Chapter 3. Veracruz
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.
(Bert) "Don't find trouble, find happiness" is Jack's motto this noon. That was put to the test by afternoon. Even with all the improvements in the road south of Tampico, driving is tedious. Paying attention to the uneven highway diverts me from scenery watching. Nonetheless, I take note of the rolling rural land, mostly untilled former forest with remnant patches of trees, now expansive ranches. Scattered palms, a few flights of Red-lored Parrots, and roadside flowers in January give it a touch of the tropics. Our first problem - second if you count John and Joanne's slide that wouldn't collapse into their RV this morning - is a burst hose on our Tailgunner Larry's truck. The caravan continues on, but later waits at a Pemex for him to catch up with us after he fixes the hose and adds antifreeze. Because we stopped to buy oranges in a village lined with orange vendors, our delay is only about the same as an extra rest break. No problem. We tighten up our caravan for the trek through congested Poza Rica. Shortly after I pass the heart of the city, Maggie announces over the CB that they have had an accident
(Shari) I was going to write about the sounds, sights and smells of the day, but all that pales in comparison to the events. First John's slide will not close, second Larry breaks a hose to his radiator, third Steve is still not feeling well, and fourth a car hits Russ and Maggie. I will focus on the later since Bert takes the caravan to the campsite while Edie, Larry, Marlene, Russ, Maggie and I deal with the problem. Warning the group that Poza Rica is a bear of a town to get through because of its congestion and stop and go lights, I never dream of an accident. As we slowly thread our way through people, cars, topes, buses, bicycles, people, stop and go lights and more people, we give directions as we make our turns and stops. About ¾ of the way through the city, Maggie's voice on the CB mentions that they have been hit by a car and are pulling over. We cannot believe it is one of ours and want confirmation. Confirmation is forth coming and our next goal is to stop the caravan in a safe place. We find a nice empty curb not far ahead and pull over to await more news, however a military man tells Edie we cannot park there. Bert decides to unhook the car, send me back (Edie graciously offers to accompany me) and take the caravan ahead to the next stop. Edie and I turn on our CB and hear Marlene saying something about following the police to the hospital for Maggie. My stomach gets all churned up and I worry now also about how serious this accident is. We keep in intermittent CB contact with Marlene and wonder if we missed them altogether as we drive through the congestion following the street we think she said. Finally I have them in sight ahead and soon they turn in front of the police station. Upon our arrival, we find Russ and the other driver explaining the accident to the police officer. A nice young man named Rafael (he turns out to be only an eighth grader) is sent out to help when his grandfather sees us and wonders if we might need a translator. Sticking with us the whole afternoon, until we are safely on our way again, he asks and answers questions for us. He will not even accept the 70 pesos I offer him for his help but he gives Marlene and me big hugs. Rafael is a member of a powerful family in Poza Rica; his father owns the hotel next to the police station and his uncle is the doctor who works on Maggie taking x-rays, giving her a sling to wear and prescribing pain medication for her bruised arm. After the insurance adjuster comes and makes his report, Russ gets his driver's license back and we are cleared for departure. We are told we are free to go and we boogie out of there at 4:30. I think we will have plenty of time to get to the campsite before dark. After all, how long can it take to go 40 miles? First we have to negotiate the town of Poza Rica again, with its people, bicycles, cars, trucks, people, traffic lights, signs, three lanes of cars on an unmarked street for two lanes, and more people. Then it is up the mountain and down again, winding around hills in the tropical forest of palms, orange and banana trees following slow moving trucks unable to pass, but having kamikaze drivers pass us. It takes forever. Darkness descends and the fog starts to roll in from the gulf but we are still 20 miles from our campsite. Let's keep on trucking I think and keep the spirits up. It has been a long day. Edie talks on the CB to Russ, who is behind us (we have Maggie in the car with us since the passenger door of the truck won't open) and Marlene and Larry are behind Russ. About four miles from the campground we try to raise someone on the CB. It is so dark, I am afraid I might miss the turn. I cannot tell you how relieved I feel when I hear Bert's voice and see a flashlight waving in the misty darkness ahead. We let everyone know all is well, Bert makes a batch of margaritas just for us and Larry and Marlene join us in R-TENT to unwind from the stress of the day. I want to mention how great everyone cooperated. Edie, our translator, Larry and Marlene dealing with a whole day of problems and Russ and Maggie living the uncomfortable Mexican nightmare are all thankfully gracious, adventuresome, patient and calm personalities.
