chacahua lagoon in chacahua oaxacaThe beautiful beaches at Chacahua lagoon, near Puerto Escondido.

Chacahua Lagoon and its rich ecosystem

Chacahua lagoon and national park is well worth a visit

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It was after the first rain in May. The sky was grey above, below the day was hot and tranquil. The route laid out was to Zapolito, a small town beyond Rio Grande, a little more than one hour from Puerto Escondido, our destination Chacahua lagoon and national park.

Rigoberto Cosme Peralta, the president of the tourist services cooperative Paraíso Escondido, was waiting for me there to take me on an enjoyable boat tour through the mangroves and islands that make up the Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua, which gets its name from a type of shrimp called “chacahuín” typical of that zone.

This rich ecosystem is home to 163 types of birds according to the official numbers (CONAM, PROFEPA and SEMARNAT) which are distributed throughout 14,187 hectares.

We began at Isla del Venado, surrounded by red mangrove trees. Then we passed by Isla del Cura, named for its resemblance to the hair of a clergyman, which is covered in vegetation except for the centre. On Isla del Escorpion there is an abundance of reptiles such as snakes, crocodiles and iguanas as there is on Isla de las Culebras where there are raccoons as well. Here we passed through the tunnel of love to get to the Isla Romance al Natural.

As we moved on, Rigoberto explained that there are four species of mangroves: button, saladillo, white and red. We learn that hunting is prohibited here and that, from preschool, children are taught to care for the natural environment. During the entire tour we came across different species, the most numerous being the cormorant or diving ducks, the grey pelican and the silver heron.

Through the labyrinth of the artificial islands where the tichindra grow (a mollusk similar to the mussel) there are also nesting Canadian white pelicans, the snow egret (or yellow foot heron) and the anhinga bird with black feathers. Less visible still is the american stork, the grey pilgrim falcon or the roseate spoonbill of Brazil.

In the sanctuary of Las Garzas there are no predators and the birds that arrive from February onward reproduce in April and May, to emigrate in June to their places of origin, mainly in North America. The mangroves in turn are the favorite habitat of the tiger heron (we only saw one family) and the green heron, difficult to detect visually because it blends in with the foliage, but it can be heard. “It is a screamer,” say the guides.

We passed through another tunnel called the Corral and on the side of the bank is the community of the same name, populated by some twenty families that dedicate themselves completely to net fishing. It is called “atarraya” and uses the currents that circulate in two directions every six hours.

During the morning they call it “marea,” meaning tide, and it refers to the time when sea water comes in loaded with food; when it is low they say it is “vaciante,” meaning emptying. Rigoberto sees it like this: “It is as though the sea water washed the lagoon,” and he explains that the current does not come to the first pond because the boca barra is closed. That is why it looks murky.

As we came close to the mangroves and passed through the tunnels the boat’s pace slowed to allow us to see more. But the crossing of the lagoon was fast and as we got close to the ocean it changed tone, and the first palm trees appeared and there we stopped to visit the “cocodrilario,” a crocodile conservation center that has operated since the 1980’s.

This reserve protects some 180 amphibians of three species: Acutus, Moreletti and one Caimán that was brought from Chiapas for exhibition. Our 19-year-old guide, Antonio Contreras Páez, tells us that although 20 to 60 eggs are incubated at a time very few manage to survive. They are easy prey to many predators including ones from their own species.

This is why they are grouped by size and divided into seven pools. One of these is dedicated exclusively to the recovery of mistreated or injured reptiles (usually by people) and their stay is permanent, while the others are turned loose after some time, 8 or 10 km outside of the lagoon, far away from the townspeople and the fishermen.

Our journey ended on the coast, which is popular among surfers, and here there are many restaurant palapas where you can enjoy a meal. On the way back we rode around the Isla Pirinelas, the only island with cacti. Here the guide pointed out other birds: black-crowned night herons and frigate or albatross and also a large turtle.

Some two thousand people live in Zapotalito taking care of their surroundings and presenting a good image to visitors, constantly cleaning the mangrove and cleaning up plastic garbage. To improve services to visitors they would like to build a wharf for better access to the boats.

The family cooperative Paraíso Escondido has ten registered boats, offers travel insurance and lifejackets. Visitors can choose between three types of tours: to Las Garzas ($800), direct route to and from Chacahua ($1,200) and a complete four-hour tour crossing the two lakes ($1,500). They can be reached at 596 75 25. You can get to Zapotalito by taxi or by public transportation with frequent departures from Puerto Escondido.

 —Li Valenzuela

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Media credit: Li Valenzuela and Manuel Hernandez Flores