El Cielo Trip Report

I’d been looking for a way to do my first birding in Mexico, and the El Cielo Nature Festival in February offered an opportunity to explore the El Cielo area and bird several different areas in the region.

We left from Brownsville for the seven-hour trip to Ciudad Mante aboard very comfortable motor coaches. There were 84 festival participants, divided into 3 groups, each on our own bus and staying at a different hotel in Mante.

We crossed the border and started the drive through miles of Tamaulipan scrub. We stopped for lunch at a mescal factory, where we toured their manufacturing facilities, saw displays of regional artwork, and picked up our box lunches, which included a sample bottle of mescal.

Not too long after we resumed driving, we crossed the Tropic of Cancer and soon noticed the changes in vegetation.

We made a mid-afternoon stop at La Morita, a large mango grove and nursery, for fresh-squeezed orange juice, mango pie and our first tropical birds. We arrived at our hotel in Cd. Mante about 4 p.m.

Later, we attended opening ceremonies for the festival at the City Hall, where local officials welcomed us.

Festivities included an exhibit of nature painting and photography, and a fiesta on the square with regional exhibits and wonderful local dancers, followed by dinner. The festival opening made it evident that this was an important and well-supported community effort.

Each group birded different areas around Cd. Mante, which made it much more manageable. We would get on the road early in the morning, take a bus to our destination and then transfer to smaller, open 4-wheel-drive vehicles for the rides over rocky old logging roads.

We had excellent local guides and opportunities to shop at locally-owned cooperatives, part of the area’s sustainable development projects.  There were also seminars on topics ranging from birds and bird calls of the area to Tamaulipan rock art.

I attended the seminar on sustainable development in the area presented by Sergio Medellin. He described the process he and others had followed to help develop projects that are locally owned and driven, to provide income that doesn’t involve destroying the natural resources.

Projects include training local bird guides, running cooperatives such as La Fe, and establishing small hotels and plant nurseries.

This very interesting presentation provided a lot of context for the festival as another step toward sustainable development in the area.

The festival’s closing dinner was held at the local cultural center. Local organizers thanked the businesses that had supported the festival, as well as the guides. There was a special round of applause for the six local bird guides, who had been training for a year to learn the English names of the birds and prepare to guide. It was a wonderful last evening.

The extremely well-organized festival was fun and interesting. It offered a range of activities, from birding and butterfly tours to seminars, and let me see a good bit of the area.

The Mexican bird guides were knowledgeable and expert in finding birds. If you’re looking for a taste of neotropical birding just 300 miles south of the United States, this festival is a great way to go.

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