Chapter 2. San Carlos, Sonora
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2000 All rights reserved.
(Shari) 6:45 AM begins the CB check. "Number 2, are you there?" asks the Wagon Master. Number 2 answers affirmatively and so it goes down the line. At 7 AM sharp the Wagon Master pulls out of his spot and the rest of the group orderly falls in behind him. We bring up the rear and announce when we leave the campground and are on the road. The border is only 5.3 miles from here. We are waived through that inspection station and continue on the nice new bypass of Nogales with ease, paying 94 pesos in tolls. All of us are told to set our odometers at zero when we leave the campground. The caravan company has made a booklet - much like The Milepost which we used in Alaska - that designates different things at various mile markers. Milepost 11.2 is a new immigration building where we may or may not process our papers. We do not and again are waved through. Finally at milepost 19 we slow down and pull off to the right. This is where we all get out, papers in hand, and begin the process of entering Mexico. We are handed tourist cards that each of us completes. This card is taken to a man behind a counter who looks at it and stamps each copy with red ink. We must then go to the copy center and make copies of it along with copies of our passport and vehicle registration form. Bert takes the papers for the motor home and I take the papers for the car. Again we wait in line for our car sticker. In spite of four open counters, it seems to take forever. Sometimes the clerk disappears with one or another of our papers and is gone for a long time, leaving you wondering if you will get into the country or not. It costs us another 160 pesos to get our vehicle permits. This little silver card is our bond that we will return with our car back to the United States and not sell the car in Mexico. We are to return the remaining piece of paper at the border on our return or our credit card will be charged for the tax or the value of the car - I never did understand which. At 9:30 we are finished and off we go again. Next we pass through customs and, surprisingly, none of us are boarded and searched. The guards only want to see our paperwork for the vehicles. No sooner have we completed our crossing when Virginia & Ralph's hitch comes loose. As a good tailgunner should, we stop behind them and help Ralph unhitch. Virginia has to drive the car separately now until the hitch can be welded. I decide to ride with Virginia and we have a nice talk as we travel the miles to our destination. Bert follows us and we make tracks to catch up with the rest of the group. As we travel I try to read the billboards along the roadside. With all my Spanish, I can make out maybe one-third of the words. However, that is not enough to tell me what the sign says. I know I am not to do something or something is happening to my left, or some kind of chicken is being served at Jose's, etc. I finally get my English/Spanish dictionary and that helps. I am not to stop on the shoulder; the road narrows to my left and Jose's special is roasted chicken. At milepost 132.3 we stop at a big rest area for a break. Virginia and I both make a straight line to our motor homes to use the bathroom and then make lunch. The hardcore birders grab their binoculars and head for the fence line overlooking the brush and shrubs. Already, Bert has started a bird list and has quite a few entries. Next it is another CB check to make sure everyone is ready and we all pull out. We are told we will stop close to Hermosillo, so we can all tighten up our caravan and try making it through the town as a group. The Wagon Master pulls off on the shoulder, followed by the others as they arrive. When we bring up the rear we announce our approach and Bert blocks the lane so all the other vehicles can pull out into the road in front of us. The Wagon Master leads us into the left lane for our first left turn and guides us through the turns of the town with ease. He points out the places we need to watch with care and where not to turn. That, along with the guidebook, makes travel through the town a piece of cake. School children wave to us and adults just look. The town is close to a half-million people and it is a bustle of activity. We have 180 miles remaining of our 265 total today, however from here on it is smooth sailing: flat and straight. Before we know it we are near San Carlos and our Wagon Master has us stop on the side of a local road to unhitch while his wife goes on ahead to arrange for our arrival. The RV park is wonderful, probably rated up there as one of the best I have seen. We follow single file and complete our parking in an orderly fashion. We head for the restaurant where happy hour is still on with 2-for-1 margaritas. Soon others follow and the whole restaurant is filled with our group. We decide to stay for dinner and have a wonderful fish and shrimp dish cooked in butter and cheese sauce for $9.50. Total bill for 4 margaritas, 2 beer, and 2 entrees is $24. Our leader mentions tomorrow night is restaurant night also, with chicken and twice-baked potatoes to die for. All right! I am beginning to like this birding trip more and more.
