Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

Critters and Friends – Feb 2006

This winter, the nights in Mexico have been cold, the coldest season since the last short cold snap of 1998. Meanwhile Canada has had the warmest winter on record. Every morning Radio Romántico tells the grim death-by-cold statistics. It’s hard for us northerners to imagine that you can tan daily with highs around 30 C -86 F during the day but the nights can plummet to around 15 Celsius – 20 (61 – 68 Fahrenheit) on the coast, an unbearable contrast. I live in a palm-thatch roofed house,open to all the breezes, and the socks, fleece jackets and down quilt replace the bikini nightly. Even fluffy Miette, the cat, with her winter fur has crawled under the covers. Not what one expects at all in the subtropics.

One friend, Ana, tried a novel approach to home heating. She put rocks heated in an open fire, wrapped in a towel into bed and enjoyed a warm night. The next time she was lucky to have escaped her burning bed as her partner dragged her out, and all the bedding and mattress as well, to save the palapa. In the process she tanned her feet a very dark brown that didn’t wash off. Don’t try this at home!!

I’ve had a  great time observing animals. In the hot humid months of October and November, the new streetlight posts nearest the jungle edge were densely interwoven into literally hundreds of spider webs. These are not your average apartment sized spiders either!  Many are easily the size of a respectable thumb. Their webs were the thickest and most prolific in the hot humid months. One building that spanned two street lights was a massive cloak of webs, difficult to describe and photograph. Not uncommonly I have walked into an almost inpenetrable web. There’s a kids Spanish song: “un elefante, se columpiaban, sobre una tela de araña. Como veía, que resistía, fue a llamar otro elefante” – an elephant swinging on a spider web, saw that the web resisted his weight, so he went and called another elephant, and another, and another….

My house has been plagued with raccoons. You’re probably aware of their incredible agility and cleverness. I was impressed when they learned to open the stove door where my dry goods were stored. Of course, I had to prop a chair weighted with my heaviest books, and tied a rope from oven door to the kitchen bamboo windows. Their response to this obstacle was to take apart the elements on the top of the stove, and turn on the gas! No other dry storage was available, so I loaded my Bran Flakes, flour, pasta and cat food into the fridge. You guessed it; it took about a week of prodding with their very human hands for the little rascals to open the fridge and eat ALL the cat food and make a mess. That left me no choice but to tie up the fridge. Not good enough! They stripped out the rubber seal and reached inside for anything available.

My landlord was willing to shoot the rascals, but I had seen too many Walt Disney movies, and had raised too many young raccoons in the Zoo to want to resort to that strategy quickly. I spoke with an American who I heard had live traps. I planned to catch my villains and move them to the next town. The traps weren’t big enough. He had likewise tied down his fridge with bungee cords, but finally resorted to shooting one. But that wasn’t the end. The final count was 11 raccoons. He was raccoon free – for a year, and now a new population has moved in. It was definitely not worth decimating the population of an entire hillside, I concluded.


I now keep the cat food in containers that don’t transmit odours, IN the bottom of the fridge, keep any possible food stuff or compost stored away safely (also IN the roped fridge), and leave a nightly offering of compost outside. And with ear plugs to shut out their nightly debauchery in and out of the kitchen, I am happy to report a peaceable armistice.

One evening in October while cooking at the stove, I wondered if I’d see my friendly, funny little “horron” again who used to live under the stove the previous April. This is a black and white striped weasel, very skunk-like in appearance but smaller, and not stinky. Since he appeared harmless and seemed to co-habit well with the cats, I enjoyed his foraging and visits. Well, as I cooked and thought, I felt something brush against my feet, and sure enough, one very small horron walked right over my feet and dashed under the stove. I almost thought I’d imagined it, it was too coincidental, and there were no repeat appearances for months. On a January night time visit to the bathroom, with Miette, the cat, for company, I saw her staring into the shower stall. I’m always on the lookout for scorpions. I spotted a large spider and when I checked with my foot if it was dead, an “horron” dashed from behind the curtains and squeezed it’s kitten sized frame through an impossibly small hole under the storeroom door. It had been foraging for insects and was clearly not my imagination this time.

Very closely related to the raccoon is the coatamundi, in Spanish a “tejon” (tay-hon). They’re generally larger, have a much longer tail and a much longer nose. They’re more aggressive, if threatened, and there are many scarred and dead dogs to prove it. They’re abundant here, but not often in the same habitat as the raccoon. They work it out.

The sunny southern slope of Yelapa’s valley seems thick with them. My friend, Larry, who stayed at the Hotel Lagunita last winter reported that he thought he was robbed. His money belt with passports, money and travellers cheques, other valuables, was missing overnight. Before sounding the alarm, they looked outside around their room. There it was in the underbrush, and the documents and money surrounding it. The only thing missing was the granola bar they unknowingly had stashed there. These bandits were specialized!

