Rum and Rafting: Four Days in the Mexican Jungle
In the past I have spent Christmas in some unusual locations. I’ve pulled crackers in a desert in Jordan, sung carols on a remote Fijian island and attended midnight mass in a small town in northern Cameroon. This year my family and I decided to head to the jungles of southern Mexico for the holiday season.
We based ourselves in San Cristobal de las Casas, an old colonial town that has become a cultural and logistical hub for the region. Sitting at an elevation of 2,200m, the air is fresh and crisp and the surrounding forests provide fantastic hiking, mountain biking and caving opportunities. The town itself retains its colonial charm, despite an alarming rate of growth that has seen the population more than double in the past 20 years. Its cobbled streets are filled with artsy cafes, spiritual healing centers and handicraft sellers from around the region. One restaurant on the main drag has a sign that reads: “Hippies Use Side Door.” Apparently not all residents are entirely welcoming of their new neighbours.
Christmas dinner was eaten in our B&B, a fully-adorned tree and log fire completing the homely feel. With the festivities over the family dispersed in various directions to continue their respective Mexican holidays. Having had our fill of granola-based breakfasts and organic smoothies, my brother and I decided to venture southwest to explore the nearby La Candona jungle.
DAY 1 — San Cristobal to Lagos de Montebello
The first task was renting a car. With only one rental company in town, which only had one car available for rent, our choice was simple, if limited. Adolfo led us to his red Nissan Tsuru, the same model used by the local taxis. Despite the numerous scratches and the odd dent, from the outside it looked fine, even stylish. I jumped into the passenger seat for a quick tutorial.
“To start with, you need to turn the key to ignition,” explains Adolfo. Thanks for that valuable insight, I thought. “Then, you use the red stick attached to the keys and wave it around until the lights come on.”
I was still trying to process this confusing information when Adolfo pointed out some of the Tsuru’s other quirks. The slot where the radio should be was empty but for a few loose wires. Locking the car required the use of an entirely separate key, and be careful — turning it the wrong way could set off the alarm.
“What year is this model from?” I asked.
“2013,” said Adolfo. “It’s a bit battered and bruised, but runs perfectly. Have a great trip!”
I thought 1983 was more likely, but thought better of questioning and we were soon on our merry way. We were headed towards Lagos de Montebello, a national park a few hours out of town famed for its multitude of different-colored lakes. We arrived at the park entrance in the early afternoon, and drove through the towering pines until we reached the village of Tziscao, on the southern edge of Lake Tziscao, where we had booked a lakeside cabaña (wooden hut).
We had read about great hiking in the area, and so set about finding the tourist information center. There isn’t one. A map of the park, then? Nope. After asking a series of randomly-selected villagers, the general consensus was that there was a three-hour trek to Cinco Lagos, and that a tuk-tuk could take us to the start of the trail.
With about two hours of sunlight left, we hastily consumed some quesadillas and set off. We followed the unmarked trail through the forest at a strong pace; clouds were gathering overhead, and we didn’t fancy getting lost in a dark, wet forest in rural Mexico. An initial half-hour climb led us to a spectacular mirador and view of the lakes. The trail continued high, and below us tourists pottered about on wooden rafts. Eventually we descended to the border of the lake, at which point the path faded and we were presented with three equally plausible routes to follow. As we considered resorting to “eeny-meeny-miny-mo,” a raft came into view. The helmsman indicated that the middle path would lead us back to the road.
By this point the clouds had turned to torrential rain. After 15 minutes we arrived at another crossroads. I saw an old woman passing and asked her for directions.
“The track on the left will take you up to the road,” she said. “But are you sure you want to go down there? A tourist died last week.” We began to feel like we were part of a role-play computer game; soon we would have to trade our backpacks for an axe and some elvenbread.
Wet, cold and submerged in darkness, we finally arrived at the road and managed to procure a tuk-tuk to take us back to our cabaña. We had dinner in a nearby restaurant. The food was disappointing but no matter — we were lucky to be alive. The rain subsided so we grabbed a beer and made a log fire. Just as the flames started raging, however, the rain returned and we were forced to call it a day.
DAY 2 — Montebello to Guatemala, and back
The clouds remained when we awoke the next day, but we had arranged to go kayaking and would not be dissuaded. We ate a hearty, very Mexican breakfast of scrambled eggs, chorizo, black beans and tortillas, and stocked up on snacks. The clouds would soon surely dissipate and our day would be filled with sunny swims and picnics.
Our kayak, we discovered too late, was built for the sea and so had holes in it to prevent sinking. Our vessel soon filled with water, a problem exacerbated by the rain that was now coming down. We pinpointed a beach in the distance as our target and, unwisely, headed directly into the wind. For inspiration we sung Irish sea-shanty songs (a cassette frequently played during childhood road-trips) and likened our voyage to the polar expeditions of Ernest Shackleton.
After a few hours we reached our cabaña. We beached the kayak, swapped our jeans for our trunks (something which might have occurred to us before boarding) and dived into the lake. The water was warm — much more so than expected — and provided respite from the wind and rain. To our dismay it dawned on us that the kayak had to be returned, so we jumped in and paddled furiously back. A day out in the sun had become a morning in the rain.
To raise spirits, we determined to walk to Guatemala that afternoon. This was not as ambitious as it may sound — the open border was five minutes away from our shack, and we had seen hordes of tour buses arriving all morning. We spent half an hour in Guatemala, during which time we took the obligatory border selfie, purchased a bottle rum and amazed at the country’s many wonders. We returned to Mexico with a lingering feeling that there was more to see.
