Chapter 12. Mexico II
(Shari) “Where you want to go lady”, a man on a bicycle asks me as I am trying to decipher the map that the guard at the other border crossing gave me. This day is not turning out to be easy. From the time we regrouped at the gas station until now, it has been one problem to solve after another and we have not even left Guatemala. As soon as we pull out of the gas station, we see that a bridge is out. Four others have followed and we hear over the CB that the gas station attendant says we have to take the left fork at the “Y” and therefore cross at a different border. Our log book does not give us directions to the other border. We, in addition to the three that followed us on the right-hand fork, make a U-turn and we travel blind, following signs to Mexico frontera. We come to a closed border gate but a guard says this is only for trucks and that tourists must go to another border. I ask him where and he proceeds to rattle off directions that are way beyond my Spanish abilities. I get out a piece of paper and make a dot in the lower left corner with the word “aqui” (here) written by it. I ask “Puede hace una mapa, por favor?” He does and after thanking him we proceed. Unfortunately the map ends in the center of a border town before we reach anything like a border crossing. We turn right onto a major street and hope for the best. Unfortunately again, we come to some arches that we cannot drive under and now have the choice of turning right or left. I get out of R-Pup-Tent to ask directions. Just then a young man on a bike asks, “Where you want to go lady?” After telling him “To the Mexican border”, he says “Follow me” and gets on his bike and pedals down the street to the right. Then we go left and make more turns thereafter. People just stop and stare at this procession of rigs following a bicycle. Talk about a unique Easter parade! All we need are some bonnets, baskets and colored eggs. Finally we reach a parking area near the border and are greeted by another young man, named Erick. He wonders where Sue is. Sue and Dan were Panama Wagonmasters in 2004 and Erick remembers them. Erick must have liked Sue since he asks numerous times about her. He tells us that Sue paid him $80 for his services. That sounds very high to me, but unbeknown to Erick, I have Sue’s budget. He has a sheepish look on his face when he is caught in his lie. But since he was so extremely helpful we give him $40.
We gather passports and papers and while Bert, Arleen and Bob take care of exiting Guatemala, I go back to the rig, turn on the generator and attempt to decipher a route to our camping spot for the night. I have no complete log, nor GPS track. I do have partial logs of when Dan and Sue were at this border in 2006 and stayed at a grocery store for the night and also when Lester and Nancy were at another border and stayed at the airport. Maybe the two tracks will meet and then I can figure out a log. I am in luck and after some cutting and pasting of GPS tracks and transferring them from the computer to my GPS, I have a route. I also have three log books, our current one, Arleen’s from five years ago crossing at this border but staying at a grocery store and Dan’s.
After finishing up at the Mexico border, I soon find out that Arleen’s does not have enough points of reference and Dan’s is off by at least 10 mi. So for a good 45 min. we are traveling blind. Bert says are we going north and I say yes. So all is well since the GPS says we are heading towards last year’s tracks. The tracks meet and now we should be on our log. Soon I find the gas station mentioned and announce to the group that we are now at mile 163.8 in our log book. What a relief! We take the group to a Sam’s Club to replenish our depleted larders. It takes us awhile to determine the entrance into the airport parking lot but we figure it out, park everyone and have margaritas to relax. I sure do not want to repeat today anytime soon. But you know what? Today’s border was my last unknown border. We only have one more to go and that is Mexico/U.S. Hurrah!
(Bert) I have a story about a bribe, but let me tell you about the morning first. Traveling through the Pacific lowlands of Guatemala is a pretty drive, especially compared to the last three countries we’ve passed through. Easter Sunday traffic on the freeways is light, at least for the first few hours. We retrace most of the way the bus took us to Los Tarrales, with an almost constant view of towering volcanoes. Except for a few villages, the farmlands and vacant fields are sparsely populated. We stop for fuel and upon restarting we face a fork. The road log tells us to curve right but immediately after doing so we come to a closed bridge. I’m sure Shari will tell you how we got out of that dilemma, and jump to the alternative border we find at Tecún. While Shari is on the computer in R-Pup-Tent trying to work out directions to Tapachula, I’m working the steps through the border. No other vehicles are parked at the border; no other people are in line at Aduana or at Migracion, so the procedure moves as fast as the clerk can look up and enter data in the computer and to stamp passports. The only hitch is that Guatemala wants us to pay double to cross the border on a weekend or maybe she said on a Sunday or maybe she meant on a holiday. Whatever, Arlene only allocated enough quetzals for the regular fees and we have to revert to dollars for the remainder. It seems no one can do the calculation by hand and finally I call Shari on the personal radio to get a calculator and tell me the answer, which turns out to be about $12 less than the clerk asked for originally.
