Chapter 2. Tamaulipas
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.
(Bert) I doubt many of us waited for our alarms to ring this morning. I know I was checking the clock every 15 minutes since 4 AM, waiting in anticipation of our departure for Mexico. Finally at 5, turning off my unexpired alarm clock, I get up and peer through the darkness to see bright lights in other rigs as well. Vehicles lined up, last minute instructions given, CB check completed, we convoy to the border, park and begin the process of visiting four offices for border crossing papers. With minimal problems - just time waiting in lines - we are stamped, taxed and certified. Knowing the time it takes the 24 of us to get through the red tape, we are all glad we reached the border a half hour before the caravan of 62 French Canadians that follow us. Traffic through the Mexico border towns is hectic, but the only difficult part is the U-turn ("returno" in Spanish) required to reach the highway heading out of Reynosa. While a small car can easily merge into the truck and bus traffic - and many do was we wait for a larger gap - it takes us several minutes waiting for our turn to jump into the stream of metal. Finally, freed of the congestion, we point south on smooth, if narrow, roads through endless fields. Flat and featureless, the dry soil is the only remnant of the Tamaulipas brushlands here. Now tractors pulling wide cultivators convert soil to airborne dust, painting the horizon a dull hue. Bright yellow Huisache-daisies and Common Sunflowers in scattered bunches are the only diversion from a drab roadside. At a wayside lunch stop several of us check out the huisache and mesquite trees for birds, seeing a few to start our Mexico lists: Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Common Ground-Dove, Orange-crowned Warbler and others. Along the highways we see occasional hawks - mostly Red-tailed, but a few travelers report Harris's, Gray and White-tailed - plus Crested Caracaras and Tamaulipas Crows. One hundred thirteen miles into our trip, the terrain changes from flat to rolling and more closely resembles what the brushlands looked like before agriculture invaded. The diversity of cactus species makes we wish I could put names to them, but only the Prickly Pear name comes easily. By mile 202 we can see ghostly images of mountains, the Sierra Madre Oriental, to the west and dead ahead. They grow larger and clearer as we reach Ciudad Victoria. With relative ease we maneuver in the city traffic and turn into our RV park for the night. Our 5 PM margarita party is filled with the laughter and joy of having accomplished our first day's venture into Mexico.
(Shari) I even amaze myself at how much Spanish I know, especially compared to last year. I find that when asked if they speak English, Mexicans generally say no. But in reality they often know as much English as I know Spanish and between the two of us we can get by, one word at a time. Bert jokingly says anyone can understand my Spanish because I take three minutes between each word, allowing plenty of time to guess the meaning. Very funny! Fortunately, our group is early to rise and we beat a 33-vehicle caravan at the border and process our paperwork ahead of them. Our border crossing is relatively smooth until Pat and Lee, last in line, try to obtain their vehicle permit. The Mexican computer system thinks they never returned their car last year. Since they had left the tour due to illness three days early, they never crossed the border with the group and did not hear my lecture on making sure you return the sticker on your windshield. Luckily Pat is so organized, because she went back to the van and found last year's paperwork and "Walla!" we were finished. The rest of the day is uneventful, with nice smooth roads and, often, double lanes. I cannot understand why I am still as nervous as I was last year, but my stomach gets all upset and I feel like I am a pulled rubber band. Just what I need is a margarita or two at the end of the day and Bert cooperates by making six batches, while I pay for the campground and collect money. At 5 PM we have our Welcome-to-Mexico margarita party with Gwen and Pat providing snacks and Bert providing my famous margaritas. We are finally here in Mexico and we are going to celebrate. You should just hear the laughter and chatter going on. There is so much noise that Bert has trouble quieting the group to discuss tomorrow's activities. It is a good end to a good day.
