Last hot, hot summer, Bruce and I took up on an invite from Lenor and Terry Coomber to join with Dawn and Brian Blevings for a trip to the swimming holes up El Monteón Creek. We had a nice day bobbing around in one of the many pools that people have scooped out of the gravel creek-bed. We gorged from coolers full of snacks and icy beverages. We napped on big sunny boulders and marveled at the variety of butterflies that came fluttering by us. This creek, running cool and clear through the thick, tropical forest seemed to invite further upstream exploration, but it would be several months before I returned.
Lately, I have been up this creek several times, showing it to other people. It seems like it is a little-known destination among the expats, but it is well known to the locals who pack family and friends into the series of pools to cool off in the summer.
Regrettably, it is hard to ignore the litter that is everywhere. A few days ago, Susan Schrandt and I were up this creek for a light hike and some photos. We talked about how we have become somewhat desensitized to the trash that seems omnipresent. We talked about how easy it has become to ignore in our urban environment. But up here, with such a rich natural beauty, the litter has a harsh and intentional presence.
For me, showing-off our area to first timers is one of the great joys of living here. Last week, friends from Montana that I had not seen for 30 years were here to scope out our area. I took them up El Monteón Creek and of course, they really enjoyed it. On the way back, just idling along in the Jeep, we stopped several times to watch and listen to the song birds in the fields. We noted a weird looking tree off in a pasture. It had big, gnarly branches, no leaves, and a few big puffy balls that looked like white cotton candy.
From somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered Mary Alice Ranta telling me about the kapok tree. Sure enough, this is what we were looking at (top photo).
We walked out in the pasture for a closer look. This tree has a thick, brutish, thorny trunk. All stages of the reproductive scheme are displayed at once: weird fruits or primitive flowers, big, heavy, woody seed pods, and the amazing clouds of fluff, drying in the hot sun and just waiting for a whiff of a breeze to carry the heavy black seeds to new ground. I gathered a few pod segments from under the tree and collected one whole pod that had not yet opened.
I kept the unripened pod on my desk for a few days (middle photo). Gradually, it started to split open and the five woody segments parted from each other, exposing the damp, tightly packed fluff inside. Within just a few hours, the fluff started to dry and expand. It was easy to imagine the mess I was going to have in my studio if I did not discard the whole works before it fluffed out completely.
I have the tip of one of these pod segments that I sawed off (right photo). I carry it around in my pocket. Rubbing it with my thumb brings out a nice, low luster. I enjoy looking at the patina on this pod. I might design it into a pendant or brooch.
A couple of days ago, I headed up El Monteón Creek again, this time by myself. I had a light day pack with some essentials, my little digital camera and a light-weight tripod. When I returned home, I had a few photos that I was pleased with. I published a few to my bulletin board and a few people commented. A person named Kim asked where I had been hiking and taking the photos.
I would like to respond to Kim, but first, let me talk just a bit about The Dump Road. There are so many different ways to get on this road from the north end, it would be best to learn about it first, by getting on at the south end where it joins Highway 200, north of El Monteón.
There can be a bit of danger if you are southbound on Highway 200 and want to get on the Dump Road. (There is a new interchange being built there right now, so this information will be obsolete soon.) For now, it is a bit dangerous to make a left turn off the highway.
Seasoned drivers in Mexico will know this dangerous scenario… In this case, you are southbound on a two lane highway with no shoulder. You know that you want to turn left onto a somewhat obscure road. The road you want to turn onto might not be apparent to following traffic. You slow down and turn on your left turn signal. If there is following traffic, they will either think you are planning to make a left turn (onto a road that they might not discern) or they will think that your turn signal is indicating to them that it okay with you for them to pass you on the left. For NOTB drivers, this can get hairy. In this scenario, if you know there is no oncoming traffic, it is best for you to move into the northbound lane, blocking anyone from passing you on the left while you slow down and eventually make your left turn.
Best remedy for this situation is to continue to a point where it is safe for you to pull off on the right, wait for traffic to clear and then come back northbound and make your exit to the right.
The Dump Road is a wonderful, short diversion that will get you and your friends into the countryside, into agricultural fields, see some birdlife and of course, see our dump. Except at our dump, nowhere will you see such a thick concentration of vultures. Mercifully, the breeze is almost always in the favor of the drive-by sightseers.
Between the Jaltemba Bay Area and the dump, you will probably encounter other vehicles, horseback riders and agricultural machinery. But south of the dump, I have never come across another vehicle. It is a very lightly traveled road. It is an excellent bike route.
Where was I hiking, you ask? Well, a couple of times, I was not 100% certain.
I am not the type to try to keep secret places, but I would like to say a few things about caution in the wilderness, before I encourage anyone to retrace my steps.
Some experts say, if you are hopelessly lost, stay put in one spot, start a fire and let your rescuers find you. Remember, I am not an expert, but I cannot see myself doing that.
If you get lost and walk persistently downhill you will find a stream. If you go with the flow and follow it downstream, there is an absolute dead certainty that this will eventually get you to the ocean. Most likely, you will find civilization, long before you reach the ocean.
Let someone know where you are headed, especially if you are hiking solo. Bring a cell phone. If you change your plan, phone someone and let them know.
Always bring a bottle of water, and a means to start a fire, and don’t eat all of your snacks. There are lots of other considerations and schools of thought, but the basic idea is to be prepared to be delayed finding your way back to your nice, cozy vehicle.
I am not an expert. Please do get expert advice before tramping off solo into the hills without trails.
In this Google Earth image, the edge of the village of El Monteón is on the far left near the top. Highway 200 is cutting across the top left corner. Intersecting Highway 200 is what I will call El Monteón Creek, (though I have come to know that the more accurate name is Rio Huanacaxtle) running diagonally from the bottom right towards El Monteón at the top left.
Just north of where the creek runs under Highway 200 you can see another road coming straight in from the east, ending at an acute angle with Highway 200. Actually, this is the old highway route, before 200 and what some now call The Dump Road. If you are in La Peñita and drive to the dump that is in the countryside to the east of La Peñita/Rincón de Guayabitos, and continue by the dump, you will come out at Highway 200, in this little triangular intersection, just north of where El Monteón Creek goes under the highway.
Got that? This intersection is near kilometer post 100 of Highway 200 and very near where there is something new being built on the east side of the highway: a new Pemex station, from what I hear.
I have driven several visitors on this dump road this winter. It is short and sweet with a chance to see some of our nice agricultural areas, quite a bit of bird life and some flora.
Also at this triangular intersection is a road that takes off from Highway 200 and runs parallel, on the north side of El Monteón Creek. (You can easily see the creek bed in the satellite image but you cannot see it from the road until you are way back in there.)
To turn off The Dump road onto this El Monteón Creek Road, you take a hard left just before you reach Highway 200. To turn onto this El Monteón Creek Road from the highway, you really have to be paying attention to following cars that might take your left turn signal to mean that they should pass you, and also watch for oncoming, northbound traffic. If you are unsure of yourself, best to continue south on the highway to the El Monteón turn off, turn around, and come back north.
The El Monteón Creek Road is a decent back country farm road and some regular passenger vehicles might be able to make it without bottoming out. I used the “Add a Path” feature on Google Earth to trace the road from the highway to the parking place and the trail beyond to the derelict mango orchard. After that, there is no trail.
Note that the road runs along north of the creek and bends south, towards the creek after passing the kapok pasture on your right. You will not see the creek until you are at the parking area. You will see a lot of trash where others have parked and partied and enjoyed the pools.
It is possible to ford the creek and drive a bit further but there really is no need and the road gets rough in a hurry. The walking is great, either up the creek bed or along the old roadbed. As you walk, you will now be on the south side of the creek. If you refer to the Google Earth image, you will see that not too far upstream, you will find yourself in an old mango grove.
Up until this point, the hike is mellow and easy. Now, from the mango orchard, no matter which way you go (except back) you will have a much tougher go of it. At this point, I turned almost due south and started walking up the steep ridge that runs along the west side of the creek. Very soon, the creek was way down in the valley. I could sometimes hear it and use it to keep my bearings.
There are no real trails up on these ridges. There are many cow trails that sometimes go off in a useful direction, then eventually peter out. If not for the cows, this country would be almost impenetrable. This area is heavily forested and there are vines criss-crossing everywhere. Many of the trees and bushes have thorns and spikes. The vines do not break away when you try to power through them. This is a sort of hiking that is totally unlike what this Montana boy is used to.
After living here full time for over two years, I am becoming more accustomed to tropical flora and fauna, but still, all these varieties of birds, trees and other plants seem so foreign, exotic, and exciting to me. Sitting and listening to the birds all around chirping, cooing, honking, twittering, whistling, and screeching is a real treat. A special treat was being mostly unobserved among two big flocks of green parrots. It would be fun to get a better look at them but they are very shy and hang mostly in the forest canopy.
Bird watchers would go nuts up there. If a person wanted to just sit in one spot, I am sure the many species I saw would come by, working their ways across the flanks of these ridges.
This was my first strenuous hike in Mexico as a new, non-smoker. I really felt good climbing higher and higher. Coming into one clearing, I was surprised to be high enough to see over the lower hills and get a view of Jaltemba Bay, our beloved island and the little island alongside.
I took my time and took lots of photos off my tripod. The combination of overcast skies, diffused light, and wet foliage enabled me to get some richly colored shots that I am pleased with.
At one point I stopped for a rest and leaned my tripod against a tree. The tree was hollow and the tripod hitting it made an empty-sounding thump. Almost right away, I heard a noise that seemed to be coming from far away or deep inside. Was it a buzzing noise? Was it more of a deep vibration? It grew louder as it seemed to grow closer. At one point I thought it might be a swarm of bees. The thought of being discovered by killer bees concerned me and I looked around for a good route to run off on. After a few seconds, the sound seemed more like a waterfall. I must say, I was freaky-frightened, mostly because I could not figure out what it was and it was growing louder by the second, like it was really coming at me. It turned out to be another ferocious rain shower, coming over the ridge. I have never heard rain coming from so far away, in such a quiet jungle/forest. That was a scary thrill.
Hiking without trails is not for everyone. The landscape and topography of this area is very different from what most of us are used to. I am more accustomed to the ridges, peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains, formed by glaciers, rivers and fault lines. In this part of Mexico, almost all of the geographical features were formed by volcanic actions. So much of what we see does not make sense to those who are used to tramping about in the wilderness up north. In these circumstances, even a short and casual afternoon hike can go bad if you lose your bearings.
Heading back downhill was the hardest part of my hike. I tried to retrace the route I took to go up, but I saw nothing that looked familiar on the way down and it seemed like there were far fewer good cow paths to go on. I fell a few times and ripped the butt out of my jeans. Although I could not “see out” for the last half of the trip down, I did manage to come out at the mango orchard again. Instead of hugging the creek bed, I went a bit higher and paralleled the creek. I overshot the place where my Jeep was parked but not by much.
I was pretty much totally soaked in sweat and rain and mud but a very happy hiker when it was all said and done. I have a new feel for what this terrain is like and I am anxious to get back out there and learn more about this particular area; very wild but also so close to us on Jaltemba Bay.
In our area, because of our climate, it is not always comfortable to wear a lot of clothing. But on this hike, it was a dark and cool day. I wore heavy jeans, socks and ankle-high hiking boots and a T shirt. At one point early in my hike, I did notice that I had attracted a pretty good cloud of tiny, airborne pests. I took a break to spray down with Autan. Autan works well for mosquitos and black gnats (jejenes). I did not know at the time that I was also being assaulted by chiggers. It takes a day or two before the red itchy welts appear. Some people are driven nearly insane from the intense itching. Even though I had hundreds of the welts occur on my arms and legs, I was able to control the itching by taking a shower and occasionally using calamine lotion.
The next time I go off crashing through heavy brush for a few hours, I am going to try spraying my clothing very heavily with Autan. If this doesn’t at least limit the bites, then the chiggers might win this war. I am guessing that their advantage would be greatly decreased by sticking to paths, trails, roadways and dry creek beds.
About the Author: Tom Plattenberger and his partner Bruce are full-time residents of La Peñita. Tom founded Jaltemba Bay Folk in 2000 and retired from that pursuit in 2010. Art, design, photography, biking and writing are the blurry focus of Tom’s life of leisure. He sometimes escapes his cluttered home studio in his Jeep, exploring the backroads inland of Highway 200.
This story was originally published February 2010 on Magical Los Ayala under “Jaltemba Bay Articles of Interest.”
If you want to join in the fun and share your stories and photos of Jaltemba Bay, Mexico, please email them to Tosia@JaltembaBayLife.com