Jan 22, 2013

Hey Meeesterrr, You Want to Pet my Iguana?

I will not let anyone walk through 
My mind with their dirty feet.
Mahatma Gandhi

Pangas upriver
Sunday we enjoyed another pleasurable inland trip. What better to do on yet one more cool and cloudy day? Since arriving in Banderas Bay nearly two weeks ago, we’ve mostly had wind, clouds, and coolness which the locals say is unusual at this time of the year.

We headed to the south side of Banderas Bay to hike, and see the waterfalls near Quimixto, a small village nestled at the foot of the Western Sierra Madre Mountains. For those who watch TV and movies, this general area is where Night of the Iguana (Richard Burton) and Predator (much more recent) were filmed.

Past Puerto Vallarta heading SW, once you leave the main road out of town the only way you can reach any of these villages is by going back in time. You can only contact any of the communities along this coast by ‘pangas’ (fishing boats), by horses, mules or donkeys, or by hiking.

From cliff to rocky beach to sea
Here the mountains run straight to the water, unlike La Cruz to the north where the land flattens out more gently, therefore, you are offered small narrow ledges to walk along the coastline. Most of the rain falls on this side due to the height of the steep mountainous background. It is lush and green and I can appreciate the constant need for trimming the rapidly growing plants that hug every imaginable contour of the land to keep the trail open. There is also the continual replacement of rapidly decaying wood handrails or bridges or any supports made of metal that disintegrates in only a few seasons. We are told not to trust any of the handrails for they could let go at any point – some are much more decorative than useful…

Decorative handrail
As explained above, the only way in for larger items is by boat but that can be quite dangerous in the winter when the winds and waves habitually come from the north creating swells upwards of 15 feet. A famous Mexican family who owned a resort here finally abandoned it when the owner had a serious accident, a broken back, while returning by panga in heavy weather.

Canoe garden
What this means is that in reality you have less than half a year of safer/more reliable landings anywhere along this coast. What that also signifies is that all food for people as well as animals, various supplies for school, restaurants, church, etc and construction materials ALL have to be brought by foot, on horse/donkey/mule’s backs or by boat. Not an easy task and it is quite impressive to see what they have managed to build despite that handicap. Numerous beautiful boutique resorts and homes fill the steep hillsides along the way.

Unknown beautiful flower
Several attempts at building strong docks have been made but what you see along the shoreline are mostly remnants of what once were docks. Locals say most of them only last 2-5 years until the next big set of waves crash them down.

Panga attempting to cross from river to ocean
The first portion of the hike we wade through the river at Boca de Tomatlan. At the mouth (boca) is a constantly shifting sandbar and some pangas make it through the narrow passage to deliver guests/tourists/workers/locals, some are not quite so lucky or adept and they empty their ‘cargo’ right on the beach where the waves can be quite high: take off your shoes and roll up your pants and be ready for a rocky and wet landing… We hear that each tide the sandbar changes so one never knows from one time to the next where the landings will occur. That kind of uncertainty is something most of us from ‘1st world countries’ are not used to…

Tables, chairs, and umbrellas awaiting low tide to be spread out for customers
On a very small strip of sand left between a heavier flowing river from the mountain rains a few days ago and the sea with its tall waves are stacks of plastic chairs, tables, and umbrellas awaiting a lower tide to be laid out for customers. Water is lapping on the sea side of all that furniture but no one seems too concerned that they’ll be washed away.

We are soon entering Indigenous Land, land held in common by the whole Chacala Indian community. Of course this is Mexico and some people take advantage of this, having homes for rent on the beach for which they keep all of the proceeds instead of working with the community. No one seems to be able to (or is willing to) do anything about it.

As we meander along the narrow path we sometimes have to run between large waves so we are not soaked or have to climb steeply up or down around various rock formations and small dips created by temporary cascades coming down the mountain on rainy days.

Rock path curving around the shoreline
Rocky beach
More rocks of beautiful formation
It is so much greener on this side of the bay; rather amazing when we can see the other side and notice the differences in tones from full grayish brown to the north to the glossy lush greens to the south, less than 20 miles away.