(Bert) Yesterday, without breaking stride, without diverting from the horizontal plain, without changing from the featureless landscape, we bridged the river Corono shortly before we reached Ciudad Victoria. Even the river went by undetected, lying below road level and obscured by a roof of dry leaves formed by indistinguishable trees. Now, this morning we return to the Rio Corono, pull off the highway and descend a steep embankment and park beneath the massive concrete bridge looming some 75+ ft above the river. We've entered a magical world below and are immediately struck by the beauty of gigantic cypress trees blocking the sky with winter brown leaves upheld on stout branches connected to massive trunks, buttressed by an exposed and widespread root system a couple dozen feet across for each tree. Smoothly, the tranquil stream flows with foam bubbles around the complicated root works. Upstream, before a bend in the river, a small foot-high waterfall drops. Cool, even chilly, the damp air has not yet been warmed by this morning's sun. We barely are a few feet from our parked cars when we notice birds in the trees above us. Well hidden, only the gnatcatchers are quickly identified. The others give us only teasing glimpses, but in a few minutes we name the warblers - Black-throated Green, Yellow-throated, Northern Parula - plus a Blue-headed Vireo and a kingbird that puzzles us, displaying bright yellow below, fitting of a Tropical or Couch's, but too dark a head. Moving in both directions along the river, our group finds other species, but the birds are far and few between and we are mostly left with enjoying the wonderment of this underground world. A Green Kingfisher passes us quickly as it wings upstream. Clay-colored Robins lurk in thick underbrush and an even more elusive Spot-breasted Wren gives few glimpses, but signs loudly and clearly its pretty song. Perhaps the most surprising to me is an overhead flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, first heard, then seen winging in V-formation above us but barely visible through the leaves. We missed this species last year. Just before we depart we puzzle over a bunting softly calling from a perch above a brush pile. With several field guidebooks opened to the page, we conclude it is nothing more unusual than a drab fall-plumaged female Indigo Bunting, but it gives us an interesting lesson in identification skills.
(Shari) Last night I asked the owners of the RV park in Victoria to call Cd. Mante to confirm our reservations in that city for today. This morning I am told the clerk answering the phone was rude and hung up when asked about our "casitas ruladen." (I am not sure of the spelling of motor home in Spanish.) Oh, Oh! We may be in for a surprise this afternoon. Even prettier than I remember, the drive to Cd. Mante is rolling hills and curves through the high foothills, with very little traffic. From my vantage point at the front of the convoy, I can see the whole caravan behind me, strung out like leaf cutter ants curving their way back to their nest. Roadside stands selling honey and oranges dot the sides of the road, some advertising the tropical fruits of the mango and guava. Unfortunately neither is in season and the famous mango pie "diner" is closed. Stopping at the pullout at the Tropic of Cancer, no one gets out to take a picture. The huge yellow ball marking the spot is covered with graffiti and the surrounding area littered with trash. What a shame! About ten miles from our destination we finally find an area big enough for the whole group to stop for lunch. With Edie as my interpreter, should I need it, and Larry as our protector, we drive on ahead in the car to make arrangements at the hotel. Struggling with my broken Spanish like Tonto in an old Lone Ranger movie, "me have 12 rigs, me stay 3 nights". They obviously did not know that we were coming. The manager arrives and I repeat the process again. She asks something that I totally do not understand and I need Edie to rescue me. She does, and soon the general manager of the hotel comes out of her office and we greet each other warmly. She remembers me from last year and tells me she built a palapa just for our use this year. Of course we can stay at the hotel parking lot and of course we can have a dinner for the group tonight. We drive back to our prearranged rendezvous point and I give Bert the thumbs up sign. Now the fun begins for the parking lot at the hotel is small and difficult to maneuver. We are going to stage our parking in three groups. I lead the first four biggest rigs to the hotel and wait until the last one is parked before returning to the staging area to retrieve the next group. It takes us a little over 90 minutes to get the job accomplished but we do it. We look like sardines in a can but seem to have room at the front for even more rigs. Jokingly, Bert says next year we can take another 10. I say it is time for a beer AND the complimentary margarita that the hotel is giving us for dinner tonight.
