Chapter 7. Campeche, Tabasco, Veracruz
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2003 All rights reserved.
(Shari) It is time to leave Belize and head north. I always enjoy these Belizean days but am also glad to be heading home. The border crossing goes really smoothly and I think the step-by-step procedure I handed out last night helps. I have a small start when Don C. tells me he cannot find his vehicle permit. I have no idea what the border guards will do, but I tell him he HAS to find it and to look more carefully. Soon he comes back with his permit; he had folded it into his passport. Thank goodness! We are ready to roll. Our first rest stop is also a gas stop and we notice the attendants with smiles on their faces when they see the caravan coming. We are ready for them this time and Steve and Jodi use video cameras, Bert takes photos and we all watch the pumps like hawks. Their smiles fade. No cheating us this time. I hate to bring this incident up, because in all the years and in all the gas stations we have frequented in Mexico this is the first time we have experienced dishonesty. Usually it is the reverse and the people go out of their way to be truthful. But at this station it unfortunately happened. After gassing up, we split into three groups and head to Isla Agauda. We come to a town and I am unsure of which way to go. I hop out to ask and am directed to the left of the church and then straight. Again we come to a road that looks closed and I ask again which way to go. This time I am directed left. No sooner do we turn left than we notice some people waving their arms at us. Ah, Oh! I hop out again and recognize that we should not have turned left but gone straight ahead over the bridge that is under construction. Fortunately the rest of the caravan did not turn. Unfortunately Bert cannot disconnect the car. (The drive shaft still does not work). The caravan blocks traffic and Mexican horns honk. We tell the caravan to go on ahead and wait for us at the next convenient place. We then decide to maneuver R-TENT with attached SUV around the block. Thankfully no cars are parked on the sides and we negotiated the tight corners with inches to spare, catching up with the caravan 20 minutes down the road. At camp I find that Jim and Pat's RV can only go forward. Their reverse does not work and luckily tonight we could find them a pull through.
(Bert) The men are all smiles when they see our caravan coming. The RV's line up behind the gas pumps and the attendants are eager to serve. But their smiles turn to frowns and their friendly chatter turns silent when they see what we do. I carry my camera ready for action; Jodi starts her video camera and records the gauge as the attendant zeroes the pump and begins filling the gas tank. Everyone in the caravan is watching gauges and attendants, looking for one false move. We came prepared this time. We stopped at this same gas station at Xpujil, Campeche, on our way to Belize. But strange things happened and only after we gathered at our campsite did we get the complete picture of the scam. Here's how it worked: While engaged in friendly chatter, one attendant made certain we saw him zero the pump and start the gasoline flow. A few minutes later another attendant distracted each of us to look at a suspect tire or a dent, turning our eyes away from the gauge. Then, somehow, the other attendant would twist the dial and double the reading. Later when I paid for my gas ($32.50 for a third tank) I expressed surprise, but paid it nonetheless. When I asked for a receipt, the peso amount was listed, but not the liters, which probably was about 7 gallons. Ray said "No way!" when presented his bill, and Steve also argued with the amount shown on the pump. Both bills were reduced when they complained. But the rest of us paid the inflated prices and only later realized the scam. But not today! No one resets a pump; no one smiles; no one jokes. We all get our fuel, pay the correct amount and leave. Elsewhere in Mexico we've been treated fairly and honestly, but con artists run this particular Pemex station at KM 159.
(Bert) A parade of colors we pass today. The vibrant yellow-green of fresh springtime foliage serves as the backdrop. Thousands of cassia trees are inflamed with pink flowers; other trees sport yellow buttercups or red-orange flower clusters. Bougainvilleas are favorite yard plants and fountains of their hot pink blossoms pour over fences. On our right for dozens of miles is the azure Gulf Coast, edged in white surf rolling over white sand. Picking up on nature's cue, local residents have painted their houses startling bright colors: luscious lavender, sunbeam yellow, forest green, deep blue, sky blue, lime green, fire engine red. No soft pastels here. Only fences are white. Green parrots fly over the scene. White egrets, brown limpkins and multicolored jacanas dot green coastal marshes. Brown Pelicans and white terns sit on surfside posts. Black frigatebirds mark jagged designs in blue skies.
