Chapter 6. Quintana Roo
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.
(Bert) "We can stay longer. We can stay until the Shari-police come to get us," I tell the group gathered in front of the fruiting trees in the abandoned wayside along the Cancún cuota road. We've been here an hour already and have barely moved a dozen feet from our view of two small clusters of trees. In that short time we've identified over two dozen bird species hidden in the few trees: Black-cowled and Orchard Orioles, Yellow-breasted Elaenia, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Painted Bunting and many more. Not five minutes later, from over my shoulder I hear Shari's voice announce, "Time to leave." Like school children called in from recess, we trudge back to our vehicles to continue our drive from Piste to Cancún. The first hundred miles was on wide and smooth 4-lane toll road, where we traveled at the mind-boggling fast average speed of 60 mph, the fastest we will achieve in our Mexico travels. Now at the end of the cuota road, we decelerate to our more typical 30 mph as we enter the outskirts of Cancún, then continue at a snail's pace through the crowded streets, stopping frequently for traffic lights and pedestrian crossways. Like a recurring bad dream we hear over the CB of another accident in the caravan. Cecile informs Nelda and Gilford that their RV has been hit from the rear, although neither of them was aware of the mishap. With nowhere to pull over, the rest of the caravan continues to our campsite, leaving Larry and Marlene to help Nelda and Gilford. After the rigs are safely off the road at the trailer park, using the Pathfinder Shari and I double back the four miles to the accident site. By now everything is under control and most of the reporting process is complete. Two motorcycle officers and two insurance adjusters are filling out forms and snapping pictures. The other driver is cited for failing to maintain adequate distance between vehicles. I'm impressed with one of the young officers whose grandfather came from England and passed on excellent English to his grandson. With a doctor's best bedside manner, using the King's English, the officer explains the paperwork and the procedural options that Gilford has for getting his fifth-wheel repaired here or in the states. The police and insurance adjusters are courteous, efficient and thorough, characteristics typically not attributed to them in the many stories and half-truths we hear of Mexican encounters with police. They have succeeded in turning an uncomfortable situation into yet another story to tell about traveling in Mexico.
(Shari) We hear Cecile's voice on the CB saying something about some car hitting something. We are only four miles from the campground in Cancun, with no place to safely pull over a caravan. Our tailgunner at first says that Nelda and Gilford's awning is broken and then that they need Edie to translate, but they drift out of CB range and their voice cuts out. It seems to take forever to finish going these last miles. Stoplights, topes out the gazoo and people darting across traffic just everywhere. Finally we turn in, tell everyone to park themselves and get on our way back to the scene of the accident. By the time we arrive, everything is just about finished. The policeman speaks good English, and we are told that a car hit Gilford on the traffic circle. It is only a fender bender, thank goodness, no one is hurt and soon we are on our way. After that I am just not interested in even leaving the campground today and we decide to eat steaks for supper and later watch a movie on the VCR. I take advantage of the good electricity here, and do two loads of wash also. As I walk around camp I notice most everyone is staying home tonight.
(Bert) My second annual pilgrimage to the land of Cancún-hotel-zone again confirms my dislike for that sort of vacation. If I wanted pampered living in glitzy surroundings, I need not leave the resort cities of the U.S. In Cancún-hotel-zone, English is the predominant language, the U.S. dollar is the currency, and American franchises are the hotels, restaurants and shops. Cancún-hotel-zone is a suburb of the United States. By contrast, I spend the morning birding along a hard-packed sand road with belching rounded heaves alternating between rain-filled potholes extending across the would-be road to Punta Gorda. Beside me are hardened dunes covered with cactus, palms and brush. Tourism has not touched this habitat, but it attracts Yucatan Vireos, Cinnamon Hummingbirds, Black Catbirds and Palm Warblers. I drive the rough road for six miles before turning around to meet Shari at the appointed time for us to visit Cancún-hotel-zone. Shari wants to eat brunch at one of the big hotels on the strip. By the time we arrive at noon, the Hilton has already closed down its buffet line, a second hotel evicts us as non-members and we settle on a poolside buffet at the Sheraton. Ample U.S.-style food is filling, but not fulfilling. Desserts are enticing, but tasteless. Least pleasant of all is the lunch bill - $49 for the two of us, including $2.50 for my short plastic glass of Coke and $3.75 for Shari's can of beer. We leave the glitz and drive into the city where after several circuitous attempts we zero in on Wal-Mart, a madhouse of natives and tourists driving bumper-to-bumper grocery carts through aisles stacked with everything from tortillas to Compaq computers and pretty girls hawking Superior beer. While Shari grocery shops, I get a $5 haircut at the shop embedded in the warehouse-sized Wal-Mart. McDonalds, Domino's, Internet Café, a travel agency and a dozen more resident shops are jammed with people. Only the optometrist stands idle, waiting for a customer. Although I make six passes through the aisles trying to find Shari and three runs through the gauntlet of two dozen checkout counters, I do not find her until she calls to me from behind. Finding her at Yankee stadium during the World Series might have been easier than in the crowd at Wal-Mart today.
(Shari) The Hyatt quit serving at noon. It is now 12:01 and the brunch buffet is already dismantled. The Sunset is for members only. We are batting 1000. Finally we settle on the Sheraton's lunch buffet by the pool. The setting must be worth half the price of the meal since our tab comes to over $44 plus tip. We did not expect that price when we sat down, but what can you do after you have eaten? We cannot tell the waiter we changed our mind and do not want the buffet after all. Chalk it up to experience and don't do it again next year. Guess we should have gotten up and going earlier because I think the breakfast buffet would have been fantastic. After eating, we take an unscheduled tour of Cancún looking for Wal-Mart. How did we get there last year? We must circle the same statue at least three times before we finally find the store. All of Cancún must be in the store, because the aisles are jammed with people and the bakery shelves are emptied as fast as they are filled. I hear and see so many obnoxious Americans. So many just approach the clerks and start speaking in English. If I worked there and did speak English, I would not admit it. For heavens sake, we are in another country. Of course things are not the same as at home. I want to just shake one woman and tell her to go back where she came from. I put my purchases in the cart and then stand in the check out line forever. Bert is waiting, but I bet not patiently. We take the alternate route back and find the road has deteriorated so much from last year that we cannot take the caravan on it. Cancún is not high on my list of places to visit in Mexico. Maybe next year we can skip it.
(Bert) A thousand garden hoses pour warm soft rain from the darkened skies above Cancún, transforming the gravelly chalk to white mud, tennis shoes to wet mops and raingear to drenched weights. By our 9:30 departure time, the angels turn off the faucets but Shari conducts our travel meeting via CB radio, rather than huddling together in the muddy parking lot. Threading our way thorough the city, we joke that it looks more like Venice than Cancún. Water stands idly in lakes crossing the back road, hiding potholes, median lines and curbs. Buses, taxis and RV's furrow wakes as they jockey for position to avoid the deep-water side of the tilted streets. Once clear of the city, it is smooth sailing on the 4-lane thoroughfare south to Paamul, a coastal village not shown on most Mexico maps. The campground, already overflowing with other RV caravans, has only the less desirable muddy, uneven, tree branch restricted, hard to maneuver sites remaining. Backing into the sites takes as long as today's travel time. By late afternoon everyone seems settled in, rested, fed and ready for an adventure. Off we drive to Xcaret, a showplace and microcosm of Mexican culture, heritage, entertainment and fun-filled activity. Shari and I head to the outdoors restaurant and claim a ringside table to the horse show, while we share a tasty mushroom appetizer and Mexican plate entrée. Then it is off to the ballgame, a recreation of the game the Mayans played for over a thousand years in over a thousand ball courts in Mesoamerica. We cheer whenever our team makes a goal - bouncing a 6-in. rubber ball through a vertically positioned stone hoop, using hip action only. From there it is off to the Folkloric performance, a dazzling array of music, dance and colorful costumes. I fill my 64-frame digital memory stick with photo impressions of the memorable event.