(Bert) "You've hit 15 mph!" Jerry exclaims as he and Doris and Maggie are tossed about in the back seat of my Nissan Pathfinder. Only on a relatively smooth stretch of the rocky road to Alta Cima do I reach that high speed. Otherwise it's slow going over the uneven boulder-packed road climbing high into the Sierra Madre Oriental. Other SUV's and pickup trucks follow me as we caravan to the birding site today in the El Cielo Biosphere. We try to ignore the birds flittering beside us, hoping to reach the end of the road while morning is still young and cool. I can't help but notice the nice variety of ground-doves that fleetingly pass in front of us: Common, Ruddy and Blue Ground-doves. The rising sun burns off the moisture in the cloud forest and we can see the worn green treed peaks above us and the sweeping forests and lowlands below. After a long tortuous drive we reach our destination and park in a rocky cow pasture. As soon as we step from our vehicles, we encounter birds across the barbed wire fence in a shrubby lot. The bright yellow bird with a black head - Black-headed Siskin - is a pleasing touch of the tropics. As we hike up the trail a flash of yellow darting into a dense bush is studied more closely and we are delighted to identify a Fan-tailed Warbler, a new species (life bird) for many. Further along, the very loud liquid gurgling and bubbling songs coming from dense underbrush below us seems to be representing a dozen birds but it is hard to judge since they stay well hidden. Frequently one rockets from the bush, hovers briefly and then arrests on a branch close enough to give us a view of a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. The boisterous chatter surprises us, so unbecoming of a hummingbird and more appropriate for a larger and more aggressive jay. We add other species during our hike: a Gray Hawk soaring serenely overhead, a pair of Crimson-collared Grosbeaks eluding us around a corner. After lunch in the cow pasture, we head slowly back down the mountain, encounter few birds, but enjoy panoramic views of the forested preserve below. Back at a fork in the road we park and explore another path on foot. Barely 100 ft. up the path we study birds in a massive tree that protrudes higher above the edge of the canopy and becomes the bus stop for passing birds. From our vantage point we stand more than an hour, our binoculars affixed on the show performed on the stout branches - stages - of the bromeliad-covered tree. Each act brings on new performers - Squirrel Cuckoo, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Tufted Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee and an oriole that changed names several times and finally goes down in the record books as an immature male Baltimore Oriole. After one more stop to watch the pair of Bat Falcons on their adjacent power line poles, we are back to Cd. Mante after a long, but pleasurable day.
(Shari) The rooster crows at 4:10 AM - honest, even in the middle of the city - and I never get back to sleep. The birders leave the parking lot 10 minutes before dawn. I have a pleasant day; catching up on paperwork, printing pictures from our digital camera and sneaking a nap. When Monika and Jack return early from birding, we go to the grocery store. Like three bananas in a barrel of oranges, we definitely stick out with our light complexions and people look at us, wondering why we are here. Every year I see more and more products from the USA on the shelves. Kellogg's, jello, Campbell's, Carnation, Pillsbury and Yoplait join their long time friend Coca-Cola. The U.S. is becoming a worldwide dominator, like it or not. I strike up a conversation with a young man in the produce department when he sees me pondering over the sign for avocados. He tells me the price is 15 pesos per kilo, not per each. Speaking in very good English, he asks me where I am from and tells me he lived in the Dallas area working in the kitchen of a restaurant for two years. (No, not our daughter's Red Lobster, I'm told). There he made $200-$400 per week. He just received his paycheck here for 50 days of work, and it came to only $80. (Sounds like one of us misspoke or misunderstood, since this seems way too low a wage). Yet, undoubtedly, that is one big gap in wages and no wonder we have so many people crossing the border to the north. Even if avocados are only 20 cents apiece, other things are not. My 6-pack of Tecate was $4.80 and one papaya was $1.50. I pick up four of those boillos I like so much along with four pastries for breakfast. Mexican pastries become addictive, having not as much sugar as our U.S. tastes seem to require. By 4 PM it is hot in R-TENT and I hear Jack heading towards the pool. The clean big pool with marked long lap lanes is very inviting, but with water just above the temperature of ice cubes, I can only stay in it for one lap. Finally the birders return and we gather informally around the tables at the palapa, exchanging stories of our day. It is well past eight o'clock before Bert and I take a plate of dinner outside to eat, still chatting with fellow travelers.
