Cichlid Room Companion


Be Careful What You Ask For

By , 1999. image
Tessa Cain, 2000

Classification: Evolution, Central and North America.

Tesita, Queen of the Jungle

When I was a kid there was a TV show called "Sheena - Queen of the Jungle". That was when I knew that I wanted to be the Queen of the Jungle myself. So, here I am - Tesita, Queen of the Jungle. Photo by Bill Cain.

Well, you guys have begged for articles and you know the old careful what you ask for, because you may get it. I got what I asked for... a fish collecting trip to México. And, boy, did I get it! But the be careful part turned out to be a FAMILY fish collecting trip to México. And this is what it was like...

Rather than rush to meet an early morning plane 220 miles away, we decided to rush the night before to the Hacienda at LAX, our favorite place to sleep and fly from, while the car is safely stored in their security lot. I drove up to the registration desk and just as I got out someone knocked on my window and said, "do you know you have a flat tire?" I didn't know, of course, so I called AAA the first time in 24 years I have used their service for anything other than maps. Emergency flat fixing occurred and after some fitful sleep we were off in the morning to Mexicana and our flight to Cancun.

The flight was uneventful and we arrived in Cancun in the late tropical afternoon. We had a car waiting at Budget and while we awaited (!) authorization of our Visa card we overheard a conversation between the agent and a customer who had just wrecked a rental car without taking out the optional insurance. The agency promptly disavowed any responsibility and laid it squarely on the client, saying that is why they offer the optional insurance. The jury is still out on this one, but we opted to take the insurance with our car because the thought of awaiting (!) more authorizations while cooling our heels in a Mexican jail was unappealing. I have heard many stories about why you do or do not need to pay for this coverage, but it is just that, to cover your you-know-what, not to mention peace of mind. But more about that later....

We drove immediately to the Laguna Bacalar, known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors. We counted more than seven, and snorkeled in the warm waters of Mother Nature's own aquarium. While the kids and Bill shouted, "look, it's a meeki,...look, it's a bifasciatus !.." etc., my fading middle-aged eyesight enabled me to shout, "look, a big fish..look, a small fish.." etc. Next time I'll spring for the snorkel mask with my eye prescription ground into the lens.

We stayed at the Hotel Laguna where our bungalow with a second bedroom and a sink (a must for bagging fish) cost us a lovely $35 per night. While previously allowed, fishing was no longer condoned at the Hotel so we went down the road to a public beach where we caught meeki galore, and some Viejas, and then had a great big ceviche lunch next door where our waiter Rudy, a former timeshare salesman, spoke perfect English. We answered in Spanish as we always do. This usually makes for very interesting and reverse cross-cultural conversations. We stayed two nights at the Hotel Laguna and reserved the bungalow for our last night so we would be a reasonable driving distance (4 hours) from Cancun on the last day while not having to sleep in the Cancun environs.

Bacalar lagoon, and Thorichthys meeki

Thorichthys meeki from the Bacalar lagoon, the seven colors lagoon, this particular population that lives in very clear water shows a rather washed out coloration. Photo by Tessa Cain.

We fished the next afternoon in a balneario (natural swimming hole, usually public) near Bacalar. It was called Agua Dulce and appeared to have two residents: an elderly man who spoke Spanish, and his young grandson who spoke only Mayan. In spite of the inability to communicate verbally, the boy was quite "talkative" and not only told us he was 4 (seemed more like seven to me, but I don't understand Mayan numerology) but he showed us where the fishes were and explained how they fish there and eat their catch. In gratitude we gave him new "fishing line" which we tied to his bucket and he was very pleased. We caught Thorichthys meeki, 'Cichlasoma' salvini (Eric caught these in a dipnet) and also some Viejas which are still unidentifiable as juveniles.

Meeki in hand, so to speak, we proceeded through Escarcega (a dump) on to Palenque. On the way we passed a few army checkpoints, but since we had neither drugs nor guns, we had no problems here. We arrived at Xpu-hil, the jumping off point for a side trip to Calakmul, a barely restored archaeological area with a brand spanking new toll road (gravel) going right to it. There are 6750 structures mapped at Calakmul and only six have been restored so far. Just at the edge of the ruins we were greeted, in English again, by the suave and handsome Army Comandante General of the state of Campeche, who told us that "Campeche is so calm that even the sea doesn't have waves". (It's a Bay!)

We were the only people there, other than the workers on the largest of the pyramids. We actually blundered past the parking lot and drove directly up to the courtyard of the main pyramid, much like a family in a National Lampoon movie. The monkeys did their vocal and scatological best to scare us away, but we really enjoyed the real life Indiana Jones feeling of being at these ruins before they have achieved National Park status, as have some of the more popular ruins in this area. A Park employee directed us to an aguada, a watering hole, right in the heart of the archaeological area, where we netted a few very colorful T. meeki with really red throats and bellies and we went on our merry way. And then we were on to the state of Chiapas, to Palenque, to Paradise... at the Hotel Nututun.

