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Published: August 5th 2016
A short (ish) story - but not a short blog post - on the Kindness of Strangers….part one…Comitan to Las Guacamayas, Mexico
$1US = approximately 13 Mexican Pesos
The day finally arrived when it was time to leave for our trip around bandit country. My new friend Iliana and I decided to hitch as much as possible and stay with locals as often as we could to really get a feel for how people live in that isolated, non-touristy part of Mexico. We had no real itinerary but knew there were a couple places of interest to see along the way, including some highly rated parks and archeological sites.
We caught a bus from the center of Comitan to the far edge where we began to hitch hike. Within a few minutes a bright red VW bug pulled up alongside us. The doors flung open and we clambered into this tiny vehicle driven by a businessman, with his friend in the passenger seat. These two delightful Mexican men dropped us off at a gas station in Trinitaria, at the crossroads with Lagos de Montebello, where a number of collectives (passenger
vans) were waiting. We declined their offers of rides and moved past them, staking our claim a few hundred meters beyond. We soon got a ride in a beige car with a late 20-something driver, his equally young wife and two adorable kids. They cleared out space in the trunk for our bags so Iliana and I threw in our packs and then the wife and kids, without us saying anything, moved to the back and offered me the front seat. . They said they could take us as far as Lagos de Montebello (a National Park with numerous lakes surrounded by pine forests), since they were going there anyway, and soon we, along with their kids Andrea, aged 4, and her little brother Alan, age 2, set off down the road.
The lovely couple invited us to the wife’s family home in a small rural village along the way, where we all enjoyed a brekkie of cheese and quesadillas while the chickens hung around under our feet, pecking on the dirt floor of the kitchen. The pork quesadillas were prepared directly on the comal (a flat griddle for cooking) and the elote
At Lagos de Montebello
Laguna Ensueño, Dream Lake
(corn on the cob) cooked over the direct flame in the makeshift outdoor kitchen. Mom/grandma didn’t talk much but she seemed fine with us, two strangers, hanging about and eating her quesadillas. We had nothing to contribute but they continued to brush that off and insist we eat more and more, stuffing us full of goodies until we could hardly move. The entire morning thus far epitomized the saying: the kindness of strangers.
I was impressed how well behaved the two kids were. They were quiet and behaved exemplary in the vehicle as well as at grandma’s house. They ate bananas at a road side stop instead of sweets. They washed their hands before eating, the youngest getting help and instruction from his father. Two year old Alan, at one point before we sat down to eat, grabbed my finger and led me around his grandmother’s “farm,” showing me the chickens (more specifically the baby chicks), chili peppers, tomato plants and elote (corn) stalks. His sister went along for the walk as well. I felt honored to be picked for this tour by a two year old and given such a wonderful expedition, complete with
explanation, as well as could be expected from a wee tyke.
After brekkie, about an hour or so after we had arrived, we thanked the maker of the meal, and all hopped back into the car. The lovely young couple took us to Lagos de Montebello, not far up the road. Our driver paid our entrance fee and wouldn’t take the 27 pesos from either one of us, even after we insisted. The family, Iiana and I then explored four out of the dozens of lakes in the park, all with different hues of blue, the last one the most impressive.
When the couple was ready to leave they dropped us at the entrance of the park, where we immediately caught a ride in a pick up with a driver and two passengers in the cab as well as two in the bed. We sat inside the truck. We were dropped off 25 minutes later on the edge of a small pueblo, with only a handful of houses and one shop. After waiting one hour in this one-horse town without any horses, the driver of an open-bed truck stopped, told us he could take
us up the road but that he “wasn’t going far,” and then, once we told him every little bit helps, he instructed us to stand in the back for the 20 minute ride up the road. We were dropped at a crossroad; he went to the left and we needed to continue straight. We waited 10 minutes before a young couple in a small Ford car picked us up.
An hour later our new ride dropped us off at a small enclave named Jerusalen, barely a dot on the map, where we would stay the night and try to gather information on the park and the accommodations we might find in Las Nubes for the following days. Las Nubes is an Ecotouristic park and highly rated for its rapidly flowing river and waterfalls, hikes in the remote valleys, and incredibly blue waters.
I sat in the shade in this pretty little green village, guarding our packs as Iliana went to go scout for places to stay. Since the town wasn’t set up for “tourists” or travelers, it basically came down to my new friend making small talk and fast friends with some of the
locals in order for us to find some floor space for the night.
We ended up with a number of choices for accommodation. One place offered us a room for 100 Pesos (just under US$8.00) but it was locked and we couldn’t even see it before committing. Another place had a too-short sofa and bare floor space (which would have cost us nothing) and a third place was on the floor of an open carport outside (again, free). I would have enjoyed the cool night air sleeping outdoors but there would no doubt be mozzies and who knew about the safety of this little village? Another place offered us a room upstairs in the unfinished second story of their home, but again the mosquito issue played a big part, as there were not yet any windows installed. It was next door to seemingly the only comedor (local eatery) in town. The place we chose to stay was with a couple of early 20-something girls (it wasn’t until later we met their mom) living in a house on the main street who offered us floor space in their living room. The windowless living room was bare-floored
and the room hot as a sauna. We chose hot over mozzies but when we got back to that house with all our bags one of the girls said we could have her room instead. It was located in a separate, unfinished concrete building in the back of the main house and her bedroom window was just an opening to the hallway looking out over the dirt/mud backyard. The only items in this small room were a bed, a wardrobe and an empty plastic bag. The room was so small we had to share the bed as there wasn’t even room for one of us to sleep on the floor.
It was nearly 9pm when we shut off the borrowed dim-bulbed flashlight. There was no overhead light in this room so we had no choice but to just turn in. There would be no reading, no writing, no nothing to do, just sleep. In the next room (the walls don’t reach the ceiling) there was an overhead light (or, rather, a dangling bulb) that belonged to the brother of the girl in whose room we were sleeping. He came home around 11pm, in the pouring rain, turned
on the light and promptly woke us up. The light from his bedroom naturally spilled into our humble room over the three quarter wall. He came to the open window frame and introduced himself so we “wouldn’t be scared” if he walked by the window in the night (the bathroom was just past our room, which he said he might have to use). After chatting a bit, he left, and I put the pillow over my head and soon fell into dreamland once again.
I woke a number of times in the night. The first time was after an hour and a half of good sleep, as I had been exhausted when we crawled into the bed. It was only 10:15 when the pounding deluge woke us up, this time complete with deafening, long thunderclaps, seemingly shaking the tiny bedroom wing. I went back to sleep until 2am, when the rooster roosting just outside the open window hole started making a racket. He crowed 4 or 5 times every hour or so until we finally got up at 8:00. I guess he wanted to make sure everyone knew he was there, and anytime the world wanted to
We had brekkie in the one comedor in town. We each had the only available items the “cook” had to scrounge for: noodle soup, beans, cheese and tortillas for 25P plus 5P for a black coffee. After eating, we walked back to the house to get one night’s worth of belongings. We left our bags there (it had been prearranged that the girls would keep an eye on our stuff) and, just before 11, started walking up the road towards Las Nubes, a good 15 kilometers away.
Within two minutes of setting off we caught a collectivo to Las Nubes, sparing our feet and saving our tootsies for exploring in and around the park. A young couple vacationing from Toluca (a city between Mexico City and Valle de Bravo, west of the capital) was also on the van, otherwise the transport was carrying only locals.
Once we stepped off the van, the four of us walked to the entrance of the park, about a 15-minute amble away, arriving at noon. There was a 20P entrance fee per person and if staying the night inside the
Waterfall at Las Nubes
One night of rain and the river swelled heavily
park, it would have cost a whopping 850P per bungalow, with no reduction in cost and no other options. Craziness. We had been quoted 150P for two “matrimonial” beds in a random villager’s house just outside the park entrance, but declined, holding out for another deal. We walked to the entrance of Las Nubes, paid the minimal entrance fee, left our bags at the front office/visitor’s center, and then headed off together to a restaurant near the cascades and the rushing river. Time to eat. First things first.
After lunch, we crossed the nearby suspension bridge over the cascades and walked up to the miramar for the “famous vista.” The walk was through the shaded jungle; green, mossy, and somewhat slippery. Unfortunately when we got to the end of the trail for the fabulous view, we noticed the river below us was rushing greenish water, not the brilliant light blue as shown on the promotional brochures and posters for Las Nubes. It was truly the wrong time of year to see that color.