(Bert) Shortly after I pass the heart of the city, Maggie announces over the CB that they have had an accident. Although it sounds minor over the CB, reporting an accident in Mexico is complicated. Finding a wide boulevard with enough room to pull off the remnant caravan, I stop to unhook the Pathfinder so that Shari and Edie can return to the scene and help Larry and Marlene who are already there. Meanwhile I lead the caravan the remaining 40 miles to our seaside campsite at Costa Esmeralda - Emerald Coast. We enjoy a margarita party with snacks provided by Joanne, but I miss the rest of the caravan and it is with great relief that I hear Marlene calling on the CB later. Already well past sunset, I run to the highway with my flashlight to show them where to turn into the darkened campground. Bodies and RV's intact, they are welcomed back by the group of fellow travelers. We didn't look for trouble today, but some found us anyway. Happiness is shared in that all has been resolved.
(Shari) I suspect the caravaners are nervous about taking an unlogged route around Veracruz. But I remind them that all the routes were new to me last year and this may turn out to be an adventure. The new route bypasses the city congestion and is a piece of cake to negotiate. The biggest problem of the day is topes and slow trucks. I never thought I would be thankful for that. The road meanders through countryside with no big towns but numerous small ones with one or two topes each. We stop for lunch alongside a schoolyard full of children playing ball or huddling under a tree gossiping. Soon we catch glimpses of the sea framed by rolling hillsides and curves. As soon as we arrive at camp, the beach beckons many people and they sit on lawn chairs under the palm trees to enjoy the view while I settle with the office and have Mr. Lee come retrieve our wash. Meanwhile another young man, who I am unfamiliar with, offers to take wash to the Lavanderia and bring it back tomorrow. Some people use him and others wait for Mr. Lee. Meanwhile a third gentleman comes to take wash. I hope all the wash gets returned tomorrow. For dinner tonight, we find a wonderful restaurant across the street from the hotel. Seven or eight couples enjoy various seafood entrées and each and every one of them proclaims their meal delicious. Bert orders Pompano Verzacruz and I order shrimp steak, shrimp compressed and wrapped with bacon. Simply delicious! Upon our return, I am tempted to stay outside since the atmosphere is tropical, the stars are shining, and the lights of the city in the distance are reflected off the peaceful water. Instead I go to bed lulled to sleep by the waves hitting the sand outside R-TENT.
(Bert) We follow the coastline south through flatlands of cane fields, sprawling ranches, rounded sand hills and more sharply edged rocky mounds, the light blue sea often visible at a distance. Miles of pretty coastline are unpopulated, but along the highway we encounter little villages every few miles, each concomitant with at least two topes, bigger towns with six or more topes, the effective speed bumps that slow all traffic to almost a dead stop. Lane, the manager of the RV park we left this morning, showed us a new route that bypasses the congested traffic of Veracruz. We take the route around the city and then swing back northward along the coast for the last few miles. Our campsite is a grassy area just off the sandy beach in the heart of the city. Most of the group take advantage of the setting and gather on lawn chairs under the palms, soaking up the view of waves curling on the beach and enjoying sea breezes cooling a warm day. We join others for dinner at a wonderful restaurant across the street, Shari and I splitting meals of Pompano Veracruz and shrimp steak, both delicious. As I fall asleep tonight, I can hear the murmur of waves rolling over sand.
