Yucatan Travel Log
Written Fall Semester 1999
By Tom Cole
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When Larry's wife Nancy went to visit her mother in Illinois, he gave me a call and asked me if I wanted to go bird watching for a week in Yucatan with him. Now, Larry has this traveling stuff down to a T. He studies the birds of, say, Perú for a year and then flies there and tries to identify as many of them as he can. Within the last few years he's been to England (twice), Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Africa, Peru, and a lot of other places. All for bird watching. He says, "I-I-I-I-I-I do it for the A-A-A-A DRENALINE rush!" He's the only person I know who watches birds for the adrenaline rush.

Believe me, he's serious about this bird watching stuff, though he says he's not -- but then you look at him and Nancy and they've both got on T-shirts with hawks on them. You look at Larry and he's wearing a baseball cap with a pair of summer tanagers on it and they've both got bird key chains and a vanity plate on their truck that reads COLIBRI, Spanish for hummingbird (though I think Chupa Flores would have been a cooler name because it looks like it could be a person. "You seen Chupa around?" "Chupa Gonzales?" "Nah, Chupa Flores.")

Larry also used to have a really expensive pair of binoculars: 8X42 Elite roof prisms with about a six-foot close focus (so if you're tall, you can focus on any birds that land on your shoes), but someone stole them when he was in Africa and he had to get a replacement there and came up with a 200-buck pair of porros that he's kept ever since. They've got a nice wide field of view and a really bright image, but they just don't provide those extra yards of reach and the fineness of detail that my 300-dollar Swift Audubons do. Larry is oblivious to this because he hasn't been using really good binocs for a while and has forgotten what a big difference quality can make. The poor soul doesn't know what he's missing and walks through life unaware of his own plight rather like people who use MicroSoft products. I've got to urge him to replace those stolen Elites with some good binocs.

Swift Audubon 8.5X44's
Larry has been a friend of mine since the early eighties. He's in his sixties now and when I was just barely thiry or so I was happy to hang with this older but interesting character. He walks a little more stiffly now than he used to; he's had his feet operated on and I think his knees are bad, but he is a big stocky guy and still quite a bit stronger than I am. He fits into the category of guys that you try to wrestle with and then say to yourself, "Jesus, this is a strong son of a bitch and I'm going to take that into account in the future." Larry used to always get drunk and run up out of a crowd and say, "Give me a kiss, you big silly!" And I'd fight him off but the next day I'd still have two thumb-sized bruises in the middle of both biceps where that fruitcake had grabbed me. He was taking after the others in the weird crowd of high school teachers. These guys think it's a hoot to kiss each other on the lips like Arabs and God you can just hardly stand it!

Anyway, Larry had already done this Yucatan trip and knew exactly where to go. I told him I would think about it and then I called him back and said I'd go.

"This isn't a vacation," Larry warned. "It's an adventure." He was trying to make sure I didn't think I was going to be lying on a beach in a flowered shirt swilling rum and chasing girls. Then he told me that the jungle would be hotter than blazes. Shoot, I thought, but by then I'd already committed and couldn't back out. I hate the heat. I thought it would be like Mexico City, where it's always comfortable. (Weather-wise; if you've ever lived there you know the city itself isn't comfortable at all.)

A couple of weeks later Larry came by with a ton of bird books and maps and we sat around and figured out the trip and took notes on the birds and drank beer and yucked it up.

Afterwards, I took Larry's list of all the birds he had seen in Yucatan on his last trip and looked each one up in some books he had lent me. I didn't study very hard because I'm lazy and because I knew Larry would be able to identify the birds for me when we got there.

I took his list, a nice fold-over booklet, removed the staples, and photocopied it. Then I whited out all his check marks and recopied it and made a screaming pink cover with the picture of a barred antshrike on it. I made an extra copy of the cover as the flyleaf. Then I stapled both books together with the big stapler at the office. Later, Larry was surprised to see that I had my own copy, but he wasn't impressed with this small effort on my part; he himself had painstakingly cut every plate out of a huge Mexican bird book and had all of them laminated and bound so he could look at them in the field without carting around the whole clumsy volume.

