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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
After well over six hours, legs complaining, we finally dropped down into Campamento El Triunfo, a grassy bowl in the mountains. The original Gálvez house is now the dining room and kitchen, where more Gálvez family members, Blanca and Chepi, produced great meals, coffee, and fruit juice. The bunkhouse looks like a Mexican village school, every part of which has been brought up here by mule. There is solar electricity, showers that work, and more comfort than I had ever expected. Temperatures had fallen as we climbed, and it gets cool in the Campamento at night. The climate feels as delicately distinctive as the vegetation: cool shade-patches lick around you, and the first morning sun has a featherlike softness. At dawn, clouds hang around the valley flanks.
For the next three days we explored the Campamento and the trails leading out of it. On the first day three of us and a local guide, Rafael, made the sometimes semi-vertical hike up to the highest peak in the central sierra, the 2,450-metre Cerro El Triunfo that gave the reserve its name. This was our first real immersion into the sheer variety of life in this place: each massive 80-meter tree was the hub of its own ecosystem, entangled in air-breathing bromeliads, orchids, creepers, roots, and fungus. Star bird of the day was a blue-crowned chlorophonia, in green, yellow and blue. We emerged at the top of the Cerro into a clearing, to see a whole vast world laid out below us.
On one walk we almost stumbled into a tapir, drinking placidly from a stream. The calls of the elusive quetzal—a fast, chatty cluck—were heard frequently, and Paulina saw her first wild one on the first morning at the camp. The next day, I was amazed to see one myself. Quetzals were legendary birds in Mesoamerican mythology, symbols of divine powers. Properly named the resplendent quetzal (since there are five other quetzals, most found much further south), the Mexican quetzal has an iridescent green-and-red body and a green tail that’s over four times as long, so that when it flies off you see it as a brilliant streak of luminous color darting across the trees.
Birders can seem obsessive but for a non-birder there are great benefits from travelling with them. Birders accumulate an enormous knowledge of the natural world, which they’re generally happy to share, enabling the uninitiated to notice things that would otherwise be just a pretty blur. Birds provide one door into an environment that’s so rich with extraordinary unfamiliar things that otherwise, as Oscar said, ‘you often just don’t know where to look’. You could just as easily focus on the more than 150 kinds of bromeliad, the 2,000-plus orchids, the trees, frogs, or the astonishing variety of ferns, from an inch long to giant arching canopies above your head.
What goes up must come down, and getting down off the mountain was harder than getting up, requiring two days of seven-hour-plus hikes. Jorge and Amy forced the pace a little to make sure we got there. The Coast Path began with another climb, up to the Continental Divide at 2,200 metres, beyond which there was a fabulous view down towards the Pacific. From there we descended rapidly, through the first of many, many precipitous zigzags. Forest paths are permanently carpeted with dead leaves, which on the one hand provides some cushion when you do fall over, but on the other conceals ankle-twisting loose stones.
After about two hours we entered much drier tropical forest and our surroundings changed astonishingly quickly, with a new scent of pines, more dust, and what felt like an immediate major temperature increase. We spent the night, after dropping down over 800 meters, in dense dry scrub forest at a basic campsite called Limonar.
Completing the Journey to the Pacific
The next day was hotter again, and brought the steepest, most treacherous descents of the whole trail. Staying upright involved constant bets on foot- and walking stick-placement and a fast-diminishing sense of balance. In mid-afternoon, almost at journey’s end, Amy announced “it’s going to rain.” This seemed impossible, but sure enough within a few minutes we were in a full-on tropical downpour. Some of us started to run, but I knew this would only get me laid out in the leaves, so I went on as fast as I could and got utterly soaked. After a while, dripping under the tin roof of an old ranch called Paval, we carried on to find a truck waiting to meet us, with a freezer box of water and energy drinks. I drank two bottles down straight. I had not realized I was running on empty.
For the last day we transferred to a completely different environment at El Castaño in the Encrucijada reserve, a waterworld of coastal mangroves explored by paddle-power. After a late lunch we finally split up. The main group headed back to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, but since, to my mind at least, we’d walked across the spine of a continent, I felt it more fitting to take a bus to finish up on the Pacific in Mexico’s southernmost city, Tapachula.
The empty space had been filled with vivid images. Before writing this piece I asked Claudia Vírgen whether Ecobiósfera and El Triunfo actually want any publicity—even birders generally only hear about it through word of mouth—in case their stubbornly low profile reflected a deliberate non-marketing strategy. But yes, she said, for El Triunfo needs to be more treasured. Climate change has severely affected it, mining concessions are appearing in parts of the Sierra Madre, Mexico’s environmental protection laws are under threat. “We have to show what we have, how important it is,” she said, “the more people know what there is there, the more they’ll raise their voices to preserve it.”
London-based Nick Rider was the author of the Cadogan guide to Yucatán & Mayan Mexico and original editor of Time Out’s Madrid and Barcelona guides. He has contributed to many guidebooks for different publishers on Mexico, Spain, France and other countries. He’s also written for the London Independent and a range of magazines His writing and blog can be found at www.nick-rider.com. All photos by the author.
For information on Ecobiósfera contact cvirgen ( at) ecobiosfera.org.mx.
My Chiapas Misadventure by Tim Leffel
Chasing Butterflies Through Time by Luke Maguire Armstrong
Tourism as a Force for Change in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere by Tim Leffel
Yellowstone by Air in the Freezing Winter by Garrett Fisher
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