Chapter 7. Southeast Mexico
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Mel says, “They never missed a beat all night long.” Carol and Ron have already escaped the noise and plan to meet us down the road. It is almost 9 AM and the music is still resonating and pulsating. This has been one of the worst campgrounds of any of our trips as far as party noise is concerned. We have had noise, but usually it quits about 3 AM. Bert informs me about 100 kids are still dancing while others are sleeping on the ground or across park tables. I suppose it could have been worse and they could have gotten out of hand. The music was so eerie, with screeching squeals up and down the scale seemingly out of an alien world. Did I mention that it went ALL NIGHT LONG? We depart and have a short drive to Palenque, arriving at noon. It is as hot as I remember it here, but the good news is that we have the campground all to ourselves. The electricity is fantastic and I retire into my air-conditioned motor home until it is time to go out to eat. I even finish four loads of wash. At 6:30 we leave with a group of 14 to our favorite restaurant. Every time we come to Palenque we eat here and always have the same meal. Both Bert and I order the filete de res jacaranda. It is a steak topped with ham and cheese and flamed with Grande Marnier liquor. Simply superb!
(Bert) Perhaps our least eventful travel day, we move from Villahermosa to Palenque, arriving by lunchtime. In mid afternoon we drive to La Libertad, stopping whenever I see a field that I think is good habitat for Double-striped Thick-knee. Surprisingly, we see a record eleven of these within an hour. Tom is the first to find two in a far field. He stops me to ask me what they are since his 7X binoculars cannot resolve their features, but I take one glance with my 10X and know he has found the locally common, but regionally rare bird. In another field Bob B. finds a closer pair and now through spotting scopes we see the drooping eyelids of a nocturnal bird only half asleep. I’m reminded of Ron and Carol this morning, who in their open-air pop-up trailer were parked closest to the all-night music at the RV park. Young Mexicans danced from afternoon to morning at what I guess you’d call a rave held outside a few hundred yards from where we were parked. When I walked over to the spot at 8 AM, a hundred people were still dancing, standing, slumped over picnic tables or laying asleep on hard concrete. The strange electronic music beat on. Back on La Libertad road, several Fork-tailed Flycatchers display their extremely long tail feathers. Then we drive farther to a ranch owned by a man who contacted me my e-mail, but we do not find him at home. Instead, a pack of Rothweilers meets me at the gate, growling menacingly. I make a quick about face and retreat. Tom makes friends with a tamer dog and then with one of the fierce ones, so he gets close enough to the ranch house to knock on the door, but no one answers. We bird the road briefly, Cindy finding a Green-breasted Mango and the rest of us viewing an orange Common Iguana catching the setting sun from its perch high in a tree overhanging the river. We get back to Palenque in time for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants and I order the flaming steak, the same menu item I’ve eaten four years in a row.
(Bert) Palenque is the only place we have visited where we encounter other
birders. Well known for its Mayan ruins, it is also a Mecca for birders because
the tall trees and dense understory surrounding the excavated ruins are
excellent habitat for tropical birds. Parrots are in good variety as we see
Brown-hooded, White-fronted, and Red-lored, as well as Olive-throated Parakeets.
A real show off is a Passerini’s Tanager whose more descriptive name used to be
Scarlet-rumped Tanager with its flashy red parts offset by jet black. Another
treat is seeing a Black-crowned Tityra perched on the same branch as a couple of
Masked Tityras, giving us a good comparative view of these similar species. When
the ruins gate opens, most of the group join in a tour with guide, but a few of
us bird separately. Van and Karen are with me when we see a parade of birds
delighting in fruiting trees lit by the early morning sun. The Red-legged
Honeycreepers are the most vivid in bright greens and blues. Later Bob B. shows
us four sleeping Black Howlers, sedately slumped over branches high in the
trees. Earlier we heard others howling from the far side of the ruins. We break
for lunch back at camp and then a few of us drive out to a ranch in La Libertad.