We see termite’s nests where branches join in large trees. These nests are somewhat like icebergs for only 1/10 is on the surface (usually in a tree but sometimes on a log or on the ground) and 9/10 is below the surface with connecting tunnels between the two. The queen can live up to 25 years – now that’s a lot of eggs! They are quite industrious and fascinating to observe.

In these termite mounds are often found parrot nests, making the parrots easy targets for poachers to find them and sell them – which is illegal but still occurs widely. We are surrounded by the creaky shrills of the parrots as they move around in colonies from tree to tree. Unless it is mating season at which point they will pair up until the babies are raised and independent.

Also of interest are the numerous holes dotting the dark dirt along the cliff. Although we are at least 75 feet above the waterline on a very steep incline, land-crabs reach this high to hibernate in the ground during the dry season. It makes the hillside look like Swiss cheese – not giving it the sturdy look one would prefer when hiking it.

Medium size strangling fig tree
Strangling tree moving up palm tree
Our guide points out another fascinating tree called the strangling fig – an ominous name. Starting as a vine this so called ‘tree’ moves up and around another ‘host’ tree, usually a palm, and as it grows larger and taller, it slowly kills its support. These ‘trees’ eventually become massive – the base of some easily reaching 12 feet across. We see a few specimens where the host tree is still alive, completely surrounded by the strangling fig.

We quickly stop for lunch under the shade of a palapa and from our seats witness life in the back alleys and around us. It is Sunday so there is no school and many children, in the little bit of sunshine we have today, are playing with the local dogs. Others are selling to tourists local pies, shawls, flowers, etc. A couple of kids carry iguanas around. A small girl has a greenish blue one that is only 2’ long and tethered to a thin bailing twine, a slightly older boy carries a yellowish green one that is about 4.5’ long and he asks if Mike (Hey Meeesterrr) wants to pet his iguana… A woman with two kids in tow carries a large bright green plastic container on her head, probably filled with tortillas in the making. She gracefully and without missing a beat walks around the low palapa roofing not hitting anything. Although the waves are quite large today, it doesn’t seem to stop tourists from visiting. Three large party boats are waiting to be unloaded and come for lunch – thankfully we arrived before the crowd.

We enjoyed watching someone else petting the iguana
Onward we finally make it to the base of the waterfalls we came to visit. Here, families have horses that tourists who do not want to hike up the half hour uphill walk can rent. We decline – what is another half hour after a half day’s hike already completed? We are happy to keep our legs in motion but also feel sad for some of these horses/mules/donkeys are so emaciated. There is no flat land for them to graze so they eat what is brought over by boat (mostly ground-up corn husks and corn cobs) which can get really costly. These families take turn renting these animals so each family eventually gets their opportunity at a little money. They also take turn raking clean the path to the waterfalls. Everything is quite spotless.

The waterfalls were not as spectacular as hoped but the other set of waterfalls up above is supposed to be 3 times higher and would’ve entailed another 2 hour hike and the day was just too short to accommodate – maybe another time. The water was very cold, clear, and refreshing. The whole hike was definitely worth it.

In order to return during daylight hours we hire a panga to rapidly take us back to the mouth of the river. That was probably the ‘scariest’ part of the trip. These kids, who probably learn to drive one of these before they can walk; go so fast above the large waves that we were nearly airborne most of the time. We all wondered if the sandbar would let us through or if we would have to wade out of here. On the way, a surfer hails the panga. They stop to pick him and his surfboard up. He digs out wet money somewhere out of his wet suit and off we go again. Despite his youth, the driver was a master and landed us safely tucked behind the sandbar which now instead of having stacks of plastic tables and chairs awaiting low tide to be spread around was covered with tourists everywhere.

The sun comes out in time to beckon us goodbye but it was just as well it was a cloudy day or the hike might have been too hot under its beaming rays.

We are quickly reminded of society’s needs as we drive around the large potholes the last two days of rains have helped create and there are people with dirt and shovels begging for money in white five gallon pails to help fix the road. Many in the tourist trades are eager to help pay so the tourists can be comfortable on their way to this little paradise.

We had a great day reuniting with the jungle and its many treasures. Hope you enjoyed the trip as well.

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