There’s something wonderful about sleeping in a tent: you can hear the sounds of nature all around you.
Tucked into our sleeping bags in almost total darkness, we listen as an insect orchestra performs a relaxing tune that soon carries us into dreamland.
We sleep peacefully well into the night. Then, without warning, we’re shaken awake by the chilling growls of a large creature.
(click to hear what we heard)
The first thought that comes to mind may very well be… jaguar?!
We’re in the home of Panthera onca, the mighty jaguar, only roaring cat of the Americas. A few hours earlier, on the way back from a day of bird photography in Calakmul, a jaguar crossed the road ahead of us. We watched in awe, electrified.
Jaguars are not known to attack humans in the Yucatan Peninsula. It is men who have killed jaguars during centuries of hunting with the aid of spears, dogs and guns. Jaguars are the undisputed kings of this forest but have learned to dread homo sapiens. Yet here, in consecrated jaguar territory, their conspicuous presence says something good about conservation efforts in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.
Jaguars, being the lone stealthy hunters they are, do not broadcast their presence with constant growling. Jaguars can climb trees, but they don’t travel through the treetops and by now I can hear leaves rustling somewhere up there on the canopy.
The howling that has awakened us, I realize, is the remarkable language of Howler Monkeys (Alouatta palliata mexicana). Their bellowing calls, which can be heard from as far as three miles, were described by 19th century explorer John Lloyd Stephens as “grave and solemn, almost emotionally wounded, as if officiating as the guardians of consecrated ground“.
I grab my audio recorder and step into the moonless night. All I can see are hints of glimmering stars above the canopy. I take a few blind steps in the direction of the sounds and start recording as the monkeys continue their approach.
Very soon they’re just meters away, knocking down fruits and branches on top of the camp’s kitchen. It’s too dark to see, but their presence is clearly felt. A few minutes of intense activity pass before they resume their nocturnal exploration, leaving our camp behind in a wake of fading growls.
Back in the tent, I can still hear the monkeys far in the distance. I realize this is why Francisco Hernandez arranged for us to stay here. So we could experience something like this.
The following morning Fernando Sastré makes breakfast for our group in the kitchen of Camping Yaax’ che. Did you hear the monkeys?, he asks. People often mistake them for a jaguar, he says.
Fernando and his wife Leticia are ecotourism pioneers in the Calakmul area. Their idea of setting up an eco-camp was initially ill received by the local community (this is not the traditional way to use the land, some argued), but they persisted and in 2002, having received funding from a United Nations program, they were open for business.
That first year they received almost 900 guests, which boosted their disposition to continue with the project. Perceptions have changed since then, they tell me, and nowadays more and more local families are getting involved with ecotourism in one way or another.
Here they use solar cells for electrical power, recycle all garbage and manage human waste. Barely a tree has been cut in the property, Leticia says, and local fauna is free to come and go as it pleases. Water management poises the biggest challenge, Fernando explains. Wells are not an option, as the aquifer is far too deep in this part of the peninsula, so the camp depends entirely on harvesting water during the rainy season.
Travelers are welcome to bring their own camping equipment and to set up their tents for a fee that includes the use of camp-style bathroom facilities. Tents are also available for rent. The camp is meant for nature observation and there are rules: all garbage must be separated, water must be used judiciously, no music players, no shouting or drinking.
An early arrival at the camp this morning is Luis Alberto Jiménez, our bird guide in Calakmul. Before we ask Luis about birds, we ask him about jaguars. “I’ve had fourteen jaguar sightings in the six years I’ve been working here”, he’s proud to report.
As for birding, Luis sees the Calakmul archaeological site as the perfect playground. “It’s surrounded by forest, with long trails that lead to the different structures and are good for bird observation”, he says. “We can also stop on a couple of good places on the road to Calakmul.”
We’ve been on the road for just a few minutes when Luis calls out our first stop: he’s spotted a Pale-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis). The bird lingers long enough for me to get out of the car and make a few frames, then retreats deeper into the forest.
We also spot a bird that Luis has mentioned among his favorites: a male Red-capped Manakin (Pipra mentalis). The angle I get is far from ideal but it goes to show that, just as Howell and Webb state in their famous field guide, this bird is simply “unmistakable“.
Once back on the road I feel our day of bird photography is having an auspicious start. To find out how the rest of this outing went, leading up to an encounter with Ocellated Turkeys, see Part 1 of this trip report.
And come back soon for the final part of this story. I’ll show you what we saw on the road from Calakmul to the city of Campeche.
WAIT, STOP THE PRESS!
While we were preparing this story for publication Calakmul has been officially inscribed on UNESCO’s WORLD HERITAGE LIST in recognition of its exceptional cultural and natural value.
As stated in Mexico’s official press release:
“During the 38th session of the World Heritage Committee, being held in Doha, Qatar from June 15-25, the Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul was inscribed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a mixed property in recognition of its exceptional universal value.
The World Heritage Committee decided to inscribe Calakmul by consensus on the World Heritage List as excellent testimony to the Mayan civilization and its harmonious coexistence with its mega-diverse natural environment.
In 2002, UNESCO inscribed the Calakmul archeological zone as cultural heritage of humanity. In 2013, Mexico proposed extending the area of the cultural property from 3,000 to 331,397 hectares, strengthening its cultural criteria and including natural criteria in order to create a mixed natural and cultural property under the name of the Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico.
Calakmul is set deep in the heart of one of the country’s biggest protected natural areas, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which is part of the largest tropical forest of Mesoamerica. Located southeast of the state of Campeche, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve became part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves of UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program (MAB) in 1993.“
Great news for the continued conservation of this unique part of Planet Earth. Congratulations, we say!
RIDE INTO BIRDLAND sincerely thanks the Government of Campeche, the office of Governor Lic. Fernando Ortega Bernés and the Campeche Secretary of Tourism for their invaluable support with the air and ground transportation that made this story possible. We also thank Don Francisco Hernández, Ambassador ad-honorem for the State of Campeche, who invited us to discover the wonders of his homeland.
For more information about Camping Yaax’ che and activities available in the area, visit redcalakmul.com
The services of Luis Jiménez Hernández, an excellent guide who specializes in archaeology and birding, can be retained by contacting him to his cell phone at 983 135-1487, by email at email@example.com, or through his FaceBook page.
A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. (2010, Steve Howell and Sophie Webb).
The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. (Sixth Edition)
Southern Mexico – Travellers’ Wildlife Guides. (Les Beletsky, 2007).