Blog # 16 : Maruata

Blog 17 – Maruata            7 February 2011

Picture Acapulco a hundred years ago.

OK: if you weren’t fortunate enough to be there back then, this might be hard. So, picture a rugged coastline, towering mountains plummeting into the Pacific, small rocky peninsulas jutting out every few kilometers, or every few hundred meters, to enfold tawny crescents of sand. Picture crashing surf, with geysers of spray tickling the feet of the lines of pelicans patrolling the surf roll for inept little fish. Picture an azure sky blemished only by the a few slowly wheeling black vultures, and far above them, like kites, three frigate birds, the altitude reducing their seven-foot wingspread to toy proportions. Then picture nobody on the beaches, no high rise hotels clinging to the cliff sides, no neon lights, no billboards, no noise except the huhwhooshing of the surf and the cacophonous complaints of long tailed grackles and kiskadees. Every few kilometers, where a stream emerges from the scrub-covered mountains to form a tiny delta, there are plantations of coconut palms, mangos, or papayas, bordered by a few tattered cornfields. Traditional houses here are figments: people living in loosely fenced compounds that contain three or four palapas, thatched but wall-less areas for cooking, doing the laundry, and hanging out when the sun is high and during the couple of summer months when it rains. The sleeping quarters, for privacy, have walls of wattle and daub, or woven mats. The privy, too.

Make that Acapulco 200 years ago.

This is a description of the 150 kilometers of coastline between Lázaro Cárdenas (the oil and container port of the State of Michoacán), and Maruata, the town of five dozen palm-thatched palapas where I’ve chosen to spend a couple of ‘vacation days’ away from the colonial miners project. During the five hours it took me to travel those 150 kilometers I think I passed two roadside restaurants and one gas station.

I’m writing this from a roofed terrace at the Maruata Ecotourism Center, halfway up a headland jutting out into the Pacific. The sun is setting behind me. From here I can see twenty or thirty kilometers southeast down the coastline, and except for the village  palapas below me, scattered among the coconut palms, I cannot see any signs of human intervention.

Ownership of this part of the coast falls to a series of Nahua-speaking ejidos, remnants of the Mexicas’ (pronounced Meshicas, aka Aztecs) colonization of this part of the coastline shortly before the parvenu Spaniards halted their momentum. An enterprising young Nahua and his wife from the Maruata community, capitalizing on the village’s fame (at least among the Nature-Channel crowd) as one of a handful of beaches where giant sea turtles come annually to lay their eggs, has invested in this Ecotourism Center. They’ve built a sturdy restaurant palapa with a couple of dozen tables, and a stack of cabañas rústicas, designed for from two to six people, perched on the rock walls of the headland like aeries. Mine, looking out at the landscape from a height of about 50 meters above the beach, has a bedroom, a bathroom, and a thatch-roofed terrace overlooking the coastline and the ocean. It is elegant and comfortable, and, if circumstances warrant, I have the option of undoing the bundled mosquito netting hanging from a hook in the ceiling and draping it around my bed. It costs 25 bucks a night.

The sun has now set. I can make out the glow from two cooking fires in the village, one electric light from a house somewhere south along the highway, and a zillion stars, bright enough to illuminate the curl of surf as the waves pound at the slope of sand.

So why are there so few people along this coast where there ought to be at the minimum a film company shooting the next

Robinson Crusoe sequel?  Four reasons spring to mind. The federal government has focused its attention on developing Ixtapa and Zihuantanejo, 300 km south of where I’m sitting. The clustering tourists can boost the Mexican economy by roasting themselves scarlet and drinking themselves silly down there, leaving this coast to the turtles. In addition, in most places the surf along here is too rough and the rip tides too tenacious for swimming except for one sheltered little angle of a cove, here in Maruata, where the village kids swim in the late afternoon. A few surfers –expert surfers—brave this coast, but novices go elsewhere. Moreover, the Michoacán coast is, for the most part, dry; the streams that come down from the desert hills flow mainly during the rainy season. Rich tourists, the kind that justify investment, require water to wash their bodies and green their golf courses. Lastly, I suppose, is that the road you have to take to get here, Mexico Highway 200, is godawful. Eight curves per kilometer, three of them hairpin. The headlands drop so vertically into the sea that this Pacific Coastal Highway has to snake up over them. The canyons that cut through them are so precipitous that to cross each of them the road has to jog several kilometers inland. Two lanes, irregular pavement, and no guardrails describes the better sections. Lumped together, these conditions impose remoteness, and with it a reputation —I’m told undeserved— for banditry. That said, between this road and the densely populated highlands around Morelia, 250 kilometers inland, there is a lot of Empty, dotted with immensely profitable fields of hierba and amapola: marijuana and poppy, the production centers of the Familia michoacana. Besides the well-patrolled toll road from Lázaro Cárdenas to Uruapan, this entire region —an intensely mountainous area about the size of Wyoming — is penetrated by only two other roads. Even those of our Mexican friends who decry the media’s irresponsible exaggeration of la violencia, wouldn’t be caught dead there. Precisely.

Still, change is in the air. A forty kilometer stretch of the highway around Nexpa is under construction, widening —not to four lanes, that would be silly— but to two well-paved lanes with shoulders. A two-kilometer model section is complete: thirty-eight kilometers of half-bridged gullies and ruts filled hubcap deep with dust are not. But in a year or two travelers will be able to double their speed to 40 kph along this stretch. Then a couple of years back Maruata was selected for a regional medical facility, and a small gleaming white hospital is now the first sight to greet the visitor who turns off the highway. As a bonus, the connecting spur has been cobbled for the whole hundred meters to the hospital’s entrance. The street that connects the parque, palms fringing a small dusty soccer field, is adoquinado, paved with concrete tiles and cobbles. At the beach end is a small concrete building housing a ‘cyber café’ where an Ethernet cable let me Skype Linda in Rhode Island. The twenty or so palapa restaurants fringing Maruata’s three crescent beaches all appear to be closed; it’s not likely that they speak to past glory so they must project optimism. Maybe at the Christmas break, or Holy Week. Some of the houses in town show signs of new prosperity: corrugated tin or even tile roofs instead of thatch; walls of wooden slats, adobe, or brick, instead of air.  A few are even painted in te unmated colors favored by Mexicans.

But as an economic center Maruata clearly still has a long way to go. Nobody is peddling beach supplies like garish towels and plastic ring floats shaped like Spiderman. There is no supermarket. The abarrotes stores are stocked mainly with a few vegetables, dried beans and rice, bags of chips, bottled water and canned beer. Maruata has three such stores; for comparison, tiny Zirahuén has upwards of thirty. There are two recently-built restaurants on the town plaza – real buildings, with walls and doors and windows. At the moment, though, one of them is closed and the other’s menu consists exclusively of beer.

While the beaches are the major attraction, between the beaches and the highway are several hectares of tropical scrub and thorn forest, laced with sandy paths that connect small clearings for grazing goats. That’s the part of Maruata I found most exciting. During the hour and a half I spent in there before breakfast this morning I logged over forty species of birds, including a lineated woodpecker (the obvious model for Woody) and three that I had never seen before. Birders take note: Maruata is worth the trip.

I am writing this on my terrace during the heat of the day after the night of the zillion stars. I saw two eight-year-old boys kicking a ball at the edge of the tide line an hour ago, but it’s too hot for them at the moment.

Their ball field is now paced by four snowy egrets, their black legs and gaudy yellow feet sharp against the water-stained sand at the edge of the surf surge. These are marsh birds, riverbank birds, and I’ve never seen them on a beach before. They don’t seem to know what to do. They’re not pecking at anything. They’ve strolled halfway up the beach, stopped, looked this way and that, turned, and are headed back my way. Maybe if they’re still there in an hour or so I’ll go down and try to take their picture.