(Shari) Abandoning Marlene and Larry at camp to wait for the arrival of the converters, we depart for our destination on the Caribbean. Woody and Gwen act as our temporary tailgunners for the 60-mi. trip. It takes less than two hours to drive the short distance, but another two hours to park. The campground only has room on the newly opened soft, unleveled spots in the back. A big open hole in the road, where a group of men are working on the water line, presents a negotiating problem before the group can even start the process of backing into the spots. Only nine of us fit, even though there are supposedly 11 sites: one is too soft, one too small and uneven and one is nonexistent. Four of us "catch as catch can" any open site in the park, thereby creating a scattered group with potential communication problems. We decide to place the white board with the daily activities in the more central location of Don and Jean's rig. Grabbing a quick sandwich, I drive to Xcaret to establish the time and price of the entrance and shows. Our drive shaft disconnect pops out of gear five times on my way over there and causes me a great deal of worry. What if I get stranded eight miles from camp all alone? But I make the return safely, collect money for the show and for camping and tell everyone we will depart at 4 for the 6 PM ballgame, Mayan village tour and Ballet Folklorico. I again depart, alone, in the maybe broken car, to arrange for the tickets at the group rate. Twenty minutes later the rest of the group arrives and obtain maps of the park and wristbands for their entrance. Bert and I decide to eat dinner at the restaurant facing the horse show and watch the prancing animals as we share a Mexican plate. I remember that last year, the waiter verbally told us the amount of the bill and when we asked for a receipt he had added a tip into the total, perhaps hoping we would tip twice. That was no mistake last year because it happens again. As soon as I find this out, I rush over to the table where I see Don, Jean, John and Joanne to inform them of the practice. Sure enough, their waiter did the same thing. I jokingly tell John he owes me money and I'll split the difference with him. After dinner we make our way to the ballgame and watch again with fascination as two teams of six young men play the ancient game. With bare feet, painted faces, loin clothes and headdresses, they use only their lower body to maneuver a small rubber grapefruit size ball around the court. The whole game is played on two slanted walls with a hoop in the middle and the team getting the ball through the hoop the most times wins. Traditionally the winners were beheaded, but thankfully we are spared that part of the game. Afterwards the crowd walks through a Mayan village and to the large open-air theater for the best ballet folklorico I have ever seen. Over 40 people dressed in constantly changing brightly colored customs, entertain us with songs from the various states of Mexico. In addition, the entertainers include a group of older men doing the "old man's dance" and a very talented man on horseback who twirls a rope in ways that seem to defy gravity and other laws of physics. We return home at 9 PM with our appetites whetted for tomorrow's return to the park and it's other attractions.
(Shari) All morning Bert and I walk around Xcaret and see different things than we saw last year. The guidebooks give this place a bum rap, saying it is like a Mexican DisneyLand. That is not true. It is tastefully arranged, has many ecological, educational and environmental programs and does not involve rides, unless you want to call floating down an underwater river a ride. Everyone enjoys his or her day today and even Nelda, who does not know how to swim, floats the river. She says this is just the 4th time she has ever gotten her head wet; the first three were when she was baptized. What a trouper! Those who do not enjoy the water, walk around to see the butterflies, the stained glass, the turtles, the aviary, the flamingoes, parrots and macaws, the mushroom farm, the orchid farm, the horse show, the parade, the Papantla flyers, the aquarium, the dolphins, and the scenic beauty of the paths meandering through the tropical paradise to the sea with its white sand beach, beckoning hammocks, aquamarine water, and thatched palapas with lawn chairs. Even Bert and I, who do enjoy water sports, find things we missed last year, before we begin our snorkeling in the afternoon. Lining up behind a rope on the beach, we join a small group of people to watch the release of three turtles. At first the turtles do not know what to do, but given a nudge by the assisting children selected from the group, the turtles feel the water of the open ocean and soon paddle out to sea, freedom, and a whole new world to explore. After our picnic lunch in the car, we meet some of the group in the cafeteria and exchange stories of our day. Then it is snorkel time. This used to be my favorite activity in the whole world. Now, I am a little nervous about it. But my fins work and stay on my feet, my mask does not leak and a fish does not bite me. The protected waters of the bay afford a perfect location for the beginning snorkeler; the water is calm and in most places only four feet deep. Swimming in and around the coral and sand, I see easily 15 different species of fish; ones with yellow and black strips, pale yellow, black with iridescent blue tipped fins, shades of pink and purple. Reaching out my hand to touch some of the closer ones, they scurry away. The day is just perfect for the activity, since it is not too hot. The clouds keep the sun at bay and all can enjoy the park in comfort. A shower descends just as we finish our snorkel session, but hey, we have our swimsuits on anyway. All in all, this day is rated a 10 in my book.
