The Mexico Expedition

Posted: December 18, 2010 in Adventure, ALL POSTS, Memoirs
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What follows is a transcription of a journal my father – Ross E. Deforrest Sr – recorded about a winter-of-1976(or was it 77?) trip he and I took from Austin Texas to the Jungles of the Yucatan, Mexico.  We accompanied James Strickland(Strick) our fearless leader – also of Austin – and three of his friends — Kevin Keen who chronicled the event using a thirty-five multimeter movie camera, Jim Wright, one of Strick’s spelunker friends, Oveh (don’t know last name) a German national who joined us for reasons that neither Strick nor I can remember —  on an expedition to try to locate some previously unexplored or catalogued Mayan ruins, that Strick, an avid amateur archaeologist had found out about after an archeologist friend of his died and the man’s wife invited him to examine her husbands maps and journals of his extensive expeditions to the interior of Mexico.  While looking through those papers, Strick found one map that had “Pyramid” penciled in on a small river in the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and Strick, who is well versed in the locations of all archeological sites in Mexico had not heard of Pyramids in this area,  was spurred by this discovery to form our expedition.

I would like to note that my dad was sixty-eight when we took this trip.  The fact that he even came along at all is a testament to his toughness as ten years prior to this he had fallen off the roof of our three story house landing on his head and breaking his neck.  The Doctors examining him at the time thought he would probably never walk again.  However, after one year at Upstate Medical Center strapped to a hi-tech bed that turned him like he was on a spit and one year of painful rehab, my father was back out on the golf-links staggering through nine holes  swinging the club with his good arm due to partial  paralysis on the other side of his body.

I tried to follow dad’s journal pretty closely, but did some grammatical editing, along with some further clarification and comment on some points.  My comments are all bracketed and in italics.

Monday December 27th

We Left Austin 9:30 a.m. Monday December 27th, stopped at San Antonio for lunch and arrived in Laredo at 3:00 p.m.  We put Strick’s RV in storage and rented a taxi, piling 6 packs and six men in that one taxi.  We then sailed easily through customs and were soon delivered to the railroad station, stopping along the way to exchange some Yankee money for Mexican Pesos.  There was about a 3-hour wait for the train, but the interesting crowd of locals, left no time to be bored.

Once on the train, all of Stricks organizational efforts paid off beautifully and we were finally settled in private individual rooms with all facilities, including easy conversion  to sleeping quarters[These “roomettes” were truly remarkable.  There were two comfortable seats next to the widow that unfolded into beds that afforded an excellent view of the jungle and small villages through which we passed and there was a third seat on the adjacent wall that that when lifted up revealed the rooms toilet.]  So, about 7:00 p.m., we headed for Mexico City, with Strick and Rossie [I am Ross Junior and my father and family always used that moniker to differentiate us], rendering an appropriate[but fairly discordant] tune on the guitar.

Our train, The Aztec Eagle, fluttered along through the night with frequent stops, and in spite of some tossing about by uneven rails, we greeted the dawn well refreshed.

Tuesday December 28

We arrived in Mexico City about 8:50 pm on the 28th after just a little more than 24 hours on the train and checked into the Hotel Monte Carlo[a large hotel, apparently a one-time show piece, but now past its prime and frequented almost exclusively by bohemian travelers from all over the world –  mostly sporting backpacks].
Wednesday December 29

The following morning we slept late, then all went out for Brunch and were then off to explore the National Museum of Anthropology, with an emphasis on the Mayan section.  Strick wanted to find out if there was any mention in the archives about the locations of the ruins we planned to try to locate.  We found none.

After we left the museum, we visited the Castle of Maximillian Von Hapsburg, which has been converted to a museum, preserving the splendor and elegant way of life of an emperor and picturesque beauty of a regal era in Mexico’s history, which has disappeared except as it is preserved here.
Thursday December 30th

We started at about 8:30 p.m. for a visit to the pyramids in the mountains above Mexico City.  There are two main pyramids, one honoring the moon and the other the sun.  The Sun Pyramid is the largest by volume of any in the world and is surpassed in height only by the Great Pyramid in Egypt.[I climbed the roughly 800 feet to the top of that thing and it was a chore due to the thin air at 2160 meters (7082 ft) ]

We arrived back at the hotel at about 1:30 P.m., expecting to have plenty of relaxation time, but found we had to vacate our rooms by 2:00 P.M.  We were allowed to pile our packs in the hotel lobby, while waiting for out 8 p.m. departure on the train for Palenque  [ each of our packs weighed roughly 60 pounds, and included such things as snakebite kits and small collapsible shovels]. At six O’clock, we decided to leave for the train station.  But, when we tried to get taxis we were told we would have to wait at least ½ hour, due to 6:00 – 7:00 being the rush hour.  So, we decided our best bet would be to haul our packs the 3 or 4 blocks to the main St., where the taxis were supposed to be more plentiful.  On the way, Rossies pack fell apart, due to a broken frame, scattering his duffle along the crowded street.   When we got to Main St., the taxis were still few and far between, but we finally made it to the station, with just enough time to clear all the boarding hassles and were on our way only minutes after boarding.