(Bert) Good roads, we pay toll. Bad roads, take their toll. Twenty-five miles from our start, just as we climb the high bridge over Río Tonalá separating Tabasco and Veracruz, Ralph and Virginia report blue smoke coming from the wheels of Don and Jodi's 5th-wheel. Don has had repeated problems with his brakes during our journey, so we are surprised when we stop to find the actual problem is a broken spring that allowed the two tires to rub against each other. Fortunately Don is carrying an extra spring and he and Dan set about the task of replacing the broken one. After an hour of struggling with tight nuts, we leave them to finish the work while we continue on the bad roads of Veracruz. When we reach Catemaco, we find out that John and Joanne broke two sets of springs on their trip - they and three other rigs decided to make the two-day trip into one - and didn't finish the repair and get to the RV park until 9 PM last night. It's nearly 6 PM today when Don and Dan drive into the park, their delay caused by having the wrong size replacement spring and waiting for it to be modified by a local mechanic. Between flat tires, A/C hose problem, dead battery, bad brakes, minor scrapes and accidents, we've certainly paid our toll. But, hurray! I get my drive-shaft disconnect to work again when I get to Catemaco, so I can drive more bad roads tomorrow at a new birding site.
(Bert) Up until a few weeks ago Dr. William J. Schaldach Jr. last visited the mountains around Bastonal in the mid 1980s when he showed the area to Steve Howell and Sophie Webb, in preparation of their book on the birds of Mexico. (Howell and Webb dedicated their book to him with the inscription "A remarkable mentor without whom this book never would have happened"). A couple of decades ago the area was still virgin forests, but when Will visited last month he was shocked at how the mountains had been scalped. Today Will and his grandson Willy accompany us on the road to Bastonal, but we stop short at Ej. Miguel Hidalgo, taking the bad road but not the very bad road. Remnant patches of forest border streams and ravines beside the road and at the very tops of mountains where the cattle cannot graze. The rest is farmlands. The area around the village produces a number of interesting species. A few Green Jays show green and yellow color patterns a bit different from the book and Will states his opinion that a different subspecies occurs here than those of the north and the south. Likewise, when I see a White-collared Seedeater, he calls it Sporophila morelleti, a different species from any other in Mexico. In the village we meet a lady who wants to show us something, but I don't understand, so Willy acts as translator. We take her up on her offer for a 15-minute walk to a tower. But she soon leads us to a small fish farm, feeds the fish and tells us that the ponds are for fishermen who pay to fish. Then she leads us to a lake hidden in the forest. The brown water fills a volcanic crater and Green Kingfishers live at its edge, while an Osprey hunts overhead. Still further up the mountain, she shows us buildings under construction, showers, septic tank and a high tower overlooking the forest; all will be used for travelers to spend a couple of evenings during visits to the highland forests. Funded by several Mexican organizations, the project is an endeavor to promote ecotourism, a great idea, although a bit late in coming. On the return trip from the village we stop at a bend in the road where Willy says he saw a Lovely Cotinga a few weeks ago. I explore the stream and small waterfalls nearby and when I return to the spot I hear that Willy saw a pair of cotingas fly by, but the birds do not return during my vigil. Instead, we see a hawk-eagle fly overhead and after much debate we deduce it is an immature Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle. Although the raptor is a third of a mile above us on its second pass, I capture it on my digital camera and can clearly see the white panels in its wings and the unusual profile while gliding. While most of the native forest is gone, the part that is left still is home to a few very special birds.
(Shari) Catemaco is one of my favorite towns in Mexico. Today Joanne, Pat, Sue, Marianne, and I enjoy a day of shopping and lunch. We walk the aisles of the colorful market and I find some baby clothes for my new grandson, expected in April. We stop at the vendor booths along the lakeshore and Sue, Joanne and Marianne buy cute outfits. We eat lunch at an open-air restaurant on the lake and negotiate purchases of colorful handmade string bags. We eat a pretty descent hamburger and fries for lunch. Our day is successful and we get back after the birders.
(Bert) It seems I'm always birding in the wrong spot today. The best birds are what someone else is seeing and by the time I get to where they are, the birds are gone. Although I see or hear some 88 species today, I miss the two that would have been lifers. Virginia L. with Willy finds a Black-crested Coquette, a hummingbird so small that you'd think it was an oversize insect. Then Chris finds a Slaty-breasted Tinamou and shows it to many others, but I'm a mile away and only hear about it after the fact. Still later, Willy locates another coquette and this time I camp out at the spot for an hour, yet do not find the hummer. But we do see a lot of good birds today. The Montezuma Oropendolas are building their long stringy nests, parading back and forth with building materials and performing their somersault aerobatics while executing their unusual calls. On a hike with Domingo, a local resident of Laguna Escondida, we find the suffuscus subspecies of Black-headed Saltator, but mostly see lots of colorful butterflies that Don C. identifies for us. Coen hears an owl and imitates its monotone call. Warblers start gathering around us and then I imitate the call too. While watching the warblers through binoculars a larger bird pops into view and I can see the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl staring down my eyepiece. After lunch we head to Montepio, more rough road and only a few birds, but lots of Sunday swimmers at the Gulf of Mexico beach. We return to Catemaco in time for our potluck dinner along the waterfront. Fifteen-year-old Willy joins us and woos the ladies after dinner with a hug and a flower for each of them. All the ladies wish they could introduce Willy to their granddaughters for they've not met a young man with his rare combination of intelligence, courtesy and good looks.