The plane ride to Yucatan was in an MD-80, flying rocket ship that goes straight up when it takes off. In a short time I could see out the window the usual red deserts of New Mexico and Texas and there were small towns in the middle of nowhere which looked like good retirement options. After we flew over El Paso, I saw a wild meandering river that coursed through a deep canyon. Over Mexico, from 29,000 feet I could see tremendous cliffs below, topped with green. I'd look down over the edge of these cliffs and it was a dizzying drop down to the rocky land below. When we were over the gulf, it was as if the plane were upside down; the view below looked just like clouds and sky. Only when we passed atolls did this illusion vanish to give way to shallow turquoise water over white sand.

We passed over the jungle of Yucatan and some of it was tall Tarzan-style jungle with trees that looked deciduous. The landing in Cancún was a straight-in approach that had the jungle only disappearing at the last moment before the plane flared and the wheels touched down for a real kisser of a landing.

Oh, what a fine little Ellis Island we encountered upon our arrival at Cancún Airport. There was a huge room with air conditioners that roared at the decibel level of a major earthquake, and creeps cutting in line, and bottlenecks, and screw-ups, and just forget it!  I hate traveling. I honestly don't know why I go. It was dark before we saw the end of that line, but we finally got through. Then we picked up our bags and found a shuttle van to the rent-a-car place.

Our driver beeped his horn at everything he passed. "Beep! Beep!" He beeped at dogs on the sidewalks and at people in their houses and at parked cars. Sometimes he'd beep when there was nothing really beepable there at all. "Beep! Beep!" he went. He then explained that the shuttle trip would be three dollars each and Larry told him in Spanish "SSSSSure, but I just want to cccccheck in the office first because last time it was fffffree." How's that for "beep beep?" I thought.

Of course, the fee was immediately waived at Larry's words, but just for fun I took down the van's license plate number so I could report the driver and get him in trouble on the off chance that anyone around there cared about such petty larceny. It was good that I took down the number, because Larry left his damned binoculars in the van!

There was a lot of shouting in Spanish by Larry and me and the rent-a-car people threw Larry in a car and, armed with the license number, off they roared, headlights sweeping the road ahead as they raced to get the binoculars out of the van before Johnny Beep Beep found out what was what.

Twenty minutes later, Larry came back ashen of face and somewhat green about the gills -- but he had the binoculars! "You numbskull!" I said. "This is Mexico and it's Sunday tomorrow and even on weekdays they sell the good binoculars along with the unspoiled beef. Good luck finding any!"

Larry confessed that in his gratefulness at having been spared a hideous fate he had also tipped Johnny Beep Beep. I sighed. I didn't even ask how much the tip was. I would have stiffed that creep with a smile. "A curse be on heads of thieves and liars!" I always say.

We rented a Chevy Monza and drove it through the tropical darkness to Puerto Morelos where we found an eleven-dollar-a-night flea bag called Hotel Amor. Its decor? Contemporary Flintstones.

The town was right on the sea and we went out in the quiet night to see the boats with their expensive outboards rocking peacefully in the water over the white sand. I walked out on a dock there and saw a huge Weimaraner dog there. I later found he had some affiliation with the hotel we were at because he would often come up and look through the windows of their cafe . He seemed kind of a tragic being looking in that way with his  huge silver-gray, half human, Walt Disney head. The dogs of Yucatan do not seem to fit into the yellow Calcutta breed that so often inhabits the slummy cities and streets of the third world. Many are chocolate or black and white and in various sizes and shapes. You can fancy that some have a bit of Airedale in them, others a touch of springer spaniel.

Larry and I drank some beer at a couple of Hotel cafes. I had not had a drink on the plane so it was Miller time for me. In other words, I needed a belt. We tried to buy some rum at a grocery store, but there was an election the next day and they wouldn't sell us any.

The next morning, we drove to Tulum. As Larry always said, "The cool thing about bird watching in Yucatan is that all the good places are at the ruins. So you get to see the ruins and the birds at the same time."