We move our vehicles to the Mexico side and pass through fumigation and then park again. While Arlene is paying for fumigation and Shari is handling passports and Mexican visas, I am standing at the head of the line where inspection will occur. A man approaches, accompanied by a Mexican border official in uniform. In good English he tells me we came to the wrong border and the Panama caravan that was here before us had trouble passing through this same border. He tells me we are not allowed to bring large RV’s through this border, pointing to Bob’s and Gilford’s rigs. I tell him we have ten small rigs and only two big rigs. He says we cannot go through. I tell him the bridge was closed and this is the only place to cross. He tells me there is another, naming a town I do not recognize and implying it is a long way from here. Then he kindly points to his uniform-wearing friend and says he will make an exception and will pass us through and will not make an inspection if we pay him $20 per rig, i.e., $240. I tell him I will need to talk to the others first.
I knew what was going on, but headed back to get more information. Eric, the border helper we found, tells me there is no such rule and we should tell the man we will not pay. I talk to the English-speaking official at immigration and he says we can cross at this border, but does not comment on the inspection incident. I walk back to the rigs to find Tom, asking him if he has his video camera handy. He does, so Tom accompanies me back to the inspection station. With Tom holding up his camera and apparently videotaping the conversation, I tell the man that I will not pay the money and that the immigration officer says we can go through this border and that the inspector can enter our vehicles. The man says the immigration officer has no control of the inspection, but the video camera makes him nervous. He steps aside and talks to the inspector and quickly returns to tell me that the inspector has made an exception and will allow us to pass this time as a courtesy to us, but to please stop videotaping. Later Eric comes up to me and asks what I said to the man to make him so frightened of me.
While I relate the story of this bribery attempt, I must point out that in nine years of traveling through Mexico, this is my first personal experience of attempted bribery. I do know of a very few other attempts on others in our caravan, but the only times when an American on our tours has paid a bribe to a Mexican was when the American was in the wrong and was trying to get out the situation quickly and cheaply. Other times they refused to pay, often using a camera or a report form to begin documenting the transaction, whereupon the officer backed down.
Shari’s excellent research on an alternative route leads us to Sam’s Club in Tapachula. Compared to all the places we have shopped in the past 2+ months, this store is extravagantly stocked with more variety than all the other stores put together. I even find – but do not buy – a fifth of Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label for 1,995 pesos.
(Bert) Travel this morning is along the Chiapas coastal plain between the Pacific Ocean and abruptly rising mountains that continue to Palenque. Sparsely populated, the land is allocated to grazing cattle, date and coconut palms, mango orchards, marshes, but mostly vacant humid brushlands. We cross dozens of bridges over rocky alluvial wash and flat streams flowing from the mountains to the sea.
In Puerto Arista, we park on each side of the boulevard in front of a beachside hotel and not long afterward twelve of us pour into Mark & Joanie’s RV and head toward Boca de Cielo on a road that seems is several miles of a continuous village one building wide on either side of the road and interspersed with dozens of topes. Arriving at the sandy beach of Boca de Cielo we see lots of boating and swimming activity, but no mud flats in high tide. The direct sunlight is intense and under the shade of a concrete observation deck we scan the shoreline and short sandbar. Most is ordinary, but we do see Reddish Egret and add Marbled Godwit to the trip list. Hoping for better birds we head back on the country road, stopping again at a bridge to search the brushlands and farm pastures for Giant Wren. I’m photographing a young Crested Caracara when Mark yells that he has the wren. All of us rush to his vantage point only to find the wren has hidden in a brush pile a hundred yards from the road. We scan for the wren and I even play a recording. After 15 min. still no wren. Lee finds a gate into the pasture and we walk to the brush pile and adjacent large overhanging trees. Spread out, we continue our search. Then Lee and I hear the wren calling from atop the tree behind us and within a minute Lee locates the bird. We call all the others to the spot and everyone gets to see the Giant Wren before I play my recording and two spring from the tree, flying over us to the other tree. Now we get even better looks and photos of the rufous and white wren. I doubt many birders have Giant Wren on their life list as its range is restricted to a narrow strip of coastal Chiapas from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec almost to the Guatemalan border, an infrequently visited part of Mexico.
