Posts Tagged With: Wildlife

Humbled in the Jungle – Calakmul, Mexico

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What is it about trekking through the jungle that sends omenously cool vibrations sprinting down my spinal column? It’s wild, unpredictable, mysterious – kind of like walking into a strip club in Vegas on your 21st birthday – it’s just an exhilarating (and intimidating) place to be. So when I heard about this massive ancient Mayan site embedded in the remotest of remote  jungles near the southern end of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make the trip down to check out the remains of what was once among the most influential sites in the history of the Mayan Empire:  Calakmul.

From what I understood, it was a bit of an effort to get there. There’s only 1 hotel within a 60km radius and if you Google “Calakmul” on a map you end up with a location marker that lands in the middle of absolute nowhere within a huge Biosphere Reserve just north of the Guatemalan border, several hours away from anything remotely familiar to the average Mexico traveler. This is the beauty of traveling to places like this. Only the adventurous few will make the effort, so the experience will feel unique and untainted and you’ll never have to worry about crowds, traffic jams or crying toddlers in strollers begging for ice cream while you pass through the turnstile. (No, I’m not a big fan of Disneyland, you guessed correctly.) An exit south off of highway 186, which slices horizontally through the state of Campeche, took me on a long, lonely road flanked by endless miles of a subtropical forest that has seen only the most intrepid of travelers pass through its sequestered corridor.

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After a lengthy drive deep into the jungle, with every revolving digit of the odometer reminding you that you are advancing one frame further from civilization, I arrived at the Calakmul visitor’s center/museum. Plenty to see there while killing time, but my eagerness to explore had ignited my appetite so I grabbed some Doritos and an empanada and then hopped in a van with a few other travelers to make our way down another long (dirt) road, which really reassured me of the remoteness of this ancient wonder. Upon arrival to the ruins site, I performed my typical jungle-trekking ritual of mosquito repellent-bathing, calf-stretching and a second round of mosquito repellent-bathing. There was a lovely scenic walking path leading to the actual ruins, passing through an expanding canopy of dense forest with filtered sunbeams penetrating the jungle roof like a laser light show transmitted from heaven. The environment here is raw, stimulating, overwhelming to the senses…it kind of reminds me of walking through the olive & pickle market in Spain back in the day. The deeper I get into it, the more I start salivating. I finally arrive to the actual ruins and am immediately thrown into the set of Apocalypto (“please don’t let me run into a black jaguar on its lunch break”, was my first thought). The ruins were imposingly present throughout the area and seemed in a very natural state. I climbed to the top of the first structure I saw. The view (and the 60+  steps) took my breath away.

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Standing above the jungle canopy atop the remains of an ancient structure of a kingdom that once rivaled Tikal as one of the grandest and most powerful cities of the Mayan world will quickly halt your mind into “pause” mode – and then force you to reflect on the former reality and historical scope of your surroundings. This was the land of rulers and kings…the turf of brave and brutal warriors and conquerors (and angry little monkeys, but we’ll get to that). The view of adjacent temples popping up through the blanket of vegetation in the distance is one that your brain will quickly file into the category of “Holy Shit – Awesome!”. Several large structures were scattered throughout the area, and if each one could speak I’m sure it would have countless tales spanning centuries of discovery, war, peace, famine and wonder. (That, or it would tell me to “clean your shoes before walking on my face, jerk!”) The surrounding jungle sprawls out endlessly in all directions, and the louring echo of howler monkeys adds an eerie soundtrack to the surreal scene that quietly envelopes you. When you sit there and think about the history that a place like this has written in its fraction of existence on Earth, and the countless lives that lived and were lost here, you are humbled…and you are also reminded of your very fortunate place in the annals of time. We live in a time where science answers many of the natural wonders that the original inhabitants of this land would never understand…a time where technology allows us to connect with and discover the farthest corners of the globe…a time where you won’t get sacrificed for being on the losing side in a game of kickball. As I explored Calakmul, I remained humbly cognizant of its historical significance. I walked among symbols of great power and strolled through ancient hallways of artistry and wonder.

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Now let’s get to these monkeys that were ready to engage with me in a full-on turf war. What began as a cordial initial encounter, with the natural underpinnings of curiosity, quickly turned into a Clint Eastwood “Get off my lawn” scenario where the native tree-dwellers began to express to me just how peeved they were with my presence in their “jungle hood”. I hadn’t been briefed on the hospitality of the local monkey community before entering the area, therefore I just continued to go about my business, observe them, photograph them and proudly reinforce to them (by standing my ground) that there wasn’t gonna be any Planet Of The Apes-inspired ego flung in my direction. What WAS flung in my direction, however, was a tree branch straight towards my head by one of the two feisty little hairy bastards that I was shooting in the trees above, followed by some maniacal gestures of chest-beating and flashing of the teeth (those teeth are no joke!). This isn’t how I typically like to be received into a new place. The capuchins in Costa Rica posed for my camera like girls auditioning for a Lowrider magazine cover on Instagram. There was no “Welcome” mat on these two monkeys’ front porch. They began shaking the tree branches and beating on their chests like little King Kong wannabies. Oh, hell no. It was getting serious now. I was dealing with some bonafide bullies. As soon as that tree branch came flying towards my head, I was reminded of my surroundings in this “wild” and “unpredictable” jungle environment. This isn’t like being at the zoo where you’re able to laugh and make faces at an animal and feel safe from retaliation due to the security provided by the double-paned glass or steel cage that lies between you and the animal. This was the wild wild west of Mexican jungles – untamed and virtually unexplored – and these monkeys were the last holdouts of their village who weren’t gonna backdown from any foreign “bandits” armed with cameras and binoculars. I must admit, the intimidation tactics did work. (Again, those teeth are no joke!) I didn’t stick around too much longer to find out of they were bluffing. I wasn’t in the mood for a face full of poo that day, or a couple of jungle hoodlums trying to bully me for my bananas. Their aggressive behavior was enough for me to wrap up my photo shoot and quickly move along. Monkeys 1 – Gringo 0.

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The fact that you can visit one of the world’s most fascinating remnants of ancient times and experience the full ambience of the natural world that surrounds it makes Calakmul a “must-see” destination on anyone’s Mexico travel list. Here, you can enjoy Mayan ruins that rival all of the grandeur and scale of the ruins of Chichen-Itza, but in a much more exotic and remote (and far less manicured) environment. You’ll also escape the crowds of day-trippers and local vendors trying to negotiate the “good price for you” sale of painted jaguar masks and plastic pyramid paper weights. If Chichen-Itza is Starbucks, then Calakmul is your out-of-the-way coffee shop reserved for enjoying an authentic blend in a quiet environment. Calakmul offers its visitors a chance to enjoy some seriously impressive ruins and experience the environment the way the ancient Maya saw it – in a natural state, remotely enclosed by the very jungle that witnessed its rise and fall. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a close encounter with the modern-day native inhabitants of this exotic land…the wildlife. There is an abundance. Just watch your back. As soon as a tree branch comes flying towards your head it might be your cue to continue your tour and move on to the next structure. As I was reminded, it’s best to never outstay your welcome in the wild…a lesson I also learned in the chaotic urban jungle of Mardi Gras in New Orleans back in 1996, but that’s a story for another day.

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A quick hop around Kangaroo Island, Australia

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For me, traveling to Australia was a BIG deal mates. BIG country, BIG planning, BIG airplane, BIG fella sitting next to me on the plane stealing all my elbow space, etc. I had a long list of things that I wanted to do and see on this trip. There was the obvious, of course:  see the Sydney Harbor, try a Vegemite sandwich, guzzle cold Aussie beer at some pubs, avoid severe sunburn, see some kangaroos. Of all those, the latter was the most important on my list. I mean c’mon, who hasn’t watched Jack Hanna or Steve Irwin play with the ‘roos on TV and not thought that would be the coolest thing ever?? I wanted to see some ‘roos. Plain and simple. You can’t go to Australia and not see the ‘roos. It’s like going to Chicago and not eating a Polish dog…or seeing a Polish person for that matter. And I’m not talking about seeing them in the Sydney zoo man. They’ve got ‘roos at the San Diego Zoo an hour and a half drive south of me. I don’t need to fly 7500 miles to view a wallaby in a playpen. I’m talking in the wild…untamed, free-roaming, curious…the way nature was meant to be enjoyed! So I booked a side trip to a remote place off the coast of South Australia called Kangaroo Island. Not that a place’s nomenclature necessarily guarantees the existence of its particular reference (the “Island of Women” near Cancun is a perfect example. But hey, whatever draws tourists), but it sounded intriguing. I did my research, like the savvy traveler I am. This was the place to see and be seen (if you’re a kangaroo looking for a good time, that is :P). Besides the surging population of ‘roos, I heard this island was one of the most wildly beautiful places on the entire continent. Sounded like a hot ticket…book it!

After a week traveling the amazing East Coast of Australia (where I hadn’t seen one stinkin’ ‘roo the entire time, wth??), it was time to punch my ticket to the island. The ferry ride over from Cape Jervis was a beautiful and relaxing 45-minute voyage to a remote piece of land in the Indian Ocean, far enough removed from the mainland to validate its “wild” reputation. My first impression upon seeing the rugged coastline and piercing blue waters:  “Yeah baby, it’s on! I’m gonna go buckwild photographing this place!”. I guess that doesn’t really say a whole lot, since I have the same reaction when I arrive to a family reunion or a local chili cook-off.  But lemme tell ya, this place is special…and you can sense it before you even get off the boat. The port town of Penneshaw is very accommodating. I was treated to an upgrade 4WD SUV vehicle when I arrived at the rental agency, as my reservation had been lost in cyberspace, which worked out to be perfect since it would serve as my hotel during this 2-day excursion. It was also an ideal vehicle to have while driving along the many dirt roads that make up the island’s transit terrain.

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At first sight, the island seemed like a bushman and fisherman’s dream. It’s craggy interior and over 340 miles of pristine coastline creates such a dramatic contrast that I was salivating to get my camera out and start going photo bonkers. I took the first unpaved road I saw and began to explore the unspoiled wonders of this vast adventure-seeker’s paradise. I saw landscapes here straight out of the imagination of a fine-art painter’s dream portfolio. Things just look different here. The ultra-golden hues produced by the sun created colors that were indescribable. The terrain is so diverse and raw. The trees are wicked-crazy looking. The colors of the dirt roads are a deep hue of reddish-orange. The sky and sun seem more intense. The beaches are awe-inspiring. You’ll see bizarre things like the Remarkable Rocks, huge naturally-carved boulders over-looking the sea that look like something out of a Tim Burton movie. Animals roam freely about the land and the roads wind like a maze through the thick vegetation and hilly island turf. It is “wild” as advertised, and you won’t see many people once you leave the arrival port of Penneshaw. As a matter of fact, the further you get away from the coastal towns, the more you get that feeling that you are all alone on an isolated island full of insane beauty and teeming wildlife, just teasing you to be explored at every turn. It would be wise to stock up on gas, water and Peanut M&M’s at one of the towns near the eastern end of the island (Kingscote, Penneshaw or American River), as it’s just you, the native wallabies and the birds & the bees for the majority of your drive throughout the island. (Not the birds & the bees your mom told you about in the 3rd grade. Kangaroo Island is a bird refuge and is famous for its Ligurian bees, which produce some of the finest honey in the world. But feel free to get as kinky as you want over there.)

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The coastline is definitely one of Kangaroo Island’s highlights. The azure ocean crashes against the rugged, rocky shores at some points and gently glosses over stunning white sand beaches at others. As I hopped from beach to beach (pun intended), I was blown away by how different each was from one to the next. Some harbored wide stretches of soft sand and pellucid blue waters which seemed quite inviting for snorkelers and swimmers. Others were formed by intensely colored red rocks and jagged cliffs which greeted the crashing waves head on. The one common feature of all these stretches of coastline: no people. If you want a sequestered beach all to yourself, you’ve come to the right place. On the southern end of the island, you’ll find massive sand dunes that trickle down to the sea. This area, called Little Sahara, is popular for sand boarding, one of many outdoors activities that Kangaroo Island has to offer. Australian Sea Lions and New Zealand Fur Seals may be your only companions out there as you explore the untinged coast of this fascinating island paradise.

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Now, about those ‘Roos. The entire time I was driving on the island, I had an eye peeled back looking for those bad boys. Where the heck were they?? I knew they were out there. I mean, I didn’t expect they’d be hanging out at the gas station bumming Funyuns or anything, but I was frustrated that I hadn’t seen one in a whole week in Oz, and especially within my first hour on an island named after the damn things! I saw a few dead ones on the side of the road, but that didn’t really satisfy my visual appetite (or actual appetite) if you know what I mean. But with scenery like that, it’s easy to forgive the island for not producing what I was obsessing over right off the bat. I had already seen an abundance of wildlife:  sea lions, koalas, sheep, cows, rare birds, possums, fur seals, various reptiles, small wallabies…someone even mentioned seeing penguins somewhere. But I was after the ‘roos. My dedicated research should have reminded me that most kangaroo species are nocturnal, as well as being crepuscular (check out the vocab on this gringo ;)), meaning they are most active near dawn and dusk, often using these times for feeding. Ok…so I just had to wait until dusk I guess. No problem Jack.

