The Turkey Vultures of Zopilote Beach

There’s a grand canyon in Mexico, and a river runs through it.

Cañón del Sumidero, Chiapas. All rights mine. © 2019

Moises is like a lot of flight attendants. Or doctors or cab drivers. He could’ve been a comedian. Instead he is a river guide-cum-historian and naturalist.

He kills the engine and we idle toward a pair of crocodiles lounging along the Mezcalapa River. The female eases into the still water, also called the Rio Grijalva. He teases us that they won’t eat people — we’re too contaminated with plastics. He’s as knowledgeable as he is funny.

This canyon is as old as the Grand Canyon, both formed from cracks in the Earth’s crust 35 million years ago. We’re hurtling through the Cañón del Sumidero in a hard plastic boat called a lancha and I wish I had snowboarding goggles — the wind pelts us as hard as the sun while Moises shouts the cities and important sites we’ll pass — Comitán, Palenque, Villahermosa, Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

But it’s not long before I forget about my wind-chapped eyes. Because all I can see are Oregon birds. Everywhere. Angel-white egrets and ink-black cormorants on both shores. I am completely awestruck, thousands of miles from where I grew up, careening through a canyon Moises tells us is up to 1,000 meters high. And deep in Chiapas, just like in the Willamette Valley, there are the cormorants — perched on felled trees and river rocks, their wings spread wide, drying their feathers in the February sunshine.

I try to drink in the sight of as many of them as I can, thinking the first few I see will be the last. Like the other endangered and threatened species calling this canyon home. Yet they preen and fish and fly all along the river, unexpected shocks of black and white punctuating countless shades of green. I am overjoyed to see them.

Only at Playa de Zopilote, the turkey vulture beach, are there no egrets or cormorants. The portly birds dominate this beach. Unlike the red-beaked vultures back home, their grey beaks and feet look weathered, sun-bleached, against their glossy black plumage. Rotund and awkward, I’ve never seen so many vultures waddling and congregating in one place before. Moises reassures us they won’t eat us either.

Soon after the beach we bank to the left, an inlet that feels more like a mangrove than the rest of the river. One spider monkey hangs low from a tree above us, his tail longer than his arms. We don’t notice the other one at first. It’s perched higher and farther back from where we’ve “parked”, sitting with its arms folded, suspicious or displeased or both. Moises doesn’t tell us if they’re a mated pair like the crocodiles. They seem more like curious kid and cranky uncle.

There are oak and pine trees everywhere, though to my untrained eye everything looks more like jungle than forest. Moises doesn’t explain the difference between selva and bosque. I make a mental note to look it up later as we float past the Seahorse stalactite, but I’m the only one who can’t distinguish it hanging from the rest of the rocks like a 3D print.

One impossibly tall limestone escarpment is home to Christmas Tree Falls — its “branches” are skirts of moss descending down the cliffside in a layered triangle. No water falls from it today but this Oregon girl can only imagine what a Christmas tree-shaped waterfall looks like during the rainy summers.

The next time Moises slows we drift to the right and into The Cave of Colors, mineral-rich pink and green walls of potassium and magnesium deposits where another lancha full of tourists sits below a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe — the last thing I expected to see high inside a cave on a river. A placard below the shrine commemorates the environmental advocacy of a Dr. Miguel Alvarez del Toro, the last of the living explorers, a tireless warrior for nature, creator of the Sumidero Canyon National Park.

I assume I’m not the only Catholic in this plastic boat, sunburned in an ill-fitting lifejacket, but I don’t cross myself. I say a little prayer of gratitude to myself for this current-less green river, for the trees and the monkeys. The crocodiles and the fish. For their protection. And for these birds that, like me, might also call both Oregon and Mexico home.

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