Finishing Our First Week in Yucatan

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Today is Wednesday and we are celebrating the end of our first week in Yucatan (two more weeks to go). We’ve managed to see and do a lot in our first week: reconnecting with old friends (first time meeting for Shawn), plenty of good food and drink and of course some of the local sights. Temperatures remain HOT: it’s currently 10:30 a.m. and 87°F with 73% humidity which translates to a Heat Index of 99°F.

It’s supposed to reach a high today of 95°F and if the humidity remained the same (which it won’t because it usually drops a bit in the afternoon) the Heat Index would be 126°F. Monday, when we were in the forest of Kaxil Kiuic, we had a nice thunderstorm that cooled things off temporarily and again last night (early in the evening) we had another thunderstorm of short duration.

So, back to Monday, my good friend of five years, James Callaghan (Director of the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve) picked us up from our hotel at 7:00 a.m. to transport us to the reserve along with Ricardo the reserve’s resident naturalist. It was payday for the workers so James kindly invited us along so Shawn could see the reserve and experience the authentic Yucatan. It is technically dry tropical forest (an oxymoron?) but in fact is almost impenetrable jungle (my description not actual scientific fact).

James Callaghan – Director, Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve

It’s a two-hour drive (each way) from Merida and James often makes the trip multiple times a week depending on what’s going on and what needs to be done. He’s an amazing guy (Masters Degree in Archeology) and has been running the reserve for over twenty years. He’s married to Ruby (a local woman and fluent English speaker) and he himself has lived in Yucatan most of his adult life (originally from San Diego, CA like me). Obviously he’s a fluent Spanish speaker himself but readily admits to not having mastered the local Mayan dialect (which is just impossible).

Shawn A. Dennstedt Surveying the Forest

Kaxil Kiuic is also home to Puuc Jaguar Conservation headed up by Markus Tellkamp, PhD (another really good friend). I first met Markus about five years ago when we spent a week installing remote cameras in the Puuc forest to track transit Jaguars. The project continues with the cameras having gone through a few iterations to combat the ever-present humidity (some with better luck than others). James told me the cameras were brought back in from the field in May and captured at least one Jaguar (possibly a pregnant female). They often capture Pumas and Ocelots too along with other forest critters.

Evelio’s Traditional Maya Home

Upon arrival at the reserve James escorted us to the hilltop observation tower that rises some 15½ metres (50+ feet) above the landscape. The height of the tower coupled with the hilltop elevation allows for an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding forest canopy, some 450 acres of pristine wilderness with its indigenous wildlife and botanical splendour. When I lived in Merida (2012 to 2014) I spent many glorious days and weeks at the reserve photographing to my heart’s content. Unfortunately, most of those photos have been lost to several computer crashes along the way.

Shawn A. Dennstedt

After Shawn and I spent some time at the tower we hiked over to one of the reserve’s local ruins in situ. These local ruins of the Maya have been reliably dated to somewhere around 800 AD (making them over 2,200 years old). The reserve is a scientific research outpost and is not open to the public. When archaeological excavations take place everything is returned to its original condition, so these ruins look very much like they appeared to the early 19th century Yucatan explorers. I wish that I could share some photos with you but for some reason photos of these particular ruins are considered politically sensitive (again they’re for scientific research and not tourism).

Local Butterfly

I must admit that age (I turned 70 this past May) is finally taking its toll. Between the climb to the hilltop observation tower and the hike over to the ruins in the extreme heat and humidity I was thrashed. Even consuming 2-litres of water didn’t stave off the inevitable dehydration and fatigue. When we finally returned to the central compound I crashed on the cool cement floor (and promptly fell asleep) for an hour to recover my strength. Age is a cruel taskmaster but I continue to persevere albeit at a much slower pace.

Large Abandoned Wasp (or Hornet’s) Nest Found in the Ruins

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent with James and Ricardo running errands in various local Maya communities. Along the way we experienced the glorious thunderstorm that temporarily cooled things down a bit. The term biocultural plays a large role in the reserve’s designation: Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve. An underpinning of the reserve’s philosophy is that you can’t ask the local indigenous community to give up things (like farmland to protect the forests) without giving them something in return—it has to be a win-win situation. Ask the locals to give up subsistence hunting and poaching (for food and profit) and you must offer something in return.

James Standing in Front of Some of the Reserve’s Outlying Structures

A good example of this philosophy occurred while we were visiting: two young men came onto the reserve with a captured 5-foot Boa Constrictor that had just consumed a large rooster. They wanted money for the snake but when James and Ricardo explained they couldn’t buy or traffic in wildlife they accepted two hundred seedlings in exchange. They could either plant the seedlings for themselves or sell them for a profit. This might seem like a small thing (a fine line as it were) to the uneducated but it’s important that locals aren’t encouraged to traffic in indigenous wildlife to extort money.

Shawn A. Dennstedt

James and his crew (primarily Evelio and his sons) have created an extensive seed bank and nursery to introduce native plants back into the forest. They’ve been very successful and have donated back over 300,000 plants to local families. The reserve’s philosophy is multifaceted and comprehensive and thankfully ongoing. I may not have all of my facts and figures correct (and for that I apologise) because I wasn’t taking notes—these observations are all from memory. And as mentioned before my memory might have been impaired with the extreme heat and humidity. Getting old is a tough gig and my recommendation is not to do it if you can help it.

Note: This will probably be my last visit to Kaxil Kiuic (and Yucatan) because once I return to the States brother Joel and I are off to continue our world trek while we still can. I will have many fond memories of Merida, the Yucatan and especially the reserve. I spent many an hour sitting with Evelio in front of his house photographing Toucans and other sundry birds and Kinkajous that wandered into his yard every evening at sundown. I don’t speak Mayan and my Spanish is atrocious but somehow we seemed to communicate. Many thanks to James Callaghan and Markus Tellkamp for their friendship and hospitality over the years—they will never be forgotten. And thank you for giving my son the chance to experience the place that has given me so much pleasure over the years. James told me that Evelio heard a Jaguar vocalising a few nights ago—the Jaguar still survives as the apex predator of  Yucatan. May it always be so. SFD

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