I’m hot by the time we return from birding and a swim in the Pacific Ocean is welcome relief. The water is again quite warm and the waves are high, easily pushing me from deep water to the beach as I body surf. Shari and I order the pan-fried shrimp at the beachside restaurant, enjoying the cool breeze after the sun is long below the horizon.
(Bert) It’s about 4:30 when I hear an owl outside R-Pup-Tent. The short somewhat slurred staccato notes come in quick sequences of three or four to a burst, never more. In my experience, that identifies Central American Pygmy-Owl and when I talk to others who also heard the owl, they agree. Yet Howell’s range maps do not indicate that the owl occurs on the Pacific coast in this southeastern corner of Mexico.
I also hear a distant White-bellied Chachalaca at the northern limit of its range before we start another travel day. I see a good many birds and the real surprise is a Common Raven. Here it is at almost the farthest south point in Mexico and I’ve also seen them as far north as Barrow, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean, an impressive range for a non-migratory bird.
Again, the highway runs between the Pacific and the mountains, but now the land is less planar and more rugged. Stiff winds and strong gusts make driving a two-handed requirement even at 45 mph. Chris has to stop to secure his RV awning. We come to an enormous windmill plantation, dozens (hundreds?) of giant windmills spinning in the perpetual winds flowing from the down slope of the mountains.
We arrive at Tehuantepec before lunch and I announce a 2 PM departure for birding the thorn forest a half-hour’s drive west of the coastal city. I’ve birded this area twice before and know from experience that birds are sparse and easily missed. I expect mid afternoon will be even slower so I am pleasantly surprised when we find a few Orange-breasted Buntings almost immediately after we begin birding. These peacock blue and bright yellow birds appear even more vivid against the dull background of dry brushlands. We find a few more birds, sparsely dispersed, the best being a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo that quickly hides beneath a brush pile. When the bird remains fixed, Clay offers to approach the brush and even stomp on some of the outlying branches, yet the bird does not appear. A half hour later when Mark and I return to the pile we see the ground-cuckoo lurking at its edge, apparently having stayed inside in spite of Clay’s effort to roust it.
Birding is getting a bit dull so I try my vocal imitation of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. White-lored Gnatcatchers appear immediately, followed by an Ash-throated Flycatcher, an active Doubleday’s Hummingbird – local version of Broad-billed – a small flock of Orange-bellied Buntings, a couple of Stripe-headed Sparrows, a Cinnamon-tailed Sparrow (Sumicrast’s), and a distantly responding pair of pygmy-owls. While thrilling to the sight of the Sumicrast’s, a very narrowly ranged species, we notice a few other buntings in the Orange-bellied flock and I quickly take photos. We soon recognize we’ve got female Rose-bellied Buntings, most commonly known as Rosita’s Buntings. So in one setting we see almost all of the specialties of the local thorn forest and every one of our target birds. On our drive on the dirt road we stop for a Hook-billed Kite perched inside the thorn forest at close view. It jumps to the ground and we can still see it as it works on a snail clamped tightly in its beak. I would not have expected to find this kite here.
(Shari) We start a little later this morning, after spending the night at our beach side street campground. The drive is relatively uneventful, except for the strong winds. Chris and Lee have trouble with their awnings and we stop to tighten them down. We arrive at the campground before lunch and people are out birding almost before they are parked. I am very surprised that the temperature is so cool (upper 80s). I have never been here at temperatures below 95º feeling like 105º. It is nice typing this in the shade. We have a pleasant margarita social and we say goodbye to Judy and Chris and May. They will travel straight home tomorrow. Everyone says nice things about the trip and we reminisce about our experiences. Doing that, we can’t help but remember how sick Chris was in San Jose. Clay mentions that he wanted to do something but all he and Joyce could do was pray for him. I know I prayed as well. Bert decides to cancel the bird count as it would seem to anticlimactic after all the speeches.
(Bert) At 5:30 I try to attract owls by my imitation of pygmy-owl and some owl recordings. We hear Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls from several directions, perhaps five or six in all, including one that calls from above us even as we shine a light on it. However, we do not get the other species. Later Chris tells me he heard Mottled Owl on the opposite side of our camping site and Ralph says he heard Pacific Screech-Owl much earlier. Now in daylight I search for Russet-crowned Motmot, a bird most of the others saw yesterday. We hear it call and then I see the last of the Central American motmots for our trip list.