Tulum was unusual in that it was a Mayan ruin on the sea. Spanish sailors would see these big stone buildings on the coast and just keep sailing on. Why mess with a big place like that where they might have an organized army and a lot of pyramids to sacrifice you on? The ruins were full of huge iguanas that you could approach rather closely before they scurried off to your relief (There was at first some question as to whether they might run up and bite you.). There were  orange orioles and yellow-tailed orioles, and altamira orioles, and tropical kingbirds, all life listers for me.

We then went to Coba, another ruin down a long road through the jungle. Near it, we booked a room in a Club Med hotel. The hotel was on a lake loaded with alligators. There was a little dock with a thatched shelter at the end and on the shore a sign with a friendly-looking green alligator painted on it and the warning not to swim. The locals told me their standard story of the kid fishing out there in a boat who got his line hung up on the bottom. When he dove down to get his hook back, he found out too late that he'd snagged an 18-foot cocodrilo and it just ate him up.

Larry and I went to the ruins and did really well on birds. I got a ton of life listers. I remember one in particular. Larry and I decided to take a trail out into the jungle and we were way out there and I saw what I thought were great-tailed grackles and Larry said, "They're grooved-billed anis!" And I looked and they were! God it was hot in there, but worth it to see grooved-billed anis, which I have always wanted to see. They have the coolest bills -- really big like a Brazil nut but black and grooved. Too cool. When we got back to the hotel there were a half dozen of them hanging around in the bushes by the parking lot.

The next day we went through those ruins again and went down another trail and spotted a black-headed trogan and masked tityras and a ton of other good birds. We wound up having a beer in an outside cafe by the lake. Montejo is the local brand of beer and it isn't too bad especially at the six pesos in these cafes compared to the 15 at the Club Med. There was a Mayan guy there who got into a big discussion with Larry about calendars and counting in the Mayan language. He said he had a bird book at home. He reminded me a lot of me: "I've got a BOOK on that at home!" He carried a little notebook like mine with him, and in it we wrote down the English names for birds he wanted to know about. Larry went and bought him a Montejo and even though he was the waiter, he sat down and drank it with us. From our table, I spotted a spectacularly colored purple gallinule walking on the shore and the Mayan guy knew the Spanish name, gallineta. Mayan mathematics is a bit dull and since everything was in Spanish Larry and I got tired of making the effort. We bid him adiós and walked down the shore and saw a ruddy crake, which we both agreed was quite a good bird to see.

Otherwise the lake was surprisingly unbirdy. There were tropical cormorants and anhingas sitting on posts out there, but not even coots swam in the lake. Larry got out his scope and we drove to the far side of the lake and set it up. All we saw were the cormorants and anhingas. Neither bird produces a water repellent oil so that's why they were on the posts -- to dry out in the sun.  If they don't dry out a lot, their feathers get soaked clean through and the next time they get in the water they just sink to the bottom and drown. That's my theory anyway.

There was a neighborhood of thatched shacks on the lake shore and a kid came out and seemed to know what we were up to. He was full of enthusiasm in his plans to learn some English and he said he was a waiter at a restaurant. The way he talked made us know he felt he was really on the road up. He was happy he lived in such a low crime area in the jungle instead of in some  big city. Somehow despite the dirt floors this little burg wasn't much different from what you might find in Illinois. But this kid's future was not as much a slam dunker as that of some kid in Illinois.

The hotel was a Club Med, but the restaurant had an awfully short menu. For breakfast you could get some scrambled eggs and some fruit and perhaps a side of beans, but there was no bacon or ham or sausage or pancakes or anything else. I, to this day, am still trying to figure out what the deal is with the food in Mexico. I hear people rave about it but, frankly, I cannot conceive of more poorly prepared and sloppily presented dishes than those which I typically encounter in Mexico. I feel that I am taking a real risk any time I eat anything in that country even when I'm in a fancy hotel restaurant. And if it is not utterly putrid it a the very least tastes borderline spoiled like it's been kept way too long. Why?  Because it has! There! I said it.

Larry and I don't fight very much or get on each other's nerves too much, but there was one annoying thing I found out about him: he has no nudity taboo. He'd get out of the shower and hang around naked and I'd say, "Hey, what the hell are you doing?"
"What?" he'd answer mystified.

