Friday, December 21, 2012

Mainland Mexico begins. Big trees and solitude

On September 7th, 2012, I left home in Vancouver, BC to cycle down the entire west coast of the United States on a mission visit the world's largest tree (a giant sequia) as well as record specimens of western red-cedar, Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce and others species. I regret that I did not have time to blog these experiences but since arriving in southern Mexico I have slowed my pace and have time for an update. Here is a short summary of cycling down the Pacific coast of Mexico from Mazatlan to Manzanillo, through the states of Sinaloa, Nayarit and Jalisco, and the big trees I found on route.

Mainland Mexico: Nayarit and Jalisco states.


Every morning when I wake up and start my day of cycling I experience a heavy dose of culture shock. Before this trip I had already travelled extensively in Latin America including Mexico, but seeing the vibrant Mexican culture and landscape on bicycle is an entirely new experience for me. In previous trips I have travelled by bus, a relatively safe and sheltered travel mode, but now I am entirely exposed to the culture, the elements, the animals and all else that defines the foreign experience. I am a player in the chaos of mexican highways, exposed on my left to passing buses and trucks, on my right to terrifying chase dogs and from above to a burning tropical sun. Perhaps a more significant change as of late is that I am now alone.

Me and James arrived together to Mazatlan on the Mexican mainland via ferry from La Paz, Baja California Sur, where we then caught a bus to Tepic in Nayarit state. The purpose of bussing was to get safely out of Sinaloa State, where the drug war is quite active and a Canadian was recently shot dead (mind you, circumstances suggest he may not have been a peaceful tourist like ourselves). In Tepic we again loaded our bikes onto another bus bound for San Blas, a coastal fishing village with tranquil and very cheap surf camps. The village of San Blas is so ideal for travelers like ourselves that we got stuck in it for two weeks on our backpacking trip here eight years ago and James planned to spend three weeks there this time to recharge before heading home to work.

I remained there for four nights and then hit the road alone with the intention to make it to Palenque, in Chiapas state by Dec 21, but also to escape the horrible san fleas and mosquitoes, which is the village's one major draw back. San Blas is in the middle of a huge mangrove forest so the first 5 km of cycling was along a raised roadway through swampy forest. Mangrove forests occur in intertidal zones and are composed of highly specialized tree species called mangroves that tolerate salty ocean water, anaerobic soils and other challenges associated with being inundated at hightide. They are extremely important as breeding grounds for fish and have a recognized ability to stabilize coast lines and buffer Tsunami impacts, though, they are in decline worldwide due to coastal development. I was delighted to ride my bike through this one, especially during the peaceful early hours of morning.

Over that day I rode 120 km through humid tropical forests completely unlike the deserts we had been cycling through on the Baja California. There were big broadleaf trees arching over the roadway,
Sayulita
coconut plantations along the side of the highway and previously unseen roadkill species along the roadway. These included an armadillo, several possums, a 10 cm long grasshopper and numerous snake skins, some up to 2 m long. Seeing roadkill is a grim reality of traveling by bike but it gives a lot of insight into the local fauna. I ended that day in another chill but much more touristy village called Sayulita.

After a very peaceful rest day there I did a short day into Puerto Vallarta. On the way into town I was distracted by a carpentry shop with enormous slabs of wood and thick trunks displayed on the road that were well over 2 m in diameter. For the past five weeks I had been traveling through arid ecosystems and had hardly thought at all about big trees. There simply were not any on route. I parked my bike and went inside to talk to the carpenters. They were very friendly and happy to tell me what species of tree they were and to also show me a nearby live specimen. It was the same magnificent leguminous trees I had seen arching over the road way between San Blas and Sayulita. In the trees I had seen I had admired their thick arching arms, wide-spreading canopy and delicate leaves that somewhat resemble the stunning leaves of maiden hair ferns back home. It was the parota, known as guanacaste in english (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) and it grows all along the Pacific Coast of Central America right into northern Brazil and Venezuela.

They told me there were much larger specimens then the trunks they had there but they were way up in the mountains and it would be very complicated for me to visit. Unfortunately, they were not to interested in taking me. Nonetheless, I left their shop reinvigorated on big trees and with a list of names of other large growing trees in the region. Since these inital encounters I have become intrigued to locate the largest specimens of parota but it appears to not be published on the web and given the large range this may be very difficult to do.
I was starting to realize that Mexico has some fine trees worth seeking out but knew that they would not be so easy to discover. My spanish is now quite good after two big trips in latin america and several classes in university but a language barrier still impedes my research. Also, the details and locations of Mexico's large trees are simply not as well documented as they are in the US and in Canada, or once again the language barrier makes it more difficult for me to find them on the internet.

Big tree thoughts were on my mind as I cycled south into the steep mountains and thriving jungle of the Jalisco coast. This day began with a 25 km long hill climb made extra challenging by the extreme humidity and unseasonably hot weather that was pushing into the mid 30's. I didnt make it far before I pulled over for my lunch of avocados and bread where a beautiful waterfall cascaded about 20 m down through jungle vegetation. Tourist caravans from Puerto Vallarta zoomed past me missing the joy of the jungle experienced while on bike. Stunning white butterflies probably 15 cm wide circled around in the canopy above and strange sounding birds called from within the jungle. As I was about to leave I finally noticed a massive, unfriendly-looking but beautiful spider in its web right beside where I was sitting. This spooked me a bit, since I assumed the spider could probably do some serious harm but it also stoked me for the discovery ahead.


