Chapter 8. Chiapas
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.
(Shari) In the darkness, I grope my way to the cabinet to find my cup and make some tea. Five AM is just an ungodly hour to get up, but we have a long day with a border crossing and 300 miles to travel. At 6:00 we are all ready to leave and we thread our way to the border. Miraculously the crossing is smooth, with little hassles at the three paper stations we must pass. First we pay our BZ$20 per person departure tax. A receipt is handwritten and our passports stamped. On to another little booth, to pay our BZ$7.50 per person conservation fee, where our passports are stamped again. The third and final stop cancels our driving privileges in Belize and again our passports are stamped and our vehicles checked to confirm their departure too. Finding each of our names in the logbook handwritten from two weeks ago, the clerk notes (by hand) that we are departing. What an archaic time-consuming system, especially when I'm tired with a headache. Finally, we can start our engines, show our paperwork and duly stamped passports to the border guard and then immediately turn around to give the same paperwork and Mexican Tourist Visas to another guard, along with 5 pesos for the car and 15 pesos for R-TENT, to enter the free zone. Gas is 30-40% cheaper in the free zone and some think it is worth the hassle to get it. Henry has arranged for the manager of the Shell station to accompany us into the free zone. With 16 bays and 16 men pumping gas, our caravan completes the task in less than 10 minutes. We have a small hiccup when Russ is told he cannot use his Belize dollars to pay for the gas. I find the manager and after a little ring around the rosy, he relents and allows Russ's Belizean money at the standard exchange rate. Off to the Mexican guard at their border, who looks at our paperwork, checks our vehicle sticker in the windshield and waves us on. Our last and final step of this border crossing is fumigation. We get sprayed from underneath, pay a 50-peso fee and are waved on. After confirming the whole caravan has made it safely across, we take off when the first three rigs have completed fumigation. We intend to travel scattered today, with a planned lunch stop at the Pemex noted in the log at mile 166. After 90 min. of driving a smooth, sparsely populated road, we take a small 10-min. break. No one is behind us and I begin to wonder if they made the turn or drove off, instead, in the direction of Cancun. But at lunch, the remainder of the group comes trickling in, anywhere from 20-35 minutes behind us. When we reach the campground at 3:50, Marlene and Larry arrive just an hour behind. I know people were concerned about driving scattered, but after their experience today, all I hear are good comments. The road was good, the scenery pleasant, and we had no problems. However, the campground is a mud hole owing to the unusual amount of rain. We tell the group to park wherever they can find a dry spot, an unlikely possibility. Meanwhile Bert has to go underneath our car, which I had parked at the front entrance to mark the turn for the group. Our transmission disconnect has broken AGAIN and now it must be pushed in by hand every time. I hope we can continue to do it, by hand anyway. Upon arriving back in the campground, I find some people still not parked. The electricity voltage is too high, ungrounded, reverse polarity or all three. Another caravan has the spots we used last year where we found no problems. Poor Joanne falls in the mud and then finds her cabinet opened and can goods are caught behind her slide. Everyone has some problem or another, but by 6:00 and a few margaritas, the mood has changed. It is safe for Marlene, Larry, Bert and me to go off to find some fruits, bread and inexpensive pollo asada. Four miles down the road, we stop at four shops lined up in a row and pick up a day's supply. It is good to be back in Mexico where the children smile, people are helpful and pollo asada can be found at every street corner. Yum!
(Bert) Border crossing goes smoothly and we jump all the legal hoops in little over an hour. This year we stop for gas and diesel in the free zone. Last year I attempted to do the same, but the gate attendants tried to take advantage of the caravan by upping the entrance fee to US$5 per vehicle. I refused to pay and turned the caravan around at the gate. A few days ago I learned from Henry that the two attendants were fired because of that incident. Today, Henry arranges for the manager of the Shell station to accompany me into the free zone. This time we are charged the normal rate of 5 pesos per vehicle (15 for my bus-like RV), only a tenth of the illegal charge last year. Gasoline in Belize is about US$3 per gallon. Gasoline in Mexico was US$2.27 (diesel US$1.96). Gasoline in the tax-free zone is US$1.62 (diesel US$1.23). For some reason I don't understand, the attendant gives me an additional 6% off the price on the pump. Topping off both of my half-full tanks saves US$52 against Mexico pricing. From the border we travel in scattered groups, through parts of Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco and then Chiapas, reaching Palenque by 3 PM. Here, rain makes a muddy campground and the electricity is ungrounded, reverse polarity and in excess of 150 volts, so I don't plug in my cord. Electricity is okay in some of the sites, but in ours I run the margarita mixer from an extension cord. Happy Hour takes the edge off the mud and electricity problems, and we look forward to the ruins and birding tomorrow.