(Bert) In slow-motion stop-action style the oversized butterfly flies through jungle foliage. Although technically a cage, the butterfly preserve is so large and so heavily planted - it even has its own 30-ft. waterfall - I feel as if I am in the wilds. Four-inch wings folded as it eats bananas, the butterfly looks like the cross section of a tree trunk, but with a giant eye peering from its hind wing. Hundreds of other butterflies flutter through the exhibit, making it one of my favorite stops this morning as we continue our visit at Xcaret. Billed as an eco-archaelogical park, Xcaret is entertainment skillfully blended with education. Having seen much of the park last year, we pick and choose either new activities or those we enjoyed the most. We see three turtles, raised at the park, being released to the sea. We watch dolphins in the air, on the surface, and underwater through special viewing tanks. A pair of jaguars roaming a realistic natural environment entertains us. We swim in a coral inlet seeing multicolored fish at arms length. And we rest under a leaky palapa when it downpours warm rain that splashes on the tidal pools.
(Bert) The hard pack road across from Jardín Botánico looks newly constructed, yet household trash liters both sides. Trash and beauty juxtaposed. The recent rains leave puddles in the potholes, yet the road surface is free of mud, making this wide thoroughfare through the forest ideal for bird watching while the sun remains low on the horizon behind us. Faster than we can call them off we see Olive-throated Parakeets, White-fronted Parrots, Rufous-browed Peppershrikes, Cozumel Bananaquits and a Yellow-backed Oriole. In fact, we list over thirty species before the gates to Jardín Botánico open at 9 AM. I talk to Luis, the manager of the botanical gardens, and he tells me he will open as early as 7 AM for us next time. Coming from the bright sunshine into Jardín Botánico Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marín - what a name! - is like reentering nighttime. The canopy of the lush forest almost excludes light and it traps the moisture, leaving the gardens cool but nearly 100% humidity. Botanist Gilford delights in the hundreds of trees, bushes, flowers and medicinal plants carefully labeled, classified and geographically defined. The rest of us are more attracted to the bird life. While following a mixed flock of warblers, one bird defies quick identification. With binoculared eyes affixed on the bird, the group lists field marks as I jot them down. To the birders in our readership, test your skills on these field marks: warbler size, pudgy fluffy profile, dark pointed bill, grayish head, faint blurred eye ring surrounding black eye, olive green back, white below with yellowish wash, short tail. I'll give the answer below. Mammals find the virgin forest, built up around Maya ruins dating to 1400 AD, a suitable habitat and an oasis from the ever-increasing coastal land development south of Cancún. We see White-nosed Coati climbing through the trees at two locations, a pair of Yucatan Squirrels chasing each other, two Central American Agouti browsing the forest floor and a Gray Fox creating uproar among the Brown Jays. The Agouti is a new mammal species for me. The size of a raccoon, the shape of a pig, the head of a rat, the color of a deer, the Agouti has been short changed with a mere 1-in. tail. Thinking the midday heat will preclude good birding, by noon all of us leave the gardens except Tom, Nelda and Gilford. We are wrong, for the stragglers chalk up an impressive list of species during a long walk through the forest. Among the birds we hadn't recorded earlier on the trip, Tom and Nelda see Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, Cape May and Kentucky Warblers, Royal Flycatcher and Rose-throated Tanager.
(Shari) I just understood a joke in Spanish and did not even realize that I understood it in Spanish for a few seconds. I count out 11,000 pesos in paper money and hand that to the manager. Then I still need to pay 16 pesos more in coins. When I give that to the manager, one of the bar waiters says to the manager, "Tu propina." I just laugh out loud, not realizing I understood that in Spanish. The waiter was telling him the tip was 16 pesos out of 11,000. It struck us all as funny. Many of you readers have asked what computer program I used to learn my Spanish. I have "Speak Spanish" published by The Learning Company. It contains 30 lessons with a workbook, vocabulary, stories, grammar lessons, and games of learning. I studied one lesson per week, making flashcards of the vocabulary, to reach the level I now have obtained. It is very basic and I feel like I speak like a two-year-old, but I get the job done. My vocabulary is very weak and I no sooner learn a word and two seconds later I forget it. I often quit studying and tell Bert my brain hurts. This is something he does not understand because his brain is never too full of learning things. I, on the other hand, like to rest my brain periodically and think of "fluff" or not think at all. At 4 PM we start the margaritas for the Valentine's Party. First we pair off and guess the number of candies in the jar, and then it is Bird Bingo with everyone crying fowl when Bert wins, and last but not least is the rhyming word game done in teams. At 5:30 the finger foods are brought out and we enjoy all sorts of goodies from chips and dips to Edie's delicious Chinese won tons and Maggie's centerpiece pineapple laden with goodies on toothpicks. I think the party is a success especially when Joanne has everyone thank Pat and me for organizing it. Even Lee gets a cheer.
