Yucatan Dispatch 15 October 29, 2009 from Sierra Caral, Mexico

We took the “Rapid” in RAVE quite literally, spending a little under 24 hours in the Sierra Caral of Guatemala. The Caral is one of the highest conservation priorities in the region, with large tracts of primary forest harboring a unique suite of endemic fauna facing imminent threats. The remoteness of the area has spared much of its’ remaining forest, but it also provides a logistical challenge for those wanting to get to it – like us. After weeks of planning, and with just days until the trip, our entry was far from guaranteed. A road made impassable by heavy rains and a welcoming committee of hostile armed guards meant that the only realistic way in was from the air.

Enter our local partners FUNDAECO, who made the seemingly impossible possible. A helicopter was arranged to collect us from Guatemala City and plop us straight into a forest clearing in the Caral. The weather was kind to us on the morning of our departure and the helicopter flight provided a unique perspective of the mosaic of cleared forest flanking the Sierra Caral, highlighting the threats to the increasingly fragmented forest. It also provided a birds eye view of the lush forest that still cloaks these mountains; I suddenly could not wait to be on the other side of the canopy scouring the streams for creatures.

Ten minutes after landing, the heavens opened. And stayed open. The rain did not let up for more than 20 minutes during our entire stay. While conditions became ideal for mud wrestling, they were not so good for photography. With visibility of around 30cm, I was happy to have my macro lens and to focus on the things that I could get close to. Cradling my camera under my rain jacket, I could only whisk it out every time there was a break in the rain. I lost count of the number of times one of my flashes jumped out of my hand and into the mud, and as my equipment started to look like it had been coated in chocolate, I was counting the hours until I would be able to clean and dry it.

Luckily, we were here to photograph amphibians. Amphibians allow you to get up close, and like the rain. As soon as night fell – the best time to find amphibians – we donned our headlamps and waded up a nearby stream, scouring the vegetation. We found and photographed a beautiful, red-eyed species that is Critically Endangered, the largest salamander species in Central America, the first record of a toad in the Sierra Caral (found by ILCP’s very own Trevor Frost) and a snake that is possibly new to science. Not at all bad for a 24-hour trip!

That night was a soggy one. Our tents did not have fly sheets and acted a little like sponges. I woke to find my backpack soaked through and one of my lenses in a puddle of water. To cheer myself up, I just had to remember that we would not be spending another night camping. Leaving the Caral proved to be even trickier than getting in, however. The helicopter was scheduled to come and pick us up first thing – but with the constant rain there was no way that it could land. Our only option, therefore, was to walk and slide our way out. Words cannot convey how good the hot shower back at the hotel felt that night.

Our time in the Caral was short, but I felt happy that we had managed to capture the first photos of some rare and endemic species. The Sierra Caral is the most biodiverse remnant of Caribbean Guatemala and needs to be protected, or else these may also be the last photos taken of these species. I look forward to using the photographs to promote the conservation of this vulnerable forest and the creatures that call it home.

Robin was joined on his mission by iLCP RAVE Coordinator Trevor Frost and friends of the iLCP, photographers and conservationists Hussain Aga Khan and Khaliya Aga Khan.