Friday, January 4, 2013

Backpacking Mexico and Belize: a slightly different tropical adventure

Mexico has always been a country I've wanted to visit. It boasts many endemics and has the finest infrastructure of any country I've yet been to south of the border, but we'll get to that later.

This trip came about when my friend Ethan Kistler decided he needed to get out of the country, chose Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and Belize to visit, and then kindly invited me along.  A month's worth of planning (and the addition of my friend Eric Ripma) later, I found myself on a direct flight from Chicago to Cancun.  I arrived rather late at night and checked into the first hotel I found nearby the airport.  After a quick dinner, I settled into my room. Ethan and Eric wouldn't arriving til late the next morning.

When the sun came up, I jumped up early and went straight to the window that overlooked the courtyard. As I opened the window, I almost had to duck as a Great Kiskadee came very close to hitting me, banking up and away just at the last second.

I quickly dressed and headed outside where more birds greeted me cheerily.  Melodious Blackbirds called from all around and the pair of Kiskadees regarded me suspiciously.  As I birded around the pool area and adjacent forested courtyard, I picked up a mix of both familiar and foreign species.  White-eyed Vireos and a Summer Tanager were first, but quickly followed by Social Flycatcher and a lone Masked Tityra. The next bird to drop down appeared at first to be a Red-eyed Vireo, but the color wasn't quite there, it appeared much darker.  Subsequent checks of the field guide showed what it was; a Mangrove Vireo.  Similar to Red-eyed and in the same family, but far more common in the Yucatan.

After spending a couple hours birding, I headed over to the airport to meet up with my friends.
We quickly caught the next ADO coach bus to Playa Del Carmen.
Playa Del Carmen is famous around the world for its white-sand beaches and is one of the top tourist traps in Mexico.  Fortunately, we didn't have to spend very long here as the ferry to Cozumel left about an hour after we arrived at the ticket booth.

The ferry ride to Cozumel was amazing to say the least.  After hearing way too many stories of rough crossings and people getting seasick, we were pleased to be able to sit on the upper deck and enjoy the sunshine, the fresh ocean breeze and waters as calm as a millpond.  The bonus was having a local band playing a mix of favorites, providing a tropical flair to our first day of the trip.

Playa Del Carmen from the ferry
This trip was really my first time seeing the waters of the Caribbean sea.  In most places in the USA, the water you see from the coast is the Gulf of Mexico and those waters are often green in color.  The Caribbean was completely different. The water was a deep blue that is almost impossible to describe and so clear that 20 or 30 feet of water didn't do a thing to obscure the sandy ocean bottom.

This adds a very real meaning to the often heard term "deep blue sea" 

Isla Cozumel is a Caribbean emerald just ten miles off the coast of Mexico.  Ten miles isn't very much, but it is enough to create endemics of the birds and other animals that live there.

Cozumel boasts two full species endemics and several endemic subspecies.  Cozumel Emerald and Cozumel Vireo are the two that are found nowhere else in the world. Cozumel Roadside Hawk and Cozumel Stripe-headed Tanager (now known as Western Spindalis) are just a couple of the endemic subspecies.

One other endemic subspecies that presents an interesting conundrum is Cozumel Wren.  Currently, this species is lumped with House Wren and is considered an endemic subspecies. Having now seen this bird, I treat it as a full species on my personal list. Not having DNA analysis handy, I can see nothing in this species that even resembles the House Wrens I know and have seen in multiple countries. The bird not only looks and sounds different, but also lives on an isolated island in completely different habitat, has different habits, and likely has a differing diet and foraging habits. It would seem to me that some dedicated studies of this species would provide enough evidence to elevate it to full species status.

But back to my narration:

Isla Cozumel
About 45 mins later, we docked at the ferry terminal on Isla Cozumel.
Grabbing our gear, we started the long hike to the other side of the island where we were staying with a local Couchsurfer (Couchsurfing is an awesome social network if you ever get the chance to become familiar with it).  The hike was a little longer than we expected, due to having to walk about half a mile or so down past the cruise ship pier before turning inland, but we made it.

Our host for the night worked at the second of the two universities on the island.
After some fashion, we made it to the university and asked for Oscar.  We were told that he worked upstairs at the end of the hall. We found the room dark and locked. Returning downstairs we asked another person who said he was in another building. Not finding him there either, we returned and were eventually directed to someone who spoke english. He then informed us that Oscar was not on the island and would be gone for a while. As you can imagine, we were slightly unnerved by this news, but insisted that we were supposed to meet him at the university that day.  After a little bit of discussion, we learned, to our relief, that there were two Oscars who worked at the university and we had been directed to the wrong one.  We were quickly sent to Oscar (the seconds') office where we found him.  After waiting a little bit for him to finish up, we all walked back to his house.
Oscar's house was simple and nice, nothing too fancy. It was just about everything a single guy would need.  We dumped our gear and drew straws for the couch.  I drew the short straw and set up my sleeping pad on the tile floor (which proved to be not entirely uncomfortable.  I was glad I brought it.)

Oscar was a very friendly and very generous host and treated us to a homemade local dinner of tortillas, beans and Chicharrones, which is an interesting concoction consisting of fried pork skins, salsa, peppers, etc, cooked together in a shallow saucepan.  Corn tortillas are rolled and used as a second utensil.  It was a cool introduction to some local flair that tourists often miss.

We settled in for the night and set the alarm for very early the next morning in order to maximize our time on the island.

For anyone visiting Cozumel, I would recommend getting away from the cruise ships and the tourist areas of town and exploring the rest of the island. It's quite a different experience than you would get if you just stayed by the beach and the docks.

Til next time, Happy Birding!


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