As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
      Mexican Proverb


México is the most populous Spanish-
speaking country in the world. According to the latest statistics, México's total population is over 99 million. Mestizos, of Indian and Spanish blood), make up 60% of the population, followed by indigenous peoples  (30%), whites (9%), and other ethnic minorities  (1%).

Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
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March 12, 2006

Another Name for Paradise
by Bob Brooke

As the sun set on Kolem Jaá, an ecological camp deep in the Tabascan jungle, the tropical forest took on a new feeling. A symphony began first with the delicate chirping of crickets, soon joined by the long, beee-surrrrr-ennnnnning of cigaras (tropical locusts). Eventually tree frogs, with their high-pitched ringing sound joined in, followed by the deep throated, bellow of bull frogs out for their evening meal. Drenched by rain while the rest of Mexico suffers from drought, the Tabascan jungle is like another world.

I began my adventure descending down a steep grassy hill to the pebbled banks of the Rio Oxolotan. There, I and my fellow travelers took turns boarding a small launch that brought us to a landing about 550 yards down on the other side of the river. The river, this late in the day, ran quiet but fast.

After reaching the landing, we ascended up a steep 45-degree incline through the jungle. By this time the sun had set and the darkness of the jungle enveloped us like a shroud. Huge plants surrounded us on all sides and strange sounds emanated from the darkness. By the time we reached Kolem Jaá’s tiny reception palapa, I felt hot, sweaty and oh so tired from the strenuous hike on an empty stomach.

Activities at Kolem Jaá
Luis Gomez, director of the camp, explained the available activities as we dined on a Spartan meal of a beef, tomatoes, onion and rice mix, washed down with cold mojata milk under the pale lights of the dining palapa. Of the several activities the camp offered, he seemed the most excited about the Canopy Tour, in which we would climb to a platform in the canopy of trees, get strapped into harnesses attached to a cable, and then swing from tree to tree through 11 platforms. Needless to say, I opted out of that activity then and there. Gomez made a point of saying that Kolem Jaá’s canopy tour was not only the longest but also the safest in Latin America. I held to my decision.

Another activity, the Commando Trail, sounded almost as intimidating. Besides swinging in the canopy, then repelling down a jungle waterfall, participants needed to cross air tubes in an enormous pond, go through several narrow passes, use a zip line with a 30-degree incline, and finally cross a special bridge called a paseo del soldado, which involved walking along a lone cable across a ravine. Though wires and nets were supposed to prevent any dangerous falls, this wasn’t my idea of fun.

Finally, Gomez told us about the mysterious Cave of the Blind Sardines. Now he got my attention. He said we’d have to climb down into a grotto in the cave, in which bacteria thrive on the sulfur that bubbles up from underground. He noted that the slime-covered the rocks in the cave can be slippery. So I tentatively opted to visit the cave.

A Jungle Ecological Center
In spite of Gomez’s emphasis on these adventure-type activities, Kolem Jaá is actually a privately funded ecological center designed to restore some of the Tabascan jungle, 95 percent of which has disappeared. The camp’s owner formerly operated a cattle ranch on the property, but the government persuaded him that growing hardwood trees on the same acreage that supported his cattle could be much more profitable, and that he could harvest decorative plants to sell at high prices while the forest grew to maturity.

So in July 2002, Kolem Jaá, which means great water in the Chol language as it’s named after a giant waterfall on the property, opened as part of Vida y Desarrollo (Environmental Protection Program), a project established to encourage sustainable tourism, with a goal to create a natural world of adventure in harmony with nature. Here locals could engage in organic agriculture, operate tropical nurseries, cultivate bamboo and Mutusay hanging roots, establish a butterfly sanctuary, operate a white-tailed deer breeding farm, and work in workshops, creating crafts of rattan, bamboo, and leather. Through this government program, local compesinos could earn more and provide themselves with a better life by catering to tourists.

The entire complex, set on almost 67 acres 90 minutes from the city of Villahermosa in southern Tabasco, lies deep in the jungle, criss-crossed by manicured serpentine trails laid with cement stepping stones a good distance apart, seemingly by the Jolly Green Giant. With shorter legs, I found myself leaping from stone to stone, like a gazelle fleeing a predator.

The Camp
The camp, which includes 10 cabanas with two rooms each and a tent area with a dozen two-man tents with cots, took seven years to create. My cabana room was quite luxurious and comfortable with all modern conveniences, including a full tile shower, complete with resident spiders. Workers had painted each in tropical colors to blend in with the surroundings. And I could sit in a leather chair out on my small veranda and listen to the jungle sounds while I sipped freshly-made coffee from my room’s coffeemaker.

