-conditioned car to a wonderful deserted beach and Bert takes a swim in the cool water. I forgot my beach shoes and do not want to walk on the crushed shells with my bare feet. I do hit pay dirt with seashells though. I gather some wonderful conch-like spiral ones. Tonight we have a social and we all gather under the shade of the trees watching the sunset and enjoying the company.
(Bert) With high temperatures and high humidity, most birders do their birding from lawn chairs parked under shade trees or by a leisurely stroll around the tree canopied campground. Not only has the scenery changed - from mountain rainforests and deforested ranchlands to savannahs, marshes and seashore - but the bird life has as well. Northern Mockingbird is gone, but Tropical Mockingbird takes its place. Likewise, Common Ground-Dove transitions to Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. The mockingbird particularly intrigues us. At first glance the two species appear identical. The Tropical even sings a similar repertoire of varied songs as the Northern. Only in flight is their difference obvious, since the Tropical lacks the white wing patches of the Northern. Our trip list is now at 239 species.
Next Day Table of Contents