Once down from the vista, after passing beady-eyed bats and numerous colorful butterflies, we all sat by the river
close to the cabanas. We soaked our feet, watching the multi-hued birds and the fast-flowing rapids not far from the shoreline. Lovely, quiet and tranquil perfectly describes Las Nubes. We were lucky to have hardly run into anyone else while in the park, and I couldn’t help but be grateful for not having been there during the height of tourist season.
We were still in the park at 6pm; it was getting dark with lots of ominous grey clouds gathering overhead when we realized we still hadn’t found accommodation for the night. The others decided they would go with us to look for a place, believing our chances improved for getting a lower price if there were more of us looking for beds. The first family we asked wanted 300 Pesos for a simple 1-bed/1 table/2 person room so we kept walking further into “town” to see what we could find. We found a private house with space for us: it was a good 10-minute walk from the entrance, but for two rooms with one double-ish size bed in each room and a window each (but no screens) our total came to 150P. That’s 37.50P (under $3.00)
per person. We were sold.
After a local meal it was soon time for some shuteye. I sunk into the bumpy, springy mattress and fell fast asleep. Our two new friends found cockroaches in their bed and under the mattress; we had ants on the one filthy pillow on our bed but no other creepy crawlies in our sectioned off room. There was, however, a large green grasshopper-cricket-cicada thing on our wall in the common space of our concrete bungalow and zillions of fireflies on the lawn earlier in the evening. Iliana the city girl wasn’t having any of it and had a fitful night’s sleep, afraid of being attacked by little creatures.
In the morning we got hot water from our hosts and made instant oatmeal. We added granola that we had bought from the supermarket in Comitan and borrowed some bowls and spoons so we could eat. There was just enough warm water left to make a couple of cups of instant coffees.
By noon, Iliana and I were ambling off towards the park again, the others having left on the first transport out of town. We told the
employees at the front gate we were going to the restaurant and therefore didn’t have to pay another 20P entrance fee. We bypassed the restaurant, watching instead the rushing water of the crashing cascades from the shaky suspension bridge spanning the water. Crossing to the other side, we walked along on a flat dirt path, following a logging road past a cornfield and into the jungle, eventually retracing our steps.
On the walk back towards the park we ran into a few colorful characters: first we met a preteen boy on a bike brandishing a machete, having been sent into the jungle to chop down a certain type of fruit. Then, along came a toothless weathered old man with a wide smile, also machete wielding, an equally weathered old horse walking alongside him carrying bags of freshly cut elote (corn). Watching the thousands of leaf-cutter ants trailing one after another, carrying leaves many times the size of their bodies, was the highlight of my afternoon.
Dinner in the village cost 30P each for fresh tortillas, black beans, an egg and onion scramble, a cheese wedge and pure water. The tortillas were fresh
off the comal and made on the dirt-floored room next door to the small room in which we ate. We were blessed with a wonderful display of lightening and thunder much of the night.
A few minutes late, the packed collectivo arrived at 7:10 the next morning. The 28-minute journey to Jerusalen cost us 15P each. Fresh off the van and famished, we first walked directly to the only restaurant in town, got a plate of eggs and salchicha, beans and tortillas and split it for 15P each. We were able to fill up our 5-liter bottle for 5P and bought a few packages of cookies as a thank you to the gals holding our bags for the last couple of days (thank you gifts in this village were limited to junky snack food items). We left the cookies and a note of thanks for Maricella, in whose room we had slept, and grabbed our untouched bags, aware that they hadn’t even been moved the last two days.
Packs securely on our backs, we walked a short distance out of the little town when a cement truck stopped
alongside us, the driver giving us a ride the 1.5 KM to the junction. We didn’t even have to wait five minutes before procuring a ride with a large mama and her 20-something year old daughter and husband (the husband was the driver). They said they were only going to Maravilla up the road, yet that got us 20 minutes closer to our destination for the day. We sat in the back of their pickup truck, complete with bananas, camping gear and lots of mysterious goodies wrapped in plastic bags. We got to a t-junction, the car stopped and we clambered out. Before leaving, however, we talked a further 20 minutes with the kind folks who had given us a ride; they gave us good information about what to expect up ahead and about other places to see, locations only a local would know about. Within 10-minutes of their departure we got another ride, this one for 30 minutes, to the turnoff for Ixcan. This hitched ride saw us standing up in the back of a camionetta (a pickup truck with a bed made for standing up) with 4 others in the back (two male, two female) and
Napping while Hitching
This was as good a place as any for a little nap as we hardly saw a car all afternoon on this road
three men and a baby in the front. Everyone wore smiles; everyone was so very friendly, everyone wanted to know what we were doing. If only we knew.
Before we got our next ride we had to wait for quite a while for a car, any car, to pass, as the road was not very busy at all. There were heavy clouds in the skies all day, which kept the heat from becoming too intense. About an hour later a car pulled over and the driver told us that there was a bad landslide up ahead within 1-2 KM from where we were waiting. Perhaps that was why there had been no vehicles. A few minutes later a driver of a collectivo coming from the direction we wanted to go said the slide was large and occurred because of last night’s rain, but “poco a poco” they were letting cars through.
Within the first hour, only five cars had passed. We finally got picked up after two hours by a guy driving a large Ford pickup. We tied up our bags in the open back (no tailgate) and hopped in
Gorgeous Caged Scarlet Macaw
the front. The “landslide” just up the road turned out to be a massive section of road that had slid down the embankment. There was barely a full lane left, making it difficult and slow going for cars, with only one direction open at a time. The road had broken away from the earth and tumbled down the ravine and workers were diligently working below on wire cages filled with boulders for support. We slipped a bit in the narrow, muddy single existing 3/4 of a lane but the driver made it through expertly.
45 minutes after setting off, we were dropped in a Podunk town of only a handful of wooden and concrete houses, many unfinished.
At 3:45 we found ourselves sitting on the front patio of someone’s house, eating tortillas, eggs and refried beans for 25P each, having offered to gladly pay someone to cook us each a meal since we were quite hungry and there were no eateries in sight. In the hour it took to order, eat and digest, a total of four vehicles passed by the veranda where we had lunch, even though we were on the main road
through town. The transport included two collectivos, one horse truck and one passenger car. We concluded this was not such a popular town and didn’t seem a good place to get stuck for the night. We needed to press on, and quickly.
We finished lunch and while I cleared the plates, Iliana chatted up the growing number of curious locals gathering around us at the house, procuring information for the next part of today’s journey.
Just before 5pm a combi came by and for 15P each took us to the crossroads just outside Las Guacamayas, our destination for the night. The maniac of a driver took the curves on the smooth road like a racecar driver rounding the bends on two wheels. Dropping us on the main road we walked the one-kilometer stretch to the town on a picturesque gravel road, flanked by spotted cows in the pastures and thick green vegetation all around us. From the moment we got off the combi we started to hear sounds coming from the nearby jungle. They were loud, deep roars like a tiger or a lion. The first image that
popped into my head was of dinosaurs from the movie, Jurassic Park. We repeatedly heard these sounds, now to our back, as we walked towards town. We confirmed later that these sounds were from howler monkeys, known locally as sarawato. I had been told there were these types of primates down here in southern Chiapas but had never heard them nor knew what they sounded like. The sound was certainly more of an intense roar than a howl. Iliana was afraid and it was all I could do to comfort her and tell her nothing was going to jump out and get us. Until I playfully jumped in front of her and scared the bejesus out of her!
On the edge of town but with no signs of local places to stay (the overpriced resort was not an option for us), I decided to park myself on the side of the road as Iliana looked for families that might be able to accommodate us. It didn’t take long before two smiling happy “lap dogs” appeared, keeping me company and demanding lots of attention, which I was more than willing to give. Iliana came
back empty handed (one lady had offered us a room for 400 Pesos – a ludicrous amount) so we moved closer to the town and soon plunked ourselves down on the front lawn of someone’s house, pondering our next move.
Iliana left to try her luck again and once back, exhausted and no closer to finding accommodation in the village, went to the front door of the house where I had guarded the bags for the past 20 minutes and asked the man who opened the door if he knew any house where we could stay the night. He suggested his daughter’s house, but after inquiring, they unfortunately told us they didn’t have the room. We walked to another semi-finished house at the corner and across the gravel path. This man’s wife told Iliana we could have a room for 200P but Iliana said we could only pay 100P per night but that we could stay for two nights. After some back-and forth-ing, she agreed, and, elated, we moved in. She lived in a cute gingerbread, Hansel and Gretel type house with a long sloping thatched roof. In fact, many of the houses here looked similar, all
with beautifully manicured lawns and well-tended gardens. It was hard to miss the pride people took in living in this small community of only 40-50 homes.