Travel today is across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the only time in our travels when we will drive from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic in a single day. The highway takes us past many scenery changes: from dry and windy thorn forest at sea level, quickly climbing a mountain pass to 849 ft., descending to a broad basin and across palm studded secondary forests. At Matias Romero we stop at the enormous Pemex station where we camped overnight in 2003 and 2005. We climb over the opposite rim of the basin at 890 ft. and then make a slow descent toward the limestone plains at the western edge of the Yucatan peninsula. I recognize the turnoff where we previously visited the small remnant of primary forest that was still present three years ago. I wonder if it is still there, as everything we see today is denuded land with isolated trees unable to support the deep forest birds that once lived here. We cross from Oaxaca into the State of Veracruz, now on the Atlantic slope of Mexico. Here I notice the first signs of spring – new green leaves, more flowers, especially Pink Cassia – a sharp contrast from dry browns of the Pacific slope. We pass a small grass fire beside the highway and in the smoke I see an Aplomado Falcon perched on a bush and waiting to catch an escaping rodent.
We’ve entered Catamaco from the south several times, but always were unprepared for photographing the grand view of Lake Catamaco from high above in Los Tuxtlas mountains. This time Shari has the camera ready and I slow my pace so she can capture the view.
(Shari) Finally I am on familiar ground and I can let my eyes wander a bit to enjoy the scenery. I watch the outside temperature go down as we climb to almost 900 ft. and my body says hurrah. As soon as we cross to the other side of the mountain things start looking greener. Spring is arriving and we see new leaves on the trees. I guess on the west it must be just too dry for that to happen yet. They always say they only have two seasons: wet and dry. I understand that concept now. We arrive in Catemaco as a group because the directions to our camping spot are convoluted: turn right at the “Y” (it is narrow and looks wrong); go under the arches; turn left when the boulevard ends; go three short blocks and turn right; turn left and go one short block then turn right again; go up the hill past the hospital and turn right. I guess even I might get lost and I’ve done it before. We have everybody grab a parking spot beside the road before the last turn and Bert and I, Bob and Arleen go in to clear the way. It looks like they are expecting us since the parking lot is clear of cars. We no longer can park along the driveway by the lake but all other areas are okay. It takes a good 2 hr. to get everyone settled and finally we can level the RV, put out our slide and relax too. Bert does his bird count at the social and explains travel arrangements for tomorrow’s trip. It sounds like Gilford and Nelda are going to take 10 people in their truck with 5 riding in the trucks bed. They will look just like the natives. Tom and Charlu will take 3 in addition to themselves and there will be room for one more person if someone changes their mind in the morning. I had intended to eat at the restaurant tonight but so many people brought good snacks that I ate too much there. It will be good sleeping tonight as I have to either put on a sweater to stay longer outside or go inside.
(Bert) We leave in the 5:30 darkness in Gilford’s truck and Tom’s SUV, the two toughest vehicles we have for navigating the bad road to UNAM. In the darkness the drivers maneuver around the potholes until we get to Sontecompan. To my surprise the road is now paved since my last visit four years ago. I’ve driven this road a half-dozen times since 2001 and each time my notes say the road is worse than the previous time. Now it is smooth blacktop to UNAM, and in fact beyond to Monte Pio.
As we near UNAM we notice a red bird perched atop a utility pole in the open beside the road and after piling out of the vehicles and putting binoculars on the bird we are surprised it is a Red-crowned Ant-Tanager which is usually secretive. The first few hours are good birding around UNAM. We find a nesting Olive-backed Euphonia, hear a Ruddy Quail-Dove which I’ve not noted here before and watch a troop of Mantled Howlers feeding in the canopy. As Kay is calling me from somewhere behind me, I glance up and see a Yellow-headed Parrot fly over and disappear before I can draw attention to others. It is the first and likely will be the only one of these endangered birds we encounter on this trip. Later when I talk the UNAM administrator, see tells me they still have a few of the parrots regularly at UNAM. When I catch up with the rest of the group they are watching a female Long-tailed Sabrewing when to our surprise it flies to a nest and feeds three almost full-grown chicks. It quickly flies off and we wait for its return to get an even better look, as this is a life bird for most in the group. We wait at least 20 min., but the hummingbird does not return. Later as we walk the road to Laguna Escondida we see a male Long-tailed Sabrewing feeding on orange flowers in bright sunlight, a much better view and one easily photographed.
From the road we have a grand view of the farmlands, pastures and wooded edges all the way down to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico several miles distant. Montezuma Oropendolas fly by constantly, on their way to nests hanging from a grand tree in a field. We’ve looked at similar nests many times on this trip and this time we find a Giant Cowbird being run off by an oropendola. Vultures are the most common bird soaring above us and when Kay says, “Look, there is a vulture with a banded tail” we quickly look in her direction. I spot the high-flying pair and a third one and say “black-hawks”. Joanie studies them more diligently and says “Solitary Eagles”. I am reluctant to accept that as I know Solitary Eagles are particularly rare and often misidentified black-hawks. The raptors are very high in the sky and soon disappear over the mountain, so we are left without conclusive evidence. Fortunately, about an hour later and a mile down the road we see the pair again and this time they are flying lower. While Joanie and John study the birds through binoculars I aim my camera at them and switch to manual focus as they are too high for autofocus to zero in on them. While photographing I notice the grayish color that Joanie mentioned earlier. After they disappear I play back the photos and they confirm the extremely broad wings and comparatively short tail characteristic of eagles. Later when we return to UNAM headquarters I again talk to the administrator and she tells me the Solitary Eagles are regularly seen here, although not often recognized as such by birders.
[Comment from Bill Clark, noted hawk expert, after reading my journal and receiving my photos, “I go with adult Common Black Hawk. Note in the lightened image attached that your hawk shows the white at the base of the outer primaries, dark band on the secondaries, and legs that just reach the white tail band. Also the tail sticks out way too far beyond the tail for Solitary Eagle. See the attached picture of an adult Solitary Eagle. Note the uniformly colored secondaries, no white at the base of the outer primaries, and legs that almost reach the tail tip. The color of the underparts of both is almost the same. It is only the upperparts that appear grayer on adult eagles. I don't doubt that eagles occur in that area, but I think that they are rare."]
With the paved roads we are now able to visit more birding sites. We reach Monte Pio in about 10 min., compared to the 1 hr. plus I remember from other years. Unfortunately, the easy road has drawbacks for birding as the previous rock road had many places to pull off and bird, the roadway was more generously lined with trees and the severe difficulty made competing traffic far and few between. Now a constant procession of cars and trucks and even buses pass us by. When we arrive at Monte Pio, which was once a secluded beach visited by a dozen adventurous souls, we find hundreds of bathers, picnickers, horse riders and boating enthusiasts spread out across the sand and resting under large tents, protected from the bright sunlight. And this is Thursday. What are the weekends like? Getting out of our vehicles we immediately notice a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perched a few feet above us in a bare tree. I take photographs and everyone looks through binoculars, drawing the attention of a small boy. He now sees the owl too and eagerly comes towards us, his sling-shot at the ready. I motion him away and Nelda scolds. Undeterred, the boy ducks behind a car and when we leave he tries again for the owl, but fortunately the bird has flown away to safety. An hour later Lee and I again find the pygmy-owl, this time with its mate at their nesting site, a hole in a palm tree stump, about 4 ft. off the ground.
(Shari) Catemaco is one of my favorite spots. Sean Connery stayed at the hotel here when he filmed Medicine Man. My favorite place to spend some time is at the tables next to the lake. I love to take my morning coffee there and just watch the lake. Every day is different. Yesterday the lake was a bit misty and I couldn’t see the mountains that I know surround the lake. Today is clear and the lake is calm yet gray. Sometimes it looks blue and sometimes it has lots of waves. Today is idyllic and men are out fishing hopefully catching the fish I intend to eat at the restaurant tonight. I go for a swim in the pool and find the water quite cold but refreshing.
(Bert) Yesterday was an exhausting day of birding, especially in the afternoon of bright sunlight at the beach and farmlands, so we start later this morning at 6:30 and will only bird a half-day. We hope to get to primary forests where Tuxtla Quail-Dove still occurs as I have been told that the road has now been paved in that direction. Mark is driving his RV so we will be limited by road conditions. We follow the road curving around Lake Catamaco to the spur to Ej. Miguel Hidalgo and continue on the graveled country road to lowland secondary forests. Migration is apparent in the numbers of warblers (10 species) and 100s of Indigo Buntings, most now in bright blue plumage. Most of the birds this morning are common to us and probably for the first day we do not add to our trip list. The best bird is a Plain-capped Starthroat. We return to Coyame and then attempt to take another road to high country, but it quickly changes into a 4-wheel drive road and we have to back down the street to turn around. I guess the Tuxtla Quail-Dove will have to wait until another year. In the afternoon I get on the Internet, this being my first available connection since Choluteca, Honduras, over two weeks ago.
(Shari) Everyone has been knocking on my door since last night, bringing me cans of this and that. I told the group I would make a Mexican stone soup for dinner tonight and I have been opening cans of beans, tomatoes, vegetables, chicken, green chili’s and corn since early morning. Someone brought me some rice and another brought noodles. Others brought onions or carrots or yellow peppers. I add seasonings and taste. I cook awhile and taste some more. The soup simmers all day and everyone says the finished product is good. I would never be able to recreate that recipe again though. Nelda treats us with some homemade cornbread and we all enjoy the meal after a very very very long bird count.
(Bert) Mountain roads through the Los Tuxtlas previously were broken pavement and potholes, but no more. The smooth blacktop still winds through the mountains and small towns. Fortunately the slow trucks are gone today too, so we make good time. Only the topes slow us down and Nelda reports we crossed 137 today, probably an all time record. The village of Vega de Alatora had the most with 15 topes.
I thought birders might be burned out, but several kept lists of birds seen during the drive and together we get 69 species in route. My best were Purple Gallinule in the marshes south of Alvarado and a Collared Araçari near Alvarado. Nelda saw Fork-tailed Flycatcher and during our lunch stop Mark birded at my favorite Pemex station near Cardel, finding Ovenbird and Yellow-breasted Chat.
At our campsite in Costa Esmeralda I swim in the warm ocean. I can now make the claim of having swum in the Pacific and the Atlantic in the same week.
(Bert) The overcast morning and lackluster route dim in comparison to the farewell activities in late afternoon and evening. We stop in Tampico at a pullout beside the marshes and try for Altamira Yellowthroat at a place I’ve found them other years. We find a few other birds and no Altamiras, perhaps because the intense midday sun is not conducive to activity. Mark and Joanie take a few out again to Mata de Labra, adding still more birds to the trip list: Sedge Wren and Greater Roadrunner. They return just before 5 PM when the festivities begin.
After Shari conducts her final travel meeting, this time even using a white board chart to show the convoluted route at the U.S./Mexico border crossing, she reads what her expectations were when we started the trip and then how all were met, including encountering difficulties and solving them. Shari reminds us how this Central American journey was the trip of a lifetime, the envy of others who cannot believe it possible and an experience we will never forget.
Clay takes the microphone and with the skills of a Chamber of Commerce Master of Ceremonies, he entertains us with the presentation of a dubious award, only awarded once before and that to John James Audubon, to Lee for his exemplary services at insuring all of us got to see the Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow he staked out in Belén. Then he presents an impressive critique on what makes a great caravan trip, passing up the typical responses of wonderful scenery, long bird lists, great sightseeing and unique experiences. Instead, Clay focuses on the people of our caravan and zeroes in on each of us individually, finding personal characteristics that contributed to the overall enjoyment of this trip. Each of us contributed something, whether it was birding skills, organization, entertainment, inspiring education, admirable services, uplifting support or commendable perseverance. We will remember the friendships we’ve made and will maintain for years to come, even after the recollections of trip experiences dim.
Next, Pat has another one of her poems, a penchant she has entertained us with on many previous trips. Written in the past few weeks and set to rhyme, she relates the nature and habits of each individual, usually finding the comical side, and describing the person without offering the name. It takes only a few poetic lines for us to recognize who she describes. I always take photographs at these farewell sessions and capture the most natural smiles and laughter of people enjoying life at its fullest.
Marks suggests we go around the circle and name our favorite bird of the trip. Clay most enjoyed the courtship performances of the White-collared Manakin at Tikal and several list Snowcap as the best bird, seen often at El Copal. Mark and Joyce were most impressed with the colorful Red-headed Barbet, watched within a few feet of us at Cinchona. Joanie’s favorite was the Song Wren, a tough yet rewarding find at El Copal. I consider the whole family of colorful tanagers as favorites, especially at El Copal. Shari lists Vermiculated Screech-Owl and I rebuke her that it was last year’s bird and she cannot keep reminding everyone that she has seen what I have not. John considers his favorites the elusive forest birds, these being the greatest challenge to a birder and the ones we did quite well at on this trip. Lee naturally lists Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow at Belén, since he had just received notification of the 1,000,000 peso award to be given at the ranch in Crawford, Texas.
