By Heather Somers
I want to share with you the excitement and beauty of the ‘bucket-list’ trip that I have just returned from in the southern Chiapas region of Mexico.
Early in November a friend offered me the opportunity to join a group of 6 other Canadian birders on a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip to the El Triunfo bio-reserve in the Sierra Madres de Chiapas. It has been a dream of mine to visit and bird in a tropical region and this was just too good to pass up!
I have visited Mexico before but only for a short visit to Puerto Vallarta where I stayed within the city limits and spent much of my time on the beach.
El Triunfo’s website describes the biosphere as ‘the most diverse evergreen cloud forest in Mexico, and one of the most important sites for bird migration. It is covered with evergreen seasonal forest, montane rainforest, and lower montane rainforest that contain a higher proportion of endemic plants. A number of threatened mammalian species can be found in the reserve, namely Geoffroy’s spider monkey, margay, jaguar, and puma.’
Getting there was by far the most onerous thing I have ever done! We left the relative comfort of our hotel in Tuxtla Gutierrez at 5:00 a.m. for a three-hour ride in an air conditioned van to the small town of Jaltenango.
After a lovely breakfast of fresh juices and pancakes followed by scrambled eggs and tortillas with a hot sauce that would blister your mouth, we climbed up into an open-topped three-ton truck and for two-and-half hours wended our way upwards through a number of small villages until we arrived at the drop-off point. This section of the trip had the added excitement of the front person yelling ‘down’ each time the truck went under a low hanging branch! We soon learned to use the word ‘down’ instead of ‘duck’ — this was a bunch of birders after all! Here we alit for the five to six hour hike up the mountain to our base camp.
By this point of the day, 11:30 a.m., many of us already had eight or nine ‘lifer’ birds….birds we’d never seen before. And so we began our hike. I don’t remember all of it; I spent most of my time eyes on the trail, gasping for breath in the thinning air, and praying I’d get to the top! Our guide, an excellent birder both by sight and by ear lead the way, spotting birds and butterflies as we went. Bringing up the rear, our four-footed ‘ambulance’, a small, sure footed horse of no obvious breed ready to carry anyone who needed the help.
Finally, we arrived at the top! There, in the midst of a cloud-shrouded clearing, sat our home for the next four days and nights. A low bunkhouse, a dining-hall/kitchen, a bunkhouse for the staff, and a few smaller shelters for the horses. After receiving our instructions we all staggered off to the bunkhouse to dump our daypacks and cameras and meet up for dinner. We achieved several successes that day…we’d made it to the top and before dark too!
Each morning at 5:45 a.m. our guides would sit in the middle of the compound, coffee in one hand, binoculars in the other, identifying birds by their calls and waiting for the sun to come up. The intrepid amongst us up right there beside them!
After breakfast each day we’d hike along the trails of El Triunfo for two to three hours before returning for lunch. Each day brought something different, the yowls of a mountain cat warning us to stay away from its kill, the shock of a peccary bursting from the undergrowth behind us, and the sudden avian silence after the screech of a hunting falcon. At 4:00 we’d head out again for another two-hour hike before dinner. Dinner each evening was a ‘catch-up’ of what we’d seen and heard as the women from the local village fed us true Mexican fare with such grace and good cheer. Little did I know that cocoa tastes best with chili pepper!
I was truly humbled by the passion and knowledge of my fellow birders. They toted cameras with heavy lens, binoculars around their necks, up narrow single file rocky paths, through streams and rills, zeroing in on birds hiding in the foliage. They all taught me so much! As a birder, I was hoping to see the famed Resplendent Quetzal and the Hooded Guan.
What I experienced was so much more! With my twin interests of plants and birds and with nature in general it was difficult to focus on any one thing at a time. The very lushness of the Cloud Forest with its soaring trees over a hundred feet high literally covered in bromeliads and ferns and all manner of climbers to the tiny orchids so small that the flowers were like tiny seeds in a pod. All this left me silent and reverent and in awe of God’s creation.
What I saw on this trip was the rural, subsistence life of the southern Mexican. I was struck by their generosity, kindness and grace, their ingenuity and their attempts to protect this environment against the considerable pressures of ‘progress’. El Triunfo is first and foremost a research lab, new varieties of plants and animals are discovered by the botanists and scientists that explore this region on horseback and on foot. Tourists are a ‘necessary evil’ necessary to provide the awareness of its importance to Mexico for its water and to the world for it future. I am exceedingly grateful to have been allowed a glimpse into this Eden.
As the days go on in what is now our ‘new normal’ I pray that all may find their place of reverence and solace.
Heather Somers is a member of Christ Church, Bolton and a longtime bird watcher and horticulturist. Many parishioners have come to greatly appreciate your wise and gentle advice as we all care for our little gardens.