Tuesday, March 11, 2014

San Blas Part 5: The people, wildlife, and hospitality of Mexcaltitan

A woman poles her canoe in the ancient way as white pelicans drift serenely past. Mexcaltitán is suffused with a tranquil, timeless quality. While some canoes are now motorized, many are still propelled in a way that can't have changed much since 1091 AD when the Aztecs launched their legendary migration from here to the Valley of Mexico. In my last posting, we looked at the layout of Mexcaltitán and some of its interesting buildings and streets. In this one, I will focus on the people who live here, the animals who share this little slice of paradise with them, and we'll sample the local cuisine.

A scale model from the local museum shows the physical layout of Mexcaltitán. As you can see, there are four streets laid out like the cross hatch of a tic tac toe game. They are connected by an oval street that runs around the circumference of the town. Each of the cross hatch streets ends in a pier. Tied up to the piers, and between them, are many boats. The length of the widest point on the island is only about 400 m (0.25 mi). In the rainy season, the water rises and fills the streets, transforming Mexcaltitán into a tiny version of Venice. Then, people move about the town by poling their long narrow canoes down the streets.

The People

The work day begins. A boatman poles a tool-carrying friend from the mainland to the island. Other men work on their outboard motors or prepare for a day of fishing. Activity like this continued at a leisurely pace throughout the day. Life on Mexcaltitán is pursued in an unhurried sort of way.

Some of the long, narrow canoes are tied up next to a dock. We assumed that the one in the foreground belongs to a fisherman from the net piled in the middle. About half of these boats are motorized. As you can see, the boats' shape allows them to travel the narrow streets during high water

A group of Mexican tourists cruises around the island. Some of the local boatmen make a living through tourist-related activities. We were the only foreign tourists on the island the day we visited. The green plants floating in the water behind the tourist boat are water hyacinth, locally known as lirio. It is highly invasive and can propagate at an astounding rate. A single plant can multiply to cover an acre of water in only a couple of weeks.

Mexcaltitán's fishermen are organized into a cooperative. Above, the weatherbeaten sign on their headquarters lists their coop's name as Jose Maria Morelos. He was a hero of the War of Independence against Spain. While cooperatives like this are a product of the 1910 Revolution, the concept of cooperative efforts and communal ownership of land goes far back into pre-hispanic times.

The island's museum displays artifacts of current life, like these fishing nets. Harvesting the lagoon's small shrimp is one of the chief activities of the local fishermen. The shrimp can be found in the local restaurants, along with fresh and saltwater fish cooked in a variety of ways.

Small fish dry in the warm afternoon sun. These may be charales, but I am not certain because charal is a freshwater fish and much of the water around Mexcaltitán is brackish. When completely dried, they will be served whole, as snacks. Sometimes, rather than dried, they will be deep-fried. Usually they are then sprinkled with lime juice and dipped in hot sauce.

A fisherman, his boat heaped with a net, heads out for a day's work. The house across the lagoon, and the one that is being built next to it, are among many that have been built along the edge of the water facing the island. There is very little space left on the island for new construction.

Two fishermen prepare to feed the pelicans. The fishermen and the birds have a friendly relationship. After cleaning their catch, men like these will take the waste parts in a bucket and toss them out to the waiting pelicans. The large birds hungrily rush in to grab a free meal. The squawking, flapping, and squabbling that result are quite entertaining.

The Animals

After enjoying their meal, several White Pelicans groom their feathers. White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) breed in the interior of North America but move south to the lakes and lagoons of Mexico, and even as far as Central and South America. They are among the largest birds of North America, and only the California Condor has a larger wingspan. A White Pelican can weight up to 13 kg (30 lbs). When they fly or swim in large flocks, they do so in close formations. While on land their clumsy movements can appear a bit comical. However, when in the air or water, their movements are smooth and graceful. Wild White Pelicans can live more than 16 years and some in captivity have lived as long as 34 years.

A Brown and a White Pelican swim together. I was intrigued by this companionship between two birds whose habitats and habits are quite different. Brown Pelicans are usually found on the seashore, while the Whites like freshwater lakes and brackish inland lagoons. The Browns hunt by flying over the water until they spot a fish. They then dive vertically out of the air with a great splash. By contrast, the Whites swim along in formation, herding the small fish toward the shallows, then scoop up their prey by dipping their beaks into the water. The Brown Pelican seen above later joined a large flotilla of Whites that was cruising up and down the lagoon channel.

A Wood stork stands on one leg as it perches on a bare limb. The Wood Stork likes lowland wetlands with trees where it can built a nest. Nayarit's mangrove swamps seem to fit the bill. It is the only species of stork that breeds in North America. In non-breeding season, it can be found as far south as Brazil.  This large bird is classified by the US fish and Wildlife Service as "endangered", although there have been some proposals to downgrade the listing to "threatened." I am endebted to Georgia Conti for this and other identifications.

A Great Egret stands motionless as it looks for prey in the water.  The Great Egret (Ardea alba) is also known as the Great White Heron. It is very widely distributed around the the temperate and tropical areas of the world, where it breeds in trees next to large lakes.This is a wading bird that uses its long legs to slowly and delicately move through shallow water near the shore. A sudden uncoiling of its long neck, and quick thrust of its sharp beak, will often produce a meal. Great Egrets prey on small fish, snakes, frogs, and other aquatic prey.

A Mexican Spiny-tailed iguana strikes a jaunty pose on top of a wall. From his nose to the tip of his tail, this fellow was about as long as my arm. He very obligingly remained perfectly still as I finished photographing him. Then, he then scuttled off into the brush. His lack of fear may mean that he is someone's pet.

Cattle wade neck-deep near the shore of the liro-covered lake. We were sitting in a restaurant when we noticed some movement across the channel. At first we were unable to make out what was happening. Then we spotted the heads of a small herd of cattle, just visible above the lirio. They had just waded into the lake and were proceeding along the shore with only their heads above water.

The hospitality and cuisine

The restaurant from which we spotted the cattle had no other customers but us. It was one of several scattered around the island at the ends of the piers. As it was a clean and cheerful place, we decided to try the cuisine.

Our table was in a corner overlooking the lake. The constant parade of boats and pelicans provided an on-going "floor show" during our meal. Before our main courses, the waiter supplied us with a large array of botanas (appetizers). These included a local delicacy: small, whole, dried shrimp. By "whole" I mean feelers, legs, eyes, and all. They were crunchy and actually quite good. When in Rome...

Our waiter gave me a big smile when I asked if I could take his photo. He appeared to be about ten years old, but was very efficient, as well as friendly. Following our meal, it was time to catch our launch back to the mainland. We were charmed by this tiny and very ancient community. I suspect that the tranquility of Mexcaltitán could be quite addictive.

This completes Part 5 of my San Blas series. I always appreciate feedback and questions. If you have any, please leave them in the Comments section below. If no one else has commented yet, it may say "no comments". Just click on that and it will open the Comments window. You can also email me directly if you would like.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hi Jim and Carole. I thought I'd try again -- I left a comment with my email a few blog posts ago, saying how much I'm enjoying your San Blas series. May I share it on my Facebook page? Thanks. Maria Lee

  2. Dear Maria, Thank you for your nice comment. I appreciate it. I have no problem with you posting a link to my blog site on your Facebook page. However, I don't generally authorize the direct use of my photos or written text on other sites. In addition to answering you in this way, I have also sent a message to your email address that you previously provided.

    Sincerely, Jim

  3. Hi you two,
    This little island pueblo seems so magical. Thanks so much. I am curious though, by road, how do you approach it ? The maps have roads on them but which did you take ? From the North, South, which ? REALLY LOVE YOUR BLOG(s).

  4. Hello Jim & Carole -

    My name is Alejandro Diaz. I'm an artist originally from San Antonio,Texas where I'm currently involved in a project to create a children's park. The park will be located downtown San Antonio on the old grounds of the 1968 World's Fair and partially on the grounds of San Antonio's oldest, historic Mexican neighborhood called La Villita. For the park I have proposed a series of photographic life-free-standing ut out sculptures which would by located throughout the park. I keeping with the Mexican historic nature and past of this neighborhood, I am looking at images of Mexican street vendors as subjects for these sculptures and by happy accident came across your blog and image of the Mexican woman street vendor with the blue cart selling potato chips. Needless to say it is a beautiful image and would love include it as one of the works in the park. I wanted to find out if you would be open to licensing the use of the image for this project and if so - to find out what you would charge, I can explain the actual photo sculptures in detail should you be interested but basically they would be similar to the cut out free-standing figures you sometimes see people taking their picture with. The image itself would not be altered in any way and of course full photo credit would be given. Please feel free to contact me via my email alejandrodiaz11@hotmail.com also my US daytime Mon-Fri phone is (212) 572-4755.
    Best regards -


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim