Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

I’ve always wanted to see the Grey Whale calving in Baja California Sur. Of all of my trips to Baja over the years I’ve never been able to make a deep trip during the months before the whales migrate north to Alaska. The whales visit all of the major lagoons on Baja to raise their calves but are concentrated in Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Scammon’s Lagoon), Bahia Magdalena, and Bahia San Ignacio. We asked our good friend Lindsey Peavey, a marine biologist working on her Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara, for advice on which one to visit. Her suggestion from years with Pro Peninsula and Wildcoast was to stay and tour at Kuyima in San Ignacio. Lonely Planet and Mexican Camping make the same recommendation.

Kuyima is great place to camp and seems to have the EcoLodge thing down. They have solar hot water, eco toilets, camping, cabañas, pre-pitched tents, and drive in sopts. We pulled in off the dirt road a couple hours before sunset, in time to really get excited as we could see whales spouting out in the bay while we made dinner. Super cool, but we had no idea. I can’t believe we live a two-day drive from this spot and we’ve never done this. The whales are incredible. They come right up to the boat and seems to get as big of a kick (sans legs) out of seeing the tourists as the tourist do them. While we were in San Ignacio there were approximately 40 or 50 whales in the bay, at the height of the season there are 200 plus. Apparently the whales in late February and early march are even more friendly with the calves having doubled in size and their mothers having become much less protective.

If you live anywhere near San Diego and you haven’t done this. Go. It is incredible. Hopefully the images and videos will inspire you. There are more photos over on Flickr and another video on our YouTube channel.

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The ferries to and from Baja are the cause of a lot of questions and frustrations with travelers. There are numerous stories of people getting stuck in Mazatlan or La Paz waiting for an open spot. Apparently things have gotten a lot easier now that there are two ferry companies. The ferries from La Paz also serve Topolobampo and Los Mochis. In retrospect we probably should have driven down Baja on the way down and taken the ferry to Los Mochis in order to visit Copper Canyon but I didn’t realize how easy it would have been.

The two ferry companies are very different and offer extremely different amenities for Baja travelers. The Baja Ferries company offers very nice new boats with cabins, good food, state rooms and a nine hour travel time but you definitely pay for what you get. It is a little confusing to try to determine how much we would have actually paid for the van on Baja Ferries from their website but it might have been as much as US$1000 depending on what classification it fit into. We would have also had to purchase a cabin for another US$60-$70 if we wanted to get some sleep as you don’t have access to your vehicle.

By contrast, Transportación Marítima de California is the truckers choice. The boats are older and slower – 16 hours to La Paz. The bathroom facilities are borderline revolting. The food is passable and there are very few other amenities. But its significantly less expensive than Baja Ferries and you have access to your vehicle for the duration of the trip. For us that meant watching movies, drinking mescal, and sleeping in the van – and after the most non-romantic discussion of all time about benefits and taxes, we decided to get married. Smooth, I know. All for the low price of about US$350 (not the marriage stuff).

Boarding the ferry is pretty straightforward, if you are trying to get the ferry near the holidays you apparently need to make a reservation; but we just rolled up, measured and weighed the van, submitted to the most extensive military search yet, and kicked it on the docks while they loaded all the trailers and semis. The loading process is fairly long and semi-painful but the workers are total pros and work pretty hard to get the tourists on last. Last on equals first off! The first couple of hours pulling away from Mazatlan and the last few hours near La Paz make for some great sight-seeing especially the early morning views of the mountains of Baja Sur with huge pods of dolphins playing in the ferry’s wake.

There are a lot more pictures over on Flickr.

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If you think that you might sort of pretend to maybe, possibly, like something to remotely do with nature than you have to make the pilgrimage to eastern Michoacan to visit one of the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries. Incredible. Amazing. There is no hyperbole, no still, and no video to adequately describe the phenomena of the culmination of the migration of butterflies from Canada, to the southwestern United States to these mountains of central Mexico. At somewhere over 10,000 feet these vagabonding insects congregate in the millions to mate and die during the multi-year and four-generation sojourn. Thought at one point by the locals to be a plague on the incredibly valuable lumber resources, the butterflies now have tens of thousands of hectares of reserve to reproduce and clue scientists into their singularly accomplished exodus. Monarchs are not endangered as commonly thought, huge colonies exist on Africa, Asia, and Austrailia, but none commence a migration like the ones in North America. The videos and photos don’t do it justice, you have to see it for yourself but in case you can’t get enough here there are many more photos over on Flickr.

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Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is everything I hate about Mexican resort towns; huge masses of fly-in tourists, cheap Chinese knock-offs pretending to be authentic indigenous art crafts sold at boutique prices, ridiculously over priced food serenaded in front of you as if to masquerade it as cuisine. And yet, I loved the place. It is by far my favorite Mexican resort town. It’s nouveau chic blended with Mexican fanfare is only missing surf-able waves to make me pack it in, jettison my real life and move permanently to become yet another expat restaurateur gouging tourists and underpaying the locals. The white sand beaches and warm, clear, snorkeling waters give the Mexican Riviera something truly special, Cozumel and world-class diving up the anty. Mix in the occasional topless euro, some daytime cocktails amongst the throbbing, pulsating, sand dance party at Mamitas Beach Club and I’m hooked. Love it. There are some other pictures over on Flickr, including a bunch of snorkeling pics taken with my new underwater camera, my excellent Christmas present from Glenn and Marilyn.

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Plans seem to change daily on this trip. Maybe its not so much that plans change but that they aren’t really plans, more a rough outline of what you expect you are going to do. Back in Palenque we met some very cool Canadians from New Brunswick that were on a similar, albeit longer (jealous), sojourn. Ryan and Janelle have the first rig that I’ve envied on the road. Generally speaking I wouldn’t trade the van for anything else we’ve seen so far even considering the electrical problems. But I have to admit, they have a bitchin setup with their roof top, fold away tent that transforms their somewhat normal looking 4-Runner into a camping machine.

