We look out over the vast emptiness below our feet—past the mountainside, its flanks cloaked in gnarled, moss-hung oaks; past huge gray-green agaves and blankets of wildflowers; past the desert valley more than 3,000 feet below