We spent the night before New years Eve, rolling in constant zigzagging curves southward and awoke to a much different looking terrain.  We passed many large ranches, but gradually saw more and more jungle.

Friday, December 31st

As we were to spend New Years Eve on the train we had been farsighted enough to stock up with plenty of liquid refreshment[My father failed to mention that being New Years Eve, the train was filled with revelers and and a fare number of nubile females.  My father did not fail to apply his charms on them].  So, when we arrived at Palenque at 9:00 p.m., everybody was in a very good mood.  However, when we got off the train, we found that all the hotels were filled with holiday travelers, but one of the hotel patron’s showed us pity and allowed us to lay our sleeping bags on the patio outside, so we got a fair nights rest.  [At this point in his journal, my father has put a bold asterisk and just put the words,  “scorpion – snake other hotel”, and wrote nothing else about these words.  I guess he planned to elaborate on that later, but never got around to it.  Anyway, I was there, I remember both the “scorpion” incident and the “snake hotel” reference quite clearly and I will now diverge slightly from his chronicle, to tell you what happened].

My father said we “got a fair nights rest”, and that was true even on that concrete slab.  When I woke up,  I was lying on my side  with my face cradled on my bent arm.   As my eyes slowly focused on the patio in front my face, I realized  that a huge black scorpion was staring me dead in eye about three inches away from my nose.  I squealed something like “Strick scorpion” and after hearing him stir from his sleeping bag,  and waiting  endless   seconds,  Strick’s leather boot came smashing into my frozen view crushing the would-be face-puncturing arachnid.

The “snake other hotel” phrase, refers to something that the proprietor of the pension we ended up staying in, showed to my father.  It was a dead fer du Lance  in a jar of preservative liquid.  The Fer du Lance is a particularly aggressive poison snake found in that area, whose bite is more deadly than that of a Cobra, delivering both hemo and neurotoxins.  He told my father that the snake was found in his competitors pension across the street.  My father of course, immediately went across the street and asked the proprietor of that pension about the snake, and that fellow insisted that the snake was found in our Pension by our host.  “Otherwise’, he argued, how is it that he has the snake?  Now back to dad’s chronicle.
Saturday, January 1st

We were able to find a restaurant for breakfast, enjoyed a hearty breakfast of Huevos rancheros(eggs and hot sauce) and at about 10 a.m., headed for the ruins.  Even though Palenque was not our final destination, it was on the way and the ruins there are world-renowned.  We spent the rest of the day browsing through the amazing structures, which testify to a culture about which there are still many mysteries.

On the way home, we all managed to thumb a ride in the back of a truck full of workers, which was passing us as we waited for the bus.  We thus got back to the hotel beating the bus, and ate our dinner well contented with our efforts.

In the evening we held council to decide the best way to make our next move.  Due to our limited knowledge of one of our stops, the village of Candalaria on the Rio Candalaria, we decided to send out a scout to explore the possibility of getting a boat to ferry us to our destination, which by Strick’s reckoning was many miles up the Rio Candalaria from the Village of Candalaria — our final train stop.  Kevin was chosen for this mission and was rushed to the train station for a 10 p.m. departure.
Sunday January 2nd

Everyone but me was off to the ruins again at 10:00 a.m., — I stayed behind to get some rest.   I wish I were up to all the walking involved.  I couldn’t make such a trip without Rossie’s help.  He has carried my pack most of the time and never a word of complaint [I kept them to myself].

Kevin returned from his scouting trip at about 3:30 p.m.  He had covered a lot of ground in so short a time. He had traveled by train, taxi, bus, he had hitchhiked, he had walked and he had complied very complete report, which gave us the courage to make our try for an exploratory trip up the river. Our objective were ruins and caves near a place called Rancho Nuevo, an undetermined distance up the Rio Candalara from the village of Candalaraia, which is about 4 hours north of Polenque by train.

So, we all left Palenque on the train at 10:00 p.m., first class we hoped, as we were all tired and looked forward to relaxing on the train.  We watched our train pull into the station and as it stopped we all headed for it with packs on our backs, amid a mass of hurrying, pushing locals.  I move a little slower than the others and by the time I reached the car, the train was already moving and I just made it by being pulled on by Rossie and pushed from behind by a couple of bystanders[Literally: My father I through on the train].

Our visions of restful trip vanished as we tried to crowd our way into the car, which was crowded even before the mob of people who came on with us.  None of our party ever got a seat, but sat on the floor or stood swaying in the aisle along with at least twice as many passengers as the car was designed to carry[ I must interject a small piece of information that at the time(or ever) my father was unaware of.  During the time that he was resting at the pension before our train trip.  One of the other’s in our group, a German fellow about my age named Oveh and I took a walk back to the ruins.  Just outside the ruins was a bunch ramshackle tents where various multicolored hippies from all over the world gathered – Palenque is world famous for its Psilocybin mushrooms  — reportedly the strongest in the world.  Next to this encampment we encountered an individual stirring the contents of a large black caldron filled with a white creamy soup he referred to as “cream of Palenque soup”  Of course both Ove and I had a cup and by the time the train for Condolaria was ready to leave, we were highly hallucinatory and made the train ride quite a trip indeed].

After 3 ½ torturous hours, we arrived at Candalaria and tottered with our packs to the hotel or what passes as one.  This hotel is crude, almost defying description.  Wind, noises, odors and other nameless horrors came through the so-called walls non-stop[ lath walls through which the jungle could be viewed].  The beds were home made burlap cots in all stages of collapse.  The odiferous toilet, located in the open hall outside our room, was flushed occasionally by dipping a bucket in an oil drum filled with water in the courtyard.  Usually the flushing was left for the next victim. [I would like to interject more on that my father did not include.  When we walked into this village, which is definitely not on a tourist route, we may have been the first northern Americans to have ever visited.  Being Mayans, none of the villagers topped five feet, so when the saw or motley crew, and especiialy me – 6’4” tall, in torn very short cut-offs and with blond hair down to my ass and a machete hanging at my side, we were immediately escorted to the mayor of the village who demanded our passports.  Of course, I had lost mine, but Fortunately, Strick, who speaks Spanish smoothed things out with the official and I did not rot in a Mexican jail]
Monday, January 3rd

However, we managed to survive the night and made a deal with a river boat owner, whose boat was named “The Pioneer”, to make a special trip up the river at noon.  Our party-of-six were the only passengers. [the boat, I-kid-you-not,  looked like the African Queen and The fare for this trip was roughly fifty cents a piece]

We got on our way at about noon.  Our boat was 30 feet long, had a throbbing diesel and traveled about 10 miles per hour.  We chugged for 2 ½ hours between banks covered with tangled jungle and with an occasional clearing where some native had hacked out a primitive home.

We finally arrived at Rancho Nuevo at 2:30 p.m.  We had expected a small settlement[my personal fantasy included Gauchos on horseback, full course meals on a Hacienda, listening to a live Mariachi band, while sipping various exotic drinks in coconuts], but found instead only one conjugal family, who had homesteaded the land and had owned it for 30 years.  We asked to stay through Strick, our interpreter and were welcomed by friendly, if shy smiles from the whole family[Actually Strick only spoke with the patriarch of the group, who fortunately spoke Spanish along with Mayan.  He was a rugged individual, dressed in western garb, wearing a hat similar to that of Indiana Jones, and had a pistol at his hipThe children and his wife could be seen peeking out at us from the surrounding jungle and from the hut, but we never heard a peep from them.  I did notice that every member of the family had perfect glowing white teeth, totally without the benefit of modern dental hygeiene – a testament to their natural diet]

Their home is very crude.  Built of bamboo, vines and palm fronds, with a course dirt floor.  There were also several buildings besides the living quarters used for storage and animal shelters.  They had chickens, turkeys ducks pigs a plenty, horses, cows, dogs(7), cats, a parrot and more too I am sure.  They raise corn and other crops and with the fish from the Rio, are just about  self-sufficient.  As they have to be – a trip to town by dugout canoe[the only means of transport available to them], takes 20 hours.

Shortly after our arrival our host and his son swept the litter, which was a mixture of the droppings of all the animals, from one of the thatched shelters and said we could store our packs in there and sleep there as well if we cared to.  Three slept on the shed floor and three in tents.  No one mentioned how soft the ground was.
Tuesday, January 4th

The next morning, we prepared a leisurely breakfast of odds and ends and about 10 a.m., our host guided us(in his dugout canoe) to a pyramid on his Ranch.   The ruins were badly deteriorated and covered by jungle growth.  We found crumbling masonry now filled a hole at the peak of the pyramid that had apparently been an entrance in the far past.  We were not equipped for much digging, but with machetes did uncover a large number of pieces of pottery, plus some cutting tools of flint.  We did not bring any artifacts away, but were satisfied to be the first outsiders to explore the ruins.

In my dad’s journal at this point, there was a note that simply said “Snake” and I guess he planned to fill this in later, but I guess he never got around to it.  Here is the way I remember it:

After that first trip up to the pyramids in the canoe, I noticed that I was starting to feel poorly.  My stomach was upset and ironically was suffering the opposite of “Moctezuma’s Revenge”.  So, on the next morning, when the whole rest of the group were heading out in the canoe to the pyramids again, I decided to stay behind, feeling to weak to accompany them.  When they returned some hours later, I found that I had missed out on quite an adventure.

According to Strick, who related the experience to me, shortly after the canoe got underway,  a large boa, roughly 20 feet long with a head “as big a a German Shepard”,  gliding about a foot above the water, slithered into the river from the bank and headed toward the canoe.  The fourteen year old son of our host, pulled out his pistol and shot at the beast, but missed.  This only apparently scared the snake, who swan directly at the canoe, possibly mistaking it for a log, and crawled right into the boat.  As Strick put it: “

The rancher was hollering, the his son who was standing up in the dugout shooting, Kevin Keen was hollering and he jumped up to get a better picture. Kevin’s sudden  movement threw the narrow dug-out off balance and he nearly fell in. That threw off the sons aim.

As you will remember the dugout was heavy shallow and narrow so with  all this jumping around the sides of the dug out where occasionally dipping under water. With all this happening 

my first good view of this big  Boa was of it’s open mouth.  It’s head came over the side of the dugout directly where I was sitting.  Its mouth was size of a big German Shepard’s – but the head was wider and the teeth were longer and sharper.  Until that moment it had not dawned on me you could get a serious bite from a nonpoisonous snake.  My reaction was grab my machete but I could not swing it without hitting whoever was in front of me — I think it was your dad.

The snake did not die nor did it appear to have been injured- once it started to climb in the dugout the shooting at it stopped. I think it must  have been repelled by the screaming of a little girl. (or maybe that was me screaming LIKE  a little girl — as I said, once the snake’s head was in my lap my memory  became foggy) However do have a recollection of it swimming away and reaching the bank.  I do not remember the name of the rancher, but I do recollect that he was eager to get the bank to empty the dug out of the water ( that he insisted was not “river” water)“.

In the p.m., the others traveled up the river in our hosts dugout canoe, with the rancher and son as two-paddle-power.  They were to explore a cave and another pyramid about two miles up the river.

Rossie and I had decided we had had enough roughing it and were heading for home.  We had our packs ready on the dock waiting for a small boat, which plies the river about daily.  We were made to understand the boat would come along between 4 and 5 and could be flagged in.  At 5:30, the boat rounded a curve up the river and came chugging towards us.  We didn’t know if the boat would stop or not, but after some frantic waving the boat headed our way, much to our relief, as the next boat could be in a couple of days.  We hopped on the boat and were back in Candalaria in 2 ½ hours and got a hotel (?) room for the night.

Wednesday, January 5th

We had no definite plan, but decided to continue north to Merida[on the western cost of the tip of the Yucatan across from Cancun] , where we could perhaps get a bus back to Laredo.  After looking over the map, we decided we would forgo 8 more hours on the train to Merida and detrain at Campeche, as the same bus travels there.  We followed that plan.  However, when we arrived in Campeche and checked at the bus station, we found that all buses were reserved and we would have a 3-day wait.

So, we checked into the Hotel Mexico – a place to sleep and that’s it.
Thursday, January 6th

In the morning after breakfast, Rossie went to mail some post cards and on his way back, ran into to Strick and the rest of the group, who we had last seen way up the Candalaria and who we did not expect to see again until we got back to Austin.  This was quite a coincidence, as they had no idea where we were heading when we parted, nor did we as it turned out.

