AN AUDUBON TRIP TO MEXICO'S GULF COAST 

What could be more enticing than to go on a tour entitled, “Orchids, Cloud Forests and Archaeology”? Organized by the Sociedad Audubon de México, based in San Miguel de Allende, we would explore not only the cloud forest of the state of Veracruz, but be privy to countless birds, butterflies and orchids.  To top it off, the Gulf Coast is one of the most renowned cradles of Pre-Columbian civilization: the Olmecs. 

New to the world of birding, this four day jaunt to the historic town of Coatepec and its surroundings was a perfect fit.  I didn’t have to be a well-seasoned birder that would feel compelled to “name that bird”, or maintain copious lists. I could also focus on other passions: plants and archeology. (And let’s not forget excellent regional cooking and coffee!).

 “What is so wonderful about Veracruz is the combination of migrating birds from the north and those endemic to Mexico. In addition, we are at the northern spectrum of tropical birds. There’s great diversity here — something Mexico enjoys in general,” explained our enthusiastic, ornithologist, Robert Staub. Based in the  capital, Xalapa, for over a decade, he had a sixth sense when it came to birds. With our organizers, Norman Besman and Rodrigo Lopez, both avid birders from San Miguel, we couldn’t lose.

Bringing to our attention any stirrings around us, Robert Staub  often used his vocal chords to attract birds and, when sited, a laser pointer as well as a phone app for any additional information.  Best of all though was the sense of sharing in a special moment. Enthusiasm generated for example, when we’d catch sight of a rare bronze-winged woodpecker, an azure-crowned hummingbird darting about or a bat falcon within the low brush canopy. The sense of excitement was palpable and contagious.

And what about the flora?  Not including the coffee plants with their lush, vermilion red berries, epiphytes abounded such as orchids, bromeliads, tillandsia and mosses.  Sadly, however, most of the orchids were not in bloom... Fortunately though, an orchid museum and former private garden, came to the rescue. Here, we could enjoy peering up close at some rare, and even endangered Mexican orchids being propagated here. Mexico is ranked seventh in orchid species.

When it came to archeology, two treats awaited: the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa and Cantona, an impressive archeological site about two hours from Puebla. Ranked the best archeological museum after the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, it not only features the famous colossal, dark gray basalt Olmec heads but  an extensive collection of Meso-American art from the region and beyond.

A peak moment however for us all was the visit to Cantona. Once a megalopolis estimated to have been home to as many as 80,000 people, excavation and restoration has only recently begun. Today, archeologists are uncovering a vast maze of roads, houses, ball courts and temples. Not only were we the only ones there at the time but Orizaba, the tallest volcano in Mexico, was clearly within view.

Finally, you can’t escape coffee in Veracruz.  Coatepec, a charming, small town, seemed to exude this tantalizing aroma while being roasted or served at mom and pop corner stores all about town. You could even try fish fillet with a coffee version of Oaxacan mole.