(Bert) Through the spotting scope I can see the parrot's head peep over the snarled cluster of bromeliads. The white forehead on its dark head is telltale and I announce, "White-crowned Parrot." One by one, the birders line up to get a close-up view of their first parrot of the trip. The parrot is perched high in the 100-ft. huge tree, across the Río El Salto from our viewpoint. Invisible by naked eye, barely recognizable by binoculars, the parrot seems like it is at arm's length through the scope. We can see its dark head with the deep bluish tint, the green back and speckled bronze wing. It's big eyes are searching for breakfast, ignoring our close observation as the bird feels unthreatened by us, more than 200 yards away. The hydroelectric plant hasn't turned off the waterfall today, so we have a pleasing view of the water plunging down the mountainside into transparent turquoise pools and then flowing beside tall reeds and bamboo. Birds are plentiful and varied. A plethora of Boat-billed Flycatchers surprisingly outnumber Social Flycatchers today. Raptors soar along the edge of the mountain, giving us quick looks before they disappear from sight. I miss the Common Black-Hawk that others find, but I watch a Peregrine Falcon glide effortlessly with characteristic cocked wings. In the orange orchard, while panning my scope to find a Melodious Blackbird, I discover a better treat. Trying to sleep quietly, a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl watches us from across the field. This 7-in. owl hidden 200 yards from us would have gone unnoticed by all if not for my fortuitous discovery. On a dirt side road we meet the owner of the surrounding lands and in very good English he tells us about the wild cats - jaguarundi, Mountain Lion, ocelot - that he has seen here infrequently in the 30 years he has owned the land. When he recalls the few times he has seen Crested Guans, Woody jokingly offers to pay him to take him to the spot, but the owner shrugs his shoulders and turns up his hands gesturing the near impossibility of fulfilling the request. He does offer to let us walk across his land to reach the river and we take him up on his generous offer. A quarter mile from the road we reach a pleasant quiet place beside the river. Along its grassy shore we slowly push a flock of seedeaters and grassquits. With patience we distinguish dozens of rather plain-looking immature White-collared Seedeaters, some equally plain-looking immature Yellow-faced Grassquits and a very few vividly-faced adults with bright yellow eyebrows (supercilium in birder's language) and throats over black chests. Heading back toward Cd. Mante, we stop at a pond on a ranch beside the road, adding many species to our list, including a nice comparison of the pouches of Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants. Shortly after returning to the hotel parking lot, we are thrilled at a surprise I'm sure Shari will relate in her journal.
(Shari) I am up with the birders again. This is unbelievable; I must be turning over a new leaf. At 10 AM I promised to take any stay-at-homes to the market and am surprised that our group numbers eight, including three men. This time, as 8 bananas in a barrel of oranges, we are not able to meld into the background at all. Pat wants to buy some slip-on slippers to use in the trailer, and I find my Spanish is not as good as I was beginning to think. I really have to study my numbers. However all is not lost, since I learn a new word, "chico", which means small. Five of our group tires after an hour, but Pat, Maggie and I continue browsing for another 90 minutes. We notice a funeral procession of many people walking behind a hearse loaded with fresh flowers. We find some "naughty socks" hanging on hooks outside an open-air vendor. I'll let Pat or Maggie explain; I'm too embararassed. I buy pollo asada - grilled chicken - for dinner tonight, complete with tortillas, hot sauce and beans. Although my purchases are few today, I don't count it as wasted time since I am a firm believer that shopping does not necessarily mean buying. Shoppers just enjoy soaking in the ambience and looking. Who knows, if the habitat is right, we may stumble across a lifer. When returning home, I sneak in another little nap before the birders arrive with their stories to tell. But best of all, Joanne and John surprise us all and arrive shortly after the birders return. They were delayed in Pharr, Texas and have caught up with us today. All of us just clap and hug them to pieces. Joanne says she missed the beginning bonding of the group, but after noticing the reception she receives I think she already has caught up. It is good to have my little family complete again.