The place in which we ended up staying was an unfinished concrete block room with an open window (no screen, no frame, just an opening facing the backyard). There was a blanket spread over a wooden slatted bed with no mattress to speak of. At least there was a mozzie net. Three chickens roosted under our open window outside. Some of the chicks in this village were nearly nude, with hardly a feather on their backs, and what a sight they were! While it was still light out but just before it got dark, two Guacamayas (known as scarlet macaws in English) flew above the house from one tree to another. These white-faced birds were beautifully adorned with bright red, blue and yellow feathers. The man of the house walked us to a large enclosure at the end of the path where at least five of these fascinating and beautiful birds lived. On the walk there, we saw three more of these captivating birds flitter about in a nearby tree. It
turns out that these macaws now only reside in Chiapas, whereas they used to live in Oaxaca and Veracruz states as well.
While I was taking a bucket shower in the dark concrete shower room in the front yard, a resident frog came in to investigate and later another one hopped around and into the room we were renting. There was no overhead light in the room. I guess for 100P this is what one gets. Can't be too particular at that price.
Just for us, the wife made a fire in the outdoor pit since she had no stove in the house. I think she did this rather reluctantly since it seemed to come in the middle of watching a three-hour marathon European football game immediately followed by two hours of watching nighttime soap operas. Iliana and I split and ate a soup package we had purchased at the store last week in Comitan and chomped on cold but tasty flour tortillas straight from the package. Oh, in the land of primarily corn tortillas, how I miss the ones made from flour.
Shortly before bedtime, Iliana and I walked down
the path just a building’s length or two and looked up to observe the countless stars overhead. Despite the light and the telenovelas (soap operas) blaring from the house in which we were staying, it was a peaceful, calming and clear night, the sky filled with stars. Iliana, who had never even been camping, really enjoyed the twinkling lights above. Being from Mexico City, she doesn’t get that simple life pleasure too often.
At 6am the household started stirring and talking loudly. The neighborhood dogs were barking, the roosters were crowing and the mister of the household spoke with a booming voice. With sleep no longer an option, I went outside and sat on a plastic chair watching the day start to unfold, the low fog drifting through the picturesque and well-manicured village of Las Guacamayas. The birds were singing and the kids were all walking to school with their little backpacks on their backs. The scarlet macaws were squawking in their cage at the end of the gravel path. How peaceful and lovely it was there, despite the noises from all directions. From my plastic chair on the edge of the concrete patio near
the lawn I watched a few small birds with bright yellow breasts fluttering about in the nearby trees, singing a delightful tune. What a glorious start to the day.
Mid morning and the fog was lifting, blue sky appearing. It was going to be a splendid day. We ate breakfast of oatmeal, a flour tortilla and instant coffee. We walked first to the cage with the lovely Guacamayas and started collecting red, blue, yellow feathers from the ground when the birds started squawking loudly. Moments later we heard the same sound from up above. Three wild Guacamayas flew in tandem side by side above us. What a gorgeous sight.
We took a leisurely walk through some lovely green grassy areas with tall trees, banana palms, and red hibiscus trees lining a shaded walkway along the fast flowing, muddy brown river. If it weren’t for the insatiable mozzies and the red biting ants, I would have laid down on the grass and taken a refreshing siesta in the warm morning sunshine. We cocked our heads back and watched wild Guacamayas overhead, flying from tree to tree to tree. This place was amazing and peaceful, serene and quiet, an absolute picture-perfect paradise.
On our walk today we saw an iguana, known as a lagartiga
, a large hairy tarantula, lots of mariposas (butterflies) in a varieties of colors, and a small toucan, the first I have ever seen in the wild.
After a wonderful two nights spent in the tranquil village of Las Guacamayas, it was now time to press on. Onward we go, to more ancient Mayan sites: the much-visited Palenque, and the lesser known, mysterious Yaxchilán, buried deep in the jungle.
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