Saturday, May 21, 2011

Military Macaws and the Canyon de Sabino - Tehuacan Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve (Reserva de la Biosfera Tehuacan Cuicatlan)

"Buenos tardes, quiero hacer reservaciones en Alas Verdes para la proxima semana." I said in perfect Spanish. I wanted to make reservations at the Alas Verdes, or Green Wings camp site in Tecomavaca on the Oaxaca side of the Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve. No one responded. I repeated myself, in fewer words. "Hola..." Finally, I heard a woman's voice softly say "No hablo Ingles." She wanted me to know that she couldn't speak English and that I should probably call back later.

I guess my Spanish wasn't as good as I thought. She had seen right through my cover, but I persisted. "Pero yo hablo espanol" I replied. There was a pause, but then I continued. I told her that I was looking for Leobardo Ramos Correa and had found his contact information on the Alas Verdes website. It was a beautiful web site, incredibly user-friendly and informative, with great photos as well as birds chirping in the background. It obviously took some time and money to build. She told me that she was Leobardo's sister but didn't know what Alas Verdes was. I was confused, but told her that I had found an excellent web site advertising Alas Verdes, a camp site with cabins in the Canyon de Sabino with nesting Military Macaws, in Tecomavaca, Oaxaca. She asked why I would want to stay in her town for two days, which mad me a little nervous. Although she never sounded like she knew what Alas Verdes was, she took my reservation information and telephone number and asked that I call back the day before we arrive.

The night before the trip, I called the phone number again to confirm our reservation. I reached a different woman, Leobardo's cousin. I could barely understand her Spanish. I repeated my story again and asked if the reservation was confirmed. I think she said yes. She asked why I would want to stay there for so long, two nights. I couldn't explain myself in Spanish so I ignored the question. I asked if there would be transportation to the site. I think she told me to meet Leobardo at the tourism office next to the basketball court in Tecomavaca at 1pm. I asked if there would be food at the camp site like the web site suggests. I didn't hear her response. I decided to tell her that it would be best if there was food at the site since we had no transportation and no room in our backpacks to carry everything we needed for the three days and two nights. To be honest, I didn't know what she said in response, but it all sounded positive so I just said thank you and hung up. Although my wife speaks perfect Spanish, she usually makes me do the talking, which sets us up for, well, good stories after its all over.

We left Puebla for the two hour bus trip to Tehuacan, a city in the state of Puebla just outside of the Biosphere Reserve, on Wednesday after work. It was Easter weekend so we had Thursday and Friday off. That night we stayed with John and Tammy, other volunteers, who live in Tehuacan but work in the Biosphere Reserve. They had been helping us with the logistics of the trip and using us  guinea pigs - willing guinea pigs - in an experiment to test the workings of the Tecomovaca site. They wanted to see how easy it was for a tourist to make reservations and actually get to the site, and how nice the accommodations at the site really were.
We left Tehuacan the following morning on a city bus to go to Teotitlan, a community on the Oaxaca side of the reserve two hours from Tehuacan. In Teotitlan, we had to ask people if they knew where the bus to Tecomovaca was. All directions led nowhere. We walked in circles for a while, then in a series of four right angles, then reversed course, until after a half an hour we found what looked like a bus terminal. Outside was a pickup truck with a red tarp covering benches bolted to its bed. This was it, and after waiting for a few more passengers, we were off.
 Last year's rains caused massive land slides in the hills above Teotitlan.

About an hour later we were pretty sure that we had arrived in Tecomavaca and motioned for the "bus" driver to let us out. Tecomovaca was a quite, dusty town at the base of a tall desert mountain range. We quickly found the basketball court, assuming there would be only one, and asked for the tourism office. None of the old cowboy hat wearing men knew of such a thing. We asked if they had heard of Alas Verdes, and after talking amongst themselves for a while, they said no. After some searching, we decided to go into the municipal office, which was by the basketball court, and ask if they could help us. At first, the woman in the office didn't seem to know what Alas Verdes was either. So I clarified "The Cabins!" after I got the feeling that there probably weren't too many cabins for tourists in town. I told her I was looking for Leobardo and had his cell phone number. I finally got my first positive response, a response that made me think they could understand what I was saying: "Leobardo no trabaja aqui y no hay recepcion..." Leobardo didn't work there anymore and there is no cell phone reception in this town.

I was all out of ideas. Now that Ana realized that we might be putting our tent up in that basketball court, she decided to weigh in on the conversation. Through some sort of magic and the use of strange sounds that evoked equally strange responses (or what I'm told is Spanish), Ana discovered that Leobardo's brother worked at the municipality and at the cabins. The woman at the municipality used a radio to call him in to town to come talk to us. I realized that since there was no cell phone service, there probably wasn't any internet service either, and that no one who lived here or worked at the camp site was aware that they had a web site calling it Alas Verdes.

