Lakes and Rivers of Mexico: Magical Moments

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 7.21.26 AMBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The Rio Grande River (literally “Big River River”) was virtually the only Mexican body of water mentioned in north-of-the border public school geography text books in the 20th century. The name of the river used in Mexico, Rio Bravo, was ignored, as were the tributaries flowing from the mountains of Mexico and feeding the river. We, as young students, could trace the routes of the Rhine and other European rivers, but had the impression that Mexico was a vast arid desert fringed with ocean.   Not until we were young adults did we begin to discover magical moments in and on the interior waters of Mexico.


Once we started traveling in Mexico, a body of water we heard mentioned often by people from North America was Lake Chapala. On our one and only visit, the lake was rapidly receding, leaving docks literally high and dry, the water was clogged with foreign plants, and we were warned that there were toxins in the water from agricultural run-off. We couldn’t imagine why anyone would choose to go there. One possible explanation may be that RV’s have some kind of homing instinct that drives them to the shores of Lake Chapala, bringing their occupants along. However, we recently heard from neighbors who visited the Chapala this winter that extensive restoration of the water is in progress with obvious beneficial results.

Recently we revisited the wonderful incredibly-colored small lakes in and around the Lagos de Montebello National Park in the state of Chiapas, and these we do recommend to you. You can find our full description by searching earlier issues of The Eye. Another spectacular large lake is Lago de Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán, mentioned in last month’s Editor’s Letter. Approached from the north, one begins to glimpse the shimmering lake from between the dense pine trees that line the steep cliffs that drop down to the lake. The color ranges from brilliant blue to gray-green as the angles of the sun and the clouds change. Driving along the perimeter cliffs, you will see constantly varying ecology, including both blinding sunshine and dense fog rising up from the water surface.

Dotting the lake are six islands that at times seem to drift on the water. They are accessible by boat from docks on the southern shore a few kilometers from the city of Pátzcuaro. Our weekend trip to the largest island, Janitizio, was truly memorable.

Warned that Janitizio can become extremely crowded by mid-day, especially Sunday, we were the first people on the first boat to leave for the island. A cool breeze fanned us as we made our way to the island still partially shrouded in mist. Ahead, the lake was absolutely still. As the mist began to clear, boats full of fishers in indigenous costume suddenly emerged, with the men whirling their large fishing nets up over their heads in slow-motion perfect synchronicity. The sweeping nets reached the water simultaneously, creating ever widening ripples in the mirror of the lake.

Leaving our boat, we climbed the steep path to the top of the island. We soon realized that the main path led past hundreds of gift shops, at that hour mainly closed. After perching on a high point to admire the lake from many different angles, we saw boats loaded with tourists making their way toward the dock. We managed to find a path back down to the dock that avoided the shops now in full activity; instead, we had frequent glimpses of lush gardens and hummingbirds behind stone walls.

Although it is probably possible to drive around Lake Pátzcuaro in under two hours, we never have tried to do so. The villages that dot the shores are too interesting to pass by. The village of Tzintzuntzan holds a special memory for us, since we filled up the back of our car with the wonderful baskets that are woven by the residents there, and then we filled the baskets with other handicrafts made in the village.

We never leave the lake without having comida at Campestre Aleman, a large family-style restaurant in the village of Erongarícuaro. Located on the shore of an inlet inhabited by swans and ducks and visited by egrets and other birds, the restaurant specializes in absolutely delicious smoked trout and other fish.

One of our favorite rivers is the Rio Grijalva-Usumacinta. The two branches are considered by some as two separate rivers, since the Grijalva flows into and the Usumacinta flows out of wetlands in the state of Tabasco. But together they form the third longest river in Mexico and both, in part, trace the border with Guatemala. They also have created spectacular canyons, the most famous and accessible being Sumidero Canyon in Chiapas. For those of you who may have read our earlier Eye article on Tuxtla Gutierrez, in which we described the boat ride through this beautiful canyon, we have to say that since then, plastic bottles have begun to clutter the river and detract from the scenic wonders. Hopefully, an effort will be launched in Chiapas to collect and recycle the bottles.

Our most recent trip on the Usumacinta provided some magical moments. The river appeared pristine as we followed it by road from Palenque southeast for about 175 kilometers. Our group was planning on an early morning visit to the Mayan archeological site Yaxchilán, accessible only by taking a boat down the river to the entrance. So we stayed overnight on the shore in the Lacandona jungle eco-preserve Escudo Jaguar. Across the river, the impression of being totally isolated in a jungle was interrupted by the view of a cellular phone tower in Guatemala (but of course we had not prepared ourselves to receive Guatemalan phone service, as the local residents do). At sunset, families of monkeys played in the trees lining the river shores. All night long, sounds of the monkeys howling in the jungle were drowned out only by a downpour of tropical rain beating on the roof of our cabin.

Early in the morning, the river was shrouded with mist so thick that the opposite shore could not be seen. We were wondering whether the trip was even possible, but the boat driver was undaunted. The trip down river to Yaxchilán was more than a little reminiscent of the film The African Queen. The sounds were an incredible mix of the howls of monkeys on both banks, joined by choruses of parrots and many other unseen birds.

(The government website for Palenque and Yaxchilán includes a virtual tour where you can hear these sounds yourself.)   The only man-made sound was the soft put-put-put of our motor. The sights through the fog were glimpses of mysterious vines and jungle canopy, an occasional egret that swooped down in front of the boat or a heron standing as still as a statue on a log. Now and then the sun would break through the mist, providing a momentary clear view of brilliant green escarpments. There were no modern structures visible. We seemed to be moving back in time, which set the mood for our visit to the ancient temples and plazas.

Another memorable river experience was in the Si’an Kian biosphere in the state of Quintana Roo south of Tulúm. Perhaps it’s strictly not correct to call the body of water a river but rather a fresh water canal used for centuries by Mayans in the period before the Spanish Conquest. We were told to wear bathing suits for our biosphere tour and we were also told that the tour included a float down the canal. We assumed that the swimwear was for visiting a beach at the end of the tour and that we would be floating down the canal in a boat. Only partially correct on both counts.

A boat did bring us up the canal to a beautiful lagoon. However, after birdwatching on the lagoon, the boat returned to the canal, we were handed life jackets and told to float down the canal on our own to a point where we would once again board the boat.

For what seemed like an eternity we slowly floated on our backs, feet down stream, passing vine-covered Mayan ruins, imposing mangroves, magnificent orchids and a wide diversity of birds chattering – perhaps laughing – at us. We were visited by curious fish that gently nibbled to see if we were edible and decided not. Butterflies hovered over us and then flew on in colorful arrays. And an occasional snarl of an unseen animal made us wonder if this would be our terminal adventure. Just as we began to think that we had been abandoned, we floated around a bend and saw the boat waiting for us – all too soon it seemed at that point.

The water resources of Mexico are precious. If you visit the capital, Mexico City, remember that when the Spanish arrived this location was a small island in the center of a vast lake.   Following drainage and evaporation over the years, there is little to be seen in the way of water features in this part of Mexico. Other lakes are still currently disappearing in Mexico, so see them while you can.

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