In the Mexican state of Tamualipas it’s possible to drive past a small sign marking the Tropic of Cancer. As you head south towards this invisible boundary marking out the center of the globe, some changes are obvious. Power lines are hung with the intricately woven nests of Oropendolas; trees are draped with moss, wrapped in vines and spotted with lichen.
As we drove south hills rose around us, covered with an abundance of green life. The air became sticky. It was hot. It was humid. We were driving to El Cielo Biosphere Reserve. El Cielo translates as ‘Heaven’ and the beauty of the place fit the descriptor. El Cielo is the northern most extent of tropical forests in North America and contains several different habitats including montane cloud forest, sub-deciduous tropical forest and dry, high elevation xerophyte shrublands.
In El Cielo, black bear, jaguar and mountain lions co-exist. If you remember that jaguars are often called ‘el tigre’ in Spanish, you could almost say, ‘lions and tigers and bears, oh my!’ it’s rare to be in the habitat of so many large predators in North America. Military Macaws nest in El Cielo and we saw a Mot mot perch briefly in a tree before flitting away into a bank of fog. There are caves with large pools of water that shelter vampire bats and an abundance of interesting arthropods. I found a dead specimen of one of the world’s strangest arachnids, an animal known as the vinegaroon. Vinegaroons look mainly like scorpions except for delicate whip-like tails without stingers. Instead of stinging vinegaroons squirt a stream of acid into the eyes of would-be attackers.
We spent five nights at El Cielo and went hiking almost every day, exploring a small amount of the tropical forest. The place is beautiful but also somewhat perilous. Besides the more obvious dangers of large predators, there is the overbearing presence of mosquitoes that descend in the evening. It also rained every night we were there. It rained hard enough that we tied a tarp over the back of the van to keep water out. For me, the hardships highlight the wildness of the place and accentuate its beauty. You know a place better if you know its nastier moods.
If you plan to visit El Cielo, I recommend this guide just note, it was written a few years back and there seems to be less infrastructure than suggested. If you go, do bring your own food otherwise you’ll be hungry.