This spider was about 3 to 4 inches from leg tip to leg tip. 
Slowed by the big hill and dizzying humidity I made little ground that day almost stopping to stay in a hotel after just 44km. Without any specific destination in mind I decided to cycle onwards and about 30 km I yelled down to some campesinos outside their house if they knew where I could camp. They responded by inviting me down and offering that I camp in their driveway. I was delighted by this because their property was shaded by huge parota trees and set beside a tranquil stream flowing around big smooth stones, some with colourful strange ducks sitting on top of them. 

Jungle covered mountain just south of Puerto Vallarta on the Jalisco Coast

After bathing in the stream I cooked my simple rice dinner and began talking to one of their sons who I guessed was about my age. He took care of their cattle and knew the countryside well so I asked if there were bigger trees around. He responded that they surely were but nothing convenient for me to visit, but then recalled that there was an ancient tamarind (Tamarindus indus) tree just 4 km further along the highway.

In the morning I packed my things and hit the highway on route to the old tamarind tree I was instructed that the tree is located in a tiny village called Santa Cruz, about 400 m off the highway beside the village's church.

The road leading off the highway was tortuously rough cobble stone like they often are in Jalisco state so I walked my bike. A little ways in I asked a woman if she knew where the church was and she looked at me like I was blind then pointed at the little roof right beside her. The church was evidently nothing impressive but the tree beside it was indeed so. It was many times bigger than the little "church" and It looked very old. It had a wide base of about 2.4 m dbh that split into two trunks low to the ground. These trunks then diverged into a number of old gnarled twisted branches some of which drooped downwards than twisted back up, and one long branch that extended towards the church had a large church bell, about 1 foot diameter hanging from it.

It was beautiful yet a bit creepy and mangled looking, though, as far as I could tell it appeared solid and healthy. It was the kind of tree that one might feel uneasy camping under while alone on a foggy night. As I took some photos a seƱor walked up the street so I asked him about the tree. He told me it was 518 years old as known from what he explained to be a scientific measurement that he did not really understand. I suspect this must have been from a tree core extracted from the trunk of the tree to count the annual growth rings.

Tamarindo tree at Santa Cruz claimed to be 518 years old
This would be an exceptional age for a tropical tree to grow if it were true, but it cannot be so. Tamarind trees are native to Africa, and it seems impossible that they could have arrived in Mexico 518 years ago since the first Europeans are believed to have arrived in 1492 as captained by Christopher Columbus.. However, the tree may be at least several hundred years old since Tamarind was apparently introduced into Mexico in considerable abundance in the 16th century (according to wikipedia).

The rest of the day was productive riding through remote countryside with few towns and at around 100 km distance I began to look for a place to camp. It just so happened that I came a across a university's biologic research station. I thought they would surely welcome a fellow biology student to camp for the night on there grounds, right? But to my dismay they rejected me. This bothered me a lot, especially since it was a 2 km long hill climb to the station, but I guess they have concerns with liability and the manager did not want to risk any extra responsibility. It seems to me, based on experiences like this and my notice of Walmarts and Burger King in every city, that Mexico is on a fast track to becoming more American. A lot has changed since my last visit in 2004.

My rejection at the biological station turned out to be alright because I ended up camping at an absolutely stunning beach called Playa Careyitos. The beach was semi-private and the gate was locked at night so it was relatively safe for solo beach camping, something I would normally avoid. As soon I arrived I ran down the steep sandy beach and jumped into the crashing waves still wearing my greasy, smelly cycling clothing. It was a late arrival and i watched the sunset int the ocean while swimming. As I cooked dinner the sand fleas and mosquitoes came out in attack mode forcing me to change into long sleeves and pants. This was terribly uncomfortable since it was still in the mid 30s and extremely humid. The bugs have been awful at several places along on the mainland Mexican coast and when its hot out you become confronted with the dilemma of getting swarmed into a mentally aggravated state or sweating your pants off.

The humidity persisted through the night and when I woke up my tent and pretty much everything was soaked. I hit the road, once again with a crazy feeling inside of heading into the unknown. This mysterious feeling was certainly enhanced by the pockets of mist swirling in an out of dry tropical jungle. The morning was pure climbing and I must have drank 5 L of water by noon when I finally topped over the last giant hill in Jalisco state.
Last big hill climb in Jalisco State
After flying down that long curving hill it was flat cruising through little towns full of entertaining street life and I was soon crossing a long bridge over the Rio Maraba into Colima State, which provided much less challenging riding through quite flat terrain. I sprang 12$ for a really crapy, somewhat gross hotel room in Manzanillo that night. The bed was hard and there was a little orange lizard living inside the light switch but the room gave me opportunity to wash my cycle clothing and I assure I rested very well.
 
Beach Camping at Sayulita, Nayarit in a coconut palm forest


Jalisco Coast

I always ride at sunrise. Its a beautiful time of day and much less strenuous than under the mid-day sun



Near the southern end of Jalisco Coast
this picture does not capture the incredible humidity on this day!

Large logs at an unofficial looking roadside log sort


some white birds I see everywhere


Beautiful Volcano just inside Colima State

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