(Bert) Palenque tops my list of favorite ruins. Perhaps it is the setting that appeals to me most, or maybe it is the variety of architectural design or it could be that we've found the temperature cooler here. Built on the foothills of a mountain range, from atop the high ruins I have a expansive view of lush Usumacinta basin below. Green lawns, flowering trees, wooded ravines, rushing streams and waterfalls add to the park like setting. Those visiting Palenque for the first time take a guided tour lead by Ernesto. The rest of us bird around the ruins and for a while Shari joins our group. Even as a non-birder, she gets excited by our first find, right after entering the gate. Feeding on the red blossoms, a Violet Sabrewing sparkles purple and green, with a flash of white in its tail. Surprisingly, the hummingbird allows close approach and I get photos showing a blur of wings. Other birds are tamer here also. I am most surprised at the full frame photos I am able to take of a Least Flycatcher. A petite 5-in. drab bird, this one is hard enough to find with binoculars, much less photograph at close range. While birding I meet two friends, Winfield and Pat, who are readers of these journals. We last met in Jasper National Park in Canada this summer. Later in the day we encounter Walt and Carla, fellow caravaners from our first trip to Mexico.
(Shari) Poor Don is torn between birding and going on the tour of the ruins. He opts to join Jean on the tour but we see him often with his binoculars up, facing away from the guide. He is a great guy to have as a birding partner because he is so patient and so good at explaining exactly where to look to see the bird. He also is not as fanatical about numbers and lifers as some people I know in my family. After arranging the details of the tour, I opt to join the birders. Yes, you read that right. It is cool enough for me, they have found a plum of a bird, and I think it might be a nice change of pace. Right off the bat we see a toucan. Soon after we have wonderful views of a Violet Sabrewing hummingbird and spend a good amount of time looking at its iridescent greens and purples and long curved bill. The jungle is so cool, pretty and green, especially with evidence of restored and unrestored ruins at every turn. I try to decide which of the ruins that I have seen are the best and I cannot pick one. Each is unique, but Palenque certainly is picturesque with its setting in the jungle and foothills of the mountains. Taking trails I never took last year, I follow Bert, Lee, Pat, Woody, Gwen and Tom and I try to get enthused about the different species. But, unless the bird is really unique, I forget its name as soon as someone tells me. After about two hours, Pat and I hang up the binocs and get out our purses. We are going to shop. I find some wonderful embroidered gauze blouses, woven placemats, and clay doves I intend to use for plants. Bert is going to have a fit, since the doves, when packed in a cardboard box, take up most of the storage area behind our car seats. When Bert and I return from our errands, we find good friends, Walt and Karla at camp. Not seeing them since last year at this time, you can imagine the catching up we have. We make arrangements for dinner and even though Steve, Cecile, Joanne and John do not know them, they are welcomed into the circle. (Lee, Pat, Gwen and Woody were all on our same trip with Walt and Karla back in 2000). Wonderful friends and wonderful food makes this day special.
(Bert) The road to the ruins switchbacks up the steep foothill. Volkswagen buses ferry vendors to the gate, passing us as we stand beside the road looking out over the valley. Wrens conduct the dawn chorus, but remain hidden, as does the Great Antshrike whose song Walt identifies. The call reminds me of the Barred Antshrike, but with an accelerating "bouncing ball" cadence and without the abrupt ending of the Barred's song. Our viewpoint gives us ringside seats to the colorful parade of tanagers, warblers and flycatchers flying through and over the vibrant undergrowth below us. Between yesterday morning and this morning I've seen fifteen warbler species, a count that rings more like migration than winter back home. Best of these is two sightings of Blue-winged Warblers, probably my year's allotment of this infrequently encountered species. For color though, the tropical tanagers are hard to beat. The bands of blood red around the neck and at the tail of the Crimson-collared and Scarlet-rumped Tanagers stand out against their black bodies, especially as they catch the early morning sunshine. As the day heats, we advance to the deep jungle trails cutting off from the road. A few seconds pass for my eyes to adjust to the darkness enveloped by the high and dense canopy of leaves. Completely surrounded by a choking forest, a rushing stream pours over rocks, tumbling down the steep hillside and making frequent waterfalls. Deep water stops our progress along the upper path, but on the lower one we tiptoe across the rocks, only getting wet the soles of our shoes. Here the path follows the border between deep woods and partially open grazing land. Borders are always good birding lines and we see our allotment today, including an assortment of flycatchers: Yellow-olive, Yellow-bellied, Dusky-capped, Great-crested and others. Gray-crowned Yellowthroat is a new bird for many; we find two in the grass clumps at close range. Later, while Walt and I are studying a Wood Thrush and Painted Bunting, Russ draws our attention to a rarer find, a Royal Flycatcher. Birding finishes at noon. Late in the afternoon Jerry and I drive into the Palenque to an Internet Café, one of many in this town that charge only about a dollar per hour. Yesterday, and now again today, finally I am successful at sending off these journals to readers. I have no idea what caused the page-fault errors on my many attempts at posting to egroups.com while I was in Belize, but I'm happy to see everything works here in Mexico. In fact, it takes a visit to Belize for me to recognize how much better off Mexicans are in terms of technology, transportation, housing and food.
(Shari) As soon as Bert comes back from birding, I tell him, "Let's move!" Ninety-three degrees in the shade at noon and I am cooked, baked and broiled to overdoneness. At the spot we now occupy, the voltage is too high, the polarity is reversed and there is no ground. Hence no air conditioner! So Larry checks an outlet on a site vacated this morning and in comes the slide, up go the jacks, and into a new spot we move. Ah, blessed air conditioning. We meet a lady at the restaurant tonight and she mentions that the last cold front was their 38th one this year. According to her, that is very unusual and everyone is freezing. I hope number 39 arrives tomorrow. Twenty of us meet for dinner at a very nice restaurant and I have a flaming entrée. I order a steak with a butter and brandy sauce and do not know that I also would get entertainment for the group. The steak is delicious and after a bite of Bert's stuffed fish of shrimp, squid, lobster, and octopus, I decide my choice is the better one. Bert orders a poached pear in wine sauce for dessert and from my sample it tastes just like its name. Everyone likes his or her choice and we drive home as a group, happy, full and ready for tomorrow's activity.
(Shari) "Walk all the way to the end or you have not experienced Misol-Ha," I tell the group. My little group of late risers left at 9 AM this morning and 8.9 miles down the road, low and behold we find the birders. They sure did not get very far in the three hours lead they had on us. As a group, we the remaining distance to the spectacular waterfall of Misol-Ha. To reach the end of the path, you must go under and behind the falls as it gentle falls over 100 feet above you. The neat part is getting wet. It feels wonderfully, sinfully cool as it mists onto your face and arms. "This is only the appetizer," I say. We have another stop some 35 miles up the mountain called Agua Azul, meaning blue water. And the river is truly a beautiful blue as it cascades over limestone waterfalls stretching upwards at least half mile. As soon as we get out of our cars, we are accosted by the vendors selling mostly bananas but also some sort of fried cookies and sticks of what I thought were pineapples but turn our to be jicama. I have about two rolls of Polaroid film that I want to use up and I snap picture after picture to give to the cute little girls. Soon I am the hit of the parking lot and have many little girls and their mother's too, clamoring for a picture. We eat our packed lunch at the grassy area besides the river and Bert buys one of the fried cookies. He pays 5 pesos and when I find out I am appalled since they were only 1 peso when we left the car. The woman that sold him the cookie recognizes me as her earlier photographer and gets an embarrassed look on her face. She motions me to take another cookie. She still made out on that deal. We walk the path up the waterfall and Bert looks at birds and I browse the many vendor shops. I do stop to look at the Green Honeycreeper. This group has turned into a big family. Pat realizes that Tom would really be sad if he missed this bird and starts to go back to get him. She hollers to Jack and Monica, who are on their way down, to tell Tom of the bird. Soon we see Tom, all red in the face from hurrying in the heat, quickly coming up also to see this bird. I have heard other caravans are jealous of us because we are having so much fun and getting along so well. Well, this is a special group. On our way back home, we stop for dinner three times. Once to get corn from a street person, another time to pick up bananas and some sort of cooked squash, and the last time for pollo asada. You would not believe the conditions of the place. At first the lone proprietor thinks we want to eat on the premise and begins to light his stove with a match to fry the tortillas. I tell him we want to take it home. He scurries around for a container and paper covering, cuts up the chicken, puts salsa in a bag, but forgets the beans. When I ask if the beans are in the bag, he assures me they are. I decide to look and I find no beans. I call him over and question him and he gets a good plate of beans and more tortillas. I had given him a 25% tip so he should have been embarrassed. When we get home, I have people knocking on my door handing me money and I feel like a drug dealer as I open the door, take the money and quickly close the door so as not to loose my air conditioning. I am collecting for our tour tomorrow that leaves at 6 AM. Ugh!