We follow with Shari’s dinner, a treat to all of us, of Sloppy Joe’s, potato chips and cake, a typical U.S. picnic meal and a reminder that tomorrow we cross the final border.
(Shari) Bert and I traditionally give a “thank you dinner” on the last night before reaching the USA border. Usually we grill hamburgers but since R-Pup-Tent is too small to take a grill, I decided to make Sloppy Joe’s. I prepared the meat while in Catemaco and I made the cake last night. All I need to do is heat the meat in the oven, heat the ranch beans on the stove, make the salad, and serve the cake and chips. Before we eat, however, I conduct my last travel meeting.
Clay has told me he wants to say a few words and his few words must last 30 min. but it is 30 min. well spent. He starts out telling us of his 30-year position on the board of directors of a birding association. This association gives annual awards only to worthy recipients. However no award ever has been given since the board could never come to a unanimous decision until this year. This year’s recipient went to all out lengths, even facing danger and bodily harm, to show a group birders a bird (but I don’t remember what he called it). It takes awhile for me to realize Clay is telling this tongue-in-cheek but I think the whole group gets it when he says the award will be 1000000 pesos to be given in January 2009 in Crawford, Texas, to Lee. After this speech he tells us of the reasons this caravan has not been just good or very good, but excellent. He then proceeds to talk about each one of us in rig order mentioning our unique strengths that contributed to the whole. You can’t spend 79 days with someone and not get a picture of what they are like and Clay does a remarkable job putting it into words.
Our next treat for the evening is Pat’s poem. She is so creative and also has put her finger on the essence of each of us. She does it in verse, interesting and funny, and entertains the whole group. Meanwhile Bert is snapping pictures and gets some really good close-ups of relaxed people enjoying their time together. Finally at 6:30 we begin to eat and everyone must enjoy the menu since they eat heartily. By the time food is cleaned up and the dishes are put away, I decide I no longer want to join Bert for a swim but only want to go to sleep.
(Bert) Last night Nelda commented that we’ve had no flat tires and no broken springs on this trip. Shari suggested she “knock on wood”. At 6 AM this morning I’m standing in the parking lot as others are getting ready for our departure and I comment to Tailgunner Bob, “Let’s not have any problems today” and he readily agrees. Fifteen minutes later we lead the first group of rigs north. Midmorning, about a dozen miles north of Sota de Marina, Nelda announces on the CB that they see smoke coming from their 5th-wheel tires. Gilford pulls out onto a small rough opening at the side of the road and the rest of us continue until we can pull off and I can turn R-Pup-Tent around. When I reach the disabled RV I see it has a broken spring. We radio the second group and Bob stops to help Gilford, while the rest of us continue on to the border.
After lunch and refueling with Mexico’s less expensive fuel, we reach the border at Hidalgo. Having studied the convoluted exit route this past January we have no problem getting our RV’s around the buildings and through the booth that removes vehicle permits while Shari carries the passports inside for all of us. We cross the bridge into the U.S. and wait in line. When I reach the border officer he asks a few perfunctory questions and passes me through. This is the fastest border crossing of the trip and the fastest we have ever crossed from Mexico into the U.S.
We go our separate ways, but meet again this evening at Olive Garden for a farewell dinner that delightfully includes all the fresh salad we can eat, the treat we miss most when dining south of the border. We wonder what happened to Gilford, Nelda, Bob and Arlene and then they appear and we hear the story of patching the spring together with an ill-fitting piece and driving slowly the last 100+ miles. Nelda and Arlene tell me about the bird they kept hearing while the men were working on the RV. It kept saying “pretty bird” and I tell them it must have been a White-bellied Wren. The last bird species of the trip is the 6-8 Sandhill Cranes that Mark and Joanie watched fly near Sota de Marina, our 720th trip bird.