I had made indirect contact with the ranch owner several years ago, but about
the time we left the U.S. in January, Rafa e-mailed me and we made arrangements
to meet today. Rafa takes us through the cow pasture where Brahmas and Brown
Swiss lazily block our way. We see many Double-striped Thick-knees and, at the
overlook of the river, we find Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, some gliding like
Pterosaurs just over our heads. Rafa is the fifth generation to manage his
600-hectar cattle ranch, his great great grandmother having pioneered the area
in the 1800s. With cattle no longer financially feasible, he is looking to
ecotourism as an alternative. He tells us of his plans, using good English he
learned in Minnesota and Washington schools after he completed his Mexican
degree at the top business school. Later from the veranda of his house, we
overlook the river and a pair of Black Howlers scramble through the trees
directly in front of us. We are short on time and must leave far too early. His
ranch deserves at least a full day’s visit for birding and nature and probably
three or four would be better. Maybe next year.
(Shari) It is 7:30 AM and I see Jose drive up with another man. I just barely finished dressing at this hour, but open the door to them anyway. Jose has brought a guide for the Palenque ruins and says he will have someone meet us at the entrance at 9 AM. His charge will be 550 pesos and will give me a receipt. Arriving with the group, I find no guide from Jose. I ask numerous people, but no one knows about our guide. An obnoxious fellow offers to be our guide, but I tell him I don’t want to get involved with him if another guide has been arranged. I go to the information booth and am told the only guide available is Victor. I return to the obnoxious fellow and ask if his name is Victor. He says, “No.” I return to the information booth and ask where is Victor. Pointing to the obnoxious fellow, the clerk says, “He is Victor.” I go back and ask again if he is Victor. He now says, “Yes, I told you that. Don’t you understand English?” How rude! I then say I am told that he is our guide and ask, “How much?” He says “700 pesos.” I point to the sign that says 8-14 people are 550 pesos. He says, “That is in Spanish.” Well by this time, I am mad. The group still wants to go, but I opt out. I give Bob S. the money to pay the bill, and tell him not to tip him. Van also overheard our exchange and chooses not to go on the tour either. In spite of all this, the group enjoys his tour, and that is what is important in the end. Still steaming, I walk around the shops, but really am not in the mood to shop anymore. The only things that separate my money and me are some honey, coffee flavored chocolates and chocolate candy bars, which always make nice presents. I return home to work on our Valentine Party tonight. At 5:30 we all gather next to R-Tent-III and the two concrete picnic tables. Bert set up five card tables and everyone brings a white elephant gift and finger food to share. The group divides into teams with a matching Mexican state and city game. I read the first installment of a poem I have written during the trip, accounting our travels. Then each team competes for prizes by developing the best rhyming song. Each person gets to grab a white elephant gift and I come out pretty good, with a box of See’s chocolates. Bob S. gets something that no one knows what it is until Tom tells him it is a map holder. We thought it might be a can holder but a beer can was too big for it. I see a small tool box, a belt, a nice “ring” dish, two beaded necklaces like the kind I got rid of last year and a grater among the items received. It is way past dark, when we clean up and say goodnight.
(Bert) Perhaps it’s that we see only one gas station in 80 miles. Perhaps it’s the few primitive villages or the barricaded military checkpoints. Or, maybe, it’s that we take a chartered van to the edge of a forest and then all pile out to crowd into a 1960’s vintage Volkswagen bus, stripped inside to the bare metal, but with a ceiling refurbished with a worn rug, and then rumble along a dusty gravel road with windows slid open to give us natural air conditioning. Perhaps it’s the jungle, tall and thick, or maybe that when we arrive at our destination no other tourists can be found. But I think it is the grass airstrip carved narrowly in the forest with an abandoned single engine airplane askew at one end that finally is the cue that we have reached a remote land in Chiapas at the Guatemala border. On foot we burrow into the jungle on a single-file trail, the sky closed in by the tree canopy, the flanks pushed tightly by the dense under story. Bird songs surround us, but feathers merge leaves in a pattern too intricate to decipher. I recognize one caller and dial my iPod to Long-billed Gnatwren. The songs match and the bird moves closer to the machine, curious about this electronic relative. The little – gnat sized? – brown bird has a hummingbird thin bill and a wren-like body with a cocked black-and-white tail. In its own genus, the gnatwren is sandwiched taxonomically between kinglets and gnatcatchers. I hear the incessant song of another tropical species and again match machine to songster, this time with Dusky Antbird. Through the morning we hear these often, but see only one. The checklist that I’ve gathered through the years totals 231 species for this location. Today, collectively as a group, we identify 80 species, including five that were not on the list. But, individually, none of us reach near that number and my personal total of 57 is as high as anyone. Such is the nature of jungle birding: many species, few of any one species, and widely distributed in hidden habitat. We leave Bonampak and ride to the quaint village of La Laconja. Single room, single story buildings of plank walls aligned vertically on some, horizontally on others, and roofed with either galvanized metal or palm tree thatching comprise the small village. Flowers – I recognize only the poinsettia trees and hibiscus bushes – adorn the edges; hens with chicks peck freely in partially fenced yards; a turquoise stream flows swiftly between the compound and the forest. Men and children dress in calf length white robes. The native Lacandona men are strikingly different in appearance from the Mexican population, with long dark hair spilling over their shoulders, flowing moustaches and black beards reaching their chests. Our host brings us lunch on long wooden tables filling one of the buildings. Earlier we told our driver our choices of Pollo Asada or Chicken a la Americana. Nine of us – all from the U.S. – choose the Mexican style of chicken, but the two Canadians select the American preparation. Curiously, when we see our food the Mexican plate includes French fried potatoes and the American plate comes with Spanish rice. But both choices are delicious and filling. We spend a half hour more at the compound, relaxing in the shade. As we gather again at the van, we find two fledgling White-crowned Parrots sitting side-by-side in the heart of a bush, paying little attention to my camera as I digitally capture the cute pair.
(Shari) I do not even hear Bert leave this morning. He took a group birding and I get to have one of those lazy relaxing days, just doing not much of anything. Bob, Sue, Ilsa, Bill, Mel and Beth do some sight seeing while Karen, Van and I hold down the fort. I finish the wash, catch up on paperwork and read a third of my trashy novel where the heroine finds the perfect man after a stormy start. When Bert returns home, he tells me that his driver does not speak English and he was unable to ask for Mel and Beth’s refund. They decided the trip would be too long for them after I had already paid. So I walk up to the restaurant and ask for Jose. Wouldn’t you know it, but today is Jose’s day off. Lukas tells me Jose does not have a phone. I say I saw him with a cell phone. Lukas says he does not have his number. All this is done in Spanish of course. I think he tells me that Jose will find me later this evening. I walk back and finish my wine, sitting with a few others. Still no Jose, so both Bert and I walk up to the restaurant. Again we go through the preceding conversation but this time Lukas asks if we have a car. Bert looks at me and I say, “He wants to know if we have a car.” Ha, I understood that and Bert did not. We say yes and understand that he will take us to Jose’s house. We drive into town and find ourselves outside of the travel agency. Lukas talks to the driver in fast Spanish. The driver talks back and points to the man inside who appears to be a cashier. Lukas talks more fast Spanish. The cashier talks fast Spanish but his Spanish does not seem friendly. Lukas motions us to follow him back to the car and I think he says we are going to meet Jose at a restaurant. You can imagine my surprise when we go back to the campground. So I ask again about Jose. I think Lucas says he will come either within an hour or in the morning at 8 AM. I tell him we are leaving at 7 AM for Chetumal. He nods. Bert and I return to R-Tent-III thinking this is hopeless. We eat a late dinner, take our showers and settle into bed when we hear a tap on our door. I grab my robe and, low and behold, it is Alejandro. He tells us we can get a refund, but only half. I argue a little bit until Bert says take the half. It is better than nothing. He is right there. So goes life in Mexico. I really am surprised though that we got half the money back. Alejandro could have figured that he would never see me again and pocket the money. To his credit, he came out late at night and gave us the money. Another example of how wrong the Mexican stereotype can be. Mel and Beth should be half happy anyway. I wonder which half. Ha!
(Bert) Craters-on-the-moon clouds spread across the eastern sky. A Serengetti sun shines through the morning mist and across the grasslands. Leaving Palenque, we caravan across the Usumacinta marshes, the mist having thickened into fog. Wood Storks prop erectly beside small pools of water and the gangly fliers wing black and white past our windows. Eastward, the fog clears in the drier brushlands and we see a Laughing Falcon perched prominently near Ojo de Agua, and a few miles farther see a White-tailed Kite hovering over breakfast. At our first rest break a small flock of Gray-breasted Martins perch long enough to photograph. Late in the morning a Black-headed Trogon glides across the road, showing just enough of its yellow belly and blue-black back for me to identify in that split second. By lunch, the thermometer has pushed past 95° and the arid deciduous forest looks brittle and gray, offset by yellow flowers everywhere. The limestone ground pokes through between shrubs and I wonder how the plants grow in so little topsoil. But looking up, the vanilla Cotton Candy skies provide a relieving contrast. The long day’s travel becomes tedious and the scenery repetitious until by mile 280 we break into the lush farming areas of coastal Quintana Roo. Here I announce a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron in a wetland, but most of those behind me cannot see the bird from their vehicles. Past a few rarely visited Mayan ruins and then into the city of Chetumal, we reach our campsite on the Caribbean after 5 PM, but still early enough for a margarita party by the sea.
(Shari) I keep thinking that one of these days I will have nothing interesting to write about. The day starts out that way. It is supposed to be just a long boring driving day, in fact, some 324 mi. worth. I expect to arrive at camp at 3:30 PM, as we did that last few years, but this group drives slower, we encountered some early fog, some late road construction and a slow gas stop. All of this puts us in at almost 5 PM. One of the ladies in our group has been battling an annoying infection since Oaxaca and I told her I would take her to the doctor in Chetumal since it has pretty good medical facilities. But we get in so late that I think nothing will be open until the morning. She talks to an English-speaking young man, who tells her of an English-speaking clinic that is open all night. She arranges for a cab and intends to go alone. IN NO WAY WILL I LET HER DO THAT. So I go with her, asking the name of the clinic and asking what we tell the return taxi driver so that we return home and not Cancun. Armed with my purse, Spanish translator and logbook, off we go. The clinic is in downtown Chetumal and I write down the streets every time we turn. We are dropped off in front of the clinic and pay the cab fare. Walking in the door, my nose gives the first impression. Strong antiseptic smells emanate throughout. Next my eyes see every chair occupied by Mexicans waiting for what I assume to be the doctor. I think this is going to be a long night. Walking up to the reception desk, we give the lady our names. She speaks good English and tells us to wait. Walking across the cracked but clean linoleum floor to a hallway lined with an assortment of chairs, wrought iron and wooden benches, we find seats. After about 30 min., I ask how long a wait remains. The receptionist tells us about another 20 min. Sitting down again, I make friends with a little girl and we play with a cute baby. There are hordes of children in the waiting room and in the hallways and no one seems to be going into any doors to see a doctor. No one seems really sick either. In about 20 min., we are told to stand in front of a door. When the person comes out, we are to go in. About 5 min. later, we are meeting Dr. Pedro Miguel Rosaldo Garcia-Medico Internista-UNAM. He speaks fair English, asks her what is wrong, pokes around her tummy, takes her weight, has her lay on a couch covered with a sheet, pokes around some more and writes out three prescriptions. He says she will feel better in 12 days and she is not to have milk, cheese, acid fruits, beer or alcohol. She is to drink plenty of water and finish her pills. The doctor bill comes to $30 and another $30 for medicine. We walk outside to hail another taxi. Most taxis pass us by, one stops, but when told we want to go to Calderitas, he shakes his head no and drives away. After 5-10 min. of standing in the street and waving, a taxi with a woman and two kids in the front seat with the driver stops and tells us the fare will be $2.50. We get in. The taxi turns the wrong way and I say, “No es Calderitas.” The driver says a lot in fast Spanish and we assume he is taking home the woman with children. We wiggle around Chetumal for 10 min. and I have no idea where we are. Soon the driver does a returno, stops in the middle of the street and drops off his three passengers. He quickly continues and I start to recognize landmarks. He almost passes up the RV Park but we tell him to stop. My friend pays the fare, we get out and I let out a huge sigh of relief. She thinks this little experience was just such great fun, but I am glad to be home and would have been content not to have anything to write about today.
(Bert) Mayans settled along the seashore, building numerous villages in this area. Most appear now as just a pile of rocks overgrown by deciduous forest. One that has been partially cleared and restored is Oxtankah and that is where we visit this morning. Almost no tourists come here, at least not at the early morning hours when the birding is best and the forest coolest. Near the ruins, the mid story brush has been removed, giving us a clear view of birds more hidden at other sites. Trogons and motmots are numerous. We see at least five Blue-crowned Motmots and most of these we encounter several times, first posing on one branch and then gliding gracefully to another, posing again. We can distinguish the subspecies as lessoni since a black “toupee” centers each blue crown. White-tipped Doves are most often heard, not seen. Yet today we find many feeding on the forest floor. I dismiss another in flight as White-tipped, but then Judy R. comments that this one looks different. I look where it has landed and agree. We align a scope on it and see the subtle differences in the pastel pinks, grays and blues and I recognize this is a Gray-fronted – formerly Gray-headed – Dove. The dove remains long enough for all of us to study its colors, an opportunity I’ve not had before since this species is elusive and difficult to recognize even when seen. While studying other doves – a find two more Gray-fronteds – we watch a Central American Agouti feeding in the leaf litter, seemingly unaware of us a hundred yards away. We observe the shy pig-like rodent for 8-10 minutes. Although we add many new species to our list, notably Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yucatan Vireo, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Golden-olive Woodpecker – the most sought after bird eludes us at the ruins. Judy most wanted to see a puffbird that usually hangs out near the entrance, but not today. While searching the area, Judy and Cindy do come across a Crane Hawk, a worthy find, but not the puffbird. I return to camp with my carload and about 15 min. later Cindy excitedly drives up to my rig saying Judy screamed from inside the car when she saw a White-necked Puffbird perched beside the road, just a block from the campground. I return with Cindy to the spot where Judy stands, but the bird has left by the time we get there. Back again, Shari and I have lunch under a palapa beside the Caribbean and talk about Kathe and Colleen, since we know through e-mail that they are camped within a few miles of us. Just as we speak, up walk the two ladies. The two have traveled all over Mexico and Central America and Kathe writes journals just as we do, although she combines multiple days into one saga. We’ve learned a lot about new places to add to our itinerary from them and we crossed paths this winter at a campground in Arizona. Now they tell us about their plans to buy seaside property here and perhaps spend up to 6 mo. a year in this area. By today’s measurement of sun, sea breeze and Caribbean view, I’m sure many in our group would like to join them.
(Shari) Life is good. I am at my favorite campground of the trip. The nose of R-Tent-III is pointed to the clear blue-green waters of the Caribbean and a tropical breeze blows through the windows. A new addition to the campground this year is a swimming pool and after lunch, I enjoy its cool waters. Two new friends of ours, Colleen and Kathe come over for a visit and we chat of our experiences since we last saw each other on a December Arizona afternoon. Later in the afternoon, another caravan arrives with 17 rigs. Because we have most of the RV spots, they are forced to park hither and yon wherever they can find a spot, yet not blocking our exit tomorrow. It is a struggle, but they make it and we are tight as sardines in a can. There goes the neighborhood! At 5 PM we all meet under the palapa for a cookout, each of us bringing meat to grill and a dish to share. We talk about our Belize entry tomorrow, before eating and calling it a night.
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