(Bert) The answer to the bird test is Lesser Greenlet.
(Bert) There ought to be a color called Caribbean blue, a special classification for this particularly appealing shade of azure or turquoise, a color that has the allure of sand and sun, warm water with the slight stickiness of salt. Caribbean blue surrounds us as we ferry from Playa del Carmen to Isla Cozumel, an island we can see from the mainland, but still 50 minutes away by fast boat. City-sized cruise ships dock at the deep-water pier, discharging legions of tourists labeled with Norwegian stickers, their ticket for reentry. Shari, Pat, Lee and I make our way to the car rental agency and book two Trackers for tomorrow's birding group. Later from our seaside hotel we snorkel in the clear water, warm, but cooling compared to the afternoon heat. Walking the main street fronting the sea at night, the town is pure tourism: dozens of gem stores, T-shirt shops, restaurants and nightclubs. Here the clerks and waiters expect you to pay in U.S. dollars and will only accept Mexican pesos if we have correct change, since they have none. English is the first language; dollars are the second.
(Shari) The men wait patiently as Pat and I try on rings at the jewelry store. I ask how much the diamond and emerald one costs that I have on my finger. The clerk answers matter-of-factly, US$24,000. I gulp as I quickly take the ring off my finger. Pat, Lee, Bert and I are in Cozumel, arriving a day earlier than the birding people in order to arrange cars for the group. Two big cruise ships are moored at the dock next to our hotel, and obviously cruise people buy lots of stuff, including expensive jewelry, because every third store is a fancy jewelry shop. After arranging two cars for tomorrow's outing, we walk to the first hotel with a beach, The Barracuda. It is one Pat and Lee stayed at 30 years ago and it was under construction at that time. Now it is just a basic hotel, adequate for our needs but still pricey at US$94 including tax. Upon arrival we don our bathing suits and snorkel masks to test out the waters right in front of our rooms. Steps lead to the water and immediately, if not millions, at least thousands of tiny fish, reminding me of neon tetras, swim around me. I paddle out beyond the pier and see hundreds of yellow and black-stripped fish. I am so fascinated by all the fish that I forget my fears to enjoy the marine life viewed through my goggles. After showers, with coupons in hand, we enjoy a progressive dinner. First we stop at La Mission that offers free drinks and guacamole. In addition to the drinks, we order soup and shrimp appetizer. Then we walk next door to Las Cuscos where Bert and I share the main course, a wonderful fish cooked in paper with a mustard sauce. No room for dessert, we walk back to the hotel anxious to see what the island has to offer tomorrow.
(Bert) I begin to think that my carefully laid plans for arranging early morning rental
cars are running afoul. At 6:50 no one is at the rental booth. I knock on the doors of a
few apartments where the two rental agents presumably live, but no one is awake. At 7 the
recently disembarked birders arrive. No sooner do I explain the situation, than Jorge and
Henry pull up with the two Trackers. We keep the canvas convertible tops down and head
cross-island in the cool, but dampness, of the early morning. At the San Gervasio ruins I
get a life bird immediately after we pile out of the Trackers. A Smooth-billed Ani, a
species I've missed in Florida and I missed last year at Cozumel, is calling from atop a
short tree in the parking lot. Soon we see Stripe-headed Tanagers, a beautifully descript
name that AOU changed to a much less appreciated moniker - Western Spindalis. Golden
Warblers perch proudly in red-striped vests and tip their heads to show their red toupee
and then sing grandly to identify with other Yellow Warblers. Looking strikingly large for
a hummingbird, Green-breasted Mangos zip between flowers, sometimes giving us a glimpse of
their purple tails. And to round out the first 15 minutes of birding, we get a great view
of the gaudily painted countenance on a male Yellow-faced Grassquit. As we wander through
the ruins the birding continues to be top-notch for more than an hour, highlighted by
Cozumel Wren, White-crowned Pigeon, Cozumel Bananaquits, Gray-collared Becard and dozens
of Black Catbirds. The ruins of San Gervasio are different from others we have seen thus
far in that many are reconstructed with thatch-roofed buildings atop the stone stages.
