In the weeks before our vacation, when friends asked where we were headed, and I told them Puerto Vallarta, they asked if it was my first time, to which I answered that it was. But technically, that’s not exactly the case.
Way back when, in Life 1.0, I spent several hours- that’s right, hours- in the Puerto Vallarta area on- I am ashamed to say- a cruise.
Tangent: In my defense, the cruise was a sales award trip, so it wasn’t like I had a choice of vacations. I’ve never done a cruise since- couldn’t stand it. It’s you and a gazillion overweight white people packed into a floating shopping mall, where pretty much all you do is eat. For the first 12 hours or so it’s kind of fun; you’re exploring the ship, you’re stuffing yourself on gourmet food and it’s all good. But then the next day you’re like What? But we stuffed ourselves yesterday? And I’ve already been around the ship 5 times… But you do it all over again, and soon it’s like this floating Hotel California.
The cruise stopped at Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta*. One of my then-co-workers/fellow-award-trip-travelers had planned ahead and arranged scuba dives for the 4 of us (the 2 of us and our then-wives) at 2 of the stops. On the boat out to the dive site** in PV several of us were chatting about the area, and another dive-tourist, a single American guy who seemed a bit full of himself, told us that he was fascinated by PV because it was “ a point of synthesis…” This sounded like a lead-in to a weightier conversation than any of us were looking to have with strangers on a dive-boat, and so we let the comment lie. Wife 1.0- always a quick, and often accurate, judge of character in spite of her own deep and profound issues- leaned close to me, whispering, “What a dork.”
*The travel-military-industrial-complex calls this route the “Mexican Riviera”, to distinguish it from the “Mayan Riviera” over on the Caribbean coast. I can’t stand this “Riviera” marketing-thing. Neither the Pacific nor the Caribbean coasts of Mexico are anything like the actual “Riviera”, which was originally the term for the Northwest Italian coast (Liguria.) Then later the term got extended/borrowed into the “French Riviera”, which seems OK, as it’s adjacent to, and very similar to***, the original Riviera, with the exception being that it is, uh, French.
***Pretentious Mediterranean Euro-beach, crappy sand, no surf and jam-packed with people.
But 16 years later, knowing something about Mexico and geography and forests and deserts, I realize that Dork 1.0 was right*. Puerto Vallarta is a point of synthesis- a meeting of sea and mountains and lowlands and scrublands and jungles and forest all within a few miles of one another.
*Or maybe, the intervening decade and a half has allowed me to bloom into full-of-myself-dorkiness.
Extra Detail: After the dive, the dive boat took us across the Bay of Banderas back to the cruise ship dock. After ½ way across the bay, the motor sputtered and died. We were about 2 miles from shore. The ship was leaving in an hour. We were wearing swim trunks and flip-flops, and had maybe $50 between the 4 of us. Our wallets were on the ship, and we had no passports. The ship’s next stop was Los Angeles.
The Mexican teenager piloting us pulled the ripchord a few times, turned to us, and said, “The motor, she* is broke.” In desperation we waved towels at passing fishing boats. A charter-boat towed us into dock with 15 minutes to spare.
*Years later, having learned a bit of Spanish, this has always stuck in my mind. “Motor”- a cognate- is masculine in Spanish. Why did he use the female pronoun?
As a rule, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the more South you go from PV, the more thorny, scrubby and desert-y it gets. By the time you get down to Lazaro Cardenas or Zihuatenejo in Guerrero, it’s pretty much arid desert. The more North you go, toward Mazatlan, the more green and jungle-y the coast gets, until you pass Mazatlan and things dry up again and get all Sonora-ish and cactus-y. Down in the lowlands of PV and the surrounding coastal strip ringing the Bay of Banderas, wet and dry meet up rather quickly in a pretty small area.
The dominant forest type right around PV and to the South is Thorn forest, which as you might expect is full of things sharp and scratchy. Though the Thorn forest gets seasonally green, it’s a bit on the brown side in the dry season, which is of course when tourists tend to visit. On my morning runs around the resort, I followed roads and paths skirting the Thorn forest. On these runs I noticed birds, nests, flowers, a coati, and plenty of scratchy-looking brush. But mostly what caught my eye were all the peapods.
Fabaceae, the Pea Family (or Legume Family or Bean Family), is the third largest family of angiosperms*, and certainly they’re no stranger to us here in Utah. Milkvetch, Lupine, and Sweetpea are common sights on just about any Wasatch hike or ride in May or June. But we don’t have much in the way (any?) of Pea Trees here in Northern** Utah. In the Thorn forest, practically every tree is a Pea Tree. All around are acacias, and things that look like acacias, such as Tabachín, the Mexican Bird of Paradise, Cæsalpinia pulcherrima, and Fishfuddle, Piscidia piscipula, from whose seedpods Native Americans used to derive a poison used to stun fish. Almost every tree, when you stopped for a moment and checked it out, had something interesting going on. Here’s a quick example.
**Mesquite is a Pea Tree, but occurs only in the Southern part of the state.
My first full day I ran past this acacia loaded with these really-cool looking double thorns. I broke off a twig, and as I did so, brushed a tiny ant off my hand. The thorns seemed hollow, so I broke one open, and the thing was filled with tiny ants and dozens of little white larvae. I broke open another, and another, and every single thorn I examined was filled with ants. On closer inspection I noticed that on each thorn pair- whose interiors were linked and formed a common chamber- one of the thorns- always just one, not both- had a tiny entry/exit hole near the tip (pic below, left).
I realized that I’d stumbled upon a local species of Ant Acacia, though a very different species, inhabited by a very different (and thankfully far less aggressive) species of ant than what Bird Whisperer and I encountered a few years back in Costa Rica. Ant Acacias have evolved mutualistic relationships with certain species of ants in which the acacia provides shelter (and sometimes food) in exchange for protection from pests and herbivorous “predators.” Looking at this modest-sized shree, I can’t begin to imagine how many ants it houses- hundreds of thousands? Millions?
Pea Family plants do particularly well, and are especially diverse, in seasonally arid climates. The peapod is a great way to protect a vulnerable seed from sun, wind and desiccation. Many Pea Family plants grow in nitrogen-poor soils, and have established symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root- nodules. (I explained nitrogen-fixation in this post*.)
*Man, it is like I have post for everything.
Side Note: Confusingly, not all Pea Family trees growing wild around PV are native. One common exotic example is the Royal Poinciana, Delonix regia, or Flame Tree, native to Africa and introduced to the Americas in the 1600’s.
The Pea Family is of major importance in agriculture, not just for its many helpful nitrogen-fixers, but for major crops including everything from peas to peanuts*to soybeans to beans, lentils and carob. Clover and Alfalfa are also Fabaceae. There are also a number of troublesome Pea Family weeds, such as Kudzu.
*Peanuts are not nuts. They’re legumes, like beans or peas.
After a day at the pool, we loaded up in the rental car and headed North.
Tangent: This BTW, is our perennial family vacation-conflict. Whenever we get somewhere, I get ants-in-my-pants to check stuff out, like some rare tree or an archeological site or a remote village. AW and the Trifecta usually gravitate toward beach or pool or, well, you know, “vacation”-type stuff. I try to keep my ants-in-pants tendencies in check, and we usually work out an OK balance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one day they announced they were going on vacation without me.
As we climbed up over the low Sierra Vallejo range, the forest thickened and greened-up. North of PV the coast is dominated by Tropical Deciduous forest, full of lush vines and various strangler figs (which we looked at last year in Costa Rica.) There are a number of native palms along the Mexican Pacific Coast. Most common were the Colima Palm, Attalea cohune, (pic left) and these guys (below, right), who I’m pretty sure are one of the various Calyptrogyne or Rooster-tail species of the type we saw last year down in Costa Rica (though I didn’t make a species ID.) Both of these palms are feather-leaved or pinnate palms. We also saw, primarily inland, a number of wild fan-leaved or palmate palms. These might well have been Mexican Fan Palms, Washingtonia robusta (though again, I didn’t make a firm ID.)
Side Note: Remember, Palms are monocots, meaning they’ve evolved- or re-evolved- not just trees, but wood, from scratch. I find it fascinating that they’ve also independently evolved both pinnate (like Oak) and palmate (like Maple) leaves. It makes you think that if there’s life on other planets, there will be trees with both palmate and pinnate leaves.
We worked our way up the coast, away from the resorts, through hills and jungles and little towns where we were the only gringos around. Eventually, a little ways South of San Blas, we turned inland and climbed into the hills for several miles before turning off into a curious little locals-water-park.
Tangent: Away from the resort/tourist development, beaches and recreation facilities frequented by Mexicans have a different feel- a feel which is both kind of honky-tonk, and yet strangely, happier, at the same time, from the immaculate gringo-filled mega-resorts to the South. It’s hard to explain. Here’s a quick clip.
From the resort, we hiked up about a mile and a half alongside a small river, through a lush, green forest, sighting iguanas and strange birds along the way (play with sound on for great bird-calls).
Interestingly, the Pea Family was still a major component of this forest, a prominent example being the Coapinol or Jatobá tree, Hymenaea courbaril.
At the trail’s end we found this wonderful waterfall and swimming hole. I love fresh water swimming holes in the tropics. There’s something about them infinitely more refreshing, welcoming and simultaneously more peaceful than the beaches, which in comparison seem harsh, violent , and almost terrifying in scale. We swam and lingered for a bit before heading back.
On the drive home we stopped for dinner and a swim at Playa Los Ayala, another locals spot, where the Trifecta quickly befriended and swam with some Mexican kids in the gentle surf while AW and I kicked back and watched Pelicans.
A couple of days later, AW decreed Twin B (above, swimming at falls) too sunburned for another beach or pool day, so we headed inland to the East, up into the mountains, toward San Sebastian. A colonial-era town mining that has found a second life as a tourist stop, it’s quiet and peaceful before the tourist buses arrive. The road to it climbed and climbed and climbed. The trees grew in height, then changed, then changed again. Finally on the last stretch of road between La Estancia and San Sebastian, they changed gain, this time into pines.
Most Americans don’t think of pines when they think of Mexico, but the country is chock-full of them. Something like 39 of the world’s 110 species of pine are native to Mexico, and most of them are trees you never even heard of, much less laid eyes on*, and the country is considered one of the 2 great centers of pine evolution**.
**The other is East Asia.
These pines were tall, but a bit crooked, and reminded me of the way Eastern White Pines often grow in the sandy soils of Cape Code. Up close they were 5 needled, with very long- up to 30cm) long, slightly drooping needles in bundles of five. The cones were small and ordinary-looking, maybe 8-10 cm in length. On the way back I pulled over and scrambled up a hillside while AW and the Trifecta waited patiently in the car.
[OK this next part is so corny and sappy I almost deleted it, but it is absolutely true and heartfelt, so if you don’t like it, Hey go read something else.] One of my great joys in life is encountering a new species of pine. The tree is always new different and alien, but always there’s that piney smell. A smell I don’t come across in the Wasatch, but which instantly takes me back to countless other pine forests I’ve visited- the lakeside Eastern White Pines of Western Maine, the Ponderosas of my old yard in Evergreen, Colorado, the Bristlecone/Limber forest of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, the Lodgepoles of the Uintas, the dry warm February breeze atop Cerro Pinones. Ah, pines! Someday, when I have enough time and freedom that I can raise bees and grow a vegetable garden and look at the stars every night, I hope to spend a month or two straight down in Mexico, seeking out, discovering- and yes, sniffing- new species of pines.
Mexico is full of 5-needled pines, so species ID had to wait till the return home, where I was able to consult with Jesse Perry’s outstanding guide to Central American Pines*, and identify it as Pinus douglasiana, known locally as Pino or Ocote**. (It was the oblique peduncle that nailed the ID.) P. douglasiana grows primarily in Jalisco and Michoacan between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, but occurs in pockets as far South and East as Oaxaca, and as far North as Sonora. Interestingly, it varies in form a bit across its distribution. At the Eastern end of its range the twigs tend to be smooth-surfaced, but at the Western end, such as around San Sebastian, they’re generally rough and pocked, as you can see here (pic left). Little regional variations like this are cool; whether they ever will/would diverge into distinct subspecies or even species no one can say, but every 2 species of tree that ever diverged from a common ancestor started doing so with a little difference such as this.
*In 2006, when I traveled to Zacatecas in search of the Martinez Pinon, Perry’s guide was long since out of print. I received mine- a bootleg copy- as a gift from Isaac Pintero of Juchipila. But now I see on Amazon that the guide is- wonderfully!- back in print. If you’re even thinking about heading to Mexico and are even remotely interested in pines, order it. Hands down the best tree guide I’ve ever owned.
**Neither of which is very helpful, as these names are used locally for about a dozen+ species across Mexico.
Final Note: There are 2 other forest types within about 50 miles of PV as the crow flies- Cloud forest (similar to what we visited last year in Costa Rica) and true, high mountain-coniferous forest dominated by spruce and tall pines, including the mighty Montezuma Pine, P. montezumae, similar in form and cone-size to the wonderful Sugar Pines of California. Unfortunately crows don’t build roads in Mexico; each is a full day’s drive away from PV.