(Bert) As many of you readers know, Shari and I write our journals separately, without discussing beforehand what we will write about. Typically, our journals reflect the highlights of the day from our individual points of view. Today's is unusual in that our memories of the day are virtually identical.
(Shari) Turn left at the next street. Turn right at the next street. Turn left at the next street. Turn left at the next street. Turn right at the next street. Drive around behind the cathedral on the left side. Turn right around the backside of the cathedral. Turn left onto the street that passes by the right side of the cathedral. With directions like that it is a wonder that we do not get lost more than once. I am going on a half-day birding trip and bringing Pat, Doris and Maggie home with me after lunch. Bert thought I would like this trip but I think it is a bit too long a drive just to see a coffee plantation and impatiens growing in the wild. Of course the birders are in 7th heaven with all the new species that they can see. Next year I think I will go to downtown Veracruz for the morning and sit in my lawn chair at the beach in the afternoon. Before we arrive at the birding site we all notice an unusual mountain that appears to be covered with snow. At our rest stop, I try to determine if in fact it is snow, but the two people I ask have no idea what I am talking about. I do not think they know what snow is even though I say the Spanish word "nieve" correctly.
[After posting our journals to our readership, Bonnie replied with this helpful information: "The mountain is Orizaba, second highest mountain in North America. What you thought was snow was probably a glacier near its summit. Orizaba is rarely visible from the coast except in winter. You had the same view that Cortez and his crew had in 1519. They were impressed too." Several months later one of our Alaska trip readers corrected Bonnie's information. Larry stated, "Mt. Logan, which you recently passed in Kluane National Park in the Yukon, at 19,520 ft beats number three Orizaba (or Citlatepetl) which is 18,700 ft. That's if you don't count the other peaks at McKinley and Logan. The purists rate Orizaba 6th, after McKinley South Peak (20,320 ft), Logan Central Peak (19,520), Logan West Peak (19,470), McKinley North Peak (19,470) and Logan East Peak (19,420). Seventh is Logan North Peak (18,270), 8th - Saint Elias (18,010), 9th - Popocatepetl (17,890) and 10th - Foraker (17,400). Mount Logan is in Canada, which is probably how it was overlooked. Or perhaps Orizaba has grown 820 ft - it is a volcano and my info is dated.]
We also see an interesting little town, Amatlán, that not many other Americans get to see. Typically Mexican with a zacolo in the center, it is anchored by a beautiful pink stucco cathedral built in 1753. After lunch at the birding site, the four of us women start back home, stopping at the cemetery and cathedral for pictures. Mexican cemeteries are full of headstones, statues and colorful plastic flowers and this one has goats bleating between the stones as well. As we chatter about our children, books we've read and movies we've seen, the miles slip by and soon we are home. I need a nap this afternoon, but it is not meant to be. Every time I lie down, someone knocks on the door. The wash has arrived and few are here to accept it. Trying to help match owners with wash, I end up paying for four people who are still out birding. Bert returns around 5 PM and I listen to the stories his group has to tell before returning to R-TENT to make dinner and an early bedtime of 9.