(Bert) "Oh, my God!" shouts Pat. "A real knee jerker!" exclaims Gwen. "Much prettier than the book pictures!" adds Nelda. By now other tourists have gathered around our group of birders, wondering what the excitement is all about. One overhears that its about a bird and almost dismisses the opportunity until she also catches sight of the Green Honeycreepers and shares the excitement. By now over a dozen people have left the path along the waterfalls at Agua Azul to stand beneath the spreading limbs of a large tree, all eyes trying to penetrate the dense and dark foliage to catch glimpses of the brilliantly green birds. Green, a common color of living plants, but a rare color in birds except for parrots, the honeycreepers are tanagers with uncharacteristically long thin curved bills well designed for picking at tree blossoms. When the commotion of the bird sighting quiets down, we resume our walk along the waterfalls, an amazing attraction in itself. Turquoise cascades roll over rounded limestone deposits, spilling in kaleidoscope patterns. Climb to the next embankment and the scene changes to yet another photographic opportunity. Earlier in the day we had another photo op when we visited the high falls at Miso-Ha. With the falls in the background, tall trees framing the edges and the smiling faces of a couple in our group positioned in the lower right corner, the resulting photo looks too good to be true. You would think it must be a photographer's backdrop, but it's the real thing. I take photos of each couple as they come along on the path to the falls and many hand me their cameras for a duplicate shot. Someday the photos will bring back the memories of a delightful day in the mountains of Mexico.
(Shari) I overhear the conversation from the back of the van and it sounds like one of those wedding showers where the maid of honor writes down everything the bride-to-be says as she opens her presents. Bob is trying to find his seat belt and Jerry is helping him. "I cannot find it. Here it is. I cannot get my arm there. The metal is too cold. That feels good." Once the giggles start, they are infectious and soon all thirteen of us are in stitches. We are on our way to Bonampak, a ruin close to the Guatemala border. We stop for breakfast at the only decent restaurant I see along the 3-hr. trip and have a buffet of scrambled eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, bread and watermelon. Upon reaching the ruins, we must exit our nice air-conditioned van and enter a stuffy hot taxi driven by a local Lacandon Indian to complete the 10-minute ride down the gravel road. Ever since I heard that the murals on the walls of the ruins were done in color, I have wanted to go back in time to see it. The ruins at Bonampak have three rooms where the murals are remarkably preserved in their living color and they are spectacular. Half life-size, people are depicted in colorful elaborate costumes, carrying torches, fanning an emperor, bowing to the king, etc. They seem to tell a story of war and tribute. We learn of the practice that the Mayans had of piercing their body parts and then passing a knotted cord through their tongues to "let blood." Apparently this can be seen on one of the murals, but I did not find it. Seeing these paintings alone is worth the 500 pesos per person for our excursion. But we get more in our tour and continue to Yaxchilan, another ruins that can be reached only by boat or small plane. Maggie and Russ remark how much like Thailand the boat and scenery looks. As we motor down the river in our thatched covered boat, we often cross the mid point and theoretically we must be in Guatemala. Bert, facing that country, starts a bird list, for heavens sake. I just sit and enjoy the scenery. The guidebook talks about alligators, boa constrictors, red-headed macaws and jaguars, but all I see is a troop of howler monkeys high in the trees. The ruins here are not all that spectacular but again they are unique, with elaborate reliefs carved from limestone slabs. After our boat trip, we enter a restaurant for a lunch of hot soup, chicken and rice and pineapple and melon. The meal is very tasty and we are very hungry, since it is close to 3 PM. Trying to liven the long ride home, we start a game of "I went on a birding trip and brought along my " Of course even we cannot stay serious playing that and start taking Alka Seltzer, Nelda, g-string (no, that was great binoculars), qualified bird guide (but where do we find one), Nelda's Mom and Marlene's uncle (hope they do not fool around) pants, etc. Later we start to name birds we have seen on the trip, alphabetically and that too helps time pass. We started this morning at 6 AM and end at 6 PM. We have had a wonderful day, a complete unplanned surprise. Scenery through the mountainous jungle was spectacular and the chance to observe the native people in this unpopulated rural area was unique and one not many travelers get the privilege to see. Thanks to Cecile, Maggie and Doris, who really wanted to make this trip, we had a serendipitous day.
