Mar 7, 2012

Matanchén – From Salt to Fresh Water Jungle and Large Crocodiles

It is not the mountain we conquer,
But ourselves.
Sir Edmund Hillary 

But wait, there are also crocodiles! (prohibited to swim due to crocs)...
Weather update: Wake up in the morning at 67F, mid-afternoon reaches about mid-80F, water temperature is 73.4 – 76.1F. In the backgrounds are sugar canes, coconut, banana and mango trees waving in the breeze. Great weather and scenery!

Well, wouldn’t you know it, the day we came into Matanchén Cove, there was a rare large shrimp run and all available pangas with or without motors were out fishing for the delicacy. It is supposedly illegal to fish for shrimp in the cove, only specialized shrimp boats are allowed to fish them 5-10 miles offshore but the locals didn’t heed that ruling, this run just being too good to pass. Some of the shrimp we saw were 8 inches long. We spoke to an ocean biologist who told us the Navy had been contacted about this situation and since then everything has quieted way down and leaving the cove shouldn’t be as stressful.

I guess we witnessed a fairly rare event that meant we had to dodge miles of nets and lines on our way to the anchorage. Lesson learned as we found it’s not at all that easy but it is a workable situation especially without motoring. We met sailors on another vessel that made a hole with their dinghy in one of the nets and had to pay the net’s owner 450 pesos (~$35US). We are lucky the nets we hit were left intact so we didn’t have to pay anything.

The Matanchén’s version of the beach boardwalk (malecón) is a simple dirt track lined with just about one mile of nearly contiguous palapas shared by various restaurants with not a single American chain in sight (except for the local beer and Coca Cola signs). The only way to know one restaurant from another under these palm leaves covered roofs is from the change in color of their supporting poles shifting from orange to green, white to purple, or yellow to pink… Tablecloths can also be of different colors and patterns. These palapas are not built to survive high winds or hurricanes, supported only by mangrove tree trunks dug in the sand, they are merely meant for shade and would have to be rebuilt after a storm. The high season will be here soon for these people so they are repainting and recovering many sections of palapas. The season starts with Easter week (April 8 this year) with locals coming to visit, then the surfing season carries them through October at which point it is the slow season until next spring. We are happy to be here during unhurried season as it is more peaceful and quiet.

Also of note with palapas; they are built very deep with the front beach section dotted with tables and chairs and the back section for vehicles to park under shade. Kind of a nice arrangement not to have to go back to hot vehicles after a nice meal in the shade. Tables, chairs and parking areas rent for about 50 (~$4US) pesos to families wanting the convenience while also enjoying a swim in the cove. Most of the locals bring their own food and may perhaps purchase a coffee, a beer, and some dessert to help the palapa owners survive through the slow season.  Some bring their own catch of the day and have the owners cook the fish/oyster/clam for them for a fee.

Eating area of Palapa
Parking area of Palapa
We had lunch at Ismael’s today. Great food but what was even greater was that next to us his family with four generations present was also having lunch. It was nice to see grandpa taking care of great-granddaughter in a small hammock while dad and son were serving customers and smoking fish and naked grandson Oscar was running around playing with Nikki and our dinghy as well as swinging from hammocks or coming by to casually sample our food.

Tradition here is to smoke out the jejenes (noseeums) by burning coconut shells/husks. At the beginning of our meal, someone slid on the sand a metal pizza-like-pan containing smoldering wood and coconut husks. While occasionally the smoke burnt our eyes, it beat the heck out of being stung by these miniature critters that seem to only be present when there is no breeze.

Our meal is scrumptious and for less than $10 we had 2 beers, homemade tortilla chips with fresh red salsa, limes and salt, filet of bass covered with shrimps in a tomato and pepper sauce, rice with vegetables, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and lettuce, warm white corn tortillas wrapped in hand crocheted doilies to stay warm longer, French fries, fried plantains, star fruits and oranges. Good thing we shared that one meal for we couldn’t even finish the whole thing…

We had planned on taking the ‘jungle’ (mangrove) cruise but were smoked out of the area by fire that had been burning for days and the wind had finally changed direction to push the smoke towards the mangrove and the cove. We hear sugar cane fields are burnt at this time of the year but cannot confirm.

Misty morning in the Tavara Estuary 'Jungle'
The next day we finally get to go on the jungle cruise with Al and Swan from Swansong and Mayumi and Yoshihisa from Gaku. We left early before the heat puts all the animals to sleep or are scared off by too much traffic. We are the first ones to ask for a boat to show us around and have the place to ourselves. To the dismay of our driver, we ask him to go slow so we don't scare away the animals.  We are willing to pay more if needed.  He obliges although his tendencies would be to rip and roar through the estuary.

I get to practice my Spanish with the driver, Ephraim, who is very patient in answering all of our questions. We see a great variety of birds: egrets, herons, pelicans, purple gallinules, ibis, falcons, ospreys, anhingas, limpkins, frigates, cormorants, woodpeckers as well as turtles sunning themselves on rocks and stumps, crocodiles ranging from 1.5 to 15 feet (keep in mind males average 13’ and 850 pounds and females 10’ and 400 pounds), and iguanas climbing around trees.

The water starts out salty then turns fresh with plants changing from mangroves and palm trees to ferns, cattails, lily pads, and grasses in the process. Trees here are often covered with bromeliads, a few of which were in beautiful red blooms, lilies with delicate white flowers, and orchids as well as a variety of vines I do not recognize. Termite nests are hidden among the branches in many locations – some are very well disguised. We are told there are no frogs here but I know frogs are a good part of a crocodile’s diet, especially juvenile crocs, so I’m not sure what to think. There are however numerous snails, fish and birds to snack on.

At one point during the trip we come across three huts on stilts. These huts were built in the late 1990 for the filming of a movie called “Cabesa de Vaca [Cow Head]”, a movie about the conquest of Mexicans. These huts seem very well preserved for having been in the tropics this long.

I asked the driver how often they have to cut the plants to keep the channels open to the boats and he said they have to cut the growth back once every 15 days. Mother Nature is quick around here! I also asked about the rainy season and whether they still have tours then and he said they did. We are told other animals that may be found here are raccoons, opossums, badgers, and water snakes but we did not get to see them.

At the end of the 7 kilometer one-way ride is a sanctuary for crocodiles where they let them mate to put their healthy off-springs back into the ‘jungle’. There were 23 crocs there as large as perhaps 16 feet long. Although sad to see these beautiful animals in cages, if that keeps the population healthy I am happy they are taking the time and energy. Unfortunately there is a lot of crocodile poaching in Mexico and their population needs all the help it can get. At the end there is also Tovara Spring which partly feeds the estuary. The water is crystal clear and a small area is fenced off to allow for swimming should one want to. On the way back, we asked the driver to go a little faster and we welcomed a cooling breeze as the day heated up. By now ½ dozen pangas are in the jungle, we are no longer the only ones enjoying the once quiet scenery.

To end the trip in style, we stopped to eat some freshly caught fish. We are offered 5 fresh fish to choose from: dorado (mahi-mahi), white snapper, red snapper, grouper and another one I cannot recall. We target the red and white snappers so we can taste the difference between the two. The fish we chose are weighed (you pay by the kilo) then taken away to be put on the fire to be smoked for an hour or so before serving. The food is excellent and again we return home too full to move but happy to have tasted some new food again.

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