We were in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, that mecca for birders who want to see rare Mexican species that stray across the border. It was February 2002. We had made many trips to the Valley over the course of our birding lifetime and had often wondered what it would be like to drive into Mexico and bird on our own. Each time we went down there we thought “this time we go across,” but we always came up with a feeble excuse not to go. Tales of shakedowns or robberies, or bribes to be paid kept us on the safe side of the Rio Grande. Furthermore, in spite of the dozens of birders we met on these trips, few had crossed into northern Mexico.
We had traveled in South America several times before, but always with a group and a bilingual guide who knew the ropes. It was always a great adventure and never had we felt threatened. Yet, doing it on our own in our own van was intimidating, even though we had birded Costa Rica on our own in 1992. But that was Costa Rica.
Some birding friends of ours, Merilu and Rufus Rose, had told us about the northernmost cloud forest in Mexico just 200 miles south of Brownsville in Tamaulipas, a Mexican state just south of the border. They raved about tropical birds and easy travel. So, why not go?
Lucy had Spanish in school and Bob had picked up “get-along” Spanish on our trips to South America. Plus Bob’s grandparents spoke French and he had three years of French in school – that had to be of help. No excuses this time! (This was long before the drug wars.) But we had no reservations for lodging! Good excuse to back out. NO, we go.
Crossing through Immigration and Customs in Matamoros was not a problem. But getting the van into Mexico required registering it and getting paperwork so that we could get it back OUT of Mexico. This took a frustrating amount of time, but no shakedowns happened and eventually, we were on our way. We drove through Matamoros with ease, leaving the dusty, busy border town behind, and entered absolutely flat, a barren agricultural country with not even hedge rows for about the first 80 miles.
Miles of onion fields scented the air. The road was good and we relaxed, but about 15 miles south of the border we approached a checkpoint manned by armed soldiers with bayonetted rifles! End of relaxation.
We had to open up the van and a soldier started to pry off the inside walls of our new van with his bayonet. This did not sit well with Lucy who yelled “Stop” since he was going to create irreversible damage. Bob cringed. She approached his officer waving the Field Guide to Mexican Birds and asked him if he had seen any of these birds. “Ah, sí Senora, sí, sí.” After she explained we were in his beautiful country to study the birds, he waved us on. Clever woman. This worked wonders for us with officialdom on subsequent trips into Mexico.
After about 100 miles, the road climbed low hills in chaparral country with a gradual increase in altitude. We came to a rise and saw Ciudad Victoria in the distance where we intended to spend the night. But where?
Ciudad Victoria is in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental and is a bustling center of activity in Tamaulipas. With reservations, but none at a hotel, we scanned the city from the hills. We figured that there would be accommodations near the cathedral on the zócolo (plaza) in the middle of the city.
The highway led right to it. Sure enough, right on the zócolo was the Hotel Sierra Gordo where we checked in and passed a comfortable night.
The next morning we were on our way. The road gradually rose higher and higher for about the next 20 or so miles, and as it did the vegetation got more and more lush.
We finally entered the village of Gómez Farías, located in the cloud forest of the Sierra Madre Oriental.
We parked near the zócolo and started to walk around and were quickly approached by a policeman.
In Spanish (of course) he asked if we needed a place to stay, and led us down the road to a stone building nestled amongst trees and shrubs.
It was the Casa de Piedras (House of Stones). But did they have vacancies? The caretaker, Ricardo, (no English spoken) met us but was not expecting guests. We were the only ones there, but yes, we could stay.
The grounds were lush with tropical vegetation and mango trees full of yellow-winged tanagers! (forget the mangos!) Paradise!
The next day we birded the area climbing a rocky road to Alta Cima and were in awe of tityras, motmots, trogons, multi-colored managers, and other avian wonders. A 4-wheel drive would have been nice.
That evening we settled in the dining room and found we were no longer alone at the lodge. Two men checked in at dinnertime and asked if they could join us at our table. They looked pretty rough, but hey, this was an adventure. T
hey were Smiley Nava and Warren Pulich who worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife and had been birding all day! What luck. We asked Warren if he wrote the monograph of the Golden-cheeked Warbler, but no, that was his father!
Smiley spoke Spanish and had been there before and knew where to bird! Over dinner, they invited us to join them the following day. What luck! One stop was a small house on the Río Frío where we ate langosturas (lobsters) for lunch with freshly picked mangos.
That was the beginning of a great friendship and great birding the following days. The next night we were joined by a couple from France who could speak neither English nor Spanish and after a few beers, the place sounded like the UN.
But all good things come to an end. The trip back to the border on Sunday was uneventful. Except when we got to it. There were long lines of people waiting to go through the border. Multiple lanes. And we had the van to deal with since it had to have official approval to leave Mexico.
Where to start? Which lane? Mild panic began to set in but we suddenly heard a familiar voice. Smiley! Tapping on our window! In short order, he led us through the necessary stops and across the border. Local knowledge is everything! What we did not know was that on weekends, many Mexican-Americans visit relatives across the border and surge back on Sunday afternoons.
Smiley became a good friend and he and his family visited us in Gulf Breeze and we met up with them in Texas. We have made other trips to Mexico since then, visiting Yucatán, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Puebla, Xalapa and Chiapas.
Each trip has been a great adventure and we found the people friendly, the roads and accommodations good. In spite of a couple of traffic infractions on Bob’s part, no tickets or shakedowns (just apologize, show your field guide and talk about birds).
Our non-guided trips to Mexico with friends Cecil and Pam Brown begin by making hotel reservations near the airport only for the first and last nights in the country, flying to that city, renting a vehicle, and taking off for areas we wish to visit.
We have found that there is excellent birding near archaeological sites that are also tourist sites. There, we find trails, history, hotels and pensións, restaurants, and birds!
Mexico is welcoming, wonderful, and birdy!
By Lucy and Bob Duncan