(Bert) Amatlán is a favorite birding site of mine. Even when birding is slow, the lush habitat is filled with curiosities that attract my attention. In the montane shade-grown coffee plantation, a few workers traveling by foot or horseback from the nearby village come to collect wood or perform other labors higher up on the steep hillside. Some red, aging to black, beans are on the coffee plants, but it is not near harvest time yet. Brightly colored pink, yellow and white flowers interspersed between gray rock formations surround the coffee plants and all is shaded by a high canopy of the red-barked Gumbo Limbo and many other species of thick-trunked trees, some ensnarled by strangler fig vines and supporting profuse bromeliads. Gilford says that these large trees often support tons of vines and other plants. Small clusters of 4-in. green bananas hang from trees reaching mid-story. Hundreds of Janais Patch butterflies flutter nearby; a field of black, dotted with white, surrounds their bright red-orange patches on hind wings. Nelda spots a Blue Morpho butterfly and we watch this magnificent and extremely large butterfly pass by, its electric blue light glittering as if powered by miniature batteries. We leave Woody sitting on a rock, holding Penny on a leash, and when we return to that spot he tells us a Gray Fox came to within a dozen feet of him, giving a surprisingly close view. John reports seeing an unidentified weasel that we'll check the book for later (it turns out to be a Long-tailed Weasel). The forest is peacefully quiet, except for the almost constant twittering and calling of birds that are much more easily heard than seen. Their appearances are often brief and fractional as they search for food among a profusion of leaves high in the canopy. They are often almost straight above us, making birding a neck-breaking experience. Among the highlights today are three species of Euphonia - Scrub, Yellow-throated and Elegant - Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Yellow-winged and White-winged Tanagers. Among the hummingbirds we add Little Hermit, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and White-bellied Emerald, but the Wedge-tailed Sabrewings are the most common. A boisterous flock of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas is a life-bird for many. For me the favorite of the day will have to be the Elegant (also called Blue-hooded) Euphonia. Not only is it beautiful, but also it is my second life-bird of the trip.
(Bert) Old sand dunes, covered with short grass or sometimes cactus, mound high on both sides of the road. Given the strong winds we contend with today, it is easy to understand what caused the dunes. We are again following the Gulf coastline south. Whitecaps paint white dashes across a blue sea; waves curl high at the beach. Tall, brown-edged green grass blows beside the road, tree limbs sway, leaves spin and our motorhome rocks. We approach a dark sky that later turns to light rain, something we saw very little of in our past two years in Mexico. Even though in miles we have a short drive today, by the clock we have a long day. A serpentine road through low mountains, Los Tuxtlas, as well as slow moving trucks that are difficult to pass on the narrow road slows us. Cane-burdened trucks defy gravity. To hold their cargo, these large trucks have high walls, 8-10 ft. on a side, but above that is a pick-up-stick arrangement of another 8 ft. of cane stalks. Fallen cane litters the highway and each time I meet a cane truck coming toward me, I wonder if the wind will blow the stack over our vehicle. We arrive at Catemaco and arrange our vehicles in a shaded parking lot and long a tree-lined alley in pretty surroundings adjacent to Lake Catemaco.
(Shari) Guess how long it takes to travel 101 miles? We make our first stop not 20 miles out of Veracruz at the pineapple town. Although not as many stands in the area as last year, we find one with a wide pull off for the whole caravan. This is the third time I have noticed fewer roadside stands than last year. The first day I did not see even one stand selling the flowers of the yucca plant that was so prevalent last year. Used raw in salads and cooked like cabbage, yucca is a popular food item and is a poaching problem on government lands in the U.S. Later in the trip we saw fewer orange stands and now fewer pineapple stands. I wonder what is going on. After we get our fill of bargaining for pineapples (2 pineapples for $1.65), we return to the vehicles for the CB check. About 40 miles later, we stop for a scheduled rest. The road is really broken up, worse than last year, and the going is slow and tedious. We continue through thick forest, winding hills and small towns with topes. Stopping again only 20 miles from our destination, we wait for the caravan to regroup before entering town and negotiating the many turns. Our plan was to get the group off the highway as quickly as possible, sending the smaller units towards the lake, the bigger ones to the lot, and the medium ones behind the office. We arrive close to 1 PM, 4-1/2 hours after our departure, however it takes another 90 minutes to park. Unbelievable! Four other campers are here and have taken a good half of the area behind the office and half of the area by the lake. Plan B goes into effect and we squeeze all of the rigs into the lot. Meanwhile the owner of the other park comes here waving a contract in her hand and chattering a mile a minute. The tone of her voice indicates a problem I had better not ignore. Apparently, we are booked at her place. I had talked with our office about that a few days ago and was assured, we were scheduled to come here. After parking everyone, Bert and I go to the other park and try to settle things. The tourist agent from the town is there to translate for us and she shows us the contract and says she has talked to our office. I begin to wonder if I am suppose to tell my people they have to move and come here. Finally I must have hit on the right word. I say the contract is a mistake. She agrees and says there is no problem and hopes we enjoy our stay. After leaving them, we call the office and discover that a new contract had been sent canceling us. Well, why didn't they tell me that? Anyway all is fixed and we enjoy margaritas again tonight. The weather is cool and Steve is all bundled up in a knit cap and hood. Everyone else, including me, are wearing jackets. I say let's bottle this temperature and take it with us, because we will need it later.