That afternoon, my girlfriend Natalia arrived from San Cristobal with her family and we toured the lakes together. For a brief window the sun emerged, revealing a distant mountain range reflected on the shiny water. Perhaps it was the overcast conditions, and feel free to call me a sceptic, but when we visited they all seemed to be the same color.
We dined in a local restaurant and attempted to dry our shoes by placing them underneath the kitchen fire. Glasses full of Guatemalan rum, we listened wide-eyed as Natalia’s father told the tale of the time he saw a jaguar in the wild. Tomorrow we would drive south to the jungle, an effort to escape the rain, and hoped for similar luck.
DAY 3 — Montebello to Las Guacamayas
With a four-hour drive and very little time, we set off before sunrise. Our destination was the Las Guacamayas (Scarlet Macaws) eco resort, a nature reserve straddling the Lacantun river. As we descended the vegetation quickly changed from alpine to tropical, from lanky pines to soaring ceibas. The road began well, but soon deteriorated and we found ourselves regularly dodging pot-holes, branches and other hazards. At point our side of the road had simply given way to what must have been a fearsome landslide. A dotted white line marked the edge of the crater, in case we missed it.
At the halfway stage we stopped for some excellent chicken tamales, a regional speciality consisting of starchy dough wrapped in a banana leaf. As we advanced further into the jungle and away from civilization we encountered a few military checkpoints — the political situation in this part of Mexico remains unstable — including one naval base curiously built in the heart of the rainforest. Despite their AK47s, the soldiers were remarkably amicable and seemed most concerned with welcoming us and giving us travel advice.
By late morning we had arrived at the resort, and immediately arranged a river kayak trip. Natalia was unconvinced by this idea, and wanted to know more.
“Aren’t there crocodiles on the river?” she asked sensibly.
“Oh, yeah,” said the receptionist with alarming calm. “But they won’t attack you.”
There ensued a lengthy discussion but eventually I managed to convince her to join us on the river. We began paddling upstream — no simple task given the recent rains — and after a short time, exhausted, let the current take us back the other way. Howler and spider monkeys filled the trees while herons and ospreys scoured the water for prey. There were no sightings of a crocodile.
After a late lunch we arranged a speedboat river tour, this time departing downstream and returning against the flow. The sun was out and we prepared for the glorious tropical sunset we had been waiting for. Less than five minutes after departure I spotted a crocodile, at least 2 meters in length, soaking up the sun on the north shore. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred meters from where we had been kayaking. Natalia said nothing but her face told the whole story.
We continued and soon turned off into a tributary, where we could get a closer look at the wildlife. The unmistakable cry of a pair of scarlet macaws flew overhead. The guide squeezed the boat into a tiny stream and turned off the engine. As we floated deeper into the jungle, we were completely enveloped by the vegetation; the canopy above blocked out most of the sunlight, and all we could here were the insects, birds and occasional roar of a howler monkey. We kept our eyes peeled for a jaguar.
An overhanging branch signalled the end of the road. As we reemerged onto the river, dark clouds had gathered. It began to rain — naturally— and the resort was some way away. We approached the first of several cascades we had descended on the way in, at least 4 feet high, and a sudden rev of the engine confirmed my suspicions; a sunset bird-spotting trip was about to turn into a stormy white water rafting expedition. For the next half hour we closed our eyes (the rain was to strong to keep them open) and gripped the side as the boatman drove the rig up and over the rapids time and time again, swerving at full speed to avoid rocks and other debris. At one point I heard a “Crack!” and a foot-long branch fell into my lap. I was glad I had my head down.
It was pitch black when we arrived back at the hotel drenched, cold but unharmed. After dinner we polished off the rum and considered which pair of clothes would be the least wet for our journey back to San Cristobal.
Day 4 — Back to San Cristobal
The next morning we awoke early — howler monkeys make an effective alarm clock— and began a guided walking tour of the jungle. The rain from the previous day lay on the leaves and shined in the morning sun as we crept along the path. Every couple of minutes our guide Jaime would stop, listen, and point out a hidden bird or insect. I spotted a paw print on the path.
“Yep, that’s a jaguar,” confirmed Jaime. “You can tell because there are only three fingers — the other cats in this jungle have four.”
“How long ago was he here?” I enquired, bursting with excitement.
“It’s very fresh. Not more than a couple of hours.”
As we continued further into the jungle, the paw prints kept appearing and eventually reached a pool where Jaime said he had seen a jaguar a few months back — that was the only sighting in recent years.
“They hear us coming long before we can get close enough to see them. They hide in the canopy and sleep during the day. The best time to see them is at night, but that’s very dangerous.”
After a couple of hours we reemerged onto the road, disappointed not to have seen the jaguar but excited to know we were close, at least. We returned to the resort, said our goodbyes to the jungle and set off on the long drive back to San Cristobal.
The return journey was smooth, for the most part. The Tsuru’s fuel gauge was suspiciously static, and we had noticed a distinct lack of petrol stations on the road. Just as we were beginning to worry, we saw a shack with “Pemex” — the state-owned oil company — spray painted onto the facade. We pulled up and a jovial boy, no more than eight, took our order.
“20 liters of unleaded,” I said hopefully.
“Sure,” responded the boy before hurrying inside. He soon reemerged with a jerry can and a plastic Coca-Cola bottle cut in half, opened up the tank and began pouring. Relieved, we paid him and continued on our way.
As we approached the mountains around San Cristobal in the late afternoon, the sky filled with dark orange and red hues. Sadly our attempts to capture the scene through the car window failed, but suffice to say Mexican sunsets — when they arrive — live up to their reputation.