Straight from the Cazadores label

We first chatted with them after returning from the ruins and over a cocktail later on. The next day we compared battle vehicles and talked about stops so far and the next one down the road. We were heading to Mahahual or maybe Laguna Bacalar while they were going to fang it straight to Belize. Our 2:30 departure made it impossible to even make it to the state of Quintana Roo, much less to the Mexican Riveria coastline. We spent the night at a campground near Escarcega. It turned out to be an excellent stop as the owner showed up sometime around 10:30 a took us on a jungle hike to see “cat-monkeys”, throngs of deer, including one that was more mascot than wild animal, and the rest of the property. He and I climbed the tallest and rickety-est deer stand ever constructed. It was incredibly unnerving as the whole thing swayed in the wind with our 350lb~ish combined weight gave its 35 feet of Mexican engineering all it could handle.

The next morning we rolled out at the reasonable hour of 11:30 only to be derailed in Chetumal by the need to track down some groceries, supplies and most importantly propane refills. By the time we had managed all the errands it was pushing dark-thirty again and we opted to track down the campground just north of Chetumal. Over an uninspiring and relatively expensive platter of not-really-paella, Ryan and Janelle rolled into the campground, so at least we aren’t the only ones who can’t go more than a couple hours a day. We camped next door and set up a massive combined kitchen, tranquillo-ness and general laziness caused a one night stopover to turn into a two night stay and Emilie made us all crepes the second morning. We left Emilie in Chetumal and finally slogged it to Mahahual where we met our dive instructor and set up the full, proper, camp for the first time since the Pacific Coast.

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The ruins at Palenque are incredible, not better or worse than Tonina, but definitely larger in land mass and quantity of structures, although Tonina is far more imposing especially from a distance. Hidden amongst the dense trees and vines, Palenque is composed of several groups of progressively larger complexes and structures ascending up the jungle hillside. The incessant wail of the howler monkeys gives the place an eerie haunted feeling as if the Mayan gods have been disturbed and are watching your every step, ready to release some mythical horror conjured up to keep their civilization in line and then regurgitated and twisted by the Hollywood machine. In Palenque you can see amazing examples of the way the Mayans redirected and channeled water, mastering the rivers and streams to protect their settlements and feed their agriculture. They incredible visages of ancient efforts and technology considering it was 1500 years prior; modern day Mexico still seems to struggle with controlling water and protecting their civilizations. Incredibly, the guidebook suggests that just a fraction of Palenque has been excavated. Unfortunately it doesn’t expand on the statement; it is possible that it just means the existing ruin complexes, since it is obvious that much of the visible ruins still lay under jungle and earth. But it is easy to imagine considerably more ruin structures snaking their way up the jungle ridglines, buried beneath hundreds of years of growth. Here, like at Tonina it is hard to fathom the reason for abandoning such sophisticated structures in favor of the wood thatch and dirt floor confines that the Mayans retreated to. While western civilization and archaeological academia were unaware of Palenque and for a longer period Tonina, the local indigenous cultures knew of their existence, it is thought continually since their abandonment. Why not return to an ancestral home and rebuild rather than toil in less modern housing that provides little more than daily sustenance? I can only surmise that religion played some massive role in this decision: most likely, some faulty superstition that would be replaced centuries later by the equally faulty religious superstitions of the Judeo Christian control complex of the conquistadors.

I am wondering if we will get “ruined-out,” since we are planning on visiting Tulum, Coba, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Xcalak, but we are going to take a break for some diving first. As always there are a few more pics from Palenque over on Flickr.

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Sumidero Canyon

Sumidero Canyon is beautiful, really. If you are ever in San Cristobal or Tuxtla, I HIGHLY recommend paying the MX$180 and taking the lancha trip up the canyon from Chiapa de Corzo. The bird watching is spectacular, the crocodiles are awe inspiring and fear inducing at the same time, the rock and mineral formations are unlike any other that I have ever seen; particularly the Christmas tree cascada (waterfall) that supports a myriad of plants, flowers, mosses, lichens and cave-like growths for 30-some stories.

But, it is an epic environmental disaster, on par with Hetch Hetchy, compounded by a river of trash that gives reminiscence to the island of plastic swirling in our Pacific Ocean. The entire premise of the tourist attraction is the two and a half hour lancha trip up the “river” to see the full expanse of the canyon. The “river” is actually a reservoir created by a damn that was created both for hydroelectric purposes and for municipal use water by Tuxtla and San Cristobal. In places, the towering 1000-meter cliffs would actually be 100 to 200 meters higher without the damn, undoubtedly covering immense stretches of invaluable habitat to the very birds, crocodiles, and previously jaguars, that help draw in the tourists.

The highway snakes along the rim of the canyon, providing 5 miradors (look-outs) for travelers to gaze the opposite direction into the canyon’s depths. During the rainy season the highway also provides a canal-esc thoroughfare for an incredible about of trash, washed from the streets of Tuxtla Gutierrez over the rim of the canyon and eventually into the reservoir itself. The snaking, twisting, nature of the original river provides for catchment basins, essentially creating islands of floating trash that mar the landscape.

To their credit, the local Chiapan governments spend considerable resources cleaning the trash and the river year-round. We witnessed several work crews and specialized aquatic machinery working to remove the debris. While those efforts are indeed admirable there was little obvious effort to quell the root of the waste, trash, and litter problem that plagues all of Mexico.

As always, you can check out the rest of the photos over on Flickr.

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