(Bert) "Lovely Cotinga," announce Jack and Monica, ringing enchanting music to a birder's ears. We ask where; they give directions. I take the car to pick up Tom, who went the other direction, and we head to the site. Woody and Gwen are already there at the side of the rocky path considered a road. Woody tells me he first saw the bird at 3 o'clock (an directional orientation, not a time) on the big tree in the middle of the grassy hillside above us. We begin our vigil as the other birders join us. Meanwhile, other birds pass beside us: a half-dozen Groove-billed Anis, a mixed flock of Rose-throated Becard, Black-crowned Tityra, Masked Tityra and Band-backed Wrens. Earlier we found a good number of other specialties, including Montezuma Oropendola, the suffuscus (red throated) form of Black-headed Saltator, and the awesome Keel-billed Toucan. Green parrots fly by in pairs or threesomes, but always too high and distant to see identifying field marks. Men on horseback, little pickup trucks loaded with passengers, workers in other rickety trucks bounce along the rocky road. I'm sure they wonder why a dozen gringos wait at the roadside in an area an hour's drive from any population base. "Lovely Continga," exclaims an unknown voice, and we all point our binoculars at 3 o'clock on the big tree. Even at 150 yards, the cotinga glows like a neon light, an electric turquoise-blue robin-sized bird with purplish throat and belly patch. Patiently the cotinga waits while I fix my spotting scope on him and we all get full-frame views of this magnificent gem. On our return trip to Catemaco we stop often to see more birds, the group becomes spread out and birds are so plentiful that I'll have to check with others later to complete my species list for today. I'm sure the list includes many life-birds for our birders, among them: Golden-olive Woodpecker, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, White-fronted Parrot and Collared Aracari.
(Shari) The day starts better than it ends. Joanne organizes an exercise walk around the grounds, stopping at Bob and Helen's to sing Happy Birthday to Bob. After our walk we have coffee and stolen at Joanne's and talk "ladies' things." My pleasant afternoon soon ends when the birders return. Whatever was the cause, the result is that three of our RV units have damaged converters. Apparently a surge went through them and now they are toast, literally. I see the smoke coming from Woody's unit myself. We do some brainstorming and decide to wait until morning to make a final decision. Without converters, 110-volt current cannot be used to charge the batteries to run 12-volt appliances. What remains to be seen is if the truck can charge the batteries as we drive or if the 110-volt current can be run directly to a unit. The units are not dead in the water, but sure are limping and I feel awful about it.
(Bert) This time it is "Sungrebe" that I hear over the portable radio from Don and a repeat message from Edie on another radio. Both of their boats zero in on the much sought-after species, but when we arrive only a couple of minutes later, the bird has drifted back into the mangrove forest that edges the river. We may have missed that species, but our boat certainly saw many others during our trip at Laguna de Sontecomapan. Best perhaps is the pair of Gray-necked Wood-rails we see at close range. The deep shadows of the overhanging trees and the obscure tiny mudflat carved into the edge of the river hide these two from birders in the other two boats, but our driver spotted them and tapped me on the shoulder. He backs up the outboard motor and places us directly in front of the feeding wood-rails. They continue unconcerned as we observe and photograph them. Overcast skies and occasional light rain may add a small discomfort to us, but the overwhelming advantage of seeing tropical birds well into the day is appealing. Our boat lists 63 species and the other two boats add 8 more for the morning and early afternoon. Birds aren't the only attraction. Equally rewarding is the lush mangrove forest, the profusion of flowers - Opampo, Spider Lilies, many more - the young men diving for fish or some other prize in the crystal clear water, the vivid butterflies including five Monarchs that surprise me and the stories told by William Schaldach, notable biologist, who is our guest for the day.