Also, the great span of years is impressive, earliest ruins dating to the early classic
period of 300-400 AD and others, like the Big House structure, dating to the Terminal
Classic period (1000-1200 AD) and some additions dated as late as 1650 AD. Having
completed our walk along the stone streets of the Mayan city, we hear a loud, distinct and
varied birdsong in the distance. We follow it to its source, but for many minutes are
unable to find the bird in the large tree that we surround. Elsie Maria, a native lady
with a tolerable command of English, tells us the bird's name in Mayan and in Spanish, but
until we actually locate the Bright-rumped Attila we don't make the connection. Elsie
Maria then tells us that this bird is described on the 100-peso bank note. We dig into our
pockets and one of us has the note. There in extremely fine print, far too small for me to
decipher without a magnifying glass, is the inscription to the right of the portrait of
Nezahualcoyotl. Then without eyeglasses, see reads the poem to us:
Amo el canto del zentzontle.
Pajaro de cuatrocientas voces,
Amo el color del jade
Y el enervante perfume de las flores,
Pero amo mas a mi hermano el hombre.
Now as I transcribe these words, I use the better of my two magnifying glasses, this one usually reserved for examining tiny crystals. Either she had that poem memorized or she had incredible eyes.
(Shari) Not able to sleep past 6:20, I get out of bed and walk down to Pat's room. Bert has been gone an hour already. I find Pat sitting on a deck chair outside and we decide to grab some breakfast before we embark on our glass bottom boat trip. I have to agree with Pat when she mentions that it feels like she is playing hooky from school. We sure are having a vacation within a vacation. While riding in our boat, we see some of our group disembarking from the ferry and though we shout and wave a big towel, they do not see us. Our boat guide takes us to three snorkeling reefs off the coast of Cozumel. At the first one, Pat and I remain in the boat, content to watch the fish through the glass floor of the boat while our five young Italian companions snorkel. The captain feeds the fish tortillas and they surface close to the boat for us to get fantastic looks. At the next stop, I put on my goggles and jump into the water. Pat puts on a life preserver and her new goggles and jumps in also. Soon we both are bobbing around, faces downward peering at the sea life below us. We see hundreds of species of fish of all colors and sizes. Beautiful iridescent blues on black, greens, yellows, pinks, purples, whites, oranges and shades in-between. The best of all are the wonderfully colored stoplight parrotfish. We have just returned to the boat, and our captain taps me on the shoulder to look into the water. Eight to ten huge fish nibble tortillas on the surface. I ask our guide how many kilos? Two? Four? Six? He says 15 kilos. Goodness, that is over 30 pounds of fish. We enjoy watching their colors sparkle as they nibble at the food and are thankful we are not in the water with them. All too soon, our driver drops us off at the pier in front of our hotel. We rush to shower, change, check out and take a taxi to Pancho's Backyard, the restaurant where we are to meet the birders for lunch. Bert has been there for 30 minutes already and wondering where we were. We arrive with our stories to tell and Lee says we just had too much fun. Pat and I look at each other and when I mention that we have not even started to shop yet, we burst out laughing. After lunch we do shop our way back to the hotel, where we retrieve our bags, snag another cab and get out at the ferry dock for the 5 PM return trip to Playa del Carmen. We remark that 24 hours is not enough time to spend in Cozumel.