(Bert) I'm awake well before my alarm is set to ring. By 6:30, in the darkness, I'm on my way to see Lee, but meet him halfway and happily hear he replaced a faulty fuse and now has power to his unit. CB radio check commences at 6:45 and everyone responds in numeric order except Jim and Anne. I run to their trailer where Jim is making a last minute adjustment. He picks up his CB and answers role call. Now we're ready to "head 'em on out." We reset our odometers, pull out onto Grand Ave and head to the border. Jim and Kitty - two of our journal readers - wanted to know which bird species we saw first in Mexico. In the predawn darkness, I see the black silhouettes of Chihuahuan Ravens on the border. Coincidentally, when they asked the same question during our last Alaskan trip, the bird was also raven, but the Common Raven in that case. A four-lane expressway leads us into Mexico to our first tollbooth where we pay 94 pesos (divide by 10 and you have a rough equivalent of the amount in U.S. dollars). We pass the military checkpoint with little interruption. Sunrise illuminates low hills folded like a rumpled blanket: concave surfaces bathed in yellow rays and crevices still clinging to night's darkness. Foothills sheathed in brown grass are sprinkled with tall olive oaks. Eighteen miles into Mexico we pull over at the customs office, park our vehicles and begin the long process of obtaining vehicle permits. We've all been forewarned of the titles, registration papers, licenses, credit cards and passports required for getting our Mexican visas and permits. The tedious process performed by pondering clerks, while we stand outside in freezing temperatures, is accelerated by lighthearted conversations with new friends and warmed by the joys of a shared experience. While waiting, Crested Caracara, Say's Phoebe and ubiquitous House Sparrows don't go unnoticed by this birder caravan. Paperwork completed, we exit single file and pass through yet another checkpoint. Surprisingly, only one vehicle is boarded and that inspection must be brief, because they are gone by the time we reach them in our tailgunner position. But almost immediately we here the distress call that Ralph and Virginia have a hitch problem. We soon reach them and pull up behind to offer assistance. But Ralph has the situation well in hand and already has the broken hitch dismantled. We stow the hitch and Ralph drives the Winnebago while Virginia follows in the tow car, accompanied by Shari. Miles pass and species are checked off - Loggerhead Shrike, Cooper's Hawk, a quick flash of white on a Phainopepla's black wings. A few twisting curves through a rock hewn pass opens into a more desert-like setting. Man-sized Senita cactus, a Mexican relative of the famous Pipe Organ Cactus, show prominently in the landscape. Teddy Bear Cholla look soft and cuddly, but would show their viciousness if we stopped to observe them more closely. Thousands of Giant Saquaro are the dominant cactus as we pass through Magdelena. Black and white patterns zigzag past my view as Gila Woodpeckers cross the road at eye level. A few flying Red-tailed Hawks, easily identified by their rufous tails, put this species on my mind and when I see a buteo perched on an electric pole I assume another of the same. But when I see another and then another, all with strikingly white breasts sans belly band, I recognize these as Ferruginous Hawks. More follow, perhaps a dozen in all, stretched over as many miles. Stopping for lunch, the hard-core birders (birding first, lunch if there's time) differentiate from the more causal observers (food first, birding second). We check off Lark, Brewer's and White-crowned Sparrows. On the road again, I notice the land goes largely unused - little agriculture, almost no industry, just a few very small towns, some only a single building - until we reach Hermosillo. Now Jim's talents are most appreciated as he leads us through the maize of 4-lane streets winding through a congested city. Sticking tightly together our caravan follows the Pied Piper to the tune of his CB-radio, changing lanes and turning corners at his direction. Reaching the outskirts, I notice Hermosillo lies in a flat valley surrounded by 200-ft. rock piles skimpily clothed in clumps of Palo Verde. We stop once again, this time at La Pintada, a one-building decrepit wayside, then continue our gradual descent - we started at 3870 feet in Nogales - into San Carlos, a charming village by the sea, reaching our RV park by 5 PM. Everyone seems in a celebratory mood; so we all coalesce at margarita Happy Hour and our first take of Mexican food at an attractive restaurant in the campground. Most of us head for bed early at the end of the first day of our Mexican adventure.
