JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
special on-the-road edition issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort
adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruins in
Yucatán, MÉXICO

April 17, 2016

*****

DAY 1: MONDAY, APRIL 11:
Last Monday I reminded myself how easy it is -- physically -- to end one kind of life and begin another. Basically, instead of moving back and forth or in circles, and starting and stopping, you keep going in a straight line until things change.

After a nice breakfast at the Hacienda I packed my bags, hiked past the big Kukulkán pyramid in the ruin zone, caught an Oriente bus to Mérida, and bought an overnight ADO bus ticket southward (US$32). Around Mérida the landscape was more brown than green and many trees were leafless. Here deep in the dry season it looked like a gigantic blowtorch in the sky had singed everything.

The bus southward on that Monday night was full. An eight year old girl sat next to me, her parents across the aisle keeping a close eye on both of us. During the night the little girl's legs cramped so she helped herself by straightening the legs out and plopping them across my lap. That was fine, just that it was a big surprise to be awakened traversed by legs.

*****

DAY 2: TUESDAY, APRIL 12:
About an hour before dawn our eight-hour trip directly south from Mérida ended in Palenque, Chiapas. Chiapas is Mexico's southernmost state. To me also it's always seemed to be Mexico's most culturally and biologically diverse -- and therefore interesting -- but also poorest, and in many ways most troubled state. Before the back-country areas I like became a bit dangerous for lone backpackers and campers, Chiapas was where I liked to be most. The town of Palenque is home to Classic-Era Maya ruins that in their own way rival those of Post-Classic Chichén Itzá.

One or two minutes downslope from Palenque's ADO bus station little white mini-vans were leaving for farther south on an hourly basis, and I bought a ticket (US$12). As the sun rose on our little van I soaked up two great changes in the landscape from that of the north-central Yucatan: First, here we had real hills -- foothills of the northern rim of the Chiapas Highlands, and; 2) The landscape was green and lush.

The locals called this their dry season just like us in the Yucatan, agreeing with us that the rains should begin in late May or early June. However, the dry season south of Palenque looked like July in the north-central Yucatan, and July, for the Yucatan, is considered to be in the rainy season.

Though numerous tourist vans plied the little road, carrying travelers on the first stage of their trip between the Maya ruins of Palenque and those of Tikal in northern Guatemala, I was the only non-local person in our little van. About 120 kms south of Palenque (75 miles) I was let out where a side road branched from the main road, at a place called Crucero Frontera Corozal. There wasn't much there other than some taxis waiting beneath a tree, one of which carried me to the town of Frontera Corozal (US$1.70), about 15 minutes away. Frontera Corozal stands on the banks of the big Usumacinta River, which in this part of the world separates Mexico from Guatemala. Tourists traveling overland from Palenque to Tikal have to cross the river here in motorboats, and continue their journey in a different van on the other side.

In Frontera Corozal I exited at the Immigration Office. A tour-company van was parked in front of us waiting for a very upset and complaining North American woman dealing with the post's single immigration officer. For her ride in a tour-company's van the lady had paid several times for her trip what I had, but she wasn't angry about that. I supposed that -- as has happened during my earlier crossings at the Belize and Guatemala borders -- the official was putting the squeeze on her for a bribe of some sort, the famous "mordida," or bite, or maybe he'd invented a special fee that had to be paid, and I further figured that as the woman stomped away and the tour-company van departed, leaving me alone with the official, I was in for the same treatment.

I'd developed all kinds of strategies for dealing with problems here at the border, but I wasn't prepared for what the official did then. I truthfully told him that I was there to get a new visa for Mexico, didn't really need to go into Guatemala, told him what I was doing in the Yucatan, and then the man simply brought out a form, I filled it out, he stamped some papers and filled in some lines, he explained that at a bank someplace I'd need to pay a US $22 fee -- a fee that is well known and considered to be legal -- and then he handed me a new visa valid for another six months in Mexico, and that was it. I was dumbfounded.

Back on the single paved road running through Frontera Corozal, I couldn't think of anything to do but to head back north. However, now that the tension of preparing for corruption at the border was over, and I had my visa with no problems, finally I noticed that is was a fresh, delightful morning with sunlight and a nice breeze, birds singing and butterflies flitting, and that I was in a colorful place much different from what I've grown accustomed to. I bought some hot tortillas and bananas, wrapped the tortillas around the bananas, and walking down the road to outside of town really enjoyed my breakfast, looking around. I didn't even think to take pictures. People around me were speaking Chol, a member of the Maya family of languages. I took it all in, and felt good. At the town's edge, walking on the not-much-traveled road was so pleasant that I kept going, heading toward the bluish foothills rising in the west.

A few kilometers out of town my reverie was suspended when a black police truck pulled up beside me, its red and blue lights flashing, four black-uniformed officers in the front, two more on seats in the pick-up's rear, holding weapons.

