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4600 words
19 pix
Rob F. Sanderson
724 Edgewater,
Portage, WIS

Skyway to Mayaland
Part I

Rob F. Sanderson

No matter how small your ship, it can move around with the birds.

Here an account of a sky safari through Mexico in a two-place Luscombe, which magic-carpeted its pilots places no airline traveler even dreams to exist - ruins of lost jungle cities, remote mountain haciendas, beach landings on the shore of the gulf of Mexico, and visits to tropical airstrips where the regular visitors are not airplanes but multi-colored jungle birds.

It’s all yours for a map and a full tank of gas!

Skyway to Mayaland
Part I

Rob F. Sanderson

          Last winter my Luscombe 85 went on a dandy winter vacation. My brother and I flew in on a 5,700 mile trip through Mexico. We had three wonderful weeks packed with interesting experiences, form Brownsville, Texas, south to Vera Cruz and Villa Hermosa, then across Tohauntepec on the Pacific Coast, and north to Acapulco, Mexico City, and the U.S.A. The southernmost point on our journey was the lost Mayan city of Palenque, whose ancient ruined temples are but forty miles from Guatemala

          Our out-of-pocket expense for the three weeks was $234 each, less than the airline fare over the same general route; and of course the biggest fun of the trip was in visiting out-of-the-way places that most airline travelers never dream exist. Without our own personal plane we never would have been able to visit a remote mountain hacienda, land on the beach of the Gulf of Mexico for duck shooting, visit jungle airstrips, and make the side trip to see the fabled ruins of the lost peoples of Palenque, and Old empire Mayan city. We finished the trip thoroughly sold on the idea that airplanes are made for this kind of travel, and not just to go places that can be reached (with a lot more travel time, or course) by car, but also to the remote locations that would be inaccessible to by auto.

          The Republic of Mexico is a big, roomy country with plenty of sky for wander lusting pilots who want only one border to cross. Since much of the most beautiful scenery and picturesque country in Mexico is inaccessible to auto or train travel, we felt sure of escaping the tourist belt. And with the peso worth about half as much as before the war, we had heard that traveling expenses were unbelievably low.

          With high anticipations for this tropic winter wonderland we took off from Madison, Wisconsin, from between sizable snowdrifts, and the next day arrived at Brownsville, Texas where we shed our winter togs in favor of sleeveless sport shirts and discovered that crossing the border into Mexico is strictly a tailwind proposition.

          The accompanying list of ten items is required to take your ship across the border. Since both U.S. and Mexican Customs are right on the Brownsville International Airport, not much footwork is needed. Mr. Perez, of the L.H. Graves and Customs Brokerage Office located on the field, rounded up all the papers (except vaccination certificates) in less than an hour for very reasonable charge of $3.00. Our tourist cards for Mexico cost $2.10 each, and the City of Brownsville Clearance Levy $3.00, totaling $10.20. This is not bad when you consider it cost us about thirty dollars and three days to get into Cuba last winter.

          South out of Brownsville we intercepted the sandy beach along the Gulf of Mexico and followed the interesting shoreline to Tampico. The beach eliminates navigation mistakes, is a good route to follow in low weather, and affords excellent chances of being spotted in case of a forced landing.

          The shoreline panorama is a galaxy of interesting sights. A wrecked ship hull, herds of wild cattle, the white lateen sails of fishing boats, the twisting deltas of jungle rivers, a fishing village or two, a lighthouse, and at last the smoke from the Tampico refineries. The city spires and vast Rio Panuco harbor were well in view when we checked the windsock, and as the wheels greased onto the asphalt we had arrived on the foreign soil of Mexico.

          That night in Tampico we dined with friends. We were too early for the world’s best tarpon fishing, they told us, but we were welcome to be guests of an isolated mountain hacienda. The ranch airstrip, a swaybacked affair at the foot of the sierras, was not easy to find. Despite careful coaching, we found it difficult to locate from the air the next day, and after circling the hacienda twice as a signal for transportation from the airstrip, we returned and landed.

          The hacienda was located in a sheltered valley among live oak trees draped heavily with Spanish moss. At an altitude of about 4,000 feet, spring like weather prevailed the year round. Bird life abounded and once we saw a large flock of wild turkeys. The ranch itself, of which we saw only a small part, was over twenty-five miles long. The main buildings included corrals, barns, blacksmith shop, water supply and light plant, dairy, butcher room, vegetable gardens, commissary, and long rows of housed for the approximately one hundred persons who worked on the premises.