(Bert) We gather at 7:30 for our first birding field trip, then carpool a couple of miles to a vacant bayside lot. The only evidence of the hotel planned for this site is the grove of palm trees, now tall and unkempt. Elsewhere underbrush enfolds 15-ft trees, a brambled snarl of dry tinder. Rain must have been a distant history since now the open areas are dusty dry where swallow lakes once lie. Our early arrival precedes daybreak, but we see the rays hiding behind the massive volcanic peak shadowing our site. Birds huddle unseen as they wait for the arrival of the warmth of sunrise, but our tramping scares up a Desert Cottontail. Verdin, mockingbirds and Curve-billed Thrashers announce their presence. Then a hummingbird buzzes past us. A dozen binoculars catch glimpses of a green-backed female and we lock into field marks - long thick bill, narrow white eyestripe - that identify this one as a Broad-billed Hummingbird. As the sun warms our environment, the birds become more active. The bright orange bird with splashes of black and white is a Hooded Oriole. A Green-tailed Towhee attracts our attention more by its reddish crown than its dull green body. We venture toward the palm grove and seen another flash of orange chasing in the underbrush. I call it a Streak-backed Oriole, but Jim is more hesitant since he hasn't seen one this far north on previous caravan trips. Our group had scattered in our earlier wanderings, but now we all coalesce on the palms, trying to get a better look at this oriole. Then we notice there are two of them, one displaying a beautiful reddish-orange coloration. One-by-one, each of us gets a brief moment to see the white-lined black wings and the thinly dark-lined orange back that verify Streak-backed Oriole , a life bird for most of these observers. After making us put up with 20 min. of evasive behavior, the male oriole flies towards us, then perches prettily in a high branch bathed in morning light. And there he stays stationary long enough for me to take a half-dozen photographs. We list a couple dozen more species including Costa's Hummingbird, Lesser Goldfinch and Magnificent Frigatebird, but none compare to the red-orange gem of the oriole.
(Shari) The birders go early to do their thing, while I luxuriate beneath the bedcovers. I have a leisurely morning, enjoying my beautiful surroundings and watching the sun play on the mountains. I try receiving a signal from the satellite dish to no avail. Either the office complex is blocking its view or it somehow knows we are in Mexico. At 1 PM we all get in cars, sharing rides whenever possible, for a city tour. Our first stop is a lookout point that is incredibly beautiful. Below us stretches an open beach with blue water, great for snorkeling I am told. Woody needs gas for his car and while we wait we notice a store selling cerveza. Beer! We all pile out and buy beer, tequila, wine and fresh fruit at this little store. Now that body and car are all gassed up, we ride out of town and then turn down a dirt road I never would have taken by myself in a million years. We pass E. J. Santa Clara, patches of land given by the government to the people if they work at something. The only work I see is what they call a brick factory and, later, a citrus orchard. The brick factory is quite a misnomer, since I see no form of a building. Ground is sifted, formed into bricks, dried and then stacked on top of one another to form a kiln. A fire is lit inside to dry the bricks. This factory then is portable and little kilns can be seen all over the landscape. Not many people are outside of the brick buildings they call a home. The temperature is 80 degrees and I wonder how they survive the summer. I notice window unit air conditioners on some of the houses. Today must be wash day because brightly-colored clothing hangs on fences in most yards. To me, it seems useless to wash in all this dust. We finally come to the orchard, a little oasis in the middle of this dusty desert. The owner speaks no English, so Jan tries to determine the price of the oranges and grapefruit. After much nodding and hand motioning, and with the help of Carmen who speaks fluent Spanish, we learn oranges and grapefruit are 5 pesos per kilo. That works out to 