The emphasis here is on luxurious adventure for those seeking to put some excitement in their hum-drum lives. But Kolem Jaá offered so much more–for me, a chance to get to know the jungle up close and personal.

After four years of reforestation, planting native trees such as cedar, mahogany, macha blanca (whitewood), mango, cypote, and ceiba, workers began building the Commando Trail and the Tlalucalupe Trail to the Cave of the Blind Sardines. During the sixth year, they began laying out the campsite and cabanas and constructing the Canopy.

A camper at heart, I found the only disadvantage to be the access to the place, over a steep stepping-stone trail with even steeper steps up and down to the river, all in the Tabasco heat and humidity. Of course, after some investigation on my own, I found a much easier way to get to the camp by going up river. However, the water was too shallow there for the launch to get close to shore.

The next morning, after a breakfast of fresh fruit smothered in strawberry yogurt and granola, followed by scrambled eggs and refried beans and lots of coffee, I waved the others off as they headed for the Canopy Tour and began my trek into the jungle. The resident pericos (parrots)–who I dubbed the "Tres Amigos" –chimed in trying to get my attention with their shrill screeching as they sat on perches under the reception palapa. Meanwhile, the staff strung flowers on wires for colorful necklaces in the cool of the early morning.

A Jungle Paradise
Not far from the shrieking parrots, I noticed a small sign signifying the entrance to the botanical garden. However, it was difficult to distinguish the garden from the surrounding jungle, as the two were fast merging into one green, leafy mass.

Water rushed down a jungle stream, as I gazed at a giant Bastion Del Rey (the Staff of the King), a floral wonder of nature, looking like a large, red pine cone full of seeds sitting atop a base of broad pint petals. Nearby, a towering giant Schefflera tree blocked out the sun’s rays while large leaf tropical plants interrupted my path. Banana trees, palms, and all sorts of flowers I had never before seen all had identification markers.

The constant da-ta-da-ta-da-ta of insects was the only sound, save for my footfalls on decaying jungle matter. Suddenly, I heard the shrill cries of wild peacocks and turkeys ringing through the trees as I stopped to admire several bright red and yellow Heliconia rostrata blossoms–a member of the same family as Bird-of-Paradise plants, with flowers that hang in an inverted triangle off of a spine. Further along, I stopped to watch as a column of jungle ants marching up and down a tree trunk gathering food.

As I walked into the jungle’s depths, it felt like I had entered an old tapestry, in some places darkened from lack of light, and in others faded with age, but all rich in varied shades of green highlighted by bright spots of colorful flowers. At times I couldn’t see the sky in there, but the sunlight created patterns as it shown down through the foliage. The vines hanging from the trees gave me a creepy feeling, as if I were going to be swallowed up at any moment. The air was still and moist. Howler monkeys flitted from tree to tree. If I stood still long enough, I could catch a glimpse of one here and there. They made a peculiar sound–not unlike howling–followed by a smacking kiss.

I wondered through the jungle alone for several hours, eventually stopping by a large palapa that acted as the camp meeting place. Ducks and geese waddled around out back as a peacock strutted amidst them trying to scare them. Soon a column of humans–my fellow campers, each in harness–returned from swinging through the trees just long enough to down a refreshing drink before we all took off for the Cave of the Blind Sardines.

Cave of the Blind Sardines
The hike to the cave–over a somewhat scenic trail through the forest that took us past the original hacienda on the property, now a local museum–was a bit easier than I expected. Striking vistas along the way provided ample opportunities to see out over the countryside and jungle. We even stopped to investigate some unique mushrooms growing along the trail.

We knew we were close when we noticed the water in a jungle stream had turned a cloudy light blue color similar to that of fabric softener. Not far ahead, lay the cave’s rocky entrance. These blind sardines–I almost expected to see hundreds of tiny fish wearing tiny shades as if in a Ray Charles look-alike contest–swim in this water. Carbon dioxide, produced by the bacteria from a hoard of spiders who live in it, fills the cave air. Nearly 5,000 bats of three varieties also call the cave home. I could already tell this wasn’t an especially hospitable place.

But as we donned helmets with headlights and started down into the cool, damp cave, it became apparent that we’d have to wade through the cloudy water to explore it. Having only one pair of shoes with me, I chose, once again, to politely decline as I slipped and slid my way back out.

One thing I learned from my stay at Kolem Jaá: I live a varied and exciting life already and don’t need to swing through the trees, rappel down a waterfall, or wade through murky water to get my kicks. Or, just maybe, that’s my rationalization.


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