Chapter 2. Northeast Mexico
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2004 All rights reserved.
(Shari) After circling through our caravan members announcing the most recent news about beef confiscation when entering Mexico - a mad-cow disease repercussion - I return to our campsite and find water spurting out of the faucet like a fountain. Although it looks and sounds pretty, it is a no-no. We had backed over the poorly positioned faucet when parking our rig and Dan and I had lifted the rock guard of our motor home to enable it to clear the outlet connection. Bert must have forgotten and, bingo, he snapped off the top of the plastic faucet when pulling out in the 6:30 AM darkness. It has not been the first time someone on our caravan has done that here at this RV park, but it is a first for us. I inform the guard of the situation and then return to form our departure line-up. We are an early group and a smart one. Usually taking several weeks through the trip before the group learns to be ready for the CB check preceding departure, our new travelers have it mastered on the first try. What a blessing! At the border we expect to pass through like a breeze since we have already gotten permits for five of our 12 vehicles. Alas, this is not to be and it takes 2-1/2 hours to finish the process. The border has added a step in the process since Wednesday. Now we are handed a piece of paper at building 3 that we have to take to building 2 to get verified and then return it to building 3 before they issue us a vehicle permit. Since that office opened 10 minutes late and only one clerk is working, it takes forever. However, we do get on our way and a few miles further, to our delight, the returno in Reynosa is easier this year due to a brand new road. We travel with a bit of a drizzle all day long and the group does some birding from the windows and I even see the White-tailed Hawk fly overhead. Very impressive, if I must say so myself. Arriving early, I track down the owner of the campground and request that he travel with me on the route I have in my log. It says turn at the Caravan sign and that is wrong, since I ended up hopping out of R-TENT III (the nickname for our motor home) to stop traffic and enable the caravan to make a dangerous left turn. Well, stupid me: I was to pass up the sign that says "Caravan" and take the sign that says "Caravanas". Come on now! By the time I get back, I expect the group to be on its third margarita. But Bert is still trying to get the broken blender to work. Finally by 4:45 we can all relax in the palapa for a welcome-to-Mexico drink. Some of the group hops up and down to bird while others are just content to talk about the day. Later, six of us find an excellent restaurant, where the Mar y Tierra (Surf and Turf) is exceptionally good.
(Bert) Even with our 7 AM departure, we do not finish border crossing paperwork until three hours later, uneventful, but slow due to a late opening, few staff and a misbehaving computer. Traveling southward I'm struck by the fresh green grasses poking up through the spent brown stalks, new leaves on the brush and trees and, later, standing water and ballooning streams. Previous trips through the Tamaulipas brushlands have shown an arid dusty land, but today the countryside is brighter and wetter from recent rains. Even today it rains lightly through much of our trip. At our first rest stop near San Lorenzo, perched on an adjacent utility wire I point out two Eurasian Collared-Doves, a very recent species to cross into Mexico from Texas as the European invader quickly spreads across the continent. It's the first time I've seen the species in Mexico, but I see more along the roadway south. Hawks put on a good showing, mostly kestrels and caracaras, but also many Harris's, a couple White-tailed, a Gray and a Red-tailed and a White-tailed Kite. Our campsite in the city - Ciudad Victoria - offers a good variety of mostly U.S. species, including Vermilion Flycatcher, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and Black-throated Green Warbler. Robby adds Curve-billed Thrasher and Cindy and Bob add Western Tanager. It's a good start for our birding caravan.
(Bert) The whelping calls bring our eyes upward, through the 100-ft. canopy of dry brown leaves and branches of the tall baldcypress trees. The pleading calls grow louder and soon we see the distinctive labored flight of three parrots winging their way overhead. The Yellow-headed Parrots, an endangered species, are a remarkable find so early in our trip. The canopy offers a variety of warblers - the ones we see in the southern U.S. in migration and in the northern U.S. and Canada during breeding season: Yellow-rumped, Black-and-white, Wilson's, Yellow-throated. More exciting are the species that barely reach the southern U.S. border: Gray Hawk, Ringed and Green kingfishers, Greater Pewee, Brown Jay and both Altamira and Audubon's orioles. The setting is peaceful, along a fast moving and clear stream meandering around the knobby buttresses of the baldcypress and insulated from the light and sound of the outside world - the type of place that begs a lawn chair, a good book and a glass of ice tea, with nothing more on the day's agenda than soaking up the sights and sounds of nature.