25 cents per pound. I think everyone buys some fruit here. Our next stop is to buy shrimp. Here again, I would never find this place. I see no signs advertising any kind of shrimp or fish for sale. We suddenly pull off the side of the road in front of some shacks and walk to the back. Jan saying Hola, Hola, Hola, until a little ol' lady answers back, bringing a big bucket of shrimp. Here the price is 180 pesos per kilo, but the shrimp are big. Many of us plan shrimp for dinner and buy from her. Leaving the group to get home on their own, we drive to La Feliz Pollo, a hole-in-the-wall diner that Jan reserves for mañana. With no English spoken by the proprietress, Jan negotiates chicken and beer for 26 people at six o'clock. After a lot of pointing, hand motioning, nodding, and counting with our fingers, we leave convinced that they know what we want and will be ready for us tomorrow. A little boy tries to talk with me, but he knows no English and the words he says are not ones that I have learned in my first 11 lessons of Spanish. All I tell him is no comprendo. No hablo Espanol.
(Bert) In our home state we call them Winter Texans. This morning we see the Mexican equivalent: a large community of North Americans spending their winters in the warmth of San Carlos. The parking lot of the nondenominational church makes me wonder which country we are in; license plates display Missouri, Kansas, Oregon, Alberta, British Columbia, but not Sonora. The happy chattering of attendees greeting close friends drowns out the organ prelude to the service. Becci, an enthusiastic song leader, quiets the group and, later in the morning, contributes a stirring solo that to me was the highlight of the service. An early afternoon birding trip to some nearby ponds adds herons and egrets to our list. I am surprised to see a dozen Yellow-crowned Night-Herons posing beside an equal number of Black-crowned: species that usually don't mix. The highlight, though, is a petite Green Kingfisher at first teasingly hidden in foliage, but then putting on a fishing show and perching prominently for all of us to watch. Back at camp, we gather for a bird count off followed by a trip-planning meeting. As I call the role of birds I've ticked off, birders answer 'yes' if they have seen the species. Then I ask for others that I have missed. Our list for the Hwy 15 route from Nogales to San Carlos totals 25 species. During our two days in San Carlos we found 89 species, so the 3-day total now stands at 95 species. Interestingly, all 95 species are known to occur in the U.S., although Streak-backed Oriole is exceedingly rare. Gene and Sandy have the most to celebrate about - they've added 7 species to their life lists.
(Shari) Jan and Jim mentioned to all that we were leading a group to church at 8:30 this morning. We find two other couples waiting outside R-TENT and, surprisingly, all of us are Missouri Synod Lutherans. We had scouted the area last night for the church, so we knew where it was and finding it this morning was not difficult. The service is held in the San Carlos Community Center and is attended by 150 or so Americans that winter here in paradise, as they say. With its Baptist atmosphere, this nondenominational church serves its members well and many activities are listed in the bulletin. Becci Burr leads us in song and later sings the most fantastic solo I have ever heard during a church service. After church the group goes birding and I take a long nap. I am trying to shake this cold that has now settled into my lungs and I can hear myself breathing when I lay flat. Looks like poor Bert has another night on the sofa. At 5:15 PM, 7 cars pull out of the campground headed for the Happy Chicken where a table has been set for us. For the next two hours we overwhelm the place with our happy talk and the other Mexican diners just look at us and smile. This is a restaurant I would never have picked by myself and can only be described as a hole in the wall. But the food is wonderful. We each have a half of roasted chicken, twice-baked potato, all the tortillas we can eat, beer, salsa, cucumbers and onions for a little over $5. We have 26 happy campers at the end of the meal.
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