I hadn’t had the pleasure to see any tejones for perhaps 10 years and those were far upriver. One afternoon while on a birding trip with students Keeyla and David from San Francisco, I spotted one in the tree upriver 10 minutes near Cuca and Galdino’s farm. I rushed over with my camera as it started to descend the tree. Cuca is a lovely and lively woman who has raised 9 kids,and many grandchildren. Her farm along the river is like a compressed Old MacDonald’s farm with every domestic animal imaginable around the house, and often, in it. She loves to sit along the river washing clothes with her daughters-in-law and there she was, watching me and the tejon. She laughed and approached the tree, calling it with clucking noises. It’s her pet tejon that someone had brought as a little pup. It lives free to roam and often comes back for the treats she offers. Keeyla felt brave enough, with Cuca’s urging, to offer it an almond on a leaf, as Cuca had done without problem. Keeyla got a little nip from the enthusiastic tejon, while I got some great photos. We greatly appreciate Cuca’s love of animals.

Another mammal that’s not so unique to us Northerners is the squirrel, but the one here people keep mistaking for a monkey due to its size. At least two to three times larger than our red squirrel, this gray one is so formidable that my cat doesn’t give it a passing glance. It even taunts her by coming into the palapa roof and racing through the house, hanging upside down along the crown. The one in my yard enjoys Aqua de Coco (coco milk). An adult human with a sharp machete uses several vicious blows to open the head of a coconut. I’ve listened to squirrels scraping with its teeth through an almost inpenetrable husk for 3 days or more to reap its rewards – Piña colada a la natural!

As you can imagine, the butterflies here are fantastic. I haven’t begun to study them. On my birding trip with Keeyla and David, we headed upriver to visit Gail, the long-term resident entomologist, very well informed on butterflies. Keeyla feels her animal spirit guide is a butterfly, so it was a mission of the soul. Gail keeps an impressive exhibit of mounted specimens under glass in a proper display cabinet. How she got it 30 minutes upriver is, I’m sure, a long story. After tea and a chat, Keeyla left with a purchase of 3 butterflies displayed in a wood frame, one of which I had photographed in October and entered in my last journal entry. Prepona, a brilliant deep blue underside and a startling iridescent light blue above. Another is the Morpho polyphemos, named by the locals “servilleta” since it is huge and white and looks like a flying paper serviette! .

Keeyla had received a healing treatment earlier that day from a Huichol native, Alejandro, who sells his family’s art in Yelapa, to help remove the heaviness in her heart – a depression she felt due to the effect of living under the unique form of democracy offered by the Bush regime in the United States. Perhaps it was her recently gained light heartedness, or simply her loving heart, but she gave me the cherished butterfly display. Gail’s displays of butterflies accompanies her displays of scorpions and other arachnids, and she has gripping stories of wildife encounters after 22 years here.

Now snakes invariably come up in conversations when visiting the tropics. There are snakes here. I almost never see them. The things you fear present themselves, and I’m mostly oblivious to them as my head is in the trees watching birds. They feel the same about me. I hear other people’s report of deadly Coral snakes, green venomous vipers, even a patterned snake about 4 inch in diameter and longer than a meter made it’s way across my yard last year without us making acquaintance. The one I did witness alive was already in a bag.

Julie from Alaska was studying Spanish, but as a biologist working in the national parks of Alaska, and a traveler, was truly more interested in talk about animals, birds and the environment. I’m a biologist and I knew she’d rather see the “snake in a bag” that was hanging from a tree below my school on the public path than study that hour. It was abour 4″ in diameter, a golden tan color with dark patterns on the back. Someone had found it in their kitchen, and knowing it was only a boa, picked it up behind the head and packed it in a mesh onion bag. It brought back my early career at the Calgary Zoo. I was shown how to handle a boa to take it to schools to talk to the children. As they draped it on my shoulders, my hands supporting each end of it, its strong muscles  hugged by neck, and …. I almost passed out. I was taken off the boa exhibit, thankfully.

My landlady, Irma, told us when she worked at the hotel kitchen as a girl 40 years ago, she refused to go into the storeroom since they kept this snake species there to eat the rats. If I could just train one for the racoons! Boas constrict or squeeze the breath out of an animal, so it can’t fill its lungs again, and then swallow their prey whole – chickens and the like. I’ve heard more than a few cat rescue/ cat fatality stories to want one in my community. This bagged snake in the tree was released somewhere away from the village.

This January I was priviledged to teach a host of old Canadian friends and made some new friends. Some of these bonds were cemented at Federal election “party” over many margaritas. One day, we headed upriver about an hour away to play in the pools and to catch the river shrimp “camarones” which really are a crayfish. They reside in deep pools and the only way to get them is to lie in the water, or bend over and stretch your arms, and corner them under the rocks. They almost always escape. They’re very fast, and they startle you by jumping in your bathing suit top or bottom, find your ticklish spots or just surprise you by their sudden movements. There’s lots of shouting and jumping, both you and the crayfish – until you finally catch one.

