Mexican Hideouts

Pass the bass, por favor: a jungly sanctuary on the San Rafael River

Jaguar country: the ranch at El Paraiso     Photo: Sian Kennedy

Access + Resources

CLOSEST AIRPORT: Tampico, 100 miles south
GETTING THERE: Barra del Tordo is 270 miles south of Brownsville, Texas, via Mexico 180. Bus service from Brownsville to Aldama (30 miles west of Barra) costs $26. Call ahead and someone from El Paraiso will meet you at the station.
WHERE TO STAY: A room in one of El Paraiso's palm-log cabins, arrayed around the swimming pool, costs $95 per person per night, meals and activities included (011-52-833-213-9956, www.spagetaway.com/ gulf/paraiso/paraiso.htm). The only in-town option is the spartan Hotel Playa Azul, a two-story, 14-room hotel next to the fishing docks (doubles, $35; 011-52-833-250-1272).
WHERE TO EAT: El Paraiso, for fresh sea bass garnished with cilantro, oysters in garlic broth, or whatever the chef has handy.

DRIVE FIVE HOURS SOUTH of the border from Brownsville, Texas, and hook a left at the town of Aldama. Drive another hour east and you'll find yourself in the fishing village of Barra del Tordo, Tamaulipas. The community is so peque-o that a thick strand of shipping rope passes for its sole speed bump. On some highway maps, Barra del Tordo doesn't exist at all—which makes it the ideal backwater.
The village of roughly 1,000 inhabitants sits on the banks of the San Rafael River, a half-mile inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The saltwater river harbors prized snook, trout, largemouth bass, redfish, and even tarpon. Schools of grouper, snapper, ling, wahoo, and kingfish swarm the Gulf, and the sweetest oysters this side of the Apalachicola River thrive in the lagoons and inlets in between. The town's main beach, Playa No. 2 (with showers, day shelters, picnic tables, and cooking pits) lies two miles southeast of town and is such a big nesting ground for the endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle that an international research station was established there in 1977. From March through August, visitors can help locate arriving ridleys and transport their eggs into the nesting corral.
But the real show begins on a rickety dock on a creek near the San Rafael, about a mile west of town. Make arrangements in advance and a wooden launch will ferry you four miles upriver to El Paraiso, a 16-room resort set on a bluff, part of a 1,000-acre ranch in a zone once known as Los Jaguares (the big cats still stalk "way back in the thicket," or so the locals say). Wherever you look, fish are jumping out of the placid water, landing with audible plips and plops, while ospreys swoop down to pluck up dinner.
Factor in kayaking on the river; horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking on more than 15 miles of trails around El Paraiso; and windsurfing on the Gulf (the lodge's staff will boat you back down the river); and you may find yourself too wound up to remember the purpose of your journey. Lest you forget, you're here to relax.

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