(Bert) We wind out of the Sierra de la Tuxtlas, passing through busy towns and curvaceous mountains. I have two regrets on each trip: leaving Belize and leaving Catemaco, two places I can always spend more time then allotted. Wending our way northward along the Gulf coast, the roads are much improved over last year, a welcome relief. Don and Jodi continue to have brake problems, their trailer brakes non-functional and their truck brakes running hot. Most everyone has had one vehicular problem or another, but Don and Jodi have had more than their share. We make it to Veracruz before lunch and line up our RV's facing the beach. I swim in the Gulf and find it invitingly warm, clean, swallow and sandy bottomed. Across the street, in the evening most of the group dines at a great restaurant where every entrée is a good choice.
(Bert) Pinnated Bittern has been a nemesis bird for me. Others have seen it on our trips, but not me. Now off in the marshes of Veracruz stands a tall bird, craning its neck upward. Even at this distance, through the scope I can see the line above the eye, the patch behind and the whitish throat. That, and the cross pattern of barring mark this bittern as pinnated. The pond in front holds hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, and, carefully segregated, the next pond along the busy highway holds Fulvous Whistling-Ducks. Birding is surprisingly good here just at the outskirts of the city at the lakes and marshes that border it. We look for Altimira Yellowthroats, but only find lots of Commons. Gull-billed Terns are a first for most of us on this trip, but after all the birding we have done, it is getting hard to find something we haven't already seen. Later we complete errands and relax under the palms at the beach. Relaxing seems to be a rare activity on this trip, so it is a nice diversion.
(Shari) While Bert is out birding, I join Ralph and Virginia in their car to tour downtown Veracruz. This is my third year here and fifth time to the city, but I have never had the opportunity to go downtown. Veracruz is mostly a big city with a long and pretty waterfront. We stop for lunch at the famous Café Paroquia and of course order its coffee with cream. Tapping our spoons on our cups, a waiter arrives with very strong coffee and dilutes it with half cream. It is delicious. We also share two Cuban sandwiches among the three of us before returning to the heat outside and a little bit of shopping. Tonight we eat a rare dinner inside our rig.
(Bert) On the road again, heading north, we pass through ranchlands, pleasant countryside, coastal beaches, and sand dunes. Roads are good, much better than last year. But they are narrow and frequently curve. So when two slow-moving semis pair up, I find no opportunity to pass for an hour and we maintain 32 mph for that stretch of road until I pull off at a Pemex. Trees are pink in new buds; some have leafed out yellow green. Others never lost their leaves and are still olive green. Our campsite tonight is again in the palms, just off the Gulf of Mexico. We've stayed here before on previous trips, but it always was in January. Now in March the ocean is warmer and so is the swimming pool, and many of us take advantage.
(Bert) On a tip from Lane at the campground we drive through a fenced cow pasture to a remote lagoon for birding this morning. Most interesting is the vicinialis subspecies of Olive-throated Parakeet, a different color version of the one we have been seeing further south. Coen shows others a Mississippi Kite migrating overhead, and a first for the trip. Hundreds of Turkey Vultures also are migrating north and a dozen species of warblers probably include many migrants as well. In mid morning we drive to the Mayan ruins at El Tajín. Previous years the temperature was in the 90s and 100s and even in the early morning the birds kept hidden. Cooler today, I see many more birds and this raises the quality of this birding site in my estimation. I find an early Philadelphia Vireo, new to the list. Coen finds a pair of Buff-bellied Hummingbirds nest building and earlier today I photographed a Great Kiskadee on a nest. Brown Jays, grackles and others are carrying nesting materials too. Back at the beach at Costa Esmeralda, strings of white birds thread northward just far enough from shore to make identification difficult. They fly low over the water, catching the air uplift from the waves, the tail end of the string often whipping like a kite. So three of us set up scopes and wait for another flock. It seems a flock passes about every 15-30 minutes and soon we see another one. With the scope we easily identify the 100+ birds as White Ibis. Altogether my species count for today is 92 and if I had spent more time at the ruins I could have easily surpassed a hundred species today.
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