Each year half a million Americans travel south to Mexico, a vacationland of big fish and bullfights, exotic beaches and ancient ruins. Some come to relax in the winter sun or to wander through quaint Spanish villages; others to troll the waters of the blue Pacific or the inlets along the Gulf. A growing number of them come each season to hunt Mexico's abundant game—jaguars, ocelots, javelinas and myriads of waterfowl—and a few of them are now discovering a new kind of outdoor adventure in the wilderness pictured on these pages. For this is the forgotten part of Mexico, a primitive and forbidding jungle known as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which separates the country's plains and mountains from the peninsula of Yucatan.
A great river flows through the Isthmus, springing from the mountains of Chimalapa on the Pacific Coast, and winding like a giant serpent to the Gulf of Mexico on the east. The Coatzacoalcos, which indeed means the sanctuary of the serpent in the language of the Nahuatlan Indians, forms the only access to the rain forests of Tehuantepec. It is a hostile, and mainly uncharted, river. Rapids course over rock-studded shoals, crocodiles linger in brush-shrouded eddies and from the banks a massive wall of growth rises skyward to block out the sun.
On a spring day, when mists rose steaming from the yellow water, my husband Bob Grimm and I followed this river into the jungles of Tehuantepec. We wanted to explore as well as to hunt this wild and lonely part of Mexico. But from our first correspondence with Mexico City Outfitter Tex Purvis, who provided us with our guides and camp equipment, we knew that this was not to be a hunting safari in the ordinary sense.
The game which does exist in the rain forests of Tehuantepec is widely scattered and far less abundant than in central and northern Mexico. A sportsman must hunt long hours under primitive and indescribably difficult physical conditions even to find game, and when he does often the trophy is inferior to that he might encounter farther north. But the challenge of this kind of hunting is perhaps the most exciting—and exacting—left on the continent. It is the same kind of challenge which for centuries has lured adventurers into unmapped wildernesses and mountaineers to the tops of unclimbed peaks. For Bob and me the prospect of exploring Tehuantepec's wild and primitive jungles was far more intriguing than the game we might ultimately bag. In fact, as far as both of us were concerned, any trophy would really be a bonus at the end of a unique experience.
Our crew—Purvis' guide Floyd Cranfill, his assistant, 17-year-old George Johansen, and a handful of natives—met us at the airport in Minatitl�n, 325 miles south of Mexico City. From Minatitl�n we headed inland by truck to Jesus Carranza (see map), the last town of any size on the Coatzacoalcos. Here we were to pick up our dugout canoes for the river journey and, we hoped, locate a few more natives for our "staff." This was a greater problem than we anticipated. Most of the natives, it seemed, were afraid to join our expedition when they heard we were headed for the interior of Tehuantepec. According to Indian legend, this area is ruled by a jaguar god who does not welcome intruders.
Assisted by a handful of American dollars, however, we finally persuaded four of the natives (including a cook) to join us, purchased additional provisions and loaded the canoes with gear, tents, guns, ammunition, four bedraggled-looking hounds and several bottles of Mexican gin, rum and brandy, which we bought locally for 35�, 59� and 80� per bottle respectively. A gathering of smiling, waving Indians shouted in chorus as we pushed the canoes from shore. The long journey up the Coatzacoalcos at last had begun.
On the banks of the big river, low marshes turned to steep, tree-covered inclines. The heady scent of tropical vegetation hung heavy in the air. Everywhere fertility was rampant. Green sprouted from black oily soil, on branches and bushes. In the scattered villages along the shore, bare-breasted women heavy with child washed naked toddlers in the water. Nearby, swollen mares grazed along the banks. Brilliantly colored birds sat on nests, and a pregnant monkey watched us from a tree.
We felt immediately, too, the wild loneliness of this land. Back home—in New York, Chicago or San Francisco—it is impossible to imagine how far away from civilization a hundred miles can be. Jungle distance is measured in days, and seasons by the rise and fall of the river. Life, too, is measured in seasons.
It was evening when the shadowy outlines of the last huts on the big river loomed above us in the darkness. The banks were steep now and scraped smooth by centuries of tides. Crude footholds led upward to half a dozen thatched huts. Before them, surrounded by skinny pigs and an aging ox, the village populace watched our approach in fascination. Strangers rarely travel this far upriver.
A small, wiry Indian separated himself from the others and climbed down the bank to our canoes. Soon the men of the village followed, and behind them, more hesitantly, came several little boys. While Floyd spoke with the Indian who seemed the leader, the children crept closer to Bob and me, their curiosity about our guns and cameras overriding their initial suspicion. In high-school Spanish I asked the closest little boy his name. The question sent all of the children scurrying from us in terror. Only then did I remember that women, here as in many Mexican-Indian communities, are separated socially from men. The children were unprepared for a woman's voice in this masculine caravan.