Giving credit where it is due, I must say that the children held up very well on this trip. We have raised them on Indiana Jones and "Romancing the Stone" and these pop culture icons and ideals have served us well in these instances. My 13 year old daughter Leia turned the heads of many young fellows of marriageable age, and Eric, 11, was an intrepid explorer and avid snorkeler. They both throw a mean cast net too! The Gameboys were hardly used, although they were occasionally called into service. The kids were more interested in the trip than we anticipated, and that was to the better. They also learned lots of Spanish, including how to say, "Please bring my Mother a beer down at the riverside".

Aaah...the is as wonderful as it sounds! Outside of the town of Palenque, it lies on the banks of the Rio Chacamax; a lovely hotel with a fabulous natural pool (balneario) where the water is crystal clear and the Thorichthys helleri and Paratheraps bifasciatus and Theraps lentiginosus and Chuco intermedium (the kids called them "hockey sticks") got to be a foot long.

Absolutely divine, as is the dining room, where we had the same thing every night- Beefsteak a la Tampiqueña. Why change when you know what is perfect already? Tourists groups from Europe, mostly France and Germany, frequent the Nututun but rarely go to the river pool. Mostly they check in and out at a frantic pace and only have time to dine in the Restaurant Don Manuel before departing, but we were luckier. We swam every day in the river and enjoyed the clean and clear natural pool at the end of every day.

We took a drive to the waterfalls of Misol-Ha and fished with our nets near the town of Tomasopo, where we caught the beautiful Theraps coeuruleus, as blue as it sounds. This was nerve wracking as well as beautiful, as we have friends who had been totally ripped off here in a past trip. But with eight vigilant eyes we had no problems. (We also kept our car doors locked and our valuables out of sight.)

Next we went towards the Sierra to the town and river of Chancala. Here we hoped to find the elusive Asthatheros nourissati, one of our main target fish. An army checkpoint here is unavoidable, and when we entered the office to sign in they were watching Toy Story in Spanish on the TV there!

At Chancala we got to be, once again, the main attraction, the crazy gringos who want to catch the fish, which are too small to eat. Jubilant, we returned to the Nututun to discover that we had only one A. nourissati among many T. irregularis, so the next day we left the kids to dine alone in the morning and Bill and I went back to Chancala. The official remembered us from the day before, but we still had to pass the army inspection. (No guns, no drugs!) This day was Sunday, and we were early and alone at the river. At first we could find no cichlids at all, but then we succeeded in finding 5 more specimens of A. nourissati, before returning to the hotel.

We owed that afternoon to the kids so we stayed and snorkeled and swam at Nututun and later on we experienced the peak culinary experience of our entire trip, Platanos flameados-- Bananas Flambé. Made for us right at the table from a complex recipe, these are the most delicious confection the tropical world has to offer and there are so many to choose from. The fried tropical bananas are so good that we not only had them every night with dinner but we also had them every day for breakfast as well. These bananas and the orange juice, freshly squeezed, remain the two sweetest things we savored on our journey. Aaah... those memories!

Out of Palenque we headed towards Monte Grande and came to a lagoon where we again became the main entertainment for the townspeople. This town was really poor; one of the only places where we have ever been unable to get a cool coke, but the fishing was great. We caught some very colorful T. meeki, beautiful juvenile Paratheraps, (either synspilus or melanurus) and 'Cichlasoma' salvini so colorful they appeared to have blood on them. They had really red bellies. We never did learn the actual name of where we were, only that it was a finger of the Laguna La Sombra on the rural road to Monte Grande, wherever that is. But every throw of the net brought up numerous fishes of all kinds. Leia caught the King of the salvini, and Eric took in the most colorful Asthatheros robertsoni we saw on the entire trip. There were also very many "sardinas" - what the local people call the local tetras. They dry and eat them by the numbers.

Cichlids from Monte Grande Lagoon

Cichlids from Laguna Medialuna in Monte Grande, Parachromis managuensis, Thorichthys helleri, Paratheraps bifasciatus, Asthateros robertsoni, 'Cichlasoma' salvini. Photos by Tessa Cain.

We arose early the next day and went towards a new river drainage, the San Pedro. We had to cross the mighty Usumacinta, and it is no exaggeration to say "the mighty Usumacinta". It is indeed a mighty river! From Tenosique de Pino Suarez we took a dirt (formerly paved) road 90 rough minutes to the river and when we drove up there was a sign in Spanish, and also in English, which said, "Welcome to La Palma". I almost fell down. As it turned out, La Palma is the start off point for a boat and bus tour to Guatemala, to the ruins of Tikal. But this is only for the adventurous, as it is 3 ½ hours by boat and then 5 hours by dirt road bus to get there. We threw nets into the river but were hindered by the many flooded branches. We made the acquaintance of a young (marriageable and interested) fellow named Ernesto, who later took us a bit further up the road to an aguada, on the flood plain of the San Pedro, belonging to his family. Here we had much better luck.

