One of the great things about traveling in Chiapas, Mexico is the chance to experience living Mayan culture, but the region is also home to stunning natural beauty, great campsites, and a flourishing population of endangered scarlet macaws.
A rough road to a raging river
The rough road that leads to the Centro Turistico Las Nubes almost got the better of us, but we finally reached this collection of wooden cabins and a nice camping area on the banks of the Santo Domingo River. The river drops here creating a series of rapids and swimming holes which are the main attraction.
When water levels are normal, the water is clear and blue and you can swim in the refreshing pools. During our visit, however, we were afraid to even approach the bank and walking across a footbridge over the churning whitewater and tumbling rapids was heart-pounding.
We walked past a few more seemingly-abandoned very large cabins in the jungle on our way up a trail to a dramatic overlook about 300 feet (100 meters) above the river, which felt like a relatively safe distance, at last.
Check out our heart pounding video of the raging Santo Domingo River, below.
Welcome to the best campsite ever
We didn’t stay at Las Nubes long. We were anxious to get to Centro Ecoturistico Ara Macoa Las Guacamayas and check out their namesake scarlet macaws (called guacamayas in Spanish). NOTE: the road to Las Guacamayas was mostly paved and all of it was in good shape (a relief after the bone crusher out to Las Nubes), so don’t be scared off if your guide book talks about a bad dirt road.
Las Guacamayas was started by locals in the Reforma Agraria village–mostly aging original settlers and descendants of the folks from Oaxaca who were encouraged to move here by the Mexican government in 1976 as a way to populate this border area and work the land.
In 1991, the locals organized themselves and set up a 5.5 square mile (14.5 square km) preserve where they placed 30 scarlet macaw nests. This flamboyant relative of the parrot used to have a large range in Mexico but is currently found primarily in the southwestern region.
This preserve, on the banks of the Lacantún River abutting the vast Monte Azul Biosphere Reserve (one of the most bio-diverse areas in all of North America), has been very successful at increasing the scarlet macaw population and attracting tourists.
With the help of a group called Sendasur, a community-based organization devoted to preserving the flora and fauna in Southern Mexico and promoting sustainable tourism in the region, Las Guacamayas has expanded to include tour guides and a host of tours in the jungle and on the river, thatch roof cabins with private hot water bathrooms and a lovely open-air riverfront restaurant (the Sunday brunch buffet looked particularly good).
There’s also a wonderful grassy area very near the river that’s been set aside for camping, complete with running water, flush toilets, and cold-water showers which are cleaned daily all for 30 pesos (about US$2.50) per person per night.
That would have been perfect enough. Then we woke up after our first night to discover that the tree next to our tent had been taken over by scarlet macaws. They’d flown in for breakfast and up to 10 at a time were feasting in a tree literally right next to our tent. While other visitors to the reserve were out tramping through the sticky jungle trying to spot macaws we spent the entire day in our comfy camp chairs sipping coffee (and, later, cold beers) and watching the vibrant birds stuff themselves silly.
In the late afternoon a small family of howler monkeys showed up as well and decided to spend the night in another nearby tree. The following morning their dinosaur-like roars (they really should be called roaring monkeys) served as our (very early) wake up call.
Don’t miss our video, below, which gives you an up close look at the macaws and the chance to hear howlers monkeys at close range.
One creature really took us by surprise (see below). Meet megalopyge opercularis, otherwise known as a Southern flannel moth, a pussy moth, or a puss moth.
This 3 inch (7 cm) long dude was creeping along the riverbank and when we spotted him he quickly rolled up in a defensive ball. We know enough to never touch caterpillars or centipedes–they’re often poisonous. Little did we know that this fluffy guy is extremely poisonous, hence one of its other names: the asp caterpillar. This crazy thing eventually turns into a really glorious moth (and loses its poison).
Here’s more about travel in Mexico
Wow, great post! The photos are beautiful, and it looks like you really got to see some unique wildlife! The moth, especially!
Great pictures and video. This is exactly why I cannot miss Chiapas on this trip. I am a huge nature buff and as a child living in Guyana (S.A), I had a Macaw and a monkey as pets. Do you know if there is any fishing done around the Santa Domingo River?
Hi Joel, I don’t know about the fishing in that area, or most anywhere for that matter.
However, you are correct. Chiapas is not to be missed, overall probably my (Eric, not Karen) favorite area of Mexico, and I say that after we spent 18 months there and covered much of the country.
Guyana, nice. Monkey & Macaw as pets, just like we all had growing up in NY ;-)
Eventually, we’ll be getting down there on our Journey
Hope Mexico is treating you well.
Great article and very informative. The noise the monkeys make is not what I was expecting – I was expecting a wolf’s howl – so it was really interesting to listen to.
Do you guys have your own transport – sounds like it from the way you described the roads?
We used one of our photos of a Green-winged macaw to promote the Endangered Species Coalition and I am still amazed at how these birds look up close at 100% on the computer screen. Like you say – nature is cool :-)
The image is here if you want to take a look:
Yep, the Trans-Americas Journey is what we call a working road trip…driving from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego and back (VERY slowly) in our truck.
Amazing and brilliant journey! Great to be able to dictate your own route. I have much admiration for it.
Looks like a way to get “close” to nature. I will need to remember some ear plugs if I visit.
I’ve loved macaws since I was a little girl – such smart birds. The monkeys are adorable!
Nice story. Yeah, it’s really hard to sleep in when you have some howler monkeys nearby!
amazing… the monkey pics are great Eric. Love photographing monkeys they always give such great reactions.
Love th video and pictures! the birds are so colorful
Great photos of the howler monkeys. I remember the first time I saw (and heard) them in Costa Rica. I think it was the first time I had ever seen a monkey in its natural habitat. I was so excited!
Do they make environmentally friendly monkey muzzles? I love monkeys, but the sound? Sheesh!
Magical. I’m wowed by your monkey photos! I lived in Costa Rica for a year and have like five use-able ones. Seeing your photos almost makes me miss those dinosaur-sounding alarm clocks. If only they slept in past five am!
Those howler monkeys look and sound a little different than the howler monkeys in Costa Rica, weird!
You got a lot of good shots, I’m jealous, it’s usually way too shady for my howler photos to come out decent. Great job! :)
What an informative article! The photos are also stellar :)
What great luck you had. While visiting there last December, we saw a few macaws flying over the river, but nothing as close as you. Great post. Yucatan or Riviera Maya bound anytime soon?
Hi Michael, Nope we’ve wrapped up the Yucatan for now. currently in Honduras and heading South.