After spending many vacations in Cancun, Mexico, I decided to take the plunge and move there to study the beautiful nature I’d admired in my previous trips. Having lived many years in the comfort and safety of American suburbia, it was time for some adventure. After learning Spanish, I went to the Yucatan and rented a home in suburban Playa del Carmen and hired myself a maid. Then, with help from hired guides and friends, I visited a variety of remote places in the Mexican jungles. It was an unforgettable experience to see a variety of animals in their natural habitats.
The ever-growing city of Playa del Carmen SQM Club is an hour south of Cancun, and easily accessed by public buses. Both cities are on the Caribbean Sea, where coral reefs abound up and down the coastline. The beauty of pure white, limestone sand, and richly colored, turquoise water of the ocean drew me down there. Being a nature artist, I was fascinated by the plants and animals of the region. Armed with my cameras, drawing paper and pens, I got to work drawing and photographing bugs, birds, plants and anything else exotic. Soon, my artwork landed me a job as main illustrator for a large nature park called XCaret.
Whenever I had a drawing to deliver to my employer, I would board the employee bus for XCaret, and then walk down a long, back jungle path next to the park to the office. These walks fascinated me, due to the path was directly next to fenced enclosures for their zoo and aviary. Flamingoes, spider monkeys and a harpy eagle were animals I could see the best from the path. One time I made the mistake of giving one of the monkeys a cookie, only to see the other monkeys chase after him to steal it, trying to beat him up! I quickly got out a couple more cookies and gave the rest to them, to avoid the original monkey from getting hurt. They all sat there munching peacefully as i snuck off, hoping nobody saw.
In Mexico, you will see iguanas in nature frequently. As i walked down the nature path on my way to work, there was rustling in the big tree near me. I looked up only to see a large, 6 foot green iguana male with bright orange fringe on his back, in the canopy of the tree. He looked down at me. I remember people telling me that iguanas are good eating, taste like chicken, and that they are called “chicken of the tree”. I never found out if that was true or not, but then, I wasn’t about to go eating iguanas. Nope, I’m not that adventurous in my dining choices. Black iguanas can be seen usually sitting one per rock pile. Everywhere there were rocks, were male iguanas sunning themselves. Interesting creatures. In Chankanaab Park (on the island of Cozumel) there is a huge iguana that walks around public areas, oblivious to the humans that walk past it. It will bite if petted, the park employee told me. So, I took photos of it and kept my distance.
Another lizard that was interesting and plentiful, was Basiliscus basiliscus, the basilisk. There are a few varieties of basilisk to be found in Mexico. It can run on water if it gets scared enough, and I witnessed it after scaring one unintentionally. Later, I found a smaller one and drew it for my job, they have intense eyes, looking very serious. When i was finished drawing him, he ran upright into the jungle, glad to be free of the big, scary human with whom he’d spent a few hours with.
The jungles of Mexico are fascinating, but I would never recommend walking off your path into one. First off, the foliage is very dense. Second, there are critters in there that can hurt you if provoked, namely scorpions, snakes and spiders. Look, but don’t touch. I have seen all of these, and have paid people to remove them from my home. Scorpions will come after you if they are agitated. Back away quickly, wherever they cannot follow. The lighter colored ones, I was told, are more dangerous than the black ones. There are tarantulas in Mexico, and they are big but not aggressive, thank goodness. I had a red-kneed tarantula taken away from the front of my door once. My maid used to throw out other spiders she found inside, and laugh when i would be freaked out by them. “This? It’s harmless! ” she’d tell me. Yuck. I took her word for it.
As for snakes, there are a few that are reason enough not to go walking alone in the jungle. First, there are huge boa constrictors. My ex-husband was called by the ladies next door, to remove a 6-foot boa out of their rental flat. They said it just slithered into the open back door. Lesson learned, never leave an open door to your house if you live close to the jungle. Then, there is a crimson colored snake the locals called Coralio. I don’t know its scientific name, but it was beautiful but deadly. A man who lived near me had a whole apartment full of snakes, and he showed them to me up close. Snakes are interesting but it pays to watch where you step, since my ex and I nearly stepped on one during an evening walk. There are other snakes to watch out for, but these are the kinds that we saw. All snakes will mind their own business if unprovoked, it seems, trouble seems to be when humans aren’t paying attention and step on one by mistake. So, it pays to watch where you walk.
Then there were the amazing birds. A gorgeous variety of colors, shapes and sizes, birds in Mexico are exotic and fascinating. My favorites were the toco toucan, motmot, currasows, Yucatan jay, cinnamon-colored cuckoo, and pileated woodpecker and violaceous trogon (a relative of the resplendent quetzal). They had a knack for showing themselves whenever I didn’t have my camera with me. I did draw and take notes of what I saw, then look them up later. There was a bird that was so colorful that locals called it, “siete colores” (seven colors). After looking it up, I identified it as a painted bunting. Another bird locals call “pecho amarillo”(yellow breast), otherwise known as the great kiskadee, used to sit outside my window and yell, “Eeee, Eeee! ” at the top of his lungs. We used to call back at him, and he’d answer. Very funny bird.