(Shari) A leisurely morning is a great restorer of the soul. When the birders return at 10:30, I am ready to go and face the day. We are driving a new route today, but it is well logged and presents no problems. Stopping for lunch at a small family-owned restaurant, I find the owner wants to practice English. He lived in Louisiana for 10 years working in restaurants and now has his own. He proudly tells me his 3-year-old son Jerry is an American. The family is full of hope for the future and seems to have a nice piece of property along a busy new highway. Typically Mexican, with two tables on a dirt floor, a 1950 style ice chest for soft drinks and kitchen, behind back and out of sight, comprise his establishment. Pride shows in his eyes as he tells me about his life. I politely listen and encourage him, yet feel sad. His family is such a small step above poverty and no way would anyone in my family think this was a great life from an economic viewpoint. Our campground for the night is nothing but a big empty parking lot behind a hotel, not close to anything interesting. We have another margarita party, this time made the right way with crushed ice.
(Shari) "I think we should have turned on that street," I hear Robby say over the CB. Bert and I keep listening and hoping what we think happened, did not happen. Dan says, "I think that other street was the turn." Rob says, "It looked like a more major street than this one." I guess our fears our confirmed. Judy had lost sight of us, missed the turn, and the other two rigs followed. We took a route unfamiliar to us and found it was worse than bumpy, congested with stoplights, all making for a difficult situation. In those kinds of conditions, it is almost impossible to keep the caravan together and someone will miss a stoplight while others have not. If two turns are immediately after that, the going gets tricky. This is what happens here. Soon our CB does not pick up their voices and we wait. After about 15 minutes, Bert starts to unhook the car to retrace his steps and find them. Then I hear Robby; they are back on track and coming up behind us. Judy is so cute, when she says she just had to stop to visit with her Aunt Rosarita. Today is the worst travel day of the caravan. I say that with past experience and I do not know what lies ahead, but this section of the trip has historically had the worst conditions and consequently making for a long tiring day. Good thing we are staying over two nights to rest up. Robby has developed alternator troubles and has had to keep his generator on to charge his batteries. Hopefully he will be able to find a Freightliner dealer in Veracruz to fix the problem. Dave has developed a rather nasty cold and does not feel well. But the rest of us are in pretty good shape.
(Bert) We get an unexpected rest stop on the outskirts of Tuxpan. Four rigs are parked in a line along the side of a very wide street and on the CB we can occasionally hear the chatter of the three lost rigs wandering around the small city. The only marking for the right-hand turn was a small sign pointing to the El Tajín ruins: not obvious and not our destination. Judy, Robby and Dan had become separated enough from the group not to see us make the turn, went straight instead and are now trying to find a way to turn around the long rigs (a motor home and tow car can stretch 65 ft.). Just as I consider unhooking our tow car and searching for the lost, Shari hears them again on the CB as they near our parking spot. We are on the road again, now on a smooth and wide toll road, a welcome change from the pothole-riddled, curved and hilly section we just completed. Our long day's journey started by heading east to Tampico and then south on a poor highway running parallel to the Gulf Coast, but far separated from seeing any water until a few miles from our destination. Again greener than I remembered from prior years, the pastoral scenery is lush from recent rains but lacks the brighter colors of spring flowers that we see on our return trip. Birding out of the RV windows is good at the slow pace we travel today and I count 42 species, most notably a few at the northern edge (Black-headed Saltator, Montezuma Oropendola) or southern edge (Tamaulipas Crow) of their ranges. A Eurasian Starling in Tampico was also a surprise. Finally in late afternoon, relaxing under palm trees near the beach is a pleasant way to finish a long day.