We caught Thorichthys meeki, a lovely golden form, and also more N. salvini, and some T. pasionis. The sardinas were omnipresent. We fished until sundown and returned almost to Palenque only to drive headlong into a tope (a freshly laid cement speed bump), which was camouflaged by boulders and branches as a "Safety and Alarm" measure. We successfully tore out the bottom of our rented car and had to get back to the Nututun on a "colectivo" truck. Luckily for us no one was hurt. That was really lucky, as there are no real hospital services for hundreds of kilometers in any direction.

When the Federales de Caminos (Highway Patrol) towed away the car they assured us that we had no possible blame and there was no way to avoid or even notice these topes, as it was dark and they were under construction and so not yet designated by any sign or "anuncio". The logic of protecting the construction by placing boulders on the highway eludes me. And the branches did not help, erstwhile world travelers, beware of anything, however benign, on the road. (However, commonly seen are signs warning people- Do Not Leave Boulders on the Highway- so this is apparently a common practice. Why this is remains a mystery to me still.)

When we finally returned, tired and shaken, to the Nututun we decided that Bill would take a bus to the closest rental agency in Villahermosa, two hours away, to obtain a second rental car so that we could get to our flight two days hence. Amidst the chatter and laughter at the office we discovered this would be possible, but only on some other day, as the townspeople of the city of Catazaja had engaged in a civil protest and barricaded the crossroads of the only major highway in or out of Chiapas. I could only laugh at the irony of it all as I called Mexicana Airlines to explain the situation and why we would be detained until the blockade was removed and the crossroad cleared. Not a problem for us or Mexicana, we were told. What a relief!

The following morning the protest ended and the blockade was down. Bill left by bus for Villahermosa and returned with a car a mere nine hours later as the barricade was in action again. He had taken the back roads to circumvent the barricade but ran into a secondary blockade in which the campesinos "requested a donation" of 50 Pesos to let a car pass. In any case, we were happy to be able to be on our way but sad to be leaving our lovely jungle paradise at the Nututun.

Thorichthys helleri

Thorichthys helleri parental pair in Rio Chacamax, Usumacinta; Chicaps, México. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas.

After a beautiful complementary tropical fruit salad with hibiscus garnish, we sadly left Palenque a day late and headed for Bacalar, our midway return point. Our second car had half the room and half the comfort of the first so it was a little tough packing up and we had to cut down on our number of fishes to return with us. The drive was grueling, in the rain, in the dark, with inferior wipers, and at times we had to look for the trees at the road's edge to see where the road was going. It took too long but at last we got there.

We were able to get a room again that night at Hotel Laguna where we spent the final morning rebagging our fish and packing for the long, long journey home. Those breathable plastic bags are a wonderful invention both for us and for the fish we so lovingly packed into them for the entire trip. (It is much better than running the battery pumps and tubing off the car lighter etc. etc. So, thank you, John Farrell Kuhns, and Kordon for this great technology.) The kids snorkeled while we packed and finally we were off on the road to the airport at Cancun. One stop at Tulum (now a city) for some souvenirs for schoolteachers, and then we were there.

At the airport we checked the fish suitcases before loading our baggage and after our tickets were turned in and everything appeared fine, we were greeted with the final (and only unpleasant) surprise of our whole trip. Some self-important junior official at the airlines decided we should pay a fine for not meeting the plane the previous day. We explained again about the civil unrest, the road blockade, the rebels and the government and the army, and the prior arrangement with Mexicana and still he said, "This is not the fault of Mexicana that the plane took off and you could not bother to be here. That will be $55 dollars per person, please!" Ouch! A most uncomfortable situation! We had no alternative but to put the penalty charge on our American Express card and hope for a successful refund upon our return to the States (I am adding this note many months later, and our penalty was rescinded and refunded.)

A baby screamed and ran up and down the aisles for hours, much to the distress of the many other passengers on the flight home, but we landed safely and made it through U.S. Customs where our fishes were even inspected by an agent of California Fish and Game. They actually appeared to be more interested in the technology of the breather bags than in the fish themselves. Our flat tire repair had held and we made it safely out of Los Angeles (one of the most dangerous parts of the trip) and home by 3:00 the following morning! All but one of our breather bags had held up and only one fish was lost in the transit. Not too bad, losing only one fish and keeping our sanity too. Our fish are now happily swimming around in their quarantine tubs and taking to prepared foods just fine. We wish we had some of the "ones that got away" but it was a wonderful and enriching experience to share with our children. No armchair travelers in our family; we have created our own junior hobbyists and they are also now acutely aware of the environmental aspects of fishkeeping as a result.

It was a wonderful trip but I will surely in the future be careful what I ask for...


Cain, Tessa. (Sep 08, 2000). "Be Careful What You Ask For". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Nov 30, 2022, from: