Mexico’s Magnificent El Triunfo Reserve, Part 1
May 20th, 2010 by robert

El Triunfo. It’s a legendary place among birders because of two rare birds, horned guan and azure-rumped tanager, but it is so much more. Officially called La Reserva de La Biosfera El Triunfo, this biosphere reserve guards one of the few pristine wildernesses left in Mexico, including the largest contiguous cloud forest remaining in Mesoamerica.

For six months before leaving on this trip, I tried to figure out how to get there. You cannot just go. There are a couple of trips offered by birding tour companies based in the U.S. or Europe, but they are way too expensive for this traveler. The other route to El Triunfo is through a non-profit that oversees access to the reserve, including limited tours, but my many emails never had a response. I left for Mexico with no arrangements made for El Triunfo, and little hope that I would be able to visit.

By the time I reached San Cristobal, my rusty Spanish was well exercised and much more fluent, so I sent a flurry of emails and telephoned the non-profit, seeking a conversation with its director. Finally I achieved contact, yet at first the news was grim: all the tours for the year were finished. “But there may be one possibility. I’ll get back to you.” I thought, right, that will be the day. An hour later it was arranged; I could go with a group of donors who were being given a special tour. Hurray!! All I had to do was deposit the fee and be at an office in Tuxtla Gutiérrez at 5:30 AM.

I took a colectivo taxi for the hour trip to Tuxtla. Colectivos are taxis for a specific destination that leave when all its seats are filled. We drove over the new superhighway between San Cristobal and Tuxtla, descending steadily into lowland heat. I felt sympathy as we passed a truck with a broken axle, its cargo box filled to overflowing with oranges being cooked in the torrid sun. Not sure where to stay, I headed to a recommended small hotel on Parque Marimba, where there is nightly music. Tuxtla has more than doubled its population since I last visited, to more than a million people, and as we drove through it I began to feel strangely out of place. It was so urban. We passed Office Depot and Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart, crawling in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The hotel was fine, if more expensive than I was used to, and I spent a decent, short night, air-conditioned. The park was a lively place in the evening, with a marimba band and many people eating ice cream, but I was too tired and disoriented to appreciate it. I woke necessarily early the next morning and caught a taxi on the nearly deserted street. I was the first to arrive at the office, tucked into a residential neighborhood and difficult to find in the dark. One by one cars pulled up, and before long there were twelve people meeting each other, all destined for El Triunfo. We divided up into three fancy 4WD vehicles and set off. It was immediately clear that I had chosen the right ride: the lead guide was driving, and he stopped at every good birding spot. Two Dutch naturalists were the other passengers; we chatted, getting to know each other a little. We went from highway to back road to rough dirt track, checking out a few birds of interest, until six hours later we arrived at Finca Prusia, where the trail into El Triunfo begins.

Bagging Organic Coffee

We unloaded and grabbed a quick sandwich lunch, the birders twitching and picking out great black hawks and a lone red-tailed, high above. I took the opportunity to look around the finca, poking into the coffee processing plant where a few men worked bagging fifty-kilo bags of green, organic coffee beans. In an instant I was transported back to Nicaragua in the early ’80s, where I had last been in such close contact with coffee production.

After lunch we loaded our gear into the back of an open truck, and we all climbed in for the bumpy ride uphill to the trailhead. Several men awaited us with burros to carry our gear. What luxury, hiking with only a daypack! Otherwise the steep ascent would be much less enjoyable, limiting access to only the very fit, and diminishing the opportunity for birding and other natural history observations. About half of our group were on the more-fit side, and all birders, so we set off directly to get ahead of the rest of the party, some of whom were very chatty.

Welcome to El Triunfo

We climbed along high shade-grown coffee slopes, gradually moving through tropical deciduous and pine/oak forests, and beginning to find increasingly diverse birds. Eventually we entered cloud forest, a magical habitat of hanging cactus and orchid flowers, filtered sunlight, and life exploding all around. We watched two ringtail cats feeding and frolicking just overhead, almost seeming to be acting for their captive audience. A blue-crowned chlorophonia pair were building a nest next to the trail, and we saw the fabled horned guan before we reached the campamento.

It had been a long day resulting in many new friends, dozens of life birds, and entry into a different world. Everyone found their assigned bunks in the bunkhouse, and then we walked around the verdant clearing discovering birds along the forest edge, as a fulvous owl hooted just out of site. Darkness fell rapidly and we had just enough light to see white-faced quail-doves foraging, before we were called to dinner in the small mess hall. How delicious the food tasted after the long climb! We drank pitchers of hot chocolate and chatted in a mixture of languages until sleep beckoned, and then headed through the dark to the bunks.

Here is a bird list for this day, including only seen species: 4-15 List


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