About an hour later Leobardo's brother showed up at the office and said he would drive us to the camp site. He asked if we had brought food and was surprised when we told him no. He took us to a little corner store where we bought water, canned tuna and bread to keep us alive for the next few days. He then took us to his house where his wife prepared us a lunch of fried chicken, green salad, and black beans. She also served some of the freshest, best nopal (cactus) I have ever had. I guess they figured that we could survive two days if we had at least one good meal in us before we left.

We finally arrived at the camp site in Leobardo's brother's pickup truck late in the afternoon on Thursday. We made arrangements for a guided tour of the canyon to see the Military Macaws the following morning. Before leaving, he asked us if we were sure that we wanted to stay there overnight, or at least if we preferred the cabin rather than our tent. He offered the cabin for no extra charge in case it rained on us that night. He even offered to bring us some fruit in the morning so that we had the energy to hike up the mountain. We confirmed that we did indeed want to stay at the camp site and use our tent. And as he drove away, I wondered in secret if I had made some huge mistake in that decision.

But the camp site was great. There were two newly completed cabins, a bathroom with working hot water showers, and a picnic shelter for us to use to stay out of the sun. Tall cactus made up most of the vegetation in the dry forest around us. A creek with crystal clear, cold water ran through the canyon and out into a broader valley below the camp site. It was nearly 100 degrees out, so we sat in the creek underneath a tall cypress tree until the sun started to set. We listened to birds call as dusk turned to night, and as songbird sounds faded into owls hooting.
The creek that cut created the canyon.
Ana underneath a candelabra cactus.

Leobardo's brother returned the following morning at 5am with fruit, as promised, and we started our hike up into the canyon. He came with other tour guides and several large groups of other tourists. Although it seemed deserted when we arrived the previous day, the site was apparently very popular and well organized, especially for people with their own transportation and a fluency in Spanish.  We walked for about an hour in the darkness while the full moon illuminated the pathway enough for me to see without a flashlight. We reached on outcropping overlooking the mile long, 20 meter wide, 200 meter deep canyon and waited as the sun began coming up from behind the distant mountains.
Canyon de Sabino

As the rock faces of the canyon began to heat up in the sun's rays, we started to hear strange calls coming from below. The calls sounded prehistoric, like screeching Pterodactyls, and were coming from the macaws as they began emerging from sleep in the rock wall. As they took flight, I could see how agile they were, darting through the narrow canyon and its intricate maze of crevices. These massive birds with green heads, blue backs, yellow chests, and long red tails began screaming at each other. One would perch on the other's favorite tree and a frenzied argument followed by a chase would follow. It is a scene that has probably been reproduced there hundreds of thousands of times for thousands of years.
Macaws at a nesting site in the canyon wall.

So why did we decide to travel all this way, with little or no hope of actually arriving, just to see s few birds? Aside from the breathtaking landscape of the canyon and the bird's beautiful colors, Military Macaws are also extremely rare. Overhunting for the illegal pet trade has completely decimated their populations. Today, they only exist in about five locations in Mexico and this site is home to the largest known group, about 90 individuals. They nest in the canyon walls during the spring and until recently were only protected from hunting by the impenetrable nature of the vertical rock walls of the canyon. Since the Biosphere Reserve has been established, tourism has been used to support communities that once relied on the extraction of flora and fauna, promoting the protection of what now draws tourists. We wanted to help contribute to the protection of what we have lost nearly everywhere else.

It seems the most interesting part of traveling in Mexico is rarely the final destinations, although the Canyon de Sabino and the flock of Military Macaws challenges that idea. Instead, the fun is in getting to there. Whether it be on a fancy inter-city bus, a smaller, less comfortable minivan shuttle, some guy's pick up truck with a tarp over the back, or a combination of all of these, transportation in Mexico is always an adventure. But the truth is, I could never get to a national park in the US without my own car and/or a lot of money.
Navigating the strange accents, mixtures of indigenous languages, and my own un-proficiency(?) in Spanish makes each day, at the very least, interesting. And besides, everything is more exciting when absolutely nothing makes any sense.
Sunset on the first night.

One of two grey foxes that visit the camp site regularly.

An endemic Russet-crowned Motmot.


  1. very well written and very interesting. I loved it!

  2. The part about John and Tammy was entirely too short, I would like to hear more about these fascinating people, particularly John. Word on the street is that his heart of gold is only rivaled by his boyish good looks.

    Poor effort, I give it a D-.

  3. This is really good Jajean, your best yet. Since your blog is full of really really good pieces, this means that this is really really really good.
    photos are also really good.