"Get the hell out of here, you nut. Put some clothes on."

"Hey, you'd never make it on the river," was his retort.

And he was right. The river crowd he was referring to often sit around and reminisce with joy about the time they group-mooned some poor Japanese tourists from their rafts. They have two kinds of river trips: kid trips and adult trips. On the kid trips they can invite people with kids. The drawback is they have to behave like adults on the kid trips. I feel some of them don't have any kids of their own simply because it would get in the way of their nudity and drinkin' and dopin'. I went on a kid's trip down the San Juan with them and the leader brought a loaded .38 revolver to protect us from bandidos but never told the parents until they found it in with the corn flakes and in the end they were all throwing rocks at the ravens and acting like a bunch of rednecks instead of the good hippies they always pretended to be. These guys run river trips every year but they never keep a journal or even a log, so they can't remember one summer from the other. For all their supposed interest in nature, they still call great blue herons "cranes." I don't know why Larry was using them as a reference. He didn't run around with them anymore.

"YYYYYou've got hhhang-ups, man." he accused.

"Maybe so, Dr. Full Monty Freud," I answered. "Maybe so. But in the meantime put some clothes on, you gruesome bastard. Christ, what a carcass!"

Larry got the message and began wearing clothes again.

The next day, after I warily picked at my breakfast, we drove through several Mayan towns on our way to Muyil, a birdy ruin. Here's how the travel through these towns works. It's always exactly the same. You head through the jungle on a fairly respectable cement highway until you see a sign that says "Poblado Próximo" and another that says "Disminuya su Velocidad." Next, you see a 50 Km/Hr sign and the crosswalk warning sign, "Cruce de Peatones." Then comes a warning of topes, killer speed bumps. You have to slow down for these and even the dogs know it because they lie in the street just beyond them knowing full well there will  be plenty of time to laze up and stroll out of your way if you should try anything cute. There are topes all through the town and that's the cure for speeding.

An ever present sight is the Yucatan three-wheeler, a human-powered device that is used everywhere for a broad range of transportation purposes. It's a normal-sized bike that has been turned into a tricycle. But it differs from other trikes in that the single wheel is in back and two bike wheels are installed in front on either side of a large square metal framework that can carry people or cargo. Often it is used as a taxi or as one might use the family sedan to take the whole clan down the road. Those with an entrepreneurial bent load it up with their taco equipment and have a portable stand. Many of them are equipped with fabric canopies to shade passengers from the sun. They are everywhere, and if I had the concession on them I'd be rich enough to buy one of those really expensive birding scopes and a lot of other nice stuff.

Muyil was hot and there was a slight mosquito problem. I found that the 6-12 I brought along wasn't a very good solution because it was a cream. You could rub it on your skin but it was a little to messy to go on your clothes. I got out my aerosol can and sprayed a different brand on my socks and shirt. Now, I was all set for the day. Around my waist was a fanny pack with the back pulled around to the front. In it I carried a bottle of water, a can of diet coke, a pack of Tums, a pencil, a notebook, a bird book, some mints, a tube of sunscreen, some old wrappers and other trash I hadn't cleaned out yet, and a 99-cent raincoat half as thick as a pack of cigarettes and only a little wider. I had an extra bandanna and a baseball cap stuck in there as well. I found that the bandanna was good in humid weather while a hat would often just turn your poor miserable head into a sopping, baking wick. My right pants pocket was stuffed with two-hundred dollars worth of pesos and in my wallet was another three-hundred and fifty. My camera, reading glasses, and binoculars hung smartly around my neck. Waddling around with all this gear made me feel very happy and professional and I would recommend this set-up to anyone. It is an excellent rig!

We saw a Golden-fronted Woodpecker, a Caribbean Elaenia, a Tropical Pewee, and a Yellow-throated Warbler at Muyil. The woodpecker is common in Yucatan and recognizably a woodpecker to the layman. Elaenias are real candy-colored yellow and black birds while the pewee is a drab gray flycatcher.

There was a sign on a path saying that it led to a lake and we asked some worker in the jungle how far it was. He said it was 900 meters and as hot as it was Larry balked at the idea of walking. The guy said we could drive down a dirt road to the lake if we liked. We just had to take the first left out on the highway. We took his advice and went to the lake in the car.