(Shari) I never did get a chance to write a journal yesterday. I think I just needed some down time without anything to do. Lee and I made a bargain. He would take Pat and me shopping if I would take him to the LP gas place. What a deal, I think he got the raw end of the stick on that one, but don't tell him. Pat and I just browsed the shops along the waterfront and I bought a cute little tambourine for Maddie and a beer mug for our collection. Pat bought a beach dress and ended up with two. So I took the extra one for just $3.30. I can just about throw it away for that price. Later Pat, Lee, Woody, Gwen, Larry, Marlene, Bert and I went out for dinner at the restaurant at the resort. I had the same garlic soup and neat fish dish I had last year when here and it was just as tasty. Today, I spent the day making out the accident report form, gathering information on model numbers of converters to have sent to Cancun for those that had theirs "fried" and getting ready for our 5 PM potluck. The tables by the lake and pool are a perfect setting for dinner. The beauty of the scene with an ever-changing lake, rimmed by mountains in the distance, and rippled by the occasional tour boat and fishing boats with men casting their nets, cannot be beat. Our food is set on the tables and we have arranged ourselves with our left hips against the table, waiting for the word to dig in. In this fashion everyone gets served at the same time and no one is at the end of the line with emptied dishes. Darkness starts to descend by 6:20, but people still linger, not wanting to spoil the spell cast by the beauty of the scene and the contentment received from eating delicious food.
(Bert) I have a fascination for imagining what a place looked like before man has interfered with the environment. I'm sure Willy Schaldach only has to think back to the time he was a young man to recall Lake Catemaco nestled in the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas. Now, only a small fraction of the native forests remain, the lake is polluted with silt running off the mountains, making the waters shallow. He says most of the changes occurred since the 1970s and even though this area is designated as a Biosphere, the degradation continues because there are no funds or police to put teeth to the preservation laws. Willy tells me that since I saw him last year, a foundation has been created in his name, the purpose of which is to preserve this area and they are now seeking grants to fund the preservation efforts. Today we bird around the northern edge of the lake. At a marshy area we find Least and Pied-billed grebes, herons, jacanas and at one point I have both a Yellow-crowned and a Black-crowned Night-Heron in the scope at the same time. The marsh is choked with floating water plants, many in bloom with bottlebrush violet flowers. Along the Coyame Road near the forest edge we find Collared Aracari and a Yellow-olive Flycatcher. At La Jungla we walk on a ragged red lava stone road through a dark forest and judging by the gigantic trees, this area is probably a good example of what the whole of the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas must have resembled. The flying buttresses of the giant trees are big enough to garage my convertible. The dense canopy blocks out the sun, trapping the moisture so that we are swimming in humidity. During most of our two-third mile walk the forest is silent except for distant birds. Then we come upon a boisterous flock of orependolas and jays that attract a few warblers as well. We had hoped to reach the lakeshore, but eventually turn back and get the car to finish the one-mile trek through the pristine forest. At the small resort beside Lake Catemaco we look out at the broad lake. To my amazement, out in the center of the bay floats a Sungrebe. Given my previous observations of this species in dense mangrove swamps, often seeking shelter among the overhanging limbs, I am unprepared for seeing the Sungrebe floating serenely in open water.
As I often do, I am writing this account early in the morning of the following day. Now at 5:45 AM, I have my motor home window open and it is still pitch black outside. I just heard the soft two-word "wook wook" call of an owl and one I'm sure I can identify. I turn on the CD in my computer and move to the species to play its call. The Mottled Owl outside responds to the recording of its electronic equivalent.
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