Friday, February 11, 2011

End of Week 27 - Cuetzalan, Pueblo Magico

I realized that I had forgotten to pack my swim shorts. I held up my backpack; it was completely full. I sifted through it to see if there was something I could leave behind. Socks, shirts, water... No, I needed all of that. But my winter hat? I wouldn't need that where we were going. The decision was easy; out came my hat and in went my swimsuit.

Two hours into our bus ride to tropical Cuetzalan, as the sun was almost completely set, the road dipped through the mountains and the bus started down the Gulf slope. We were enveloped in a thick fog almost immediately. The bus windows became covered with condensation. As I wiped away the droplets of water with my jacket sleeve I could see that we had entered a tropical jungle; dense foliage, bromeliads, and tree ferns lined the road. I could also see people along the way, illuminated by the buses headlights. But, confusingly, they were bundled up in heavy winter coats, their breath visible as puffs of condensation and they were all clearly shivering. How was it that we were going down thousands of feet into the tropical forests near Veracruz, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, but the people were dressed like it was the middle of winter in Buffalo? Was packing my swimsuit instead of my hat the wrong decision?

Cuetzalan is known as a Pueblo Magico, or magical town, located in the northernmost part of the state of Puebla. While much of Puebla is very arid, especially during the winter dry season, Cuetzalan is located in a cloud forest, a type of environment that has tropical vegetation and is usually wet, engulfed in clouds. Cloud forests have rapid weather fluctuations due to their locations on mountains, usually at the confluence of different air currents. It might be cold and rainy one day and hot and sunny the next. In this part of Puebla, warm air flows up the mountains from the Gulf of Mexico and collides with cold air flowing down from Mexico's central altiplano and tall volcanoes. They call the constant, drizzle-like mists "chipe chipe."
Cuetzalan at night.

Cuetzalan has history that goes back well beyond the first Spanish conquistadors and missionaries. It has been inhabitated for thousands of years although it has always been very remote; it was located in the eastern limits of the Aztec empire and the western limits of the Totonaca empire. Today, most of its population is either indigenous Nahuatl or Totonaca. The men wear white cloth pants, cowboy hats and sandals and the woman wear bright, colorful dresses and often don't where any shoes at all, even in the thick mud that makes up most of the roads. Most speak their indigenous language, not spanish.

The name, Cuetzalan, is a bit of a misnomer. To birdwatchers, Quetzals, with a "q", are some of the most sought after birds in the Americas. Resplendent Quetzals are aptly named as they are one of the most beautiful, graceful birds in the world. The Quetzal has sparkling emerald green plumage on its head and back and a brilliant ruby colored chest. Its meter long sparkling green tail feathers were used by Mayan and Aztec rulers in head dresses. To them, the Quetzal was considered divine. Quetzals should be found in cloud forests, like the one in Cuetzalan. Unfortunately, the forests of Cuetzalan was once used as a place to harvest the Quetzal's feathers for ceremonial head dresses. The Quetzal was extirpated from the area hundreds of years ago.

When we got off of the bus at the station in Cuetzalan, what we saw out the bus window on the way in was confirmed: it was cold out! We couldn't really tell where we were; the streets were nearly empty, the town was very dark and cloaked in fog. We finally hailed a taxi and, a half hour later, arrived at our hotel. The hotel, Centro Ecologico San Francisco de Asis, was high in the mountains in a small community deep in the cloud forest above Cuetzalan.
The trees at the hotel.

I woke up early the next morning, hoping the fog had cleared and the temperature had risen. This was not the case. The mist covered the trails at the hotel and it was still very cold out. It was beautiful though - thick white clouds passing slowly through the trees - and there were hundreds of birds chirping above me. Throughout the week I saw several species of warblers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a glowing orange Baltimore Oriole, and a Violet Sabrewing, the world's largest hummingbird, and with its iridescent purple color, one of the most spectacular. Every morning I was accompanied by a pair of timid Blue-crowned Motmots. I wouldn't see them until after they had spotted me and taken flight, always to a nearby tree, tempting me to follow. Their feathers are a mix of emerald and turquoise colors, they have a shimmering blue cap, and  ruby red eyes. They have two long, extruding tail feathers shaped like clock pendulums, and when they are agitated they swing them rhythmically back and forth like a pendulum on a grandfather clock.
Blue-crowned Motmot at the hotel.