(Bert) "Can you just imagine what this place was like in its heyday!" exclaims Tom. Murals, elaborately colored and ornate, fill every available inch of the walls inside the small rooms. Warriors, rulers, musicians and servants depicted in ceremony and great acts hint at meanings mired in mystery. We have visited many Mayan ruins where our guides have talked about painted walls and in a few places we have seen remnant chips of paint, but until today at Bonampak the drawings were only in our imagination. These Mayan ruins are in the most remote area we have visited. This morning at 6 AM we bordered our charter van and headed southeast to the Guatemala border. Our 90-mi. drive took us through verdant countryside, the lowlands partially cleared for grazing and a few crops, the steep hillsides still sheathed in dense forests. Like knots on a rope, along the paved highway a succession of villages barely consist of a handful of shacks. Were it not for the neatly lettered signs and the incessant topes, we would easily have missed the colorfully named communities: Nueva Sonora, Castillo Tielmon, Ejido Cascada, San Juan Chanchalida, Ejido Revolution and a dozen more. Nearing Bonampak the vegetation is virgin, the trees taller and less cleared. At the border of the Lacandon homeland, we change to vehicles that are driven by the local Indians on a gravel road leading to the ruins. Flanked by jungles, the terraced steps of the temples on the main plaza climb above the canopy. Here, and as in Yaxchilan later, the plaza is adorned with flat limestone sculptures with ornate reliefs depicting Bird Jaguar, Shield Jaguar, Chan Muan and other Mayan rulers. An hour is too brief a time for us at Bonampak, but we are on our way to Rio Usumacinta, where we board two narrow, long boats, canopied by an arch of weaved palm fronds. Sometimes hugging the Mexico side, then switching to the Guatemala shoreline, or taking midstream we travel along the broad, but calm river that defines the border between the countries. At one spot, Guatemalan women wash clothes and children bathe in the river water, but mostly the shoreline is a raw steep slope holding back the encroaching and formidable jungle. Yaxchilan was built riverside, many structures with terraced steps that must have made a impressive view in either direction, but now even a thin line of jungle is sufficient to block river from ruins. We have built up an appetite by the time our return boat trip takes us back to our van, but the quantity and quality of our lunch meal is more than we expected. While we dine on roasted chicken, live chickens, turkeys and dogs roam freely and a few chicks scramble through the open building. We talk about how we will all nap on our return trip, but our many glasses of Coca-cola keep us stimulated and Nelda leads six of the group in a round of "I went on a birding trip and took along my Alka-Seltzer ", successively added to by each in turn from A to Z. Sooner than expected, it is 6 PM and we are back in Palenque.
(Bert) I doubt that many have seen a Double-striped Thick-knee. Last year I organized an afternoon trip in search of thick-knees, but came up empty handed. I'm not sure why this bird is fascinating. Maybe it is because the Double-striped Thick-knee is the only representative of its family in North America. Maybe it is because it is a shorebird that lives on land, often far from water. Maybe it is because it is elusive, standing over a foot and a half tall, in an open field, but still described by Howell as "easily overlooked despite its large size." Or, maybe it is its strange design, somewhat like an overgrown plover or maybe a night-heron, but with a sleepy eye half-drawn as if only partially awakened from a long nap. Whatever the reason, I would like to see one and so would many others in our group. A few days ago Walt told me he found several of these on the same road that I had searched last year. Then yesterday, while most of us were at the ruins of Bonampak, a half-dozen others went to the same area and came back not only with the thick-knee trophy, but also sightings of Grassland Yellow-finches. At 2:30, Nelda, Tom and I head to the same field. Along the way we encounter Don and Jean, just returning. They too have seen the birds. I comment to my fellow passengers that with everyone else now finding the thick-knees, we will feel like klutzes if we cannot do the same. Sixteen miles later we find the melon patch described by Don and start our search. Not in the first field, we drive to a second just a short distance further. Scanning the cow pastures for clumps of grass or small shrubs, I see one shading a stout upright bird. Putting binoculars to eyes, I see we have found our first thick-knee. We pile out of the car and I align my spotting scope on the bird, giving us a close-up of its head and half-drawn eyelid. Wow! A real knee jerker! In fact, a thick-knee jerker! We drink our fill of watching the bird and I try a few photos through the scope. Then we move on to another spot and see a small flock of yellow birds descend on a tree. Binoculars tell us we've found the Grassland Yellow-finches. Through the scope we watch them flutter like butterflies over the branches of the tree, a telltale characteristic of this species. Then at another field we see more thick-knees, this time a family of three including a half-grown fledgling being fed by an adult. What a great way to end a day of birding!
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