          We loathed to leave this magnificent mountain hacienda, but had to move on. Our next stop was about fifteen minutes south of Tampico, a fishing resort run by Francis McDonald, a pilot from Texas, who has bulldozed two sea beach landing strips on a narrow isthmus between the Gulf of Mexico and the fish filled laguna Tamiahua. When we heard how wonderful the duck shooting was, we piled into an aluminum outboard boat with Bill Weigam, an American engineer. Bill, who had been hunting there with the Duke of Windsor a short time before, knew where the “patos” were, and when time for a roast duck dinner back at the lodge rolled around, high on a breeze cooled knoll, we enjoyed a delicious roast duck feast, and proceeded south to the quiet river city of Tuxpan that evening. The hotel in Tuxpan charged us $1.10 for two three course meals that night, and $1.85 for our double room with bath.

          Next morning our take-off for Vera Cruz was delayed by low ceilings blowing in from the coast, but as soon as the sun was up the clouds burned away and we had a dandy tailwind all the way down to Vera Cruz. V.C. is the first seaport in Mexico and has all the character of intrigue and adventure that form the personality of a tropic port. It is a historic city of bastioned walls and a massive harbor fortress.

          By the time we were ready to take off for Cordoba, our destination for the night, the gusty wind had risen to thirty miles per hour. Twenty minutes flight westward the wind shifted and the visibility improved, and the ceiling ahead was ample to safely navigate the pass into the valley of Cordoba.

          Cordoba is a charming mountain city not far from the foot of snowy-coned Qrizaba, a 16,000-foot spectacular volcanic peak. But this evening everything behind the city was obscured by an approaching mountain tempest. Worried lest our ETA coincide with the arrival of this black-tempered mountain storm, we put on an extra hundred R.P.M. These little airstrips are not always easy to find, but this one was land marked by a red & silver Bonanza. As we circled to check the wind and strip condition, the airport attendant ran out and checked off the grazing cattle.

          A taxi arrived just as we finished securing the ship with the ever-reliable tie-down kit, and before we could reach town the storm burst upon us with fire-hose intensity. As we crept through the abandoned streets in second gear, I saw large hail balls hit the cobblestone roadway with the intensity of grapeshot and bounce high into the air. We were very grateful for a metal ship.

          The magnificent El Fortin Hotel lived up to our expectations. As soon as the storm ceased, while other guests played at billiards, ping-pong, badminton and bridge, our first project was a swim in the gardenia-covered pool. Every morning the management tosses hundreds of fresh gardenias onto the pool (not so unusual when you consider that gardenias bloom locally with the profusion of dandelions at home). As we photographed ourselves disporting among the flowers we encountered Mr. & Mrs. Watson LaForce, the Texan crew of the Bonanza, whom we had met at McDonald’s Camp.

          The LaForce are a real air team who use their Bonanza as a sky-loving ship should be used. Naturally, we had to spread out our maps on the balcony tiles, and there, overlooking the pool and the distant snow peaks, we compared trip notes. Our own plans were to visit the jungle city of Palenque, a 1200-year-old ruin of a lost civilization that vanished mysteriously without a clue. Located deep in the tropic hinterland of Chiapas, a recently constructed airstrip made them accessible to the sky tourist. In former years the surface traveler needed weeks to take the steamer from the Vera Cruz to Frontera, travel upstream by riverboat to Monte Cristi, and finish the overland trip with horseback camping equipment. Because of their former almost insurmountably isolated location, these splendid ruins are little known to travelers in general. Ia Force, who has been a pilot since World War I, has done considerable flying in Mexico and gave us excellent suggestions.

          Next morning the tattered ceiling trailed showers and mist veils, delaying our take-off until afternoon. The road to the airstrip was a sea of chocolate mud, but the sod on the sloping strip was firm, and we took off downslope into a light wind. Our various delays had confronted us with the eternal bugaboo of airmen - the late start. With a helping wind we could make Villa Hermosa; otherwise we would Ron at the seaport of Coatzacoalcos. When we reached Coatz our groundspeed checked 116. Between there and Villa we lost our wind and long before our ETA was up the checkpoints below were smothered with heavy dusk.

          At 6:40 the lights of Villa became visible ahead and to the loft. By the dull sheen of the river pattern and the lights of the city we located the airport and landed with a power approach, later needing the landing lights to taxi by. Sr. Ezeqiel Rodriguez Perez, the CMA (affiliate airline of PAA) representative, arranged for us to overnight at his pension where we met the jungle counterpart of the northland bush pilot. Piloto Neftali Carillo was stuffed with jungle flying lore and gave us the needed O.K. for the Palenque airstrip. Since it was sandy on one end, recent heavy rainstorms had not put it out of commission.

          Villa Hermosa is a booming jungle city of 40,000 persons. Until completion of a railroad now under construction, it is out off from overland travel with the rest of Mexico. Riverboat and airplane have carried all the commerce and travel since Hernando Cortez first set foot her in 1519. We were eager to explore this completely free frontier town.

          In the late evening we paused for a time to listen to the band playing in the Central Plaza, and to watch the lively eyed senoritas and young caballeros promenade around the square. (I later became acquainted with an American who met his future wife on one of these promenades.) After the music stopped, the senoritas went home with their chaperons and the gay blades stopped at the sidewalk cafes to play dominoes, the fashionable local game.

          The next morning we were up at daylight to watch the bustling riverfront traffic of Indians bringing their produce to market in their dugout Canoas. In this rainy climate the overland trails are frequently impassible and the long canoes bring in the daily mainstays of jungle commerce; bananas, papayas, coconuts, Cayman (alligator hides, tanning barks, charcoal, and other products of the interior).

          At the airport refueling took over an hour of funnel carrying and drum rolling. We used a quart of our own number 40 oil, the standard heavy 120 being the lightest CMA stocked. We were not long in the air before we realized that navigation would be a problem. Identifiable landmarks were rare, our checkpoints all being bodies of water which changed shape with the ever fluctuating water level. At length we sighted Palenque ahead to the right and heaved a sigh of relief.

          After a considerable delay rounding up horses which were at large in unfenced pasture, we set out for the ruins which lay about eight miles west of the present Indian village, in the foothills of the Tumbala Mountains above the Cascades of the Otolum River. Travel over the muddy trails was slow and frequently delayed by fording swollen streams. Although the natives assured us we could not miss the trail, at the end we became confused in a rat maze of pathways, were caught in a minor cloudburst, and almost had to spend a shelter less night in the jungle. By good fortune we discovered a thatched hut and spent a chilly damp night sleeping in hammocks with no cover except our wet clothes.

          The ruins, ala the brilliant sunlight of the next morning, were awe inspiring and splendid to gaze upon. Their preservation is excellent, considering their age of 1200 or more years. The heavy stone masonry and works of art are still in large part intact. The large group of central buildings consists of central palace having a high square tower, and outlying temples. We spent half a day exploring the temples and the connecting underground tunnels, and our visit was one of the high points of the trip.

          From Palenque we planned to fly to Tuxtla, the capital of the state of the famous Mexican marimba and colorful natives, and is picturesquely located among the mountains. However, the mountains were stormy and cloud wreathed, and after a brief venture into some of the canyons we gave up the route as impassible and detoured over the jungle to the north. There were no checkpoints whatsoever except inaccurately contoured mountains which were cloud obscured for the most part. The trip called for accurate dead reckoning navigation and we were indeed relieved when we reached the Tehuantepec pass and could look forty miles through clear weather to the westward and see the Pacific Ocean highly polished by the late sun.

          Tehuantepec airport, a U.S. Army wartime monument is a long way from anywhere. Ixtepec is the closest hotels having decent overnight accommodations, and while we waited for a taxi we inquired about local conditions. A couple of weeks before, local winds were so extreme that even CMA DC3 ships did not land. These winds are frequent except in summer, when, the watchman told us, the heat and humidity are brutal. At last our taxi arrived - it was sent out by the CMA boys going home in their station wagon (according to company policy, they could not carry us, and there is no telephone at the airport).

          At Ixtepec we had a comfortable room and good meals. There is nothing particular to sightsee in the city; the local claim to fame is the wide reputation the natives have for uninhibitedly bathing nude in the river. However, Tehuantepec, about thirty miles distant, has a very interesting market place, which we visited by taxi the next day. The Tehuantepec Indians are a splendid race of people, apparently unrelated to other Mexican Indians, and are outstanding for the beauty of their colorfully dressed women. These women, who appear to resemble the Balinese, were gay, full-skirted costumes of red and yellow and other brilliant colors and are very photographic on kodachrome. Owing to the late age at which the youngsters are weaned and the early age at which they begin to smoke small black cigars, it is sometimes possible to see a youngster climb down from his mother’s knee and light up a cigar for an after dinner smoke.

          From Tehuantepec to Acapulco, northward along the Pacific coast, is a distance of almost four hundred miles and uncomfortably close to the maximum range of our ship. With any headwind whatsoever we would not be able to reach Acapulco. Though there were airstrips of doubtful conditions in between where we could land in an emergency (if we could find them - most are very poorly marked, and deliberate camouflage could not make some of them less conspicuous) but none of these strips had gasoline.

          Fortunately, cloud conditions improved to the northward and we were able to climb to 9,000 feet and use the mixture control. Our wind component was almost zero, and we arrived with almost an hour of gas to spare as we circled the famous harbor of Acapulco, once a notorious pirate rendezvous and now the most beautiful winter seashore of available to U.S. tourists. Since I was there last in 1940 hotels and winter homes have mushroomed all over the beaches and surrounding hills. Tying down securely alongside the paved runways left by the U.S. Army, we were soon up on a high point overlooking the harbor and the ocean, soaking up the sun alongside the large swimming pool at the Hotel Las Americas.

          Accommodations in Acapulco are unbelievably reasonable by our own Florida standards. For a comfortable twin bedroom with our own porch, and three meals so ample it was impossible to do them justice and swim too, we were charged about eight dollars U.S. a piece per day. People who didn’t like music were out of luck, though for the hotel had two orchestras. Several other hotels nearby offer similar accommodations at similar rates, and many less luxurious are more reasonable. After a strenuous trip around the southern Mexican jungles, we were in the mood for several days under the Acapulco sunshine.

          The trip from Acapulco to Mexico City is best made in the early part of the day, since in the afternoon billowing clouds sometimes build up around the mountains and in the passes. To gain the necessary altitude we circled the thermals and airshafts along the western mountain slopes, and were for a time at 13,000 feet crossing plateau we had some difficulty in locating the City of Mexico and the airport. At an altitude over 7,000 feet on a hot afternoon, we came in noticeably “hot” on our landing.

          Mexico City has a personality seldom duplicated even in European cities, and offer so much in pleasure and sight-seeing that a hardy tourist could fascinate himself there for a month or more and still leave plenty undone for future visits. We were hospitably entertained by an old friend with whom I did radio announcing before the war, and by the time we visited the oldest cathedral and the youngest statue, and were hospitably entertained in both Mexico City and Curenavaca, we were thoroughly frazzled and ready for a peaceful flight back to the states.

          We left the airport in still, cool air of the early morning (take-off was long but so is the runway) and flew over the eastern mountains to Ciudad Victoria. Owing to a slight tailwind we would have been able to reach Brownsville non-stop, but having no radio we landed there to inform Brownsville customs of our ETA. We checked through customs and immigration in short order and reached Brying, Texas, that evening. It was a wonderful trip but somehow it felt good to be back on U.S. soil again, too.

          Pouring over the maps in retrospect, there are several things that stand out. A good compass and accurate navigation are important because maps are often sketchy and airports a long distance apart. Because of the distance between airports and the lack of many suitable alternates, weather must be carefully watched on some legs, for headwinds or weather closing in ahead might make it impossible to reach another field. Some of the strips located on the air charts either cannot be found or are unusable.

          Owing to scarcity of lightweight motor oil at the smaller fields, we carried several quarts of U.S. 40 with us. At most of our stops we burned 91-octane gas, 80 octane often being in distant drums that are not too fresh, or completely unavailable. The most indispensable item of equipment was our tie-down kit and rope. The pegs screwed firmly into the ground and held the ship securely at every airport we visited. For emergency equipment we took a canteen of water, food, matches, machete, mosquito netting, and assorted miscellany.

          Service is available only at the larger ports, and is not cheap. Our ship had just completed a 100-hour inspection, but at Tampico we broke a tail spring and were charged about 9.00 for a spring that costs $2.00 in the U.S., and we could imagine what any major repairs would cost. Most of the airports charge landing fees, which run from a quarter, up to about a dollar (Villa Hermosa), and average about fifty cents. At Mexico City we were charged some “service fee” of about $1.30, and at that airport we paid $1.00 per night tie-down (the highest tie-down on the trip; Acapulco was five cents a night) to a private operator across the field from the main terminal. Gasoline is reasonable, from twenty-two to fifty cents per gallon depending upon the accessibility of the airport. As to theft, we were careful the entire trip and lost only a funnel (all gas should be carefully strained through a felt or chamois skin.)

          All in all, for a trip to escape the winter weather and high priced sun country resorts, it’s hard to beat. We plan to go again, and we hope we’ll meet you down there. It’s closer than you think. If you’ll just take out a map and draw a line…

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob