Eight great Tex-Mex outdoor adventures
By Larry D. Hodge
Look to our neighbors to the south for a new twist - and new vistas - to spice up your next expedition.
1. Birds in the Cloud Forest
El Cielo Biosphere Reserve
In convenient reach of the Rio Grande Valley is a birder's paradise, a jewel of biodiversity where tropical and temperate species coexist. El Cielo is "the sky" in Spanish, and you'll find the possibilities almost that limitless in this unique preserve. Lying along an important migratory route, it is the northernmost cloud forest in the world. El Cielo is home to species such as the Tamaulipas pygmy-owl, and it embraces the northernmost range of the barred antshrike, red-lored parrot, squirrel cuckoo and other tropical birds. Keep your eyes and ears keen for the thicket tinamou, black-headed nightingale-thrush and yellow-throated euphonia. Don't be surprised if you add some "lifers" to your list.
The Tamaulipas Wildlife Commission and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offer a four-day, three-night tour of this majestic cloud forest.
The tours, which include transportation from South Texas, accommodations, meals, guide services and cultural programs, are scheduled throughout the year and cost anywhere from $750 to $900. Some tours specialize in birding, and others are general nature study excursions, including botany, geology and a lot of hiking. All tours offer an opportunity to interact with the inhabitants of the reserve and to learn more about their culture.
How to get there: Tour buses depart from Brownsville, Harlingen or McAllen, depending on tour dates. The reserve is located about 300 miles south of Brownsville.
Best time to go: Tours are scheduled year-round except during August and September, the most rainy months. Peak butterfly abundance is usually October to November. Birding is better in May and June, but there's plenty to see year-round.
Contact: Tamaulipas Wildlife Commission, telephone 52-834-318-9477 (Spanish only)
- Maria Araujo
2. Birds and Butterflies
El Cielo Biosphere Reserve
If you're up for a longer and more rigorous tour that includes El Cielo, try this nine-day bird and butterfly tour of Northeastern Mexico.
Part of the first few days is spent scouting the lush forest above Gomez Farias, a tropical mecca for a diverse population of about 100 species of birds and 500 species of butterflies. Endemic and regional bird species, including crimson-collared grosbeaks, green parakeets and red-crowned parrots, are sighted here frequently, and butterflies such as Anna's eighty-eight, telegone eyemark and regal hairstreak often are seen fluttering through the countryside. The surrounding tropical river valleys prove a popular hangout for the stunning peleides morpho, ruby-spotted swallowtail and many-banded daggerwing, among others. You won't want to go anywhere without your binoculars.
Hang on for a bumpy ride up a rough mountain road leading to Rancho del Cielo, a biological research station that provides access to the reserve. Located at the climate transitional zone between North and Central America, the reserve boasts a panorama of four distinct ecosystems: tropical jungle, mountain forest, pine-oak forest and dwarf oak and heath forest. Spend the days in the orchard and gardens nearby or venture to higher elevations, where you can encounter bumblebee and amethyst-throated hummingbirds, mountain trogon and possibly even military macaw. This nine-day, all-inclusive tour costs about $2,000.
How to get there: This tour begins and concludes in Brownsville, with overnight stays in Ciudad Mante and Rancho del Cielo. (Visas are required of U.S. travelers and may be purchased for about $20 each at checkpoints a few miles from the border.)
Best time to go: The annual tour is scheduled during peak butterfly activity, usually in October or November. Birding is better in May and June because of breeding activity, though there's plenty to see year-round.
Contact: WINGS offers a variety of worldwide birding tours, including this all-inclusive expedition to Northeastern Mexico. Call (888) 293-6443, (520) 320-9868 or visit www.wingsbirds.com for more information.
- Erica H. Brasseux
3. Hunting Gansos
Hunting gansos - geese - at Las Palomas de Loma Colorada wingshooting resort can spoil you. Preparations for the hunt begin at 2 a.m. While you slumber peacefully at the lodge, workers go to the hunt site and dig an individual pit - complete with dirt "bench" - for each hunter. After a full breakfast, your guide drives you to the field, arriving just before first light. The same workers who dug the blinds have also set out a decoy spread. As you sit in your blind, with your eyes just above ground level, you are completely hidden by stalks of milo all around. When the guide spots geese in the distance and cranks up two electronic calls, you finally get to go to work.
Hunting this way contrasts starkly with rising at 4 a.m. and slogging around in a muddy rice field setting out hundreds of decoys. There may be fewer geese in Mexico than along the Texas Coast, but hunting pressure is lighter and the geese less spooky. Snow geese, Canadas and white-fronted geese are all present in plenty.
A four-day, three-night hunt with all accommodations, meals, ground transportation to and from Texas, guides, gun, shells - everything - runs about $3,365. (Mexican law is testy about United States firearms and ammunition, even when the owners are law-abiding sport shooters. Obtaining a permit to bring your gun is possible but can be a hassle. Best to accept the offer of the outfitters' guns and shells.)
How to get there: The resort is located in the small town of San Fernando, about 85 miles south of McAllen. All hunting packages include transportation to and from McAllen.
Best time to go: Goose hunting season is November through February.
Contact: Las Palomas de Loma Colorada, (800) 375-4868, www.oaww.com.
- Larry D. Hodge
4. Mariposas in Mexico
Chipinque Ecological Park
Nestled into the side of the Sierra Madre Oriental that cradles Monterrey, Chipinque Ecological Park is home to countless birds and butterflies. Many butterfly species that only occasionally stray north of the Rio Grande can be seen here in numbers. Look for such rare treats as Debora cycadians, with gold-spotted black wings resembling stars on a midnight sky, and Gilbert's flashers, whose name derives from brilliant iridescent blue scales covering their body and wing bases.
A stream flowing down the mountainside provides tranquil background noise and a tropical backdrop for iridescent rainbow skippers feeding at a stand of flowers. Also in search of nectar, dancing zebra longwings and stout Mexican silverspots hover above patches of abundant lantana flowers maintained near the visitors' center. Higher up in the park's lush pine-oak forest, a black female broad-banded swallowtail with subtle blue trim is courted by a boldly patterned black and yellow male.
On a crisp fall day, you are likely to encounter monarch butterflies, sometimes in the millions, as they stream through the mountain passes on their way to their winter home in the boreal forests of Central Mexico. As night creeps into the forest, the swirling masses of orange-black wings retire, hanging in pendant clusters in the tall pines.
Bring your binoculars, of course, and don't forget your life list.
Guided tours are recommended, though the park is open to the public year-round. A guided four-day tour, which includes all expenses and travel from McAllen, runs approximately $750. Increase the fun by checking out the Texas Butterfly Festival in Mission before heading south to Monterey.
How to get there: Chipinque Park is located about 140 miles southwest of McAllen and about an equal distance south of Laredo.
Best time to go: Chipinque is best in the fall, but with the wide range in elevations, a visit any time can be productive.
Contact: Most tours are taken in conjunction with various nature festivals. For tour information, contact Ray Bieber, (956) 631-4933, firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Texas Butterfly Festival, visit www.texasbutterfly.com.
- Mike Quinn
5. Fishing Lake Amistad
Spice up your next fishing trip with some authentic Tex-Mex flavor on Lake Amistad, where Hill Country, chaparral and desert converge. Created by a six-mile-long dam built jointly by the U.S. and Mexico, the lake is basically a rock canyon filled with 67,000 acres of dramatically blue water (thanks to the area's abundant limestone). Fed by the Rio Grande, Pecos and Devils rivers, Amistad is one of the largest, clearest lakes in Texas and Mexico, and is well-known for its trophy stripers and gigantic catfish. Largemouth bass are the most popular and most abundant sportfish in the reservoir, while channel and blue catfish and other species of bass, sunfish and gar are present in good numbers.
And if you're not having luck on one side of the lake, simply cruise across the U.S.-Mexico boundary buoys located in the middle of the lake and give the other country a try. The Mexican side has a marina, and a Mexican fishing license (sold at most U.S. marinas) is required if you fish that side. Texas bag and length limits apply.
How to get there: The U.S. portion of Lake Amistad is accessible 10 miles north of Del Rio on US 90. Large boat ramps and marinas are located at Rough Canyon (US 277) and Diablo East (US 90).
Best time to go: Largemouth bass anglers are most successful during the fall, winter and spring. The best action for white bass is from late January through March, when whites migrate up rivers to spawn. Catfish anglers can find channel and blue catfish throughout the lake year-round.
Contact: Several boat rental and fishing guide services are available. Visit www.drchamber.com/tourism.html, www.delrio.com or call (800) 889-8149 for local listings. For more information about Amistad National Recreation Area visit www.nps.gov/amis or call (830) 775-7491.
- Erica H. Brasseux
Hunting at Rancho Caracol is a lesson in patience, but not because you won't see any birds. Imagine yourself hunkered down in a pit in the middle of a grain field, surrounded by 300 decoys, while thousands of geese start descending right on top of you. The trick is being able to control your adrenaline enough to wait until your guide tells you to shoot.
That breathtaking experience is matched by the dove and quail hunting. This 11,000-acre wing-shooting ranch is situated in the heart of Mexico's grain-producing region, which sustains some of the best whitewing dove and bobwhite quail populations in the country. Twenty coveys during a day in the field is typical, along with some great dog action, a lot of fast, high-flying birds, and plenty of bragging rights back at the hacienda at nightfall. And the ducks? Pintails, redheads, three kinds of teal, wigeons, shovelers, gadwalls - the list goes on and on.
For reasons of legality and convenience discussed above, using the outfitter's 12- or 20-gauge Berettas is recommended.
All hunting packages include transportation from Harlingen, accommodations, meals, shotguns and shells, game-cleaning and English-speaking guide services. Prices for three-day hunts range from $1,895 to $3,395 per person; bass fishing packages also available.
How to get there: You will be met at the Harlingen airport and driven to Rancho Caracol, located in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas about three hours south of Brownsville.
Best time to go: Mexico hunting seasons are August through October for whitewing doves and November through February for mixed wing (mourning dove/quail/duck).
Contact: For more information visit www.ranchocaracol.com or call (888) 246-3164.
- Erica H. Brasseux
7. Birding: Rancho Rincon de Anacahuitas
South of the Rio Grande Valley
The 30,000-acre Rancho Rincon de Anacahuitas (Corner of the Olive Trees) is the largest contiguous protected area of natural habitat near the Rio Grande, and it is a must-do day trip for any birder visiting the Valley. An international site of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, the wonderfully diverse habitat consists of 72 miles of Gulf shoreline, coastal marshes, freshwater ponds, grasslands and other low vegetation: more than 420 species of birds find sustenance and refuge here throughout the year.
From Chihuahuan ravens and curve-billed thrashers to yellow-billed cuckoos and Altamira orioles, you gape and gasp at every turn as the van bumps along the tire-tracked dirt paths that wind through the brush. While exploring by foot and by van provides stunning access to a variety of species like horned larks, red-winged blackbirds, ladder-backed woodpeckers and scissor-tailed flycatchers, an afternoon boat tour offers a great change of pace.
A deep-hulled fiberglass fishing boat proves to be a convenient vessel for puttering along the waters of the Mexican Laguna Madre, which the sunlight turns gold. The lagoon is dotted with about 600 small islands. On their shores, numerous posts guide fish into traps of net, and these attract dozens of birds: brown pelicans, neotropic cormorants, and gull-billed, royal, Forster's and least terns.
By land or water, Rancho Rincon de Anacahuitas bestows an eyeful of avian activity year-round. Tours cost about $105 and include an authentic Mexican lunch.
How to get there: The ranch is located about 45 miles south of Brownsville along Mexico 101.
Best time to go: Tours are scheduled each July in conjunction with the Brownsville International Birding Festival. Private group tours for parties of 10 or more are available year-round by reservation only.
Contact: For information about the birding festival tour, contact the Brownsville Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 626-2639, (956) 546-3721 or www.brownsville.org. To arrange private group tours, call ranch owner Jorge Martinez at (956) 541-2777 (Spanish only).
- Erica H. Brasseux
8. Races and Recreation
Test your stamina against that of the Tarahumara Indians, famed long-distance runners who live a semi-nomadic existence at high elevations at least part of the year. Chihuahua's annual Adventure Tourism Festival, held from mid-July to mid-August, features several grueling events involving triathlons and individual foot and bicycle races in Copper Canyon and other remote places throughout the state. The event closest to the Texas border is "Aventura en Dunas" in Samalayuca, an ecosystem reminiscent of Monahans Sandhills State Park and White Sands National Monument.
Samalayuca, located in the Chihuahuan Desert just south of El Paso, is an ever-changing gypsum dune field stretching approximately 150 square kilometers. Dunes are usually stabilized by vegetation, but Samalayuca is one area where dunes actively grow, crest and change shape in response to seasonal prevailing winds. The resulting landscape is unique and ephemeral.
In this challenging desert environment, you can sign up for the "Carrera Extrema" and set out to bike 100 kilometers over dunes lighted by a full moon. The race takes about 12 hours and is the only one of its kind in the world. If you're a runner, try the 10K foot race. Or round up teams for the triathlon, called "Ecotlon," which includes running, rappelling and bicycling. Beach volleyball and sand-boarding are other activities you can enjoy.
How to get there: From El Paso, cross to Ciudad Juarez and take Highway 45 to Chihuahua City. At the kilometer 323 mark, take the gravel road and drive eight kilometers to the first camping area. Best time to go: The racing events are held in July and August. If you want cooler weather, though, visit in October.
Contact: Leobardo Armenta, Chihuahua Tourism Office, tel. 52-656-629-3340, or e-mail. Also see "Festival de Turismo de Aventura" at www.chihuahua.gob.mx.