(Shari) Our last day of travel and as is my custom I say a prayer for safety without incident, accident or mechanical breakdown. Today my prayer was not to be answered in the expected way. Poor Nelda and Gilford see smoke coming from their rear tires about 100 mi. from the border. They pull off to the side and we hear about it on the CB. This section of road is lonely and narrow and it takes us a few miles to find a spot to pull off. We tell our small group to wait while we turn around to see what we can do. We find out they broke a spring. We wait with them until Tailgunner Bob arrives and we then take the rest of the group on to the border. We reach the border and wonder of all wonders, the crossing goes lickety-split. Last night at the travel meeting I told those who were not getting their vehicle stickers removed to take the right fork at the border and wait for us on the side of the road. Those that were to take their stickers off were to follow Bert and me on the road we had scouted out in January. We take the left fork and turn right behind the immigration building. While Bert waits in the line for vehicles I take the passports I had gathered at lunchtime to the immigration window to get stamped out of Mexico. For some reason Mike and Kay did not have their visa stamped paid when they got it and I have to call Mike to pay (repay) the money. Luckily the clerk lets us pay him the fee and stamp them out of the country. I finish my task before everyone’s stickers are removed and I return passports to their owners. After everyone makes the convoluted turns out of the lot we cross the Rio Grande and get into one of the ten lines of cars entering enter the USA. Boy, oh boy, does that red, white and blue flag look good. We enter the USA within 45 min. of arriving at the Mexico side of the border. That must be a record time. After cleaning up we meet 15 others at Olive Garden for a last hurrah. We have a wonderful meal, filling up on salad, and extend our goodbyes promising to stay in touch.
(Shari) This is not an April Fool’s joke but a summary of my perspective on the trip. The following paragraph is what I wrote before the trip started.
January 8, 2008. “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” Remember that commercial on TV? Well with the same tone of surprise and incredibility I say to myself “I can’t believe I am doing this.” Am I crazy to drive from Texas to Costa Rica? Some of you know the farthest south I ever traveled by land is Tikal, Guatemala. Now I intend to lead a group of people through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and then back. Am I nuts? More importantly are fellow travelers nuts for going along? I have spent months studying maps and GPS tracks and reading previous Wagonmaster’s guides in preparation. I have searched the Internet and used Google Earth for studying our campgrounds from the air. I have just about memorized each border procedure and I have made a folder for every border crossing that includes copies of documents needed for everyone. I can prepare no more. I just have to hold my breath and go. And you know what? I am excited about this trip. I think it will be one of our best. It sure is not one that many people get to do in a lifetime; the opportunities to see some fantastic scenery abound. When Bert and I flew to Costa Rica in November of 2006 to scout it out for this trip, I found that country the prettiest I had ever visited to date. (And I have been all over Europe and Australia). The fact that 10 of the 11 rigs on the trip have traveled with us before, does not hurt the situation. In fact Bert and I have started to call the group our “all stars”. Bob and Arlene from our previous two trips to Belize are again our Tailgunners. In addition to being great at that job, they have been on two caravans to Panama in the past. I will be relying heavily on their expertise I am sure. So as always, I start the trip with great optimism and anticipation. Will we have problems? You bet. Will be overcome them? You bet. Will we remember this trip as one of a kind? You bet. Stay tuned as the next 2-1/2 months unfold. I think you readers are in for a treat.
Now, April 1, at the finish of our Central America trip: Did we have problems? You bet Did we overcome them? You bet. Will we remember this trip as one of a kind? You bet we will. Am I glad I did it? You bet.
We saw some wonderful stuff, met some wonderful people, ate some great food and met everyone’s expectations. They wanted to see birds and boy did they see birds. Well over 700 species to be exact. Some had lifers in the 300s. I found most everything to be better than I anticipated. Better weather (cooler), better roads (the only bad ones are in Mexico), easier border crossings (longest was about 4.5 hr.), superior side trips, and bus arrangements that worked without a hitch and ran on time. I never felt unsafe and often forgot I was in a foreign country.
My favorite countries were Costa Rica and Guatemala. Guatemala was a surprise since my first visit was not favorable. It is a country that seems to be emerging from its Third World status and has fancy subdivisions, fast freeways, and lots of construction. It also has fantastic mountainous scenery, lush with green forests, coffee plantations and farmland. It is a country I would like to visit again sometime. I did not like El Salvador. It seemed the poorest of the countries we visited and the one I had the most difficulty with communication. Hardly a soul even knows one word of English so all transactions had to be done in my poor Spanish. Since we spent our time on the west side in their dry season it appeared dusty and dirty. Maybe that would be different in the wet season. It was also too crowded for my tastes. Honduras was also a pleasant surprise and the area around Copán was beautiful. If any one asks us about our trip, we will have hours of things to say about it. It truly was a trip of a lifetime and not many people get to do.
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