Blog 6: Natural Wonders

In the years we have been living and traveling in Mexico we have been drawn, quite naturally, to visit a number of natural parks, reserves and attractions. Two types seem to prevail, and they are both somewhat different from what we have come to expect of a National Park north of the Rio Grande. The first type, and our first night’s stop after crossing the North Mexican desert, is Cascada Cola del Caballo, Horse-tail Falls, which we soon learn, alas, is 100% representative of the first genre.

            Mexico, just like the United States, whose two backbones, the Appalachians and the Rockies, run parallel to the coasts, is twin-spined. In the east the Sierra Madre Oriental range towers over the broad coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico; in the west the Sierra Madre Occidental soars right behind the Pacific beaches. As is the way with mountain chains, rivers do not flow gently out of them: they plummet from the heights to the lowlands with a whoosh and a roar and a visual impact that is irresistible to the gawking throngs.


            Mexico’s tourist waterfalls—and we have visited maybe a dozen of them over the years—are packaged differently from those in the States. Our post eco-consciousness emphasis in the US seems to be on bringing visitors to the falls on a trail, often as rustic as is feasible given crowds and safety concerns and wheel-chair accessibility, and allowing them to marvel at the force of nature in a setting as pristine as possible. The goal is minimal visible engineering; maximum natural state, or at least the illusion thereof. Our National Parks all strive to do this, and many privately owned sites do as well, at least those that weren’t commercialized in the years before modern sensibilities. As for the pre-modern “improved” natural wonders, Linda and I feel certain that you can easily draw up a list of places that you wish had been left mostly alone.

            Here in Mexico, the priority on tourist nature is commercialization. The path to the waterfall generally runs between two lines of vendor stands. Some hawk souvenirs, others sell candy, or plastic cups of fresh fruit, or sodas and tacos and tortas. Tourist archaeology gets this treatment too. Not only do you have to funnel through stands like these at many archaeological sites, at the most famous sites like Teotihuacán and Palenque souvenir and nosherei stands sprout like mushrooms right between the pyramids. As far as listening to the sounds of nature as you approach the waterfalls, every second vendor has a loudspeaker broadcasting music, though no two ever play the same song. Often as not, the approach path runs between stucco walls that are just high enough so that you cannot see over them or escape to some alternate route. At Cola del Caballo, this entry gauntlet runs about three hundred meters from the parking lot to the ticket stand. The walls stop there. Now the concrete and flagstone sidewalks that have replaced the right bank of the river channel the visitors upstream past a succession of playgrounds (slides and swing sets) and concrete picnic tables. As I write this, I realize that I took zero pictures of all this tickytack; when I closed my eyes to it I seem to have also locked my shutter. With me on the approach trail are a dozen families with kids. The young parents wheel strollers; teens sulk along behind, buds in their ears, their eyes fixed on their smartphones. Nobody seems to look at the river or the trees on its other side. The engineered environment says “move along”, so people do.


The falls themselves –in two tiers, the lower dropping maybe 4 meters, the upper maybe 12—are pretty enough, but they are like a diamond overpowered by a clunky setting. Stairs and bridges and concrete viewing platforms encircle the two tiers of falls. And there are electric lines both up to the falls and immediately above it. The families ooh and ahh and hold up their phones and tablets for pictures. Immediately to the left of the bridge that spans the middle of the two tiers is a thatched stand selling cups of fruit and bottled soda. An uncle teeters on a precarious rock to snap the perfect picture of his brother dangling a toddler over the rushing water.

The whole scene is engaging, but somehow, at least for me, it just doesn’t satisfy the spirit.

One good thing: unlike up north in Tort-Land, where site-managers are held legally responsible for everyone’s safety, with the result that every imaginable dumb act is warned against with a prominent sign, Mexico has faith that people will obey the dictates of common sense. The “teeter” and “dangle” of the preceding paragraph prove that this faith is misplaced, but, even so, it is nice to be treated like sensible persons, even if we are not.

  Hotel de la Cola del Caballo

            The type-two natural sites are the diametric opposite. In the last (we don't know how many) years Mexico has designated a number of areas as “Reservas biosferas ecológicas” (RBE = Ecological Preserves of our Biosphere). These are vast relatively undisturbed areas of ecological significance. The Reserves include a large chunk of a major mountain range (RBE Manatlán in Jalisco); two 70-kilometer stretches of coastal marsh (RBE Celestún and RBE* Ría Lagartos in Yucatán); a chunk of the Sonoran desert the size of two Rhode Islands (RBE Antar-Pinacate in Sonora); a super wetlands (RBE* de Centla, in Tabasco); a King Ranch size swath of humid topical jungle (RBE Selva de Ocote and the 10-times larger RBE Montes Azules, both in Chiapas) and an equally large strip of dry jungle (RBE* Sian Ka’an in Chetumal); an unusual east coast volcano and the land around it for as far as a person can see (RBE Volcán de San Martín in Veracruz*); a canyon grander than the Grand (RBE Cañón del Cobre in Chihuahua); and the one in which we currently find ourselves (RBE el Cielo* here in Tamaulipas). The five starred reserves are those that Linda and I have had the enormous pleasure of visiting at one time or another.

            Each of these is refuge for threatened flora and fauna (and in some cases indigenous peoples), a laboratory for the study of ecosystems, a potential generator of sustainable ecotourism, and a source of great national and local pride. If there happen to be villages inside the reserve, as there are with the Centla wetlands or the El Cielo cloud forest, they are left in place, although any new construction is cooperatively monitored. Often the villagers are employed as rangers, guides, or in myriad small of construction projects to keep the trails open, the streams flowing, and so for

th. Before El Cielo was made a reserve, for example, it was lumbered, and the few access roads—only in Mexico would a track this rough be called a road—were to bring out trees. Now lumbering is prohibited, although trees that have caught a disease, or are infested with destructive insects, are tagged and removed.



The word Cielo in Spanish signifies both sky and Heaven: is unclear which is intended by the advertisements that offer transportation to El Cielo. Here it refers to the fact that the reserve rises precipitously from the coastal plain in three jungle-clad ridges, each successive ridge loftier than the previous, with the third so high that its ecosystem is cloud forest. The long thin town of Gómez Farías, clinging to the top of an outlying ridge at the edge of the reserve, is our base. We stay at the Hostal Casa de Piedra. We had spent two nights here 7 years previous, and had been charmed by the delightful owner, doña Elia Méndez. Back then we had hoped to be able to go up to El Cielo, but  a winter storm had made all but a short soggy hike impossible.


            This time we were determined, and had emailed ahead to reserve our favorite room (Magnolia, with a private balcony overlooking thick, orchid dotted jungle) and to engage a vehicle and guide to take us to the heights. There is a newer, much more expensive hotel a little before the town, but the Casa de Piedra is such a gem that that we did not want to mess with perfection. Our guide was to be Ricardo Jim

énez, a young man with a reputation as an accomplished birder. In fact, as we came to hear from various people in and around the town, he is known for the ability to call in birds with a repertoire of whistles and squawks and pishhes that are irresistible to everything from warblers to owls.


            Ricardo has contracted a friend, Beto, with a heavy-duty pickup truck to drive us up the mountain. For Linda the altitude may be problematic, so she decides to spend the day in Gómez Farías, watching the hummingbirds around the hotel and knitting. Beto picks us up at 7:00, and we start up the old logging road. The air is thick with butterflies, the road with rocks and ruts. The truck, in 4-wheel drive, the rear wheels easily 18-inches thick, climbs painstakingly from one rock to the next, at about 3 kph. The round trip, over a total of perhaps 20 km, takes us 13 hours.

An hour up we meet a descending truck that has pulled over into a layby, the first we have seen. I don’t know how long he has been waiting, but he must have been able to hear us groaning and jouncing over a considerable distance. He tells us to be on the lookout: a little further up the mountain he has seen two jaguar cubs, and their mama must be around somewhere. We keep our eyes peeled, but no such luck. El Cielo has one of the healthiest r

esident feline population in Mexico, with ocelots, jaguarundis, pumas, jaguars, and a couple of others making a good living in these jungles, but—cubs aside—they are mostly nocturnal animals. We never do see the cubs.

            Each time we climb into a new eco-zone, we get out and scan the jungle for wildlife.  Beto waits with the truck and Ricardo works his magic as we walk a few hundred meters ahead. We manage to see a pretty wide selection of the local avi-fauna, including parrots, a mountain trogon, a smoky brown woodcreeper, and an improbably-named rufous-crowned peppershrike, all of which are new birds for me. Our elusive goal, once we have reached the upper jungle, is to catch a glimpse of

a tiny bird that is endemic to the El Cielo reserve: the Tamaulipan pigmy owl (tecolutito tamauliteco). Although twice when Ricardo calls it we hear a distant answering too-wheet, it never comes any closer.