The most impressive gatherer/harvester is Cuca, who stands among the aquatic plants, always dressed in a dress, laughing while catching several in one attempt with her nimble fingers, to the embarassment of the many men and boys in the family group clad in masks, carrying contrived harpoons and other kitchen-fashioned weapons, but with empty buckets. If you’d like to learn her skills, and collect your own supper, we can arrange a trip with her. Manuel, her brother, sets traps and catches the big ones that are on the menu of a few restaurants on the beach as “langostinas” (little lobsters).

Last trip with dumb luck I managed to catch a few. My French friend, Fabrice, fried them up and satisfactorily declared that they met the standards of his refined French palate.

The jungle has been alive with birds in the last few weeks, more so than in a typical winter. I’ve sat for a half hour on my patio (an especially great treed hillside, open sunny glade birding habitat) and had numerous first sightings, and several species crowded in each tree! It has inspired me to offer the obvious class – Birding in Spanish, all contents related to birds, and an hour of exclusive bird watching off the patio daily (See “Courses” under ).

On one of my last walks upriver for shrimp, we also had some great views of flocks of military macaws at eye level. A rare treat, since they usually fly squawking very loudly, at very high altitudes. I was showing Mardel and Sandy one day the reason they gather down by the waterfalls during the late afternoon. The Abia tree grows a green fleshy fruit, segmented much like an orange. The macaws feast on this fruit. When the fruit dries in early April, the dried segments which are quite hard, torque or twist just slightly. When all the segments have dried and twisted, the entire hard dried fruit explodes with an alarming gun-shot like report, and the crescent-shaped segments scatter over a large area releasing the single hard seed within.

Another birding expedition involved a trip to the Marietas Islands. They’re about 45 min boat trip away, and often humpbacked whales, sea turtles and manta rays are seen along the way. The island is a sanctuary created to protect the rare Blue-footed Booby and other island nesters. Darwin first brought them to fame in his studies in the Galapagos Islands, where they number around 20,000 today. The estimates for the rest of their isolated arid island habitat north to California is only 20,000 birds.

The three Marietas Islands jut about 40 meters (130 feet) above sea level. In addition to offering the birds feeding vantage points and roosting and nesting habitat, they provide us a fine sand beach, crystal clear waters and many large caves to explore on top.

We were lucky to have Fabrice, a geologist, explain their origins. The islands were created by sediments being deposited in an ancient shallow sea. They later faulted or cracked by internal pressures numerous times. Water seeping through the cracks dissolved the lime and formed huge underground caverns. After exploring the above ground ones, some were brave enough to swim into a cave (Playa del Amor – Lovers Beach), open to the skies (a “cenote” commonly seen in the Yucatan).

The boobies were nesting when we arrived, and we were careful to avoid any close approaches. These birds are named boobies, after the Spanish “bobo” which means stupid fellow, possibly due to their clumsiness on land, or the fact they exhibit little to no fear and will stick tightly to their nests. They are expert fishers, though, and are reported to be so agile as to catch a flying fish on the fly! The booby’s feet are really bright blue – a big plus during courtship when the male exhibits his feet in a high stepping strut to the female, among other displays. One of our team, Brian, showed off his want-to-be-booby feet, too!

We arrived in late January to see only 6 nests between the beach area and the furthest large cave, where in 1998 there were hundreds. Some young tourists, camping illegally, set the whole island ablaze, including all the booby young. The eggs take up to 45 days to hatch, and then the female balances the young on top of her feet for a month. Those blue feet are hot, despite their ice blue appearance. Both parents feed the chicks through regurgitation of fish for about two months. The species is threatened by other birds, human disturbance and starvation. We saw three bird skeletons that weren’t there a week earlier. Our Captain, Gellin, pointed out the Frigate birds circling above the islands that are notorious pirates of any fish catch.

Speaking of catches, a day on the Marietas is not complete without a “ceviche” or fish marinated 20 minutes in lemon juice, caught by Gellin. Kenn from Saltspring Island showed the benefits of living on the coast by bringing home a “big one” too! Lore brought sea shells for show and tell to Ann Marie, our youngest adventurer. After an exhilerating day, Gellin drove us home, while Brian scouted and played “panga (native word for boat) boy” at the helm, and Ann Marie slept the sleep of the innocent.


It’s not ALL play here at YESI but we do try hard! A bunch of Canadians together for a national election party on the 23rd ofJanuary couldn’t have proven that point more, as we shouted “Viva Canada” at all the wrong moments, like as the Conservatives snuck ahead (the poster Elect Bush, Vote Harper was posted mysteriously on my  bulletin board). We had celebrated the traditonal Yelapa way, with many well-made (I made ’em) Margaritas, and no result short of a full environmental platform would have made one biologist and one former Green party candidate totally happy. The Green member is a total optimist and you have to be these days.  ¡Viva la Revolucion Verde!


Come join the revolution celebration next November!

Photos Gallery Critters and Friends

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