Lagos de Montebello
April 28th, 2010 by robert

After going to Oventik I looked into going to another Zapatista caracol, La Realidad, which lies close to Laguna Miramar, a large, pristine lake surrounded by tropical rainforest. I would spend a night in the caracol, and the next day hike into the lake, through the jungle, to camp on its shore for a night.

Unfortunately there is an arduous journey to reach La Realidad that requires about eight hours standing in the back of a truck pounding down a rough dirt road. The journey itself did not put me off, but I was a little short on time because I (joy!) had managed to insert myself into a trip to the biosphere reserve El Triunfo. No, the journey was complicated by social unrest in the region. Not so long ago the federal government (the army) had evicted several Zapatista communities from the edge of the forest, in order to expand the Aguas Azules biosphere reserve. Paramilitary forces tied to the army also have been threatening Zapatista communities, or even attacking them. The region is tense.

That is a long explanation for why I chose Plan B. Rather spontaneously I caught a bus south to Comitán, a large town situated in a major agricultural valley. There I caught a combi van to Tziscao, a tiny town on a lake of the same name, right on the border of Guatemala. I arrived at dusk with a destination, but there were no lights. Eyes would be no use finding the posada. A handful of young boys grouped around me, and suddenly I had three short guides. They led me, practically by hand, to a thatched hut where a Rolando Morales supposedly had a cabin on the lake available. Señor Morales was there, but the cabin was occupied. There was a room available, though, and he walked across the yard with me to a new-ish cinder-block building that had four big bedrooms, shared bathrooms and a kitchen. Grateful for a place to sleep, I became the only person staying in the building.

Lago Tziscao

I woke early in the morning and set out to see what birds were around the lake. The town was waking up, and as I strolled slowly along the road by the lake, uniformed school kids passed me on the way to class. After checking out the water, which had a few least grebes and assorted egrets, I found a slight trail up a hill, into a small patch of woods. It became apparent that I was into a different set of birds. Plain chachalacas caroused over my head, while emerald-chinned and azure-crowned hummingbirds zipped by, stopping at the many flowing shrubs. A black-headed nightengale-thrush chased a Swainson´s thrush as a white-tailed hawk soared above. All these birds, and cool, fresh air, too. I was pretty content, until the need for coffee and breakfast drove me back to my digs.

Refreshed, I set off walking to Lago Pojoj, a few kilometers away along the main road. One of my all-time favorite birds flew over, a swallow-tailed kite, and I knew it was going to be a good day. After a while I reached the road to the lake, where the entrance guard welcomed me and accepted my $1 entrance fee.

Tree Ferns

There was dense forest right at the entrance, but a little way along the road, cafetales (coffee plantations) replaced the forest. I stopped at a flower bank to watch battling white-eared and magnificent hummingbirds, and a cinnamon-bellied flowerpiercer popped into view. I ducked into the woods behind the flower bank, and for the first time in many, many years, I was standing under giant tree ferns. I walked along the path, unsuccessfully trying to find an unknown singing bird high in the overstory, until the path opened onto undulating rows of coffee. Below in the post about deforestation is a picture from this coffee plot, showing the cutting of forest in progress to expand it.

Biology reasserted itself, and hunger directed me back to the road and along it to the lake. There were four tiny huts in a line, each with a wood-fired grill going, and each offered a similar menu. Nobody else was there. I ate some quesadillas at the first, served by a couple of teen-aged girls. Then I went and sat beside the beautiful little lake. I wanted to swim, but it is not allowed, so I just sat, digesting, thinking about life.

Lago Pojoj

The birds were as lazy as me in the late afternoon light. I walked back to town contentedly, and stopped at the Restaurant Mirador to eat dinner with a great view of Guatemala over Lago Tziscao. One of my young guides was just outside, hanging out, so I invited him to sit with me even though he wasn’t hungry. I ate a good dinner while we chatted about many things. Eduardo’s ambition is to become a park guide, and I encouraged him to learn the birds (which he already knows pretty well). We were headed in the same direction and walked together. Lots of his buddies looked enviously at him, since he had snagged me again, though really it was more of a friendly relationship. I invented a chore for him in order to give him ten pesos, and wished him well, since I would not see him the next day.

It so happened that one of the cafetales along the Lago Pojoj road belonged to the person I was staying with, and he offered to drive me there  in the morning. He wanted to show me his cafetal, but he also offered to show me the beginning of a several kilometer trail to the next lakes in many-lake natural area, collectively called Cinco Lagos.

Cinco Lagos

We left early, after a delay when the truck wouldn’t start. The tour of Rolando´s cafetal was short, as he and his hired hands need to get to work. That suited me perfectly. I was able to see his version of organic, shade-grown, and to appreciate the huge amount of manual weeding that was about to begin.

I set off on the steady uphill climb alongside the cafetal, with towering pines on the uphill slope. I expected to get into cloud forest, but much of the forest had been cut and there was evidence of recent fires in places. It took me quite a while to find the owner of an eerie song that pierces through forest. I finally saw one of the many singing slaty solitaires on a bare limb overhanging a cliff. A pair of highland guans also gave me a show, indicating that even though the forest was largely cut, it was still a semi-wild place with little visitation and sufficient remaining patches of  trees to support important species.

After a couple of hours I reached a fork in the trail, with no sign. I took the branch that looked like it headed in the direction I needed to go, and did so again at the next unsigned branch, twenty minutes later. The path descended to the edge of a lake, dead-ending into another trail that crossed perpendicularly. One way led to the lake, but it sounded like women were bathing there, and it would not be a good idea to stumble into that particularly awkward situation. I turned right through a small patch of the finest forest I had seen since Lacandonia, towering trees with an extended crown platform. Beautiful. I scanned unsuccessfully for quetzals, and then continued walking uphill.

The trail narrowed considerably, with several even smaller branches leading in different directions. I continued straight, up a small ridge. At the top I looked down at another small lake. Through the bushes I could see two indigenous women laughing along the lake shore. Luckily they were not bathing! They did not see me until I pushed through bushes quite close to them, and then they looked quite surprised. I emerged and asked them if the track behind them led eventually to the road, which seemed certain. They were friendly enough, and told me just to follow the biggest looking roads all the way out. Fair enough.

Unwelcoming Sign

I walked through what turned out to be a pueblo that prohibits outsiders from entering. Not knowing that until I left the ejido grounds, where there was a sign, I walked through increasing heat watching eastern bluebirds, baltimore orioles and northern (mexican) flickers flying over the fields. A truck passed filled with men in the back, and they gave me a look that was not overly friendly. Three or four kilometers later I reached a paved road, which I walked along for another hour before reaching the entrance to Cinco Lagos.

As I approached the entrance guard´s hut, I heard and spotted a collared trogon singing in the impressive forest surrounding the park entrance. The guard came over and said, Quetzal. Before I could correct him, an elegant quetzal female flew into view and perched. I watched both birds for a little while, as the guard began scanning the other trees around. A male, no, two male quetzals had begun singing, on opposite sides of the road. A little patience, time to discuss quetzals with the guard, and we both had good views of the males.

It was a great way to end my brief visit to Lagos de Montebello. I perched my pack next to the highway, and snagged the first combi back to Comitan, arriving just in time for the bus to San Cristobal.


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