            In the milliseconds between jounces Ricardo and I exchange life stories. Beto doesn’t talk; he just drives. Ricardo did farm and ranger work high in the mountains for nine months some years ago and spent his free time with a bird book, his binoculars, and his ears. Obviously he developed better skills in that short time than I will in my remaining lifetime. Since tourism is slow, what with the worldwide economic crisis and the disastrously negative press about Mexico in the US and European papers (we appear to be the only outsiders in Gómez Farías, and the same was true 7 years ago), doña Elia needed temporary help when the occasional group did show up, Ricardo became her part-time factotum: cook, handyman, minds the hotel when she has to be away. Ricardo and his wife have an eleven-year-old girl, Guadalupe, and to support the women he has taken on summer agricultural work. He and 53 other local young men go north as contract laborers: last year Georgia, this coming year North Carolina. The agent provides the legal papers, the bus, and the lodging, takes care of the hassles at the border, solves any issues that might arise between the Mexican pickers and their American contractors, and brings them

home at the end of the season. They get some free time on site to shop in the US and talk with the locals, but for the most part they speak Spanish, and he finds it frustrating to progress so slowly with his skills. I offer to switch to English, but he says that what with the noise in the truck and his ear at the open window to troll for birds, it would require too much conversation. We do talk, though, about his getting away for a few days to visit us in Rhode Island next summer: go clamming, check out the local avian life, see a little of  New England. It’s not likely to happen—later Linda repeats the invitation—but I hope it does.

            Meanwhile, in a high valley between El Cielo’s first and second ridge we come to a small town, Alta Cima, a scattering of a dozen houses, fruit trees, tiny plots of corn called milpas, with a few patches of nopal cactus, whose de-thorned leaf paddles are one of Mexico’s tastiest and most nutrient-rich vegetables. The town even has a small elementary school. Ricardo and Beto seem to know everyone there, and to be related to half of them. We pause at a couple of houses to leave off small packages that Beto has brought up from Gómez Farías.

            “From here on,” Ricardo tells me, “the road gets steep, so we may slow down a bit. 

            Sure enough, as soon as we leave the valley the truck’s snout tilts high and our speed drops by 1/3. We jounce so wildly from one side to another that it seems to me that rodeo bull riding might offer a welcome relief. I am not certain my ribs and spine will survive the journey, and even Ricardo is clutching the door handle for support. Still, every few minutes we stop and get out and survey the jungle. Now we are clearly in cloud forest. The trees are draped in moss, their trunks glow green, the rotting vegetation on the ground nourishes fungus and ferns, and lianas hang everywhere in thick tangles. Some of the rocks are thick with fossils. It is hard to believe that these mountains were once at the bottom of the sea. Ricardo confirms my impression that this whole area is karstic, calcium-rich limestone, and that it is riddled with sinkholes and caves. Here in the cloud forest both the birdlife and butterflies are new. We strain to hear, strain to see in the deeply shaded forest, and when a mere glimpse of a bird leaves us with an ambiguity, consult the reference books that each of us has brought along. But still no pigmy owl.

            By mid afternoon we have reached our goal: in a small valley nestled near the top of the third mountain is another town, San José.

             “We’ll stop here for a bit of lunch,” Ricardo tells me.

            We pull into a yard at the only house that is visible, get out of the truck, make our way through the dogs and chickens and one tame crested guan that swarm around us. The house belongs to Ricardo’s brother-in-law José, who ekes out a living here with his wife and a couple of kids. The brother-in-law’s wife is Beto’s cousin. A pot of beans is on the fire, and there is a covered large bowl of rice on the table. The house—a main room with a table and a couple of chairs, a kitchen, and a bedroom, is of wood, as is the roof: too wet up here for thatch. Down we sit, fill our plates with rice and beans, and José’s wife—I never did learn her name— brings out a stack of fresh, hot, home made tortillas. We drink water, fresh from a spring up the hill behind the house, probably the only non-bottled water I will drink until we get back to the States. I notice a small flat-screen TV on the wall.

            “There were electric lines to Alta Cima,” I ask Ricardo, “but I don’t see any up here . . . ” 

            “Solar panels,” says Ricardo.

            We bid our goodbyes, pick a handful of guayavas from a tree in the yard, are given a basket of live chickens for Beto to take to his family, and climb back into our truck. Our host won’t take any money.

            “No, of course not, this is my family,” José says.

            “But I am a forastero, someone from outside.” I protest.

            “A guest of the family,” José says. Behind him Ricardo is shaking his head to tell me not to push it.


On the return trip, at a level-ish place in the cloud forest we stop once more for Ricardo to hoot at the owlet one more time.


            There is an answer. Ricardo hoots again. Again the answer. Then silence.


            “After he calls, sometimes he goes silent and flies close to investigate. Check the treetops. High up. He likes to sit in a fork of a tree, and he is colored like the bark. About this big.”

            With his hands he makes a circle the size of an American softball. Ricardo calls again.

             “There, up there.”

            We both peer through our binoculars and, sure enough, in the crotch of a tree, thirty-feet off the ground, in the fading light, a light-brown ball of fluff with a tiny beak stares at us with two big eyes. The tecolotito