(Bert) Light rain, later dissipating, cool temperatures and overcast skies keep the average tourists away from the El Tajín ruins today, but for birds and birders the weather is delightful. A Totonac settlement for nearly 2000 years and at its peak a thousand years ago, El Tajín today includes dozens of well-preserved temples including the famous Pyramid of the Niches, 65-ft. high, in 7 tiers like a square wedding cake and adorned with 365 niches that look like closed windows, one for each day of the year. Near the ruins entrance the birding is so good in early morning that we do not reach the temples until mid afternoon. Numerous Yellow-throated Euphonias - small rotund finches - decorate tall thinly leafed trees like yellow Christmas ornaments. A pair of Lineated Woodpeckers heartily attacks a dead tree and gives the birding group plenty of time to learn the red, black and white facial markings of this big bird that resembles our Pileated Woodpecker. Warblers are plentiful and we note nine species, including Tropical Parula. To our delight a flock of nine Painted Buntings feed on the grass, a remarkably large concentration in a 20-ft space for this our most colorful North American bird. The weather keeps the birds active throughout the day and we bird much later than previous visits here, later spending time looking at a brilliant Green-breasted Mango and several Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and Masked Tityras. Tired from a day of standing and walking, fortunately I'm a passenger today and I doze in the car as Don drives for an hour back to our campsite.
(Shari) Two groups, leaving at different times, head to the El Tajín ruins. The birders go at 7 AM and the SOB's (spouses of birders) go at 9 AM. Both groups are happy. I drive with Robby and Katy, while Dan and Dorothy follow behind. We arrive an hour before the Papantla Flyers perform and that is enough time for me to negotiate a purchase of vanilla, vanilla beans and a beer mug. Papantla is the "Vanilla Capital" of the world so this is where I buy my vanilla for gifts. At noon the eight men dressed in colorful costumes dance around a 100-ft. pole, in preparation for their high performance act. Then six of them climb the pole and at the top they wind a rope around and around and around the pole. Before the performance another man comes around and asks for a 30 pesos per person donation. Thinking that is a steep price, we pay anyway, although last year we did not, nor were we asked. I do not like being struck unawares like this. After the crowd has "paid" their donation, five men throw themselves off the side, the pole turns around as the rope unwinds and the men slowly descend to the ground as a Mayan flutist plays from the top of the pole. That is it. Either I am tainted this year because I have seen this before or it was a poorer performance than last year. In any case I do not feel I get my 30 pesos worth and I bet others feel that way too but are too polite to say so. We meander to the cafeteria (the restaurant that we used last year is closed) and have a pretty decent meal consisting of chicken, rice, tortillas and salad for 30 pesos ($3.00). I return to camp in the "early" car with Robby and Katy and the rest have such a good birding time that they do not return until 5 PM.
(Bert) Raucous laughter reverberates across the waterlogged cow pasture, a call I quickly recognize as that of a Laughing Falcon. Coming from far in the distance it continues off and on throughout the next two hours, often joined by a second bird. Later we locate the source and through my spotting scope we can see the pair calling from the heart of a tall palm a half-mile distant. Along the lagoon, strings of egrets and herons wing from their roosts to feeding grounds: hundreds of birds, mostly Great Egrets but also a surprising number of Tricolored Herons. No one else is up and about this early morning and the water is still and reflective. Across on the other side we can see a Lineated Woodpecker, Spotted Sandpiper and Melodious Blackbird. On our side we walk a wet field where Blue-black Grassquits flock with Lincoln's Sparrows, always staying one bush ahead of us. Overhead, our first two pairs of Muscovy Ducks beat rapidly through the gray sky, flashing white wing patches. We see a few Red-lored Parrots and two Olive-throated Parakeets, with colors blanched by the overcast grayness. Mid morning we are back in the RV park, ready to continue southward. This day we follow the Gulf coastline, often treated to spectacular views of the light blue seas and rolling white surf. Few live along this part of the coast, although many cliffs would provide million-dollar panoramas from living room windows. A narrow, winding road permits few opportunities to pass the many slow-moving trucks and that, coupled with miles of pot-holed pavement, makes our hundred-mile trip last five hours.
(Shari) Awakening to raindrops and the hum of the propane heater, I think I need to move south. Never have I been this far south and had it this cold. Yesterday was drizzly and damp and today looks about the same. But the birds like it and birders come back happy with more species added to their every growing Mexican list. Departing the campground at 11 AM, we have a slow drive to Veracruz. Most of the road is under construction, which makes it tedious to drive this year, but next year will be wonderful. After arranging for Mr. Lee to come for our wash, I walk to the restaurant to arrange dinner for the group. I am delighted that I can also get free margaritas for the ladies and free beer for the men. Dan would rather have the margarita and I the beer so we exchange our glasses. I order my favorite dish here, shrimp steak, and have it with garlic butter sauce instead of the normal orange sauce. It is superb.
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