travelog 36

The Palm Canyon

She is very upset and hisses at us and scrutinizes us with unconcealed interest. The dark brown, very thick fur, the long bushy tail, and the cream-colored mask around her eyes show that she's a member of the raccoon family - it's Miss Coati (Nasua nasua), who clings to a charred palm trunk (Brahea sp - a bluegreen palm tree - Palma azul) with her claws only about 3 ft. away from us. We stand still, as quiet as a mouse. Above us sonething rustles in the top of a palm tree and it dawns on us: Miss Coati is not alone. We also have the pleasure of meeting Mother Coati. Two little Coatis, still much smaller than their mother and very light brown, are climbing around in the palm trees. Once everybody is convinced that we are not a threat, the family jumps from the palm trees and disappears, but not without hissing at us again. We admire their ability to climb up a vertical rock face with effortless ease. But these three cute animals disappear very quickly without giving us the chance to shoot a picture of them.

Today we're in a palm canyon. But let us tell you how we got there one after the other.

As usual we were in the middle of a search for very special plants in order to document them in their locality (Agave fortiflora, Agave felgeri, Agave colorata und Agave chrysoglossa). From scientific literature we learned that these plants grow in the mountains north and northwest of the Bahía San Carlos (Sonora). These cerros (Mexicans' word for "mountains") are beautiful from far away, very colorful with red and yellow stripes. They look a little like Swiss Emmentaler cheese with its many holes. However, after a closer look we realized to our dismay that they were simply inaccessible. Being of volcanic origin, these rounded mountains look like huge bubbles, their sides vertical rock faces. We tried to climb up at one spot which we thought looked very flat because we saw big Agave fortiflora plants hanging in the cliffs above us. However, after about 600 ft. we had to turn back. It would have been possible (and a lot of hard work) to climb up a little more but every look back was even more frightening.

Then we got a good tip from an American who lives at the Marina in San Carlos (PocoLoco sometimes plays a leading role in this game). He pointed out a little trail into a valley and that's how we finally found a way into the palm canyon.

The beginning of the canyon is very unassuming. A dry river bed with rocks, hemmed by thorny bushes. Then the red rock faces grow closer and the first palm trees stand in the river bed like watchmen. There are two different kinds of palm trees here. One is blue-green (Brahea sp.), the other can reach 90 ft. and is a very slender palm with green leaves (Washingtonia robusta). The latter can live 150 years, at least that's what our book says. Once you reach the first ledge you can see it all - big groves of palm trees, fig trees and in the vertical cliffs the most beautiful members of Agave chrysoglossa plants (a so-called "cliffhanger" - plants with no teeth along their leaves because they need none for protection - which bigger plant eating animal would climb these vertical cliffs!? - see our upcoming article about these plants in the Italian journal "Cactus&Co") and Agave fortiflora (this one with distinctive teeth).

We decide to hike up into the canyon as far as possible. Huge boulders make our progress difficult. Fortunately there have been other people leaving their traces and little trails. Sometimes we have to squeeze our way between two huge boulders ot use our climbing skills. There are marshy ponds in our way or we have to feel our way very carefully over slippery palm fronds. In some practically insuperable places some helpful fellows have even placed a dead tree trunk against a rock and carved out some steps.

Very frequently we pass water holes. Sometimes pretty deep ponds where papyrus and reed grow. We are sure there must be frogs but in our presence they are very silent and don't move around.

Unfortunately there are very "funny" people around who think it's a very bright idea to set fire to dry palm leaves still on the trees. These dry leaves resemble a beard around the stem and are an excellent refuge for small animals and a good nesting site for birds. It seems this canyon was visited by such jerks not long ago and the trees are a pathetic sight.

After about half an hour we reach the place where the canyon opens. Here another canyon from the side joins the main canyon, and the rock faces are replaced by slopes with lots of debris. Those slopes are still very steep and veined with rock cliffs but we can climb up without too much trouble. We spot the bright yellow flower stalk of an Agave chrysoglossa not too far away and start our ascent. Viewed more closely this nine foot flower stalk is a natural spectacle. Hundreds if not thousands of tiny yellow flowers are lined up next to each other. Sweet and sticky drops of nectar glisten in each open flower. A hummingbird buzzes around us and scolds us. We feel like intruders, after all he's only defending "his" food bowl.

On our way back down to the bottom of the canyon we pass a place where the bubbles in the rock are cracked to reveal their glittering content - crystal geodes wherever you look. Unfortunately they are very firmly attached to the rock and we have to refrain from taking a small sample with us whether we want to or not.

The sun is too brigth at noon, and we have to wait a little while before we can take pictures of plants. In the meantime we continue our expedition through the canyon. Julia reaches a point which offers her an unimpeded view into the valley from where we have climbed into the canyon and even out to the sea. With her binoculars she spots another hiker far below. By chance this person is also looking up at Julia through his binoculars. They wave and greet each other with their binoculars and laugh at this chance meeting.

The sun slowly disappears behind the towering rocks which cast long shadows. We take our cameras and the tripod and go to work. Sometimes it's not that easy to reach the most photogenic plants because the shrubs grow very densely and try to hinder us with their thorns. Then we have to cut our way through with the scissors we always carry with us. But we usually end up making our blood sacrifice to the thorns. We find a very nice specimen of Agave colorata with perfect color streaks which we immediately have to capture on film. In addition to the four century plants already mentioned, there is a fifth one growing in between all the others. It's the Agave angustifolia, a widely spread species in Mexico. It's very rare to have that many different species in one place without interbreeding and hybridization. They probably flower at different times of the year or have different pollinators.

When the sun has totally disappeared and it colors the red rocks an even deeper shade of red, it is time to think about returning to our little house on wheels. Climbing down is a lot easier, especially when you are looking forward to an ice cold Tecate (Mexican beer), and so we reach our PocoLoco when the last rays of sunshine color the mountain peaks dark red.

February 2001

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen