I received excellent news: two of my images won “Second Prize” and “Honorary Mention” at the Photography Contest of the 10th “Toh Bird Festival”. Plenty of reason to prepare motorcycle and photo gear and head out with my copilot on a 1200 km trip across the Yucatan Peninsula. We attended the awards ceremony in Merida, participated in the “Toh Birdathon 2011”, discovered Sihunchen Park, slept lulled by the sound of waves in the Gulf of Mexico, photographed birds in Sisal and Celestun, were awed by the beauty of the Uxmal archaeological site and, before the last stretch home, ate the best Cochinita Pibil in Valladolid. What follows is the complete trip report for RIDE INTO BIRDLAND.
Day 1: To Mérida on the libre, like the birds. By noon we have left home and are riding south to Tulum. Once there, on the second stop-light, we follow the signs to turn right and take the Tulum-Coba libre road (libre means free, no tolls). After a fifty minute ride, countless speed-reduction-bumps (known locally as topes), a stretch of road under repair and some 80 kms on the meter, we enter the State of Yucatan and connect in Chemax with the Federal Road, again taking la libre. It takes us all the way to Merida, some 200 kms and 2h:20 of pleasant riding in cool temperature, with no incidents. The motorcycle feels OK, the new spark-plugs eliminated all hesitation when revving down at high speed.
At this time of year it gets dark shortly after 5:00 pm, but we still enjoy the benefit of daylight as we enter Merida, known in colonial times as the “White City” in allusion to its white facades. We follow the “CENTRO” signs on Av. Quetzacoatl, which becomes Calle 65 and eventually intersects with Calle 62, where we park the bike at the no-frills hotel we have chosen to spend the first night. We freshen up quickly and head out on foot towards the Festival’s headquarters, a few blocks away.
The bustling city of Merida, capital of Yucatan, was founded in 1542 over the remains of the Mayan city T’Hó, and for centuries was the economic epicenter of the enequen industry. We have little time to explore but it’s still nice to feel the atmosphere of an old city. We rush through the streets of the historical center and soon reach the Autonomous University of Yucatan, which opened its doors in 1618 under the tutelage of jesuit priests as the “Colegio de San Pedro de la Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Francisco Javier”.
As we enter the University we find that the “birds” theme has taken over the place. The main patio is ready for the awards ceremony of the “United for the Birds” photo and drawing contests, as well as for the official opening of the Toh Bird Festival 2011. On the first floor, an exhibit has been arranged with the winning drawings and photographs. We can only take a quick look before being ushered to the auditorium, where we attend the interesting conference “Economic value of birds and their habitat – the Caribbean Flamingo case”. After a final, well deserved applause for speaker Eduardo Galicia, we are led back down to the main patio where Joann Andrews, founder of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, presides over a simple and cordial ceremony in the company of other official personalities.
The awards ceremony gets underway. My name is called and I walk forward to receive the Second Prize in the Professional Photographers’s Category for my image of the Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus), wings and tail in full display. I receive my certificate and prize-bag, exchange the traditional thanks and handshakes and walk back to my place, only to be called a second time to receive a Honorary Mention for my shot of the Ferruginous Pigmy Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum), which I use on this blog’s masthead.
After the ceremony we speak with several people, among them Carlos Gallardo, an artisan who uses recovered feathers to create beautiful pendants and decorative masks. We also meet Alberto Mezquita, festival co-organizer and owner of Parque Sihunchen, who gracefully agrees to welcome us as part of his team for the “Toh Bird Marathon”, a competition in which teams of birders decide where to go in the forests, beaches and wetlands of Yucatan, with the goal of finding and identifying the greatest possible number of bird species within a 24 hour period.
Alberto introduces us to the rest of the team, all of them birders who have come, like us, from the Riviera Maya. In a notable coincidence one of them turns out to be Jorge Machado, lead subject of the documentary film Alamar, which we reviewed a while back in RIDE INTO BIRDLAND. Alberto gives us detailed directions to get to Sihunchen Park and so we agree to be there the following morning, at dawn. With that idea in mind we retire to our hotel, hopeful for a few hours of restful sleep.