SIERRA de CACOMA, Mexico — The caravan of Toyota pickups careened down the twisting mountain road. I sat in the back seat of the third car, praying we wouldn’t tumble off the steep mountainside on the next turn.
An hour in, the caravan pulled over a wide turnout on the dirt road. It was time for a parada tecnica, a pit stop. A fat man with his shirt halfway unbuttoned jumped out of the lead car with a bottle of tequila in each hand. He did a quick shimmy, the music started, and everyone was out of the cars and dancing. “La Banda Está Borracha” — “The Band is Drunk” — blared from one of the trucks.
We were driving through the cloud forest in the Sierra de Cacoma, the coastal mountains of Jalisco, Mexico. Towering firs and pines surrounded us on all sides, moss and lichens hanging from their branches. The thick fog glowed orange as the sun set.
I went to the Sierra de Cacoma with representatives from the National Forestry Commission in Mexico to help lead a workshop for local landowners on wildlife monitoring. We had heard rumors that the forests in Sierra de Cacoma harbored some of Mexico’s rare felines, but scientists needed evidence. We hoped the people living in these mountains could use their knowledge of the area to document the wildlife on their land.
Most of the people in the caravan were ranchers, members of an ejido, a kind of communally held land ownership common in rural Mexico. About a third of the country is covered in forests, and by some estimates ejido communities own about 80 percent of that land. Representatives from several ejidos in the area met with us for the workshop.
When it comes to wildlife in the Sierra de Cacoma, the members of these ejidos were the experts. They all had stories about jaguars, mountain lions and ocelots. They showed us where pumas stalked outside their cabins at night and they reenacted jaguar calls. They argued about what the different cats were called. It seemed like each community used different names.
Probably half the stories were apocryphal. One man told us about a puma that entered his neighbor’s cabin and crawled into the man’s bed while he was asleep. He claimed a puma always watched from a hidden cave as he tended his avocado orchards. Then he showed us several massive feline footprints along a muddy riverbank. It was hard to tell which stories were true and which were simply embellished.
On the first day of the workshop, we drove into the forest to practice setting up motion-sensitive wildlife cameras. The leader of the ejido took us to a stream above a cattle pasture. Everyone took turns strapping the camera to a tree and programming it with different settings. The man who told us the puma story crawled in front of the camera to simulate an animal walking by.
At the end of the workshop, we gave each ejido a trail camera and a GPS unit. As we barreled down the curvy mountain road en route home, I wondered what they would find.
It didn’t take long for the photos to start coming in. Over the course of the next year, these landowners photographed a jaguar walking in broad daylight, a pair of pumas drinking at a watering hole and a trigrillo inspecting one of the wildlife cameras. They managed to document the presence of five out of the six felines known in Mexico.
Finding these animals in their backyard made some people nervous, but it also made them proud. The Sierra de Cacoma is a forgotten part of Mexico — ignored by the government because of inaccessibility, abandoned by farmers looking for work in the United States and avoided by academics because of drug cartels.
But the people living in these forests care about them deeply. They brag about which ejido has the most beautiful trees and argue about who has the cleanest water. That’s why they learned how to document the wildlife on their properties. Their lives are tightly tied to the forests; ultimately, they will determine how or if it is protected.
To reach the Sierra de Cacoma, travel southeast on Highway 80 from Guadalajara toward La Huerta. Stop in Tecolotlán to get some tacos — you can buy them from the young men sitting on five-gallon paint buckets next to the speed bumps. The U.S. State Department warns American citizens not to travel on this road, but then you would miss out on the tacos.
Take some Dramamine and continue on Highway 80 until you reach Autlán de Navarro. In May or June, stop by the centro to get some fresh pitayas — a brain-like fruit that tastes a little like watermelon. Then head north toward Ayutita or Jalocote. If you get lost, just stop someone on the street and ask for directions. They may not actually know how to get there, but they’ll be happy to point you in the wrong direction. After asking a few different people, you’ll likely be going in the right direction.
Once you leave town, the road quickly turns to dirt. You’ll want a vehicle with four-wheel drive, but your truck will inevitably get stuck. When you get stuck, have everyone in the car get out and push it back onto the road. This may take an hour or more. Once you get the truck back on the road, keep driving into the mountains. Drive past the small reservoir on the right with signs that say “Evita la Caza.” Later, you’ll pass an abandoned corral on the left. Keep going until you reach a fork in the road. There are no signs, so you’ll just have to guess where the turn is.
To get back down, you’ll need six Toyota trucks, two bottles of tequila, a powerful stereo and a copy of “La Banda Está Borracha.”
Matt Blois is a journalist and a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Guadalajara, Jalisco from 2014 – 2016. He worked with the National Forestry Commission on a payment for ecosystem services project in the Sierra de Cacoma from 2015 through 2016.