Monday, February 24, 2014

The Jungle Tour


Mainland by sunrise
Early in our time in Mexico, we’d read about La Tovara and the jungle tours that go up the river there. There’s a lovely little bay within walking (well, rowing, then surf-landing, then walking) distance from the tour boats, but all the guide books said the jejenes (no-see-ums) are terrible. Our boat doesn’t have bug screens and the thought of sleeping in a hot, confined space with biting bugs helped us make the decision to skip Matanchén our first time down the coast from Mazatlan and head straight from Isla Isabel to Chacala instead. In Chacala with Ryan, we’d considered taking a bus up there to avoid the worst hours at dawn and dusk, but it was pretty expensive.
While we were on Isabel this time, though, I couldn’t let the idea go. I leafed through the guidebook again and started doing the math. If we left Isabel in the night, we’d get to Matanchén just after daybreak. Maybe, if all went perfectly, we could catch an early tour and be back on the boat, ready to leave in time to make it into (relatively) bug-free Chacala by sunset.
And it worked!

The end of a long night watch
We pulled into Matanchén about 8am and found a place to anchor in the shallow bay. The water shoaled gradually up to the beach so we had to anchor quite a ways from the recommended dinghy landing.

Before we had pulled ourselves together, a couple from another boat stopped by to introduce themselves and they pointed us toward a closer place to row the dinghy in.

This is the closer landing!

We pulled on long-sleeved shirts and long-ish pants and added bug spray for extra protection before rowing over to shore. We walked up from the beach along a dusty road and soon, found ourselves in the main town.
There's our boat...way out in the bay!



Sunday morning church-goers bought pastries and banana bread, the local specialty, at roadside shops.

We easily found our way to the tour boats, paid for our tickets (we upgraded to include the side tour of the crocodile nursery), and funneled down the ramp to our ride.

Our driver eased us away from the dock and pointed the panga up the narrow river. Mangroves encroached into the curving waterway, reaching out slender limbs to meet our outstretched fingers.




After a few minutes in the cool shade, we came out into a wider stretch of river.


Jungle-green mountains in the distance kept us oriented as we motored back and forth through the maze of mangroves and water. Our guide slowed down further to show off birds and bromeliads.




Floating logs rocked in our gentle wake and tossed sun-drenched turtles into the water.



We kept a sharp eye on the riverbank (and our fingers out of the water!) These crocodiles are huge!


Our driver slowed even more and stooped down to ease under a low, single-lane bridge over the river. We ducked our heads under the concrete supports and waved at the men eating lunch in the shade on the span.

A couple of minutes later, we pulled up to the crocodile nursery and wildlife rescue. Our guide pulled up near an enormous tree and waited silently until our eyes began to pick out the iguanas camouflaged in the shadows above.

Someone spotted one, then pointed it out all around. Soon we saw another and another and then 8 or 10 materialized like Cheshire cats. One dangled vertically from the end of a thin branch. It clambered up the twig, using the tiniest of shoots as ladder rungs. When it finally scurried to safety on a larger branch we all let out a little cheer.

We pulled past several waiting pangas to a small landing at the crocodile nursery. We’re used to self-guided tours, so it was a bit of a rush to see everything in the 15 minutes we were given. But a polite and articulate young woman met us near the entrance and quickly showed us around the small refuge. I didn’t feel rushed at the time, but thinking back, we must have been. We didn’t stop for very many pictures and didn’t make good mental notes of all the different animals.

A frenzy of fish met us at the entrance. Young jaguars stared through chain-link fencing. And Meira got up close and personal with a collared peccary.

We saw crocodiles in all different stages of life, from very young to feeble. Young crocs grow surprisingly slowly and are vulnerable to predators for many years. These are older than they look, perhaps 2 or 3 years old.


Some of the crocodiles here will eventually be released but others—one blind, one missing its teeth—need special care. Our guide explained that crocodiles can’t move their tongues; they’re held in place by a membrane. This gaping mouth isn’t a threat, but a method of thermoregulation.


We tipped our informative guide and hopped back into the panga. Partway back the way we’d come, we took a different tributary and came out at Tovara Springs. We’d read of the restaurant and the swimming hole here and had brought our suits, but we didn’t have enough time to eat and swim. Hunger won out.

The food was good. The fish portions were huge and we enjoyed fooling around in the shade and watching the swimmers leap from the small rope swing. Silliness ensued.






Our driver had tied his boat to a tree on the shady side of the river for his own lunch break. But as we approached the landing, he pulled over to meet us.

He took the trip back a little faster and expertly dodged all the oncoming pangas in the skinny river. We were glad we’d come early in the day, before the high wakes scared away all the animals.



I couldn’t stop staring at the splashes of white in the sea of green. The water reflected the beautiful birds and elegant blooms with a breathtaking visual echo.


We drooled over this mysterious congregation—true waterfront property!

Back at the docks, we disembarked to find an industrious baker offering delicious empanadas to the hungry tourists. We were happy to pick from among her many flavors. Pineapple, coconut, strawberry, and cream!
We walked back the way we had come, through the town and out the road beyond to the beach.


We stopped along the way to chase the butterflies for a few minutes.


While we were on the jungle tour, the waterline had receded considerably and the beaches had filled up with people. Families and friends sat around plastic tables in the sand and dusty cars and trucks overflowed the palapa-covered parking garages. Parents and children waded far out into the shallow bay and we joined them, glad for the chance to cool off a bit. We finally reached deep enough water to float a loaded-down Rover, and we rowed through the crowd back to the boat.

We needed to take off right away to make it into Chacala before dark. But it only took 10 minutes to get everyone into swimsuits and over the side for a refreshing dunk. Then we hauled up the anchor and motored the 5 hours south for the night. Along the way, we saw a few whales. It was nothing like the spectacular show we’d had with the Moms a few days before, but one whale surfaced suddenly very close to the boat on what appeared to be a collision course. We reduced speed immediately and turned away from the giant creature, looking in all directions to see where it would come up next. A few minutes later, Ryan and I happened to be looking aft when it surfaced just a few yards off our stern. Bryan was facing forward and only heard the explosive sound of the whale spout. He whirled around to see the splash and we all laughed in relief. The whale must have just been checking us out. It dove deep and we didn’t see it again.
We came into Chacala just after sunset and got both anchors down without any difficulty. As we dropped our stern anchor, a giant cheer went up from on shore. Loud brass music blared across the water and startled us back to civilization. For the last several days, we’d been out at the island or touring the jungle. It was a shock to remember that millions of people around the world were watching the Superbowl. The girls curled up on the boat while the 3 adults rowed in to shore. We found our usually sleepy little restaurant filled with sports fans and gringos looking for a taste of home. We found some chairs and joined them for the 4th quarter and the post-game cheering before popping across the street for a late-night pizza.

Many thanks to Ryan Severson for the use of his pictures and his fabulous videography.