We used public transportation to travel to the different sites during our stay. In Cuetzalan, the public transportation consists of large pickup trucks with benches on the truck bed covered by a tarp. The tarp is usually tall enough for any local Nahuatl or Totonaca to stand up straight underneath it. Its never tall enough for gringos with German ancestry, however. But, the trucks do leave and return on time, and risk traveling along the perilous, muddy, mountain roads.
The bus.
Cuetzalan is famous for its waterfalls. On Saturday we took a "bus" to Las Amacas, a waterfall about an hour down the mountain from the town. Las Amacas is located at the bottom of a deep ravine, its steep sides covered with thick tropical forests and banana plantations. As the chipe chipe came and went, we watched Black Phoebes and orange-colored Tufted Flycatchers play in the air above the river, catching insects and each other as they darted from rock to rock. Spotted Sandpipers, American Dippers and Louisiana Waterthrush climbed up and down the smooth rock face of the waterfall. Of course it was too cold to go swimming.
The river at Las Amacas.

When we decided to leave Las Amacas, catching the last bus back up the mountain on the side of the road, I caught a glimpse of a large red bird as it flew into a tree fern above the river. As I focused my binoculars, I quickly realized that it was a trogon, a bird in the same family as the Quetzal. Because it was a female, its ruby red stomach was contrasted by a brown head and back. It was as curious about us as we were about it and stared at us, cocking its head like an inquisitive puppy. It would sit still for long periods of time on a tree branch, hiding just enough so that it could still see us, until flying to another nearby branch. We later identified it as a Collared Trogon, for the white ring around its neck.
The female Collared Trogon.

I woke early the second day to find that the weather had completely changed: the sun was shining and it was warmer outside than in our hotel room. We left after breakfast for Yohualichán, an ancient ruin near Cuetzalan whose design was influenced heavily by El Tajin, a much larger series of pyramids in coastal Veracruz. Yohualichan is Nahuatl for "house of the night” and consists of several pyramids, ball-courts and plazas, and was first inhabited 1,500 years ago.

The pyramids at Yohualichan

That afternoon we visited the town of Cuetzalan, which resembles a town from the Middle Ages in Europe. . The streets are narrow and made of cobblestone. Many are steep and built only for pedestrians. The buildings look hundreds of years old but are well-maintained. Large overhangs on the roofs shade the walkways below. In the central zocalo we watched the famous "voladores", or flyers, climb to the top of a tall pole made from a single pine tree, tie themselves to ropes, and then jump off, descending as they circled the pole slowly while their ropes unwound at the top.
Narrow alley in Cuetzalan.
A street market in Cuetzalan.
Los Voladores.


We were excited for the final day, a trip to the Las Brisas waterfall, thinking that the nice weather from the second day would stick around. But, as the morning hours went by, the temperature actually dropped and the clouds came back. Las Brisas was still an excellent way to end the trip. Views of the mountain forests on the walk down into the waterfall’s valley were outstanding. Mountain peaks faded into the foggy distance. Pine trees were mixed with palm and more rainforesty hardwoods. The Las Brisas waterfall at the bottom was tall and narrow, diving from a rocky ravine into a wide, jade colored pool.

The view from Las Brisas.

Las Brisas

As we started walking up the pathway on our final trip back to the "bus", the town and ultimately our hotel, the clouds opened up and it started to rain hard, not like the chipe chipe from the previous days. Although we didn't have the best weather on the trip, and I wish I had taken my winter hat instead of swimsuit, we did experience the power of being in a cloud forest during the winter. The mountains were gorgeous cloaked in mist and the birds were more likely to sit still in the cover of the trees, hiding from the weather, easy for me to watch them as they watched me.

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