La Manzanilla: Crocs, cameras and cormorants
At the end of the main road in La Manzanilla, after the farmacia and the paleta shop and the sidewalk stand of charcoal-roasted chicken and the stacks of beach toys and the tiny bodegas and the place with the coldest cerveza, you come to a chain link fence marking the edge of the crocodile preserve.
Often, one of the huge old crocs lies in the sun, his belly pushing on the fence, oblivious to the excited voices of the kids on the other side.
My friend, Jackie Castelazo, whose family shares this magical place with us, remembers when there was no fence, when the crocodiles wandered freely, often grabbing one of the town’s dogs for a snack, sometimes swimming out to the ocean and wandering the beach when a storm pushed the preserve’s waters through the natural sand barrier of the beach. (Read about Casa Maria en La Manzanilla here.)
Today, for a few pesos, you can take a trail through the preserve, walking through the mangroves and crossing over the lagoon on swinging bridges, where you can get up close to crocodiles gliding underneath.
We took a boat.
Primi, a close family friend of the Castelazos and a longtime presence at the preserve, takes us out at least once each time we visit. (Read about La Casa Maria en La Manzanilla here.) Primi knows everything about the preserve. He uses a machete to hack back the mangroves and keep the tunnels open so the boats can sneak through. He knows which birds are migrating, where they build their nests and can spot them on the treetops, in the shadows, drying their wings after fishing. He knows the three different kinds of mangroves, why they grow where they do, and can show you where they blew down in a recent hurricane. He knows about the crocodiles, the water, the fish and the crabs. He patiently explains all of it in a basic Spanish we can understand. All while using a pole to steer the fiberglass boat around the creeping mangrove roots.
This year, we went out twice with Jackie’s brother, Tomas, an amazing photographer, who brought his drone camera to catch the view from above. The shots are amazing, showing the open-water paths through the broad expanse of spreading mangroves.
Tomas loaned me one of his long lenses to get some shots of the amazing birds around every curve. See Thomas’s shot of us here.
We saw egrets, anhingas, herons, ibis, cormorants. We chased Kingfishers who teased us, flying like bullets over our heads, then flitting away faster than my camera could focus. Primi could always see them. Thomas got stunning shots. I started to distinguish the different characteristics of the juvenile birds. We watched the crocs watch us, the crabs scuttle up the mangrove roots and saw huge termite nests built on the branches.
Afterward, we walked across the sandy road to the open-air restaurant on the beach and ate chilaquiles, molletes and coconuts.