(Bert) The biggest event of the day, I anticipated, would be exiting our cramped camp in the walled parking lot at Cd. Mante. With ease each driver pulls through the serpentine exit and lines up for our unanimous departure, hardly an event to write home about. Our eastward passage through Tamaulipas flatlands is uneventful and it isn't until we stop at a Pemex at the edge of Tampico that my troubles begin. Most vehicles refueled, I start my engine in anticipation of driving the remaining mile to the Tampico campsite. Nothing. No engine purring. No starter grinding. Just a quiet click. I turn off all the distractions - fan, CB and booster, laptop computer, GPS - and try again. The engine computer goes through its routine check and various lighted messages illuminate on the diagnostic panel in front of my steering wheel. One by one they light up and turn off, except for "PARK" and "CHECK TRANS," the latter being suspicious. Again the starter does not budge. Regrouping, Shari and I decide to unhook the Pathfinder to allow her to lead the caravan to the campsite while I stay and work on the engine problem. Twenty minutes later when she returns, I have read a half dozen Owner's Manuals but not solved the problem. We puzzle through the possibilities and become suspicious of the CB power booster because it throws out a high frequency signal intended for the CB, but also causes the windshield wipers to burst into action, the rear TV monitor to flicker and the transmission to balk at shifting from low gear. We tie the latter symptom to the "CHECK TRANS" clue and deduce that our CB booster messed up the Allison transmission, making the Cummins engine send a faulty signal to the Freightliner chassis computer. Don comes to check on us, and repeating the logical diagnosis, he concurs. Tom shows up and he follows a similar thesis. Larry arrives and we now focus on defeating the computer, trying to disconnect its brain by pulling the plug. Larry disconnects a battery cable, but it takes severing three cable lines before the instrument panel is silent. He also disconnects two sensors below the engine. But nothing resets the computer or succeeds in turning off the "CHECK TRANS" light or allows the engine to turn over. Meanwhile the gas station attendants pester us about moving our RV out of their driveway, a task meant for an oversized tow truck. Complicating all of this further, is that today is Sunday, a day when mechanics are at home and repair shops are closed. On his back, looking up into the engine compartment, Larry continues to poke and probe for an answer. While Edie is in rapid Spanish conversation with an attendant, Larry runs up to us, holding a greasy nut. He announces, "This fell off when I touched it and I think it may be the problem." I have difficulty comprehending how a greasy nut can cripple my engine from starting, but I take his word for it. Larry crawls back under the engine, tightens down the nut and I climb into the drivers seat and turn the key. Sweet music to my ears, the engine purrs. Tossing arms in the air, Shari shouts for joy, Edie has tears in her eyes, and Larry smiles triumphantly. The nut that held down the ground wire to the starter was the answer to our problem and the "CHECK TRANS" light was a red herring.
(Shari) "Agrúa", the security guard at the Pemex station keeps repeating. This is not one of the words I thought I would have to know and I do not like the sound of it. Today was supposed to be an easy day, with an expected arrival in Tampico before lunch. As it turns out, I never even get to eat lunch. We have a little problem with an impatient man who does not want to wait for us to clear the gate as we exit the hotel parking lot. However, that pales in comparison to what we encounter later at the outskirts of Tampico. Here we are to gas up before driving the last two miles into the campground. I shut off the engine of R-TENT and Bert finds it will not start again. Nada, nothing, hardly a click. We are dead in the water and blocking traffic. Quickly unhooking the car, I lead the caravan to the campground and get them settled before returning to the Pemex station to bail out Bert, always looking over my shoulder for some sign of R-TENT rolling on in. But I only find Bert in the same situation I left him in; a dead motor home with no clues as to why, except the "CHECK TRANS" light lit up. The good news is that we are close to a Freightliner dealer down the street and a Cummins dealer next door. The bad news is that it is Sunday and no one works today. I talk to the security guard at both places and obtain a telephone number of the manager of the Freightliner dealer. Back to the campground I head to find Edie, my personal translator. She calls the number and leaves a voice message. Tom, Larry and I drive back to the Pemex station and stew about the problem. Here is where the word "Agrúa" comes in. Apparently we are blocking the exit for big trucks that cannot make the turn and we are asked to move. I say we cannot move and am told "Agrúa", which means tow. The guard even links his index fingers and thumbs on both hands together to indicate a tow truck. I pretend I do not understand and drive back for Edie again. Tom thinks we should offer him a little money for their troubles. Edie finds out that the gas station attendants do not care if we stay, but a double tandem truck is expected maybe in one to three hours - maybe not even today - a typical Mexican timeline. Suddenly Larry appears holding a nut. While under R-TENT it almost fell out into his hand. He bolts it back on, Edie and I say yet another prayer, and Bert starts the engine. Yes, the engine starts! I give Larry a kiss on the cheek, Edie cries and Bert just hollers with joy. We are on the road again. Meanwhile back at camp, we find Joanne and John have a broken spring. We make the decision that we should just stay an extra day here and one day less at Costa Esmeralda. We have an impromptu margarita party and plan some birding and a potluck for tomorrow night. This group is just wonderful with their patience and understanding and helpfulness. Now I think we have had enough troubles for the whole trip and the rest will be smooth sailing.
(Shari) Padding softly through the motor home, well before dawn, I peek out the windows and see lights across the marsh hazed in fog. Barking dogs break the silence of the pre-dawn and soon I hear Bert rustling and he too is awake. I look out the window again at 6:30, the time we had scheduled to leave this morning and the day is still shrouded in fog. Even at 7:30 when the birders take off, it is misty. Later, I have a pleasant conversation with the campground manager, using my limited Spanish, to reserve the palapa by the lake for our potluck tonight. Two new words enter my vocabulary, "lleya" for key and "lago" for lake. Soon I see workers cleaning and rearranging tables for us. One worker spends all day trimming the grass at the edges of the sidewalk, using just a long knife. Bert's grass edger would have completed the task in less than 30 minutes. These people want our stay to be pleasant and are very accommodating. I think our day of rest at this rather picturesque spot is appreciated. Larry fixes John's broken spring and R-TENT still starts. At five, our cakes, fruit, casseroles and salads adorn a serving table and thanks to John and Joanne, we have dinner music from an electronic keyboard. By the sounds of the chatter, everyone enjoys themselves.
(Bert) Marshes border the outskirts of Tampico where we camp, providing an attractive setting for us and a haven for birds. Most of what we find this morning are species we'd likely see in the U.S. as well, but the Northern Jacana is an exception, a bright rufous jewel that sparkles lemon yellow when it takes flight. Our special target, however, is the Altamira Yellowthroat, a more elusive local warbler that hides in these marshes. After a couple hours of searching along the edge of the tall reeds we see many bird species, including lots of Common Yellowthroats, but no Altamira. Our group is well spread out when, alone, I find the adult male showing its distinctive yellow supraloral above a black face and yellow throat. With my eyes fixed on the bird I wave my arm, hoping to get other birders to the place I am standing, but they do not notice. So I shout loudly to them, but only Nelda arrives in time to see the rarity. It's the only one seen this morning before our return to camp. Undaunted, Tom and Don return to the spot and, with persistence they also find both male and female Altamira Yellowthroats later in the day. In the afternoon seven of us make a run into the city to send and receive e-mail. Hundreds of stores line the street, many with familiar names. Next to Wal-Mart is a new Office Depot that offers three computers with Internet links. Fortunately, they also have a telephone line for me to connect my notebook computer and I successfully send and receive five days accumulation of e-mail, including sending these journals. I was happy to see my new AT&T calling card connects through to the U.S. I preprogrammed the sequence of phone numbers and access codes into the computer beforehand, a string of 48 numbers, but at first it fails. A store manager comes over and recognizes the problem. He adds another five numbers to the front of my 48 to give us an outside line and the call goes through successfully. Fifty-three digits in a phone number; that's a new record for me!
Next Day Table of Contents