Our reunion was brief, as we were just about to leave for the train station and they were going to rent a vehicle and do some more exploring.  So, we said goodbye again and went our separate ways. [We got together at a restaurant for a meal and I would like to detail an amusing moment that occurred there: All six of us were sitting around a large round table and were preparing to order.  Oveh (of the magic mushrooms) decided to show off his Spanish skills, which beyond fairly good pronunciation, were weak.  To show off his Spanish, he ordered the drinks for us like this: meaning to order six cokes, which would be seis cokas – he said instead “seis cacas”(six shits).  He said this very clearly and loudly so that all in the restaurant could hear and there was a moment of silence before the entire place erupted in laughter.  After we parted ways, Strick and the rest of the group traveled back to the Museum in Mexico City to report our find of the Pyramids and that report is now there chronicled]

We had to settle for 2nd class tickets and the train was as crowded as usual.  Fortunately after a few stops, we finally able to get seats, for which we were very grateful as the trip to Mexico City was to be 36 hours.

When we arrived in Mexico City, a day and a half later at 9:00 a.m., we found that we had to spend another night there, because our train for Laredo had already left for that day.  So, we booked another room in the Hotel Monte Carlo.

We were able to get 1st class seats and a Pullman compartment for our last leg by train, so traveled in comparative luxury the last 24 hours to Nuevo Laredo.  Once there, we had no problems getting through customs and were deposited by taxi at the Greyhound terminal and caught the bus to Austin, where we were met by Carla[my wife] and were soon back home and glad to be there.

We were very happy to be safely home again, but will always remember our once-in-lifetime journey of over 5000 miles to the Yucatan Peninsula and how we became authorities concerning travel by train in Mexico.

  1. Cool story… funny I had never heard it before… but, them again, I may have just forgotten it! When I vacationed in Cancun (about 12 yrs ago) we were given a car (VW sedan) for a day, as a “gift” for attending one of those promotions (scams) that everyone down there is selling. Anyway, we ended up taking a ride to places not many tourists ever get to see (we did get to see Toulume, which I really enjoyed). It is very primitive once you get out of the built-up tourist area. One funny thing we saw was an occasional “store” (a shack with some “supplies”)… each one had a satellite antennae on the roof and a stack of empty Coke bottles out front. In the middle of poverty, we (America) had made our imprint!! Really an eye-opener!

  2. Strick says:

    Great story and I had forgotten what a great trip that was and it is so great to have the story told again from your dads perspective. How old was he when we Made that trip?
    I had also forgotten that Oveh was along. We need to see if we can find him. I have not seen Kevin in years but the Last time I heard from he was a police detective in Oklahoma City. I think I my still have the film that Kevin made along the way. You may remember he was carry along that huge movie camera and managed to film. (among other things) the incident where the huge boa mistook our dug out for a log and tried to swim up and climb on.
    I have been back to Palenque and the surrounding area too many times to count now and made such good friends there.

    • worldtake says:

      He was 68. Still got that film huh? You should convert it to video and put it on Utube. Oh yeah, the boa – or was it an Anaconda. I wanted to put that in the story as well and will as soon as you set me straight on the details. As I remember it, I was not in the dugout when this happened. If you remember, on that day I stayed behind at the Rancho not feeling well with – ironically — constipation and I thought dad went with you in the boat when you experienced the snake incident. Was he with you and could you relate that story so I can add it to the blog? Is Palenque still the same or did development spoil all that too? And is it safe to travel in the area now? BTW, if you subscribe to my by clicking on subscribe in the top menu, you will receive an email every time I put a new blog in. Also, did you check out some of my other blogs? I think you will appreciate the Lovesick Squirrel Ross

  3. Ross Deforrest says:

    Hey Strick,
    He was 68. Still got that film huh? You should convert it to video and put it on Utube.
    Oh yeah, the boa – or was it an Anaconda. I wanted to put that in the story as well and will as soon as you set me straight on the details. As I remember it, I was not in the dugout when this happened. If you remember, on that day I stayed behind at the Rancho not feeling well with – ironically — constipation and I thought dad went with you in the boat when you experienced the snake incident. Was he with you and could you relate that story so I can add it to the blog?
    Is Palenque still the same or did development spoil all that too? And is it safe to travel in the area now? BTW, if you subscribe to my by clicking on subscribe in the top menu, you will receive an email every time I put a new blog in.

  4. […] 2011 by worldtake in ALL POSTS, Memoirs 0 Circa 1992, I was with my good friend Strick(see my mexico expedition blog for some info about him)viewing an abandoned 500 acre ranch about fifty miles west of Austin […]

  5. […] In “The Mexico Expedition“, I tell about an expedition my father and I went on in the jungles of Mexico. In […]

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