Chapter 5. Southeast Mexico
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2003 All rights reserved.
(Bert) My turn for mechanical difficulties, again this year our Tailgunner has been kept busy fixing minor problems. In Villahermosa I could not engage the drive shaft disconnect on our SUV. This aftermarket device prevents the drive shaft from turning while the vehicle is being towed behind the motorhome. Dan got it realigned at the last campground, but now it is misaligned again. So I ride with Lee this morning to our birding site just outside the Mayan ruins of Palenque. The park like setting around the abandoned museum is a haven for birds and an ideal place to see them since the under story is cleared of all but a grassy lawn, giving us a clear view of the canopy. We find White-fronted Parrots, Black-crowned Tityras, Crimson-collared Tanagers, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and many more. The names are interestingly descriptive, with the first part describing that unique body part - crown, collar, cheek - that has the color distinguishing it from other similar birds and the second part allocating it to a particular family. But there are confusing discrepancies: the Golden-fronted Woodpecker has a red front in the subspecies that occurs here. Some birds perch long enough to get them in my spotting scope and photograph them with my digital camera against the eyepiece. With my combination I get 15X magnification with the scope and 10X optical magnification with the camera, yielding a combination of 150X. The Keel-billed Toucan high in the 40-ft. tree is so close in the digital photo that I have a full-frame view of just its head and rainbow-colored bill. The process is hit and miss, since mechanical alignment, lighting, focus, f-stop and exposure time must be just right to get a good photo. Today I get excellent shots of the toucan, acceptable views of the Violaceous Trogon and mediocre pictures of the Buff-throated Saltator. Hiking one of the jungle trails takes us to a cascading waterfall, darkly exposed between the density of trees and vines. The trail is narrow though and the few birds we find are usually only seen by a couple of birders. We take another, much wider trail, and are more successful there. Two in particular interest me, in that they are lifers: a Chestnut-colored Woodpecker and a White-necked Jacobin. That this is the third year I have visited Palenque, each for nearly a week, and I still find new birds, attests to the diversity and profundity of this great birding site.
(Shari) "What is that noise?" I ask Bert as we drive down the driveway at the campground. His response is to step on the accelerator, and the noise disappears for a few seconds only to come back as we enter the road. Now the noise gets worse and I repeat my concern about stopping the car before we get too far. We back up and drive to a grassy spot back at the campground. For the next three hours Bert, then Coen, and later joined by Dan, peer and poke and test the car to no avail. They miss the first part of our Valentine's Party but tell me at least they know what is wrong. Well, I knew that a few days ago: the disconnect does not work!!!!!! Dan is going to try to jury rig it on Sunday. Thankfully, the Valentine's Party is in full swing and I have no time to think about the car problem. Pat and I worked out yet another fun party and I will never know what to do without her on future trips. This is her fourth time helping me with these socials. I think this is the best year as far as our rhyming words go. All of the groups put together great poems, but the best performance, no hands barred, goes to the "Jays" with Lee, Steve, Cecile and Carolyn. I think ours is the best, until I hear theirs. After our fun and games, we are starved and can hardly wait for Carolyn to bring out her dish to begin the potluck. Chanting "Carolyn, Carolyn, Carolyn" the group gives a great loud cheer when she appears. Finally we can dig into the casseroles, salads, vegetables and desserts lined up on the row of tables.
(Bert) A change of pace, we travel in Bonampak by chartered vans, giving me a chance to see the scenery instead of the road. Although the highway is level, except for topes, the countryside is hilly. And a strange type of foothills it is: cone shaped peaks tightly packed together, suggesting a volcanic origin, yet cutaways at cliffs show a crumbly limestone subsurface. I'd like a geologist to explain how these formed. Most of the peaks are still capped with dense jungle, but the flat areas are cultivated or grazed until we get closer to Bonampak and the nature preserve of the surrounding area. At the park border we switch to cars driven by local Lacandona Indians. John, sitting in the front seat of our particular car, sees a large dark turkey-sized bird cross the road and Dan and Sue see it also, from the back seat, but I am out of the line of sight. We speculate on Crested Guan versus Great Curassow, I get out my book and show it to the driver who points to the curassow drawing. At the Mayan ruins, most birders head down a birding trail first while others choose the ruins first. In the dense forest, sounds of exotic birds surround us but the singers often elude sight. One comes closer when Chris records its song and plays it back. Most everyone, except Chris, gets to see glimpses of a petite Long-billed Gnatwren singing its response to the recording. Later a few of us get a much closer view of another gnatwren. This morning's birding turns out surprisingly good, considering our late 9 AM start after the long drive and breakfast stop. There are so many highlights its hard to choose the best, but I'll list the brightly colored Green Shrike-Vireo, the curiously named Purple-crowned Fairy, the awesome White Hawk and the tiny black-and-white Dot-winged Antwren. Coen, Brenda and others report an enviable experience of encountering a mixed flock of over 100 birds of 24 species. Its hard to pull ourselves away from the birds to see the ruins, but I would not want to miss a chance to see the frescoes that are so evident here and not elsewhere at Mayan ruins. Intricately designed and brightly colored wall paintings cover every inch of the inside walls of small rooms, mostly depicting the people - or at least the royalty and priests. My digital camera, flashes prohibited, clearly picks up the details of the paintings. What splendor this city must have shown in its heyday!
(Shari) The operative word today is HOT. Luckily the 21 people, who choose to take the side trip to Bonampak, get to ride in air-conditioned comfort. Driving through a section of Chiapas that most tourists do not see, we acquire a different view of Mexico. This is one of small Indian farm communities working together much like a commune. Our guide, Jose, tells us there are 37 topes from Palenque to the ruins. Each community has at least one. Thatched huts, corn fields, jungle encroaching the road, happy youngsters in half dress waving as we pass, military stops, clothes washed in a nearby stream and hung over bushes to dry, men carrying machetes along the roadside, mist rising from the mountains at the horizon, and heat - scorching, steamy heat - compose today's story. Prohibited from driving our own vehicles the last five miles, the local Indians take us up to the ruins in three rattletrap non air-conditioned vans that barely make 15 mph at top speed. Realizing it is going to be a scorcher of a day, I head for the temples, where the painted murals exist. Here, in the shade of the temple, Pat Y., Joanne and I spend the next 2½ hours catching what little breeze we can. It is too bad the climate is so unbearable since the country is gorgeous and the paintings in the temples are so wonderful. Existing since before 700 AD they tell a story of a king crowned, a battle and paying respect to a victorious ruler. Finally the birders are finished and we depart to a nearby Indian village where we have a lunch of vegetable soup, tortillas, Mexican beef, rice and tortillas. After lunch we tour the small enclave that looks like a youth hostel with its dormitories, bunk beds, and young people swinging in hammocks by the stream. The hard-core birders do not seem to mind the heat but many of us can hardly breathe. We are thankful to climb into the cool van to return home an hour earlier than scheduled.
(Bert) My camera aimed and ready, I'm braised up against a tree waiting for the Bananaquit to return to its nest. Deep in the dark forest, the ball of soft grass is wedged in the fork of a short palm. As I wait, I check out the surroundings. Behind the palm stands a stone wall. Resilient through time, it is part of a Mayan ruin in the sprawling ancient city. Much of the splendor of Palenque has been uncovered and restored, but much also - such as this wall in front of me - remains buried in the jungle. The darkness of the forest is deceiving: my eyes adjust, but my camera compensates with a flash. Photos too distant may turn out black if I don't get the settings right. The sounds of the jungle are appealing: the trickling water of a shallow stream, the sweet songs of the White-breasted Wood-wren, the raucous calls of parrots and aracaris, the swallowed notes of oropendolas, the tisk of an Orange-billed Sparrow. One of the Bananaquits returns to the nest and crawls into the little hole at the side, then sticks out its head. I snap photos quickly, but in the darkness I'm not sure what they will reveal. Another Bananaquit appears and pauses on the adjacent frond, but neither stays long. They are perpetual motion machines, all action and no rest. I wonder how these birds got their name. Somehow it seems appropriate to associate the pretty pattern of white, yellow and black with a banana. Another pause as they disappear to collect building materials, I again listen to the sounds. I don't usually think of hummingbirds as being dark forest birds; the Long-tailed Hermits are a clear exception. This species pushes the limit of its family. Their crackling static calls echo throughout the jungle. How can a hummingbird make so much noise? Outlandishly long bodied and long tailed and long billed, they are an exaggeration of body parts. Much easier heard than seen, when they do become visible it is usually a speeding rocket whizzing by. But with patience I can find one at rest, sounding off from an eyelevel perch. The Bananaquits return and I flash another set of photos. I hope one of these turns out; it is so dark here and I wonder if my flash reaches the distance to the nest. Finally after a long hiatus, I move on down the trail, searching for other jungle experiences.
(Shari) The tomb is one of the highlights of this year's tour of the Palenque ruins. Six years ago, a tomb of a queen was discovered and last year the government opened it to the public. Our guide is excellent as usual and makes the area come alive in our minds. He includes all of us in a play and using our imaginations we our transported to 300 A.D. Virginia is our queen and Dan and Ray the lower class workers, toiling day in and day out grinding limestone. The plot thickens and soon Dan is in trouble and he and his family are killed. Our guide uses this technique to involve us in Palenque and I think we all go home with a greater appreciation of its history. The day is splendid with a nice breeze that helps cool us a bit. This evening, 22 of us go to my favorite restaurant in Palenque. Bert and I remember last years hit menu item and we both order it this evening. It has a fancy name but in plain terms is a steak covered with cheese and flamed with Gran Marnier brandy. It is simply delicious. I hear no complaints about anyone's meal and we all go home as happy campers ready for another full day tomorrow.
(Bert) Overcast skies shadow the forested foothills and light rain peppers our binoculars. The dawn chorus tells us the birds are out there, but they wisely stay hidden in the leaves. One particular call intrigues us: a long drawn out mournful horse-like whinny somewhat resembling an Eastern Screech-Owl. Emanating from the lowlands below us, it reverberates through the foothills. In T-shirt and shorts, I came ill prepared for the drop in temperature and onslaught of rain. Many of us head back. We return later with others less interested in birding and we drive further into the mountains to Miso-hal, a spectacular waterfall surrounded by jungles. Fueled by the recent rain, the waterfall torrents brown, pouring into a pool of brown. Birds are active in the fruiting trees and we catch repeated, but partial, views of a Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Red-collared Manakin and Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. Chris identifies a distant Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet in a bird others had dismissed as a more common Social Flycatcher. We move on the Agua Azul, connected by winding road further into the mountains. The rains worsen as we climb the muddy walkways up the series of waterfalls, so we wear raincoats or carry umbrellas. Yet the cascades are as picturesque as always, each turn in our climb producing another view of perpetual motion, mixing the soft smooth curves of water rounding chalky boulders in streams edged by flowering plants and stout trees. Near the top of our climb, the path levels out and moves away from the river, toward the village. Here, during a pause in the rain, we find a tree full of Green Honeycreepers, brilliantly lime green, males with contrasting black faces and yellow bills, females all green. They feed on the tree flowers high in the crowns, giving us mostly views of heads and breasts. On our return trip, the car's drive-shaft disconnect - which kept slipping out of alignment and is now more securely held in place, thanks to Dan - tinkles like Christmas bells. But Shari doesn't find it entertaining and fears for the worst. Halfway through the return trip the noise stops. Soon Shari worries about it not making noise now. Although Dan and I assure her the noise is not doing damage, Shari anticipates the worst. We reach camp without mishap.
(Shari) The banana girls are still there. Agua Azul would be so pretty if we did not have to deal with the "panhandlers" hawking their wares, over and over and over again. One person asks us if want bananas and no sooner have we said no than another asks. If it is not bananas then it is flat sugarcoated cookies. New and disturbing this year is the bunch of women and children blocking the entrance road to the park with a rope, forcing our vehicle to stop and hopefully buy bananas. The rope is reluctantly lowered when I shake my head no, but hateful eyes follow the car. I hope it is not a small jump from those hateful eyes to damage on our car. The weather is blissfully cool, thanks to drizzly rain all day. It makes the uphill climb beside the falls a bit slippery, but I notice by next year it will all be paved with steps. The entrance to Miso-hal already is completely paved and gives us a splendid view of the plunging waterfall. Both birders and nonbirders alike enjoy today's outing. The birders want to stay longer and the nonbirders want to leave earlier. I guess the departure time is exactly right.
(Bert) Heading east, we leave the foothills of Palenque and cross the marshes of the Usumacinta River. A few days ago on our trip to Bonampak we followed a distant mountain ridge of Guatemala, the border defined by the Usuamacinta, then noted a V-shaped gap where the river breaks through the mountains and heads into Chiapas to the marshlands. As we drive today, bird life is active in the marshes: herons fishing, caracaras and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures hunting. Coen sees a Black-colored Hawk among the hunters. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons gather in large flocks at water's edge. Ringed and Belted kingfishers perch on high lines and watch the water below. After miles of marshes, the land is drier and marsh grasses give way to thorn forest. Still further the trees are taller, arch toward the road and cast shadows that I sometimes confuse for potholes, of which there are a few. A dandy across-the-road pothole follows one bridge and sends a jarring jolt through R-Tent. We warn the others in our small group - we split into three groups for today's 300-mi. travel - but the other two groups will have to discover the trap themselves. Later we hear that when Dan and Sue hit the hole it jarred loose the overhead TV and dropped it in Dan's lap. Ouch! But for the most part, the trip today is a pleasant ride through abandoned countryside. Once we pass near a large swallow lake, wishing we could find a place to pull over 16 rigs (about three football fields in length) so that we could enjoy the view during lunchtime. I see a bright blue flock of Blue Grosbeaks, but no pullout. We again enter lowland forests, trees forming an archway over the road. Shari and I watch a Grey Fox cross in front of us and I see a Blue Bunting dart low across the road, both quickly hiding again in the dense underbrush. In the more sunny areas, tendrils of violet-flowered vines drape over green bushes. Trees are splotched yellow with flowers. We stop for a morning break, a lunch break and an afternoon break and each time I pass the same "doble semimolque" tanker semi. It's the hare and the tortoise race; the double-length truck trudges slowly but never takes a break. Eventually the forest gives way to cane fields and then Mayan ruins and then the coastal city of Chetumal. We stop when we reach the Caribbean, R-Tent halting literally 6 ft. from the edge of the tranquil turquoise waters.
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