(Bert) Thicket Tinamou has been on the bird checklist for many of the sites we have visited, but finding this shy bird is another matter. In my previous trips to Mexico, only one or two birders were successful in seeing a tinamou and on each occasion the bird disappeared in the underbrush before any other observers could find it. Shortly after 7 AM, earlier than most times we've been allowed to enter Mayan ruins, our group is spread out around the forested periphery of a cluster of ruins when Pat points out a fat chicken-like bird walking slowly in front of her. Lee immediately identifies it as a tinamou and anxiously motions the rest of us to gather around them. Nearly invisible, yet only a dozen yards in front of us, the 11-in. brown bird melds into the brown background of underbrush. We get a good look at the bird, then while some signal the rest of our group, others pull out books to recheck differentiating field marks among tinamous. The bright red-orange legs restrict it to two possibilities. We seek out the bird a second time and confirm the extensive barring that marks this as a Thicket Tinamou. All fourteen birders with us this morning get a close-up opportunity to view the tinamou, a life bird for each of us. The Mayan city of Cobá was built around five lakes. The first of the ruins we see this morning are near the entrance gate at Lake Cobá, but Nohoch Mul and the big pyramid are more than a two kilometers from that site. A straight wide path connects the two, interspersed with ball courts and other ruins. Trees arch over the roadway, providing excellent cover for the many birds we see. In Howell and Webb's book on the birds of Mexico, Plate 39 has always fascinated me. The 17 species represented there are all tropical flycatchers, almost none of which occur in the U.S. Most of the birds display features that make a novice birder flip through dozens of plates before zeroing in on the correct family of birds. Today we find two of these unusual species. Descriptively named, the Northern Bentbill and Eye-ringed Flatbill have bills and eyes that catch attention quickly. So many birds interrupt us that we make slow progress toward Nohoch Mul. Gray-headed Tanager, Black-crowned Tityra, Tropical Gnatcatchers, Gray-breasted Martins give us pause. At one road intersection we are surrounded by the cuckoo-like chatter of at least four Black-headed Trogons, a rare gathering of so many of these exquisitely colored, long-tailed birds. After over three hours of walking, we complete the 2-km trek and stand in front of the enormous pyramid. With frequent pauses to catch my breath I climb to the top. A young boy announces 121 steps and it sure seems like that many on the steep stairs. From atop the pyramid, I can see the forest canopy below, stretching for miles. Only the cragged tops of other ruins break through the green blanket and far in the distance, near the coast, stretches high power electrical lines, perhaps 25-30 miles away. The ancient Mayans must have felt enormous power to have built a temple commanding such a view as this. Coming down the pyramid is harder than coming up. A vision of rolling down headfirst, bouncing on the steep rock stairs, keeps me cautious on the descent. On our return drive, another downpour of rain floods us and when at our campsite in Paamul yet another downpour drenches me as I try to refill our RV water tank. Last year we felt hardly a drop of rain; this year it is almost a daily occurrence in the Yucatán peninsula.
(Shari) This is the last opportunity I have to buy a woven wool rug to cover the worn spot on my sofa. I ask Joanne if she wants to join me in the shopping trip to the rug vendors down the road. Before we even park the car, the proverbial Mexican salesman, telling us to come into his shop since he has special prices just for us, accosts us. "Almost free!" he tempts us. This is most irritating to me, since I want to look at all the rugs before deciding on anything. But the culture is ingrained and he follows us from stall to stall making inane suggestions on the rugs I should look at. Finally I settle on a couple of rugs and begin the hassle of negotiating a price. Pricing on everything is never what you should pay, and my rule of thumb is to start with half of the offering price or less. I find a rug, marked $90 and I offer $35 (this one has a slight flaw). He of course says no and walks away. I walk away too. He comes back and asks how about $70. I say how about $40. We both walk away again. He comes after me into the stalls across the street and says he talked to his boss and his boss is going to make a special price just for me of $60. I say how about $45? He says $55 and I take him up on his offer. Probably we both make a good deal, since I would have paid $70 and he may have come down to $40. In any case, he has my money and I have his rug on my sofa and if I say so myself, it looks good. Later John, Joanne, Marlene, Larry, Bert and I travel to Leo's Pizza for the best pizza on the east coast of Mexico.
(Shari) "Let's try a scattered drive this morning," I say to the group. "Just travel with a buddy and never pass us." That is the plan, however it never materializes. All are out of the gate before the scheduled departure time, leaving Marlene and Larry in the dust. Our three buddies are not right behind us and so we wait. Meanwhile, a group of two passes us. As we travel down the smooth road with little traffic, we maintain a good clip of 50 mph. Sticks with shoes, bottles or pails impaled on their tops indicate footpaths through the jungle to some homestead or village, but we see few people. Our scattered formation transforms to convoy and all arrive at the campground within three minutes of each other. That is, except for Marlene and Larry. I wait at the roadside for 35 minutes, to indicate where the turn off is located. They arrive just in time to watch the last rig park. Good thing it is not stifling hot. Actually, stifling hot does not occur until I try to sleep tonight. It is so still outside that nary a leaf wiggles on a tree. In spite of two fans running off our inverter, the cooler night air just cannot make it inside R-TENT. I look at the clock and it is only 11 PM so I get up to read awhile. It is cooler up front and after an hour or so my eyes begin to close. I crawl back to bed and the next thing I realize, I am cold.
(Bert) Over the CB, John announces, "We have reached the halfway point of today's journey. The temperature is 82 degrees, the time is 11 AM, and our directional setting is due south." We have split into smaller groups for traveling and John is tailgunner for our foursome of RV's. Russ asks for our cruising altitude and when John has no answer I contribute, "178 ft. above sea level." Out of sight of sea, we are following the Caribbean coastline south by southwest along a ruler-edge straight road, level as the coastal plain surrounding us. Our path is a deep furrow through a continuous forest, somewhat like our road crossing the northern Yucatán peninsula. But here the trees are taller, my driver's seat position reaching only a third the distance to their crowns, and the vegetation is greener with much more evidence of recent rains. Sparsely populated, only a few small villages interrupt our 80kph speed on the smooth highway. At our destination we park between trees that spread their canopy over us, providing welcome shade from the sun. An easy walk from here is Lake Bacalar, an inland lake painted the same alluring color of the Caribbean.
(Bert) Like ants scurrying to and from their hill, dozens of taxicabs lumber over the rough terrain adjacent to the excavated road leading to this morning's birding site just outside the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto. The makeshift road is barely wide enough for one vehicle, yet we face an onslaught of cabs pointing in our direction. Finding cleavage on the steep bank, we hope we don't roll over or get stuck as we pass each other. A half-mile later we see the source of activity, an elementary school, where all of the youthful passengers disembark for the 7 AM start of classes. Passed the school, the traffic drops to zero along the narrow road that leads to few places besides the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Birding activity starts out reasonably good, but quickly decelerates as the sun heats the day under clear skies. Best birds this morning are a pair of singing Barred Antshrikes, a Yellow-bellied Elaenia and two singing Eye-ringed Flatbills. Alone, Nelda finds a woodcreeper that she cannot identify. But she records the song and plays it back to us as we sit in the car. Intrigued, we return to the bird site and Nelda replays the recording. Immediately two Yellow-billed Caciques swoop over our heads, threading their way through the dense understory. Part of the mystery is solved: the black grackle-shaped caciques must have been singing from the canopy while Nelda was observing a brown colored woodcreeper clinging to the side of a tree. But the specific identity of the woodcreeper remains unknown since it does not reappear. With a lull in bird activity, we head to another site, one that Lee and I stumbled upon last year. Here the orange orchard attracts a colorful variety of birds, many intent on poking holes into the fruit and partaking of the sweet treat inside. Among the rainbow menagerie are greens of honeycreepers, oranges of orioles, blues of buntings and grosbeaks, turquoises of jays, olives and reds of woodpeckers and yellows of euphonias and grassquits. In this hour and three-quarters before dusk, we find 38 species in the small orchard and adjacent pineapple field. We wish we had spent the whole day here and brought along our lawn chairs and lemonade.
(Shari) There is no need to get up before dawn to leave on a 5:30AM birding trip. I got more lifers than the birders just birding at camp. I have my lawn chair next to R-TENT in the shade and while I read my book, I watch the birds in the trees overhead. I see many Green-breasted Mango hummingbirds, a Black-cowled Oriole and lots of Orchard Orioles to add to my life list. In the afternoon, Pat, Marlene and I play a dice game called 5 Alive. It is Marlene's dice, Marlene's game, Marlene the scorekeeper and Marlene the winner. Now something seems fishy with that, don't you think? After 12 hours on the road, the birders return. We do not understand when they complain about the heat of the day, since it was very cool here at camp under the trees. We are forced to eat in tonight since we cannot find any pollo asada cooking in town and the restaurant down the hill closes at 6 PM due to mosquitoes. Using the generator to run the microwave, I thaw out a package of catfish from Texas, make some macaroni and cheese and a salad. It is nice to have plain food for a change again.
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