The lake was malachite green and very large-- almost like a little inland sea. There was a gray wooden dock leading out into the water and a big red rowboat beached on the shore. A spotted sandpiper wobbled along the water's edge. I walked out on the dock and looked into the lake for alligators. I didn't see any. Larry was over reading a very new sign with Spanish and English captions. It sported full color maps of the lake and it told of the Biosphere Project that the lake was a part of. This was a real wildlife reserve and but for vantage points like this one, nobody was allowed in it. Larry said they didn't want poachers to screw things up. There were jaguars in the reserve and their coats bring a handsome price from unscrupulous boneheads who have enough bread to buy them.

We stayed a while at the lake and looked at rough-winged swallows which Larry said he thought were really Ridgeway rough-winged swallows, a different species. Then we drove the car out and headed for Felipe Carrillo, leaving my favorite reading glasses on the jungle road by the lake. Luckily, I had brought two other pairs.

Felipe Carrillo is a town near some jungle that is said to provide some of the best birding anywhere. It was kind of a disappointment. We drove thirty kilometers down the road recommended in the bird guide two days in a row and found the place pretty quiet with regard to birds. It was also quiet with regard to people: on the second day no one but us drove down that long jungle road except for a single truckload of workers. We did see the barred antshrike and the squirrel cuckoo there though and a number of other good birds.

We had a plan for each day on this trip. At each site we'd get up early and try to identify as many birds as we could. Then we'd drive a hundred miles and find a nice place or a dump and spend the hot part of the day filling out our bird lists and journals and swilling rum. Larry got a huge bottle of Bacardi the second day we were in Yucatan, and it was simply a task of coupling this bottle's contents with the necessary two to one ratio of coca cola each day until it was finished. Then, we'd buy another bottle. I never drink distilled liquor except on trips like this. And I would only buy rum because I somehow find that it is slightly harder to come to grief with this beverage than with others although all distilled beverages, including rum, require vigilance as you can quickly become excessively swizzled if you are careless. And then there is no telling what might happen.

We repeated our bird watching routine at Uxmal, the best ruins I have ever seen. The architecture there looks like that of an Ivy League college and is all in great condition. The Mot Mots were nesting in the rooms and since we were there really early we had the place to ourselves. You could not stay in some of the rooms in the ruins because the ammonia from cave swallow droppings was something like mustard gas. It drove you right out of there.

There was also an absolutely huge pyramid there. I asked Larry what he thought they used to do up there. I wanted to know whether they sacrificed people and threw them down the stairs Aztec-like and then cooked them up with chiles and tomatoes or what. Larry said they used to have some priests that would go up there and cut up their genitilia or maybe someone else's or their tongues and so on until they had a lot of blood flowing. Then they'd impress the crowd with the blood and win favor with the gods etc. He said no one was sure of all the details. I told him the details weren't necessary; I got the picture. It was the holy grail and the blood of Christ deal Mayan style. Nothing really changes.

The next day we headed into Progreso, a town right on the northern shore of Yucatan. This was a great place. We took a road on by some mangrove swamps and pulled off onto the side of the road where big equipment was tearing up the place and in the process giving us plenty of room to park away from traffic. There was a tri-colored heron out there and when I scanned the shore near us I said, "Hey! A Wilson's plover!"  Larry was happy to see that bird. I know he'd seen it before down at my family's beach house, but he had forgotten. "Do you see that one down at the beach?" he asked. "Sure," I said.

Wilson's Plover
You don't run across a Wilson's plover very often and what's more, the bird falls into the same category as even much more common birds. That category is the anytime-is-a-good-time-to-see category. I invented this category myself. Anytime is a good time to see a yellow-headed blackbird, for instance. Certain birds just fall into this category even if they're common. The long-billed dowitcher falls into it. So does the greater yellowlegs.  It's all subjective, of course. I like shorebirds such as the Wilson's plover. I like the way shorebirds wade around in the water and hang out on the beach. I get a vicarious pleasure from watching them root around in the water. So naturally I put more of them into this category than others might. Your tastes may vary. I've heard of people who have even put yellow-rumped warblers into this category.

After we saw the Wilson's plover we went down the road and saw about 1000 flamingos. When they fly, their stretched-out necks make them measure about ten feet from beak to tail.  I was quite surprised at them and said, "Larry, the greater flamingo is one long drink of water."

Progreso hosted us with rather run-down quarters that were nonetheless on the beach. There were green cement walls all along the beach and cafes and bars and live music all down the strip. When Mexicans have vacation, this is where they come. I noted to Larry that a kid living is this place would likely think he lived in the greatest place on earth. He'd be wrong, of course, but he'd think it all right.

Only a half mile down the strip was a huge cement pier stretching out to the deep water of the gulf. Lines of big trucks rode out onto it to the multi-storied customs building far at the end. We were told that the pier was built so that big luxury liners could berth right up close and bring business to town. Someone miscalculated, however, because the water at the end of the pier was not deep enough for the really big liners to lie up close, so now they all ignored Progreso.

Picture of the muelle in Progreso that I found on the internet.
We went out into the night and found an amusement park with Ferris wheels and other rides. We just looked. We didn't ride. Then we hit one of the bars on the beach and guzzled some brandy and called it a day. Progreso was a very interesting town and I'm sorry to say I did not take a single picture there.

We had another Club Med hotel left on our agenda and that was the one at Chichen Itza. I have always wanted to see that spectacular pyramid there and so in the morning we got up early as usual and went over there.

I decided to climb the pyramid, but when I'd gone up about twenty steps I remembered how acrophobic I was. I knew the climb was scary, and when I looked up, it seemed like a climb to the moon. I was afraid to look down. Then I steeled myself and started heading up again on all fours. Finally I saw the line that marked the end of the last step and I pulled myself over the top. I was woozy just looking down. God, I was up high. The stones were all wet and slippery with dew and the view below was obscured with ground fog. I hated it up there, but I took a few foggy pictures just to show how hairy it was. Being up there was like something out of a nightmare because I still needed to go down those 45-degree steps each a foot high and 360 of them at that (one for each day in the Mayan calendar). You slip on these steps and you go clear to the bottom. Guaranteed.

Soon there were more people at the top. You'd step out of the room on top and bump into someone else coming around the corner. No rails. Nothing. I marveled at kids dancing clean up the steps to the top and backpackers just hiking up like it was nothing. Was I crazy, or was this not a damned dangerous climb? I looked and saw a hiker just trot down the stairs from the top three hundred and sixty feet to the bottom. Some French guy saw that I was acrophobic and motioned in sign language that he'd go down with me, but I finally crept over the edge myself. There was a rope in the middle and I hung on to it until I was ten steps from the bottom. Then I turned and trotted down.

Larry was waiting there. He said the sign said not to go up if you were over sixty or acrophobic or under eight years old. I talked to some Mexican guys and they said that tourists fell all the time. Often, they said, the people's legs would get torn up. Often they died on the spot. Just two weeks before, a seven-year-old had fallen to his death.

I have the pyramid to myself.
Pooh, Pooh? Don't think it's steep?  Click here!
The best bird watching in Chichen Itza was at the expensive hotel we stayed at. They had a huge garden full of trees and there were chachalacas and even acaris in there. A chachalaca is a big long brownish bird and an acari is best described as a small toucan. Larry and I got some patio chairs and put them out there and mixed some drinks and just sat out there knocking off the occasional life lister.

All trips must end and frankly I get tired of hanging around so long. I get anxious to be back to my computer and TV and my dog. We took the car back to where we started, Puerto Morelos, and got a better hotel room than we had there the first night. We ate at the restaurant there and I was a fool and ate the beef, which I always mistrust and in the middle of the night I became nauseous. I got up and tried unsuccessfully not to wake Larry as I headed for the bathroom and shouted the paisley hurrah.

I was nauseous for a week and a half even after getting back to Arizona and the twelve-pack of diet coke a day that I poured into my stomach was comforting but not a cure.

The bird count at the end of the trip for me was 91 species 65 of which I had never seen before.

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