Will American tourists return to Mexico's El Cielo rainforest?
GOMEZ FARIAS, Mexico - It's been three years since Bernardino Camacho has seen an American tourist in the El Cielo rainforest.
Camacho lives in the remote mountain village of San Jose where he makes a living guiding tourists through the nature reserve's winding trails.
The lush 357,141 acre preserve's name means "Heaven" in English.
Although the cloud forest is home to ocelots, black bears and tropical birds, the last few years have been difficult for the people who live there.
With Mexico's brutal drug war raging in cities surrounding the nature reserve, American tourism has all but evaporated.
Both the American Consulate in Matamoros and U.S. Embassy in Mexico City have issued multiple warnings about highway travel in the State of Tamaulipas going back to 2010.
American tourism dried up in the rainforest as drug cartel-led robberies, carjackings and kidnappings became commonplace on the highways that surround El Cielo.
Other reports about robberies and kidnappings inside the reserve as well as false rumors about drug cartels using cabins there as training camps dealt another blow.
Hurricane Ingrid washed out a section of the nature preserve's trail back in September but local and state leaders are planning to rebuild it in the fall.
Like other men in San Jose and surrounding communities, Bernardino supplements his family's income through a farm workers visa to pick lettuce and other crops in Yuma, Arizona.
But as a local landowner, he would rather stay and live off the land that he loves.
Walking through the mountain paths of the verdant mountain forest, it's easy to see why.
The only sounds heard are those of the leaves of tall trees blowing in the wind, the water flowing in a stream and the birds singing overhead.
"We get tourists from Monterrey, Reynosa, Ciudad Victoria and Matamoros but it's been three years since I've seen any Americans," Bernardino said in Spanish.
Hope For El Cielo
Bernardino's uncle Francisco Camacho makes a living driving tourists in makeshift safari trucks from hotels in the nearby town of Gomez Farias to San Jose and the interior of the reserve.
Although tourism is concentrated during Semana Santa or the summer months, Francisco said his company and others used to shuttle up to 300 tourists a day during the peak times of the good years.
A group of ten tourists can typically expect to divide a $100 fee for round trip service from Gomez Farias to the interior of the park.
But last year, Francisco said they only received five percent of the number they used to get, or an average about 15 tourists a day.
Both Francisco and Bernardino are hoping this year will be the turning around point.
"We're hoping to see an increase for Semana Santa," Francisco said in Spanish. "At least, fifteen percent of what we used to get."
Mexico's drug war has calmed down considerably compared to the peak of violence in 2011 and 2012.
Military checkpoints are now found every hundred or so miles along federal highways but there is still sporadic drug cartel violence in the nearby cities of Ciudad Victoria and Ciudad Mante.
Both San Jose and Gomez Farias remain peaceful islands hopefully allowing tourists to slowly make their way back to the preserve.
Dr. Leticia Santoyo with the Tamaulipas Ministry of Economic Development & Tourism (SEDET) spoke with Action 4 News about tourism to El Cielo.
Santoyo said El Cielo offers a wide variety of outdoor activities and received some 45,000 tourists in 2013 but SEDET officials anticipate an increase of ten percent this year.
With local, state and federal police working together to secure the highways; Santoyo said American tourists can feel safe traveling to the rainforest, which is about a five and a half hour drive south of Brownsville.
"Tamaulipas feels very honored to receive our neighbors to the north with whom we are united through many customs, traditions and a great fraternity above all," Santoyo said.
For those who do not want to drive, Santoyo said Americans can take buses from the border cities of Matamoros and Reynosa to Gomez Farias, although the routes might require connections in nearby Ciudad Victoria or Ciudad Mante.
Gomez Farias Mayor Maria Teresa de Jesus Galva hosted an expanded eight-day Spring Festival this past weekend.
An estimated 2,000 people attended the festival's opening ceremonies, which included live music and beauty pageant.
Elia Cota with the Hostal Casa de Piedra in Gomez Farias said her inn had all of its rooms booked during the Spring Festival.
But the next test will be during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, when many Mexican families go on vacation.
"We should get a lot of tourists during Semana Santa," Cota said in Spanish.
But in between tourist seasons, Cota's charming stone inn with rustically furnished rooms remains empty.
Whether or not Americans return in the summer remains to be seen.
U.S. Embassy Warning
Despite security improvements in the area, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City reissued a travel warning on January 10th asking Americans to defer non-essential travel to the State of Tamaulipas.
According to the travel warning, some 71 American citizens were murdered in connection to Mexico's drug war in 2012 with another 81 killed in 2013.
Embassy officials reported that the kidnapping rate for Tamaulipas doubled in 2012 making it the highest in Mexico with Americans among the victims.
U.S. officials reported that traveling outside of cities after dark is reported to be particularly dangerous.
At one point in the drug war, buses filled with passengers were robbed or hijacked in San Fernando and other southern Tamaulipas cities.
The bodies of those kidnapped bus passengers were later found in mass graves.
Many bus companies such as Transpais now equip their buses with free Wi-Fi and GPS monitoring devices as a protective measure.
Over the past year, the embassy reported that Americans have been kidnapped from hotels while attending family or social events such as weddings or funerals.
In at least one incident, one American was summoned to the front desk by hotel staff where he was kidnapped.
Embassy officials are asking those who travel to Tamaulipas to stay low-key and refrain from flashing around cash or wearing expensive jewelry.