"Please get into the truck's back," an officer told me. "We just want to take you a little up the road and get some information."

Their uniforms bore insignias of the SSPC, Chiapas State Police, a special "prevention" unit. During the next fifteen minutes I wondered how they'd react to finding the little bag of sugar I carry in case one of my hypoglycemic attacks develops, and I just couldn't decide whether the fellows with the automatic rifles facing me in the truck's back were scowling because wind was blowing dust into their eyes, or whether they were fantasizing about beating the hell out of me.

Once we'd climbed into the foothills and were back on the main road toward Palenque, we pulled into the police station at a tiny cluster of buildings known as Crucero San Javier. I was concentrating on keeping my mind blank, but alert, and passive, for what would happen next.

The police up front exited the cab and one was a young woman who approached and asked that I write down my name. I did so, she thanked me, and told me I could go. Didn't even ask to see my documents. I have no idea what that was all about, and I didn't ask questions trying to find out.

At that point I noticed a small side road departing from across the police station and that beside it stood a big sign saying that the road led to the Lacandón community of Lacanja Chansayab, inside the Reserva Lacandon. Pictures of jaguars, Scarlet Macaws and other fabulous critters adorned the sign, along with offers of camping and regular lodging, prepared food, jungle walks, and floating, rafting and canoeing the Lacanja River (sometimes spelled Lacanha). A taxi waited beneath a big tree. I got in (US$1.70), then down the road paid for a three-day ticket for the Reserve (US$4.30). The taxi driver told me he'd let me out in the town's center, though, really, the community didn't have much of a center, since his people, the Lacandons, like to live a bit apart from their neighbors, surrounded by trees. The community was "dispersed," and I'd just have to wander around to find what I wanted. He also said that the community existed entirely on tourism -- ecotourism.

Maybe 25 or 30 years ago I'd been in the general area and I knew about the Lacandons. Tour books often refer to them as Mexico's most traditional indigenous group, who got that way by living in the Lacandon Jungle, which was so isolated that Spanish conquerors and later Mexican officials had a hard time finding them and integrating them into the rest of Mexican society. In tourist brochures, Lacandon men often are featured wearing long, white tunics and flowing, black hair.

Since my earlier times in the area, things had changed a lot. Much of the forest was gone or badly chopped up. Just outside the Lacandon Reserve, entire communities of indigenous people from the uplands, speaking a variety of languages, had been settled in the area, extending the effects of slash-and-burn agriculture far from the road, and converting much of the land to cattle ranching. Now large plantations of Oil Palms could be seen along the road, too.

The taxi driver had told me that the community's various ecotourism offerings were made by different families, some offerings being fancy and well organized, while others were only so-so. Walking back up the paved road I'd just come down, a faded, peeling sign advertised camping 600 meters down the road, at Campamento Jaguares. There an old lady preparing herself for some kind of 1PM church activity -- northern missionaries of all kinds have been busy in the area -- showed me a grassy spot in her orange grove where I spread a tent for US$2.90 per night, for three nights. A meal of Mexican eggs (scrambled with chili, onions and tomatoes), beans and tortillas would cost the same.

After the night on the bus and adventures with the immigration official and the police, I was ready to sleep through the remaining hottest part of the day. Around me it was quiet except for the burbling sound of Montezuma Oropendulas calling not far away, and hordes of small cicadas which sounded more like giant crickets than cicadas, and a light breeze in the trees, and little turkey chicks peeping as they chased grasshoppers in the grass all around, and watery sounds of the nearby Lacanja River... and, what a pleasure it was just to lie there and drift into an afternoon siesta, which without too much resistance gently merged into a long night of sleep.

*****

DAY 3: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 13:
On Wednesday I walked along the main road, exploring and taking pictures that will be presented and talked about in future Newsletters. Heavy overcast darkened the sky until around mid-day, when it cleared and started getting hot fast. I was told that this pattern is typical for this time of year. Maybe it's caused by prevailing winds blowing over the eastern lowlands at this very point encountering the Chiapas Highlands' first foothills, where they begin to rise to pass over the highlands. Rising air cools, condensation occurs, and clouds form.

There was plenty to be seen that doesn't occur in northern Yucatan -- species requiring a rainier climate than up there. At one point Scarlet Macaws cavorted in a roadside tree. As I begin snapping pictures, a young woman ran from a nearby building clapping her hands and calling in broken Spanish, "Take picture, no!" I had no idea what her problem was, but the taxi driver had said that there's some of everything here, and I guess that that includes people's concepts of what it means to live in an ecotourism zone.

One feature of the area hard to get used to was all the security -- Chiapas State Police in pickup trucks like those I'd ridden in the day before, park rangers, and others with unidentified insignias on their trucks, cars and uniforms. Along the main road that morning maybe every 15 minutes some kind of security patrol passed by. Were they expecting trouble? Trying to make tourists feel safe?

Back in Texas I'd bought an MSR Miniworks EX Water Filter. Since then I've never used it, but on this trip I'd brought it along. At my campground there was an outside water hydrant and I was told that the water was good for drinking, but I didn't trust it, so that Wednesday afternoon I was glad to have the filter. It took about 15 minutes to filter 4.5 liters of water (1.2 gallons). In another Newsletter you'll see what that operation looked like.

Late Wednesday afternoon it became very hot, and I was glad for another peaceful siesta to carry me into the cool evening hours.

*****

DAY 4: THURSDAY, APRIL 14:
On Thursday, I wandered small, gravel backroads radiating outward from the community's center, exploring and taking pictures. In another Newsletter you'll see the oversized legumes of a certain Bean Family vine that's very common here but absent in the north-central Yucatan. While photographing one of this vine's fruits, holding it in my hand to show the size, a little girl's voice behind me said in perfect Spanish, "You shouldn't touch that, because it has tiny, sharp hairs that come off, stick into your skin and won't come out, so that you'll itch a lot." Then I remembered what the plant was, and also remembered that the little girl was saying exactly what I tell tourists in the Chichén Itzá area when we encounter similar vines up there, with much smaller legumes, of a different species. Later you'll meet the vine, little girl, and her sister.

In the afternoon I found that the owner of the campground I was staying at had collected numerous orchid species from the forest and got them started on trees around the campground. I hoped they'd been salvaged from forests doomed to being slashed and burned, and not removed from more natural areas. Wherever their source, several were flowering and, if the pictures turn out, you'll meet them in later Newsletters.

*****

DAY 5: FRIDAY, APRIL 15:
On Friday morning I broke camp and ordered one of my host's $2.90 Mexican eggs, beans and tortillas breakfasts. It turned out to have the most generous servings and to be the best tasting meal of that kind I've had for years. It was accompanied by a delicious herbal tea the recipe for which the old lady good-naturedly refused to impart to me. I'm uncertain whether it really was a secret recipe, or maybe just something store-bought. When I'd asked about it, a little granddaughter had snickered and run into another room.

While I enjoyed breakfast an old Lacandon man walked into the room wearing his white tunic. With a ski-jump nose rising to a receding forehead, and his slight chin, his facial features couldn't have been more typical of the Maya in this area. Even his eyes were crossed, a feature the ancient Maya considered to be beautiful, even to the point of affixing gobs of chicle-gum between a baby's eyes to make them cross. However, the man's long hair flowing down his back was a rich blond color, not black, white or gray. It didn't seem to be a wig. Lacandon communities normally are small and isolated from one another, resulting in lots of cousin marrying, which can lead to certain features being expressed in offspring that normally are genetically recessive, so maybe that's what had happened here. The old fellow -- who turned out to be a few weeks younger than I -- wasn't an albino, for his eyes were brown.

When the man heard that 25-30 years ago I used to visit this area, and was surprised by all the changes, he said:

"The government produces, produces, produces, sending bad chemicals into the air. When it rains, it rains those chemicals. When the wind blows, it brings the chemicals here. At least we Lacandons never did that."

Earlier in the week when I'd been in Frontera Corozal I'd tried a few Yucatec Maya phrases on the locals, to see if Yucatec Maya was close enough to the Chol being spoken there for people to understand me. They couldn't. Now I tried the same phrases on by breakfast partner and he said that he understood what I was saying, though he might pronounce his words a little differently or even choose different ones. So now I know that Yucatec Maya is very closely related to Lacandon Maya, and I wonder if maybe they're just different dialects of the same Maya language.

Later that Friday morning a taxi stopped in front of me the very moment I stepped foot on the paved road. Back at Crucero San Javier a 15 minute wait in front of the police station produced a taxi-van that got me back to Palenque by noon. There for over an hour I stood in a very long, snaking line at a bank in order to pay for my visa.

I knew the town of Palenque back when it was a quiet, shady little village before mass tourism to the ruins developed. Now the town sprawled up and down largely treeless slopes and has become a loud, hot, dusty "tempest-in-a-teapot" kind of town I wasn't interested in exploring. After finally being able to pay for the visa I hiked to the new ADO station, pulled out a book, and waited for my overnight bus back to the Yucatan.

You might be interested in the Palenque section of my 1996 book "Birding Trip through Mexico" online at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/14palenq.htm

*****

DAY 6: SATURDAY, APRIL 16:
On Saturday morning a little before daybreak I arrived back in Mérida. A 6:30 AM bus carried me to Chichén Itzá where I arrived at 8:30. And as I hiked past the big Kukulkán pyramid, that was as good a time as any to declare the current trip over, and a success.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.