Into a Lost World: El Triunfo, Chiapas
Story and photos by Nick Rider

An itch to fill an unknown space on the map leads via a long mountain trek to a cloud forest fastness of amazing riches in the wildest part of Mexico.

Triunfo scenery

Holes in the map are what used to inspire people to travel. They saw blank spaces and set out to find what was there, the sheer unknown-ness an irresistible draw. Nowadays, surely, there can’t be any such holes left, can there?

Against all odds, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, the great blade of mountain that separates most of Mexico’s southernmost state from its Pacific coast, has remarkably stayed one such space on the map. Main roads go around it, to the north and south. No road crosses it. Mexican maps show only a few dead-end tracks; almighty Google Maps even less. No pre-Hispanic peoples ever settled there—though Maya and Aztec hunting parties did venture uphill in search of the tail feathers of the rare, magical quetzal bird, much prized for the headdresses of kings.

When I wrote a guidebook to southern Mexico I traveled regularly around Chiapas, but the Sierra Madre remained a tantalizingly empty space. I knew that the central area, known as El Triunfo, had been a Mexican Federal Biosphere Reserve since 1990, but I never met anyone who’d been there. I did discover that there was just one small organization in Chiapas’ state capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Ecobiósfera, authorized to take visitors into the reserve, which took minimal numbers on tough ten-day hikes, going up on the north flank and coming down on the Pacific side. Unfortunately I was never able to fit this into my tight guidebook-writer schedule.

El Triunfo seemed to be the least-known protected area in Mexico. Even today there’s scarcely anything about it online. This only made the fascination grow in my head.

Pulled in by the (Almost) Lost World

I couldn’t put it off forever. I have a bad hip, which gets worse, so it felt this might be a now-or-never moment. I looked out an old email address, and found Ecobiósfera was still there, as small-scale as ever, and still offering trips. I also found out that while El Triunfo has remained a blank for most travelers, it is known to one specific interest group – birders. They’ve tended to keep it to themselves, but recently Ecobiósfera has made it easier for independent travelers to join groups too, so I signed up for one heading out in early March.

Holes in the map have never been as total as they seemed, of course. In modern times the sole foot trail up and over the sierra was “discovered,” as Claudia Vírgen, director of Ecobiósfera, explained to me, in the 1890s by the German owners of a remote coffee plantation on the north side of the mountains. Finca Prusia (Prussia). They found this was the only way they could get their crop to market, in long mule trains that emerged near the Pacific at Mapastepec.

Horned guan

In the 1940s the pioneer naturalist of Chiapas Miguel Álvarez del Toro followed this same trail. He was searching for the pavón or horned guan, a turkey-like forest bird thought to be extinct. He discovered not only that the guan were still fully alive but that the near-absence of human incursions had allowed the survival of a huge area of untouched primary cloud forest. He found a stunning natural wonderland with quetzals – the only substantial population left in Mexico – 400 other bird species, astonishing orchids, and rare, bizarre trees. It was due to his efforts that the first protection measures for El Triunfo were passed in 1972, leading to the establishment of the reserve 18 years later.

In the meantime, a local family called Gálvez had also made their way up the trail, and built a small rancho in a clearing—the only settlement of any kind in the central sierra. They moved out when the reserve was created, but several of the family later returned to work at El Triunfo, and Enelfo Gálvez, born in the rancho’s kitchen, is now chief warden. Their ranch formed the basis of the Campamento El Triunfo where visitors now stay.

Camp at Triunfo

Rolling Out With the Birders

On a Sunday afternoon our group met up in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Our guides were Jorge from Yucatán and Amy from Canada, both real experts with a radar-like ability to see, hear and identify birds and other natural phenomena. Of the nine in the group five were pretty committed birders, the rest of us had less set motivations. Paulina, a veterinarian from Querétaro, had made a study of quetzals in a zoo but never seen a wild one; Oscar, from Tampico via Los Angeles, was like me, attracted above all by the idea of seeing untouched wilderness.

We began by driving out from Tuxtla for four hours along a rolling, twisting road up to Jaltenango, a typical Mexican small town of square, market, microtaxis, a couple of hotels, and pretty much the end of the paved road heading south. Along the way we made our first stops to look for birds, and follow the soon-familiar birders’ routine of standing in silence craning our necks, looking for any color or fluttering in the trees. With each sighting the list of (to me) unfamiliar names multiplied: the groove-billed ani, gartered trogons, tropical mockingbirds…

Hiking Prusia Trail

The next day we were up at 5.30 to climb into a kind of cage on top of a rugged old truck that jolted and clanked for five hours to cover just 40 kilometers of rutted dirt track. Eventually, beyond the now decaying plantation house of Finca Prusia, we reached the start of the Prusia trail.

The early start was necessary to allow us to complete the trek in daylight. Our main packs were taken up separately by mule. I hadn’t known this when I signed up, and felt for a moment it might make things a little soft, but I rapidly realized that without this “luxury” we’d probably all have come to a dead stop after a couple of hours. Like all the Triunfo trails the Prusia is single-file virtually all the way, zigzagging, curving and dipping again with very few broader patches. Above about 1,800 meters we began to enter the true mountain cloud forest, a dazzling wall of green. After four hours we reached the highest point on the Prusia trail at 2,100 meters, and one of the densest parts of the forest.

I had thought of El Triunfo’s primeval forest as the main attraction by itself, and assumed that any sighting of its rarest and most endangered species would be unlikely, an icing on the cake, but this isn’t really so in El Triunfo. As soon as we entered the high forest Jorge pointed out the call of male horned guans, booming out like old ships’ foghorns, and on the slope down from the crest we saw a pair of them, their clumsy turkey bodies looking totally ill-suited to perching in high branches. A couple of days later I even got a reasonable picture of one, without the benefit of the birders’ super-zoom cameras.

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Read this article online at: Into a Lost World: El Triunfo, Chiapas

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