April 8th, 2010 by robert

I awoke when the bus stopped. It was pouring rain and first light was having trouble breaking through the thick clouds. It was 6 AM and the overnight bus had arrived in Palenque, and I was slightly disoriented from a cold, poor night’s sleep during the trip. Looking out at the sheets of warm rain, I was happy when a Swiss woman called Tuli asked if I wanted to split a taxi to El Panchán, an enclave in the rainforest that contains a few hostels and a couple of restaurants, just outside of the Palenque park.

The taxi dropped us amidst the hostels, all tucked into the forest, but nobody was stirring yet. Someone the boys and I met on Isla Holbox, at the beginning of the trip, had recommended a hostel called Mayabel, which was another two kilometers into the park, so I decided to walk there. I hefted my pack and set off, walking on the cobblestone path that runs next to the road all the way from Palenque town to the ruins. Fragments of forest abutted the road, but most of the land was pasture. Everything was an intense, verdant green.

Palenque Pasture

I arrived at Mayabel and was directed to a group of palapas along the forest edge, where I could camp. The rain had stopped, but everything was wet and the ground was muddy. On the way to the palapas, I passed a couple of motorhomes, and I noticed that the shared bathrooms were packed with people. It was the beginning of Semana Santa, when the whole country goes on vacation. The palapas all had very low thatched roofs and dirt floors. I found one in the back that seemed dry and dropped my pack. By now my coffee need was intensifying. I unpacked my twig stove and looked for anything dry to burn. Nada. Even the thatch on the inside of the palapas was damp. Not surprising, given that the humidity was around 100%.

I had a little dry fire starter with me, though, and with some remnant stick ends in a fire pit, I thought I could get a fire going in the stove. As I tried, the person from the palapa next door came over and sat next to me, introducing himself as Randy. He was an American in his late twenties, tall and lanky with a ragged, blonde beard. “Do you have something I can write on?” he asked. “I want to write you a poem.” Randy went on to explain he was a writer, hanging out in Palenque because it is so special. After about a minute he handed my pad back to me, asking me to read it. My fire attempts were complete failures, and by now I was done with early morning chatter. “How do you like it?” I said it was good, but that I needed some time to get organized (and would you please leave). Eventually he left, since I was ignoring him, but not before asking me if I wanted some pot, and telling me that god loves me and therefore so did he.

In my caffeine deficit, I just sat there a few minutes. Finally I packed up and left, walking back to El Panchan where I knew I could get a private cabin for 100 pesos, double what camping cost at Mayabel. And coffee. It seemed like heaven, in comparison. A tour bus had arrived at Mayabel, and dozens of Mexicanos were disgorged around the shared bathrooms, affirming my decision to leave. To and from Mayabel were slow walks because there were new and unusual birds along the way. A young couple dressed rough, in what seems the nuevo hippy style common here, stopped me to ask if I wanted some magic mushrooms. No thanks, I didn’t need them. I already was in an altered state.

Big Tree

I checked into the Jungle Palace in El Panchan, and relaxed in the simple screened room. There was an enormous tree just behind my cabin, an entire habitat in itself. Bird song was all around, but first things first: I headed to the restaurant down the trail for coffee and breakfast. During the afternoon the weather improved. I walked the five kilometers to the ruins, looking unsuccessfully  for a couple of trails well-known in birding circles. Things have changed dramatically in Mexico since the birding guide was written more than a decade ago. There were enough birds to keep me busy, though, tired as I was.

El Panchan was a great place to stay, and I ended up staying there three days. The second day I woke to the sound of howler monkeys welcoming the day (click on the player below to listen while you finish reading!). Later I walked to the ruins and walked around them most of the day, birding and glancing at ruins overrun with hundreds of people. The third day I just sat at a picnic table outside my cabin, reading and eating and letting the birds come to me. Just as I was finishing my early breakfast, I noticed a broad-winged hawk that had roosted overnight in a nearby tree was gone. Looking up, there were dozens of broad-wings flying overhead, all towards a kettle forming above the hills across the road. Over the next couple of hours hundreds of broad-winged hawks and a few Swainson’s hawks gathered in three kettles, rising higher and higher in the thermals before peeling off to the north, en masse. Sedentary birding has a lot to offer, especially when life birds are sprinkled throughout the day!

Howler Monkey Dawn

I could not stay at Jungle Palace the night of April 1 because  it was totally booked in advance by a group. Instead I arranged to join a two-day tour to visit two remote ruin sites, Bonampak and Yaxchilán, as well as the Lacandon rainforest, with great expectations for birding opportunities. The journey continues. . .


4 Responses  
  • Diane O. writes:
    April 9th, 20104:28 pmat

    Great story, Robert. Bring home bird and hippie pictures!

    Diane O.

  • Sarah K writes:
    April 10th, 201010:16 pmat

    Thank you for sharing your travels and experiences!
    Love, Sarah

  • Lacey writes:
    April 14th, 20101:20 amat

    I hear your voice tell these stories and it makes them even more entertaining! I love the ginormous tree!! and this blog!
    Much love- Lacey

  • Barb writes:
    April 14th, 201010:55 pmat

    Hi Robert, Thinking about you so much- it sounds so wonderful. I’m off to AZ on Sunday pm- it doesn’t sound like our paths are going to cross until we get back to Alaska.

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