A Jungle Trek

A Jungle Trek

In recent months, there has been quite a bit of discussion involving our jungle.  The deep semi-tropical forest that surrounds each home in LAT is the very thing that differentiates our community from many of the other developments up and down the Costa Maya.

Not only are the magnificent trees and the countless other plants flourishing under our protection; the fauna, the rich, exotic and ever-entertaining animal world with which we share the jungle, is also thriving and a source of great pleasure and pride to us. Nowhere else in Mexico exists anything like our community

​Reflecting on the different research projects supported by our community, it becomes apparent that this jungle is the raison d’etrefor these exciting endeavors.  Without our jungle, we would not have attracted the attention of the National Geographic SocietyThe Nature Conservancythe University of Vera Cruzor the Max Planck Institute. And the recognition of our community as an opportune place for serious research is just beginning.

Yet our jungle, while it is a familiar neighbor and a valuable asset, it is also a hostile and potentially perilous place, full of mystery and hidden danger.  To the unaccompanied and ill-equipped, it can even be life-threatening.

In past years, some unduly adventurous community members, throwing caution and common sense to the wind and venturing out alone and ill-equipped, were found lost, dehydrated, frightened and utterly exhausted.  Los Arboles is the real thing, not a jungle community theme park.   

To learn more about the surrounding jungle and gain a first-hand impression of the world hidden behind the seemingly impenetrable, dense wall of shrubs that borders our roads, we askedDr. Denise Spaanand Cecilia Cahum Cahum, our biologist and animal surveyor, to take Laura Kelleyand Thomas Bayer, owners of Casa de las Monas (A19), along on one of their daily treks from the southern perimeter of LAT to its northern boundary.  

Some years back, Laura and Thomas had done a two-months-long photo safari on their ownfrom the bottom of South Africa all the way to Tanzania, passing through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi in a rented Landrover, a tent and a cast-iron cook pot. This experience, we reasoned, should have given them the ‘street cred’ to volunteer for the task.  The rest of us had more sense.

Here is their report:      

Denise and Cecilia met us on Calle Mariposa at 7 am sharp. The cool morning temperatures made the heavy moisture in the air palpably thick, and our clothes already stuck to our skin. “Cool-warm” we call this in New Orleans when 100% humidity mixes with cool temperatures and you are sweat-drenched in low-70ies. The early light of the summer sun had begun to penetrate the foliage above the road, painting angular streaks cutting through the slowly dissipating morning mist. It was quite noisy.  Screeches, honks, hoots, whistles, knocks and other noises impossible to describe, all seemed to greet the rising sun with an arrhythmic and dissonant post-modern orchestration.

Our guides were, of course, well equipped: solid hiking boots, long cargo pants, long-sleeve shirts, hats, snake guards, cameras, binoculars, flashlights and knives, plenty of water and hand-held radios.  So were we. But they had an edge. They were about 1/3rd of our age.  

A jungle walk is physically challenging and hazardous.  Yet, despite the many dangers, with the right preparation, a hike through such raw and untamed nature is not only healthy exercise, but also a sensual kaleidoscope that resonates deeply on an emotional level.

The new growth separating the gravel roads from the jungle interior was particularly dense due to its live-giving exposure to sunlight and rain.  Full of prickly shrubbery, it formed an almost impassable wall, thick with fresh foliage and sharp shoots.  A dense web of low-slung, foot-trapping vines covering treacherously sharp rocks cast aside by road crews a decade ago added further peril to passing through this protective hedge.  It was impossible to see past it.  With halting steps, we penetrated a nearly impermeable, living and hostile curtain into the unknown.

Suddenly and irresistibly, with one last step, we were engulfed in another world. Our eyes slowly adjusted from the brightness of the morning sun to the filtered and soothing light of the forest.  Despite the air damp and leaves dripping with dew, it was refreshingly cool.  Unlike on the road, here it seemed strangely still.  Yet there was a constant noise: singing, shrieking, whistling, squealing, chirping, humming, cawing, croaking, buzzing, creaking, whooshing:  a cacophony of sounds that, somehow combined, produced silence.

This overpowering onslaught on our senses still forms the most vivid memory of the unforgettable experience of accompanying our scientists on one of their survey treks through the Los Arboles jungle – an extraordinary and thrilling encounter with nature unspoiled by human trespassing.  

Does it have something to do with Jungian archetypes and millions of years of bi-pedal mammals foraging under jungle canopies? Or, maybe, is it a Romantic sense of awe before this magnificent spectacle?  Or possibly the voluptuous abundance so shamelessly displayed?  Whatever it is, the jungle is therapeutic, calming to the mind and seductive to the senses.  Like an ancient Gothic cathedral with its bundled columns and stained-glass filtered, sacred, light, la selva is a spiritually powerful place.

Our team carried no machetes, the indispensable tool of the jungle explorer.  Instead of hacking through the tough fibrous vines and thorny shrubs that trap feet, tear up shoes and clothing, great care was taken to leave no trace of human disturbance. No path was cut.  Instead of progressing in a straight line, we navigated around treacherously disguised holes in the bedrock, fallen trees, dead, broken-off branches, twisted lianas, some as thick as a forearm, all while dodging countless spider webs, woven with breathtaking delicacy and astonishing skill.  Soon, we had lost our orientation.

The topography, unexpectedly, was one of peaks, valleys, ravines, ridges, holes and, sometimes, suddenly, large mouths of unexplored caverns that lead to the vast underground river systems below us.  These caves with their adjacent cenotes have been sacred dwelling places for the spirits of the indigenous Maya population since time immemorial; they still held in reverence today.  

Beyond the thorny and thickly grown shrub barricade, the dense foliage high above limited the sunlight and modified the growth on the ground.  Visibility opened up.  Massive, ancient zapotes, forever marked by v-shaped cuts made long ago to extract their precious sap marked our progress.  Huge fan palms occasionally managed to find enough sunlight to grow.  Shrubs of different types were everywhere, and everything fought for a share of the life-giving light. Snake-like vines and tree orchids were ubiquitous.  Dead trees of varying sizes and states of decomposition lounged around haphazardly in sculptural contortions, host to myriad creatures and untold plant growth.  Gigantic termite nests precariously clung to massive branches high above like malignant growths.  Chechen trees with their flesh-burning sap conveniently grew next to their only antidote, the light- brown, scaly Chakah. Huge weaver spiders hurriedly scattered for safety at the slightest disturbance of their massive webs – unless the motion was caused by a trapped insect.  The spiders would knew.

Look, but don’t touch, was the best policy.

Countless leaves decayed over millennia provided a thin layer of topsoil through which everywhere the living rock penetrated.  The dead leaves gave the illusion of a level ground.  Yet, underneath the thin layer of soil and decomposing leaves, lie jagged, razor-sharp rocks, from gigantic boulders to tennis ball size lumps, with countless holes, large and small, through which the rainwater flows to the enormous, inter-connected, underground river and cave systems – possibly the largest in the world – that run beneath the Yucatan peninsula and our land. 

Everywhere, there was life, too numerous to take it all in. Deer and jabali watched us cautiously from behind dense shrubbery;  monkeys noisily cavorted high up in the trees, coati families playfully tumbled around, unconcerned with our presence; iridescently feathered wild turkeys pecked away; a fox chased a lizards; giant beetles scurried on top of leaves and even larger caterpillars were marching on the underside; a leaf-cutting ant colony large enough to swallow an entire home; innumerable insects fluttered and buzzed about in the air; a deadly cuatro narices slithered for cover; giant ants and termites scampered around the trees’ massive, coiling roots; 6 inch-long millipedes rushed hurriedly; motionless frogs and toads blended into the ground; a bright green skinny snake suddenly leaped through the air as if propelled; bugs and grubs busily scuttled on top of fallen leaves on the ground, in between and underneath them; and unknown creatures inhabited the soil itself and the millions and millions of holes that made up the lime stone subsurface.  Creatures were busy procreating and eating other creatures, soon to become food themselves. The jungle laid bare the merciless evolution of our planet.

Sweat-drenched, foot-sore, scratched up and on an exuberant endorphin high, we emerged some 4 hours later at the very northern end of Los Arboles.  We sat down a moment on the low mamposteria to adjust to the bright sunlight and mid-day heat, back to the reality of gravel roads and a world shaped by humans.  

We thanked Cecilia and Denise for having guided us expertly through the wonders of our jungle and shared their copious knowledge. On the walk back on Via Ramon to our house, we distracted an eagle perched in his strategically located nest, preying on whatever nutritious creatures that might foolishly try to cross the gravel street below him.  Hunting for food had become easier for this bird. Cleared roads provide an unobstructed view of the ground, and our magnificent eagle had constructed his nest, quite calculatingly, high up on a tall tree overlooking the road below.  The human foot print made its mark.      

For most of the walk back, we were silent, lost in the reflection of our experience.  We both recognized that a profound change had occurred in our perception of the community in which we had built our home.  Buying our 5-acre piece of jungle off the Coba road at a bargain price comes with a responsibility: the stewardship of something very precious– a piece of untouched nature within which life exists in raw harmony. 

Since then, we haven’t intruded upon the jungle, and we resist its enthralling spell. Instead, we have taken to sitting on our veranda for hours at a time, quietly watching life unfolding tirelessly and constantly around us.  We all are creatures of habits, and daily events in the jungle happen on a schedule – except when they don’t, and the outcome is usually fatal.  We now recognize the creatures that interact with us and who seek, like we do, a way to live together.  They are our neighbors. We have visited their place. 

If we just leave them be and protect them from the hustle and bustle of the modern world, we, too, can tune in and become part of nature’s eternal symphony. 

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