Into a Lost World: El Triunfo, Chiapas — Page 2
By Nick Rider

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.

Fanning Out From an Isolated Base

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.

Cerro el Triunfo

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.

Fern canopy Chiapas

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.

Hiking Triunfo trail

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.

Tiger Heron

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 All photos by the author.

For information on Ecobiósfera contact cvirgen ( at)

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Related Features:
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

See other Mexico travel stories from the archives

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