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I had some time to kill, so I decided to go on a little bushwalk (hike). With one-third of the island protected in conservation parks and Wilderness Protection Areas, you don’t have to go far to find a good route to stretch the legs. I came across what looked like a decent trail, packed my bag with water and electrolytes and hit the bush. Now, I’m not even kidding when I tell you this part of the story. My wildest expectations wouldn’t have prepared me for what was about to occur in the first few minutes into my hike. So I’m walking along this path, surveying the landscape to compose a photo. I decided to stray from the trail a bit in order to gain a better visual vantage point. I had to meander through what I remember to be a ramshackled and rusted barbed wire fence to get where I wanted to be. It was thick scrub here so my visibility was limited to whatever natural obstacle I had to maneuver around next. I carefully pass through some scraggy vegetation, turn a corner…and BAM! Big ‘ol kangaroo sitting right there! Less than 12 feet away! Ka-BOOM! Scared the pasty vegemite right out of me (almost literally)! The furry freak of nature grunted, leaped up and bolted out of there like a…well…like a scared kangaroo that had just been abruptly rolled up on from behind by a beef jerky scented bushwalker! It happened so quick I couldn’t even snap a decent photo, just this semi-blurry one (as my parasympathetic nervous system wouldn’t allow me to compose myself properly). We were both startled, and my jumpy little marsupial friend was long gone before I could even say G’day. Ladies and gentlemen, I had found my first ‘roo! 🙂 An extreme close-up encounter in the wild! Though brief and heart-jolting, it was awesome! My days of envying Jack Hanna would soon be a distant memory.


As sunset neared, I would get several more opportunities to see the local ‘roos that day, as they began to emerge from their mid-day shelters to explore the land and find food. They would even hang out on the side of the road near dusk, which makes for a very adventurous “video game-like” driving experience (remembering the roadkill I had seen earlier). I was able to get pretty close to a rather large one that evening. As the late Steve Irwin would say:  “She was a beauty, mate!”. They are quite timid animals in the wild. It kept an eye on me with an equal amount of curiosity as I did with it, but remained calm and even let me approach within a surprisingly intimate distance. When you see a kangaroo close up, you realize how well these animals are equipped to seriously whoop some butt if they need to! With those hind leg muscles, 2-inch claws and a powerful tail as thick as an anaconda, you don’t need instincts to tell you to keep your distance, just eyes. In saying this, they seemed quite peaceful and gentle in my experience with them. They are a special creature to witness and interact with. I snapped my photos, set my camera down and hung out for a while, enjoying this amazing scene of one of Nature’s most exotic animals in its native habitat, allowing me to be an uninvited and trusted guest into its placid domain. This was an experience my mind could only wishfully imagine for prior to coming here. This was Kangaroo Island. I had come a long, long way to see it, as have many others…and another satisfied visitor was about to return home to share its wonderful story.

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Here’s some more scenes from my 2 days on Kangaroo Island…

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Monkeying around in the jungle


These spider monkeys at the Calakmul ruins of Mexico seemed friendly in my initial encounter with them.  So, naturally, I busted out my Nikon and started shooting away.  Good idea?  Well, their demeanor changed immediately as they began to show their teeth, beat on their chests and violently shake the tree branches in an attempt to scare me off.  Why the hostility?  Perhaps they felt I would publish the photos illegally in Monkey Spunk magazine?  Was I wearing the wrong monkey gang colors?  Maybe they were Canon users?  Whatever the case, animals in the wild are just that…wild and unpredictable.  This was their turf and they weren’t gonna let some Yankee with a cool telephoto lens come into their jungle hood and start firing off shots like a paparazzi on the Red Bull tour.  They let me know my limits…and like anywhere you travel to, you have to respect the locals and their level of comfort, especially when a camera is pointed at them.  Actually, it took a thrown tree branch at my head (yes, they are mean little bastards) to finally get me to back up and wrap up this photo session.  Here’s a pic of our initial encounter…and another soon after I started shooting them.

Once the photo session began (those aren’t smiles either)…

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