Manzanillo, “Mexico’s busiest port,” is located 190 kilometers south of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast. High up in the hills above the town, I found a fascinating place called El Tecolote Ecosite, hidden away in an exotic jungle.
“Anything we plant here grows,” I was told by José de Jesús Hernández (Don Chuy), owner of a rancho where he invites people to camp. Indeed, the climate and conditions for growth are so ideal that it is nearly impossible to drive there without stopping your car again and again to get out and crane your neck for a really good view of the tall, lush vegetation you are passing through. Sorry, folks, photos won’t help here – they are just too small and limiting. This you have to see in the flesh. Here the usually scrawny papelillo (paperbark) tree is unbelievably fat and tall, competing in girth and height with gigantic parotas (elephant-ear trees) and utterly amazing palms which stand ramrod straight, as tall as skyscrapers.
We first learned of this place from Juan Pablo Bernal, a researcher at the UNAM university in Mexico City who is scouring western Mexico for caves with stalagmites that might help him study past cataclysmic events. When he showed me photos of Las Grutas de la Floreña, I realized these might be the most beautiful caves ever discovered in this part of the country and I had no problem finding a mix of cave explorers and adventurers eager to have a look.
One Saturday we drove from Guadalajara to Manzanillo in a mere three hours. La Floreña is a little town just east of Highway 200. Here we met members of the Hernández family, who guided us along the ten-kilometer stretch through the jungle to El Tecolote Ecosite, a wide plateau where you can pitch a tent beneath a sheltering roof. “I was delighted to find they had water, a bathroom, tables, chairs and a simple kitchen,” commented camper Rosy Pérez.
We set up camp with Colima Volcano researcher Juan Carlos Gavilanes and members of an outdoors organization called Colima Vertical.
Everyone was anxious to visit the caves and we soon set out on foot along a narrow path heading south. After 480 meters we came to the entrance of La Gruta del Tecolote, a hole in the ground with a sturdy wooden ladder poking out of it. Below the surface we found ourselves in a gloriously decorated room where every inch of the ceiling and walls are covered with shimmering white stalactites, curtains and draperies. Thick stalagmites rose from the floor, on which are scattered countless tepalcates – shards – from broken pots which apparently once held offerings for ancient gods. That the cave was used for this purpose over many centuries is evident from the fact that some of the shards and pot handles are literally cemented to the ground by layers of calcite deposited by dripping stalactites.
In several parts of this room we found hundreds of “cave pearls.” These little balls, less than an inch thick, are formed when a pebble moves around inside a pool of water supercharged with calcium salts. Layer after layer is deposited on the pebble until it becomes smooth and (usually) round, like a real pearl. Normally cave pearls are found lying on the floor, nested like bird’s eggs. In Tecolote Cave, however, you can also see them stuck on the wall where they may have been deposited by a now long-gone stream.
A thorough examination of the cave, which has several short crawlways, revealed no bats, suggesting that visitors to this cave are in no danger of contracting histoplasmosis, a lung disease caused by a fungus growing on bat guano.
Approximately 230 meters from the cave there is a mirador or lookout point offering a panoramic view of a great river winding its way to the sea.
Back at camp we pitched our tents and cooked dinner. Our guides (practically the entire Hernández clan) went back to their homes in La Floreña, but they left behind one family member to watch over the campground at night. By the time we finished eating, it was dark, with Orion brightly shining in a sky free of the glow from city lights.
Although it was a Saturday night, not a single radio, stereo or mariachi band competed with the orchestra of crickets all around us. At several points during the night, however, heard the sounds of animals I didn’t recognize. The next day I asked Don Chuy what sort of creatures are creeping about in this semi-tropical “spiny jungle.”
“Of course there are owls, which give this property its name. Then we have tesmos (ring-tailed ground squirrels), wild boars, badgers, three different kinds of wild cats, armadillos and deer.”
At that moment a raucus squawking broke out overhead. “And pericos,” Don Chuy quickly added. “Big ones about 50 centimeters high.”
I later got a fascinating tour of Don Chuy’s orchards near the campsite. “As I told you, everything grows here, so I planted quite a few exotic trees and as you can see, they’re doing very well,” he informed me proudly.
Don Chuy then showed me trees laden with Noni fruits, said to be rich in antioxidants, chicos (naseberries: with even more antioxidants and they supposedly eliminate wrinkles) and yaca (jackfruit), an alleged aphrodisiac.
“Believe me, it works,” Don Chuy said with a smile.
If you’d like to visit the Tecolote Campsite, I suggest you contact (in Spanish) Mirna Macias at 314-338-8333 in La Floreña (N19 03.358 W104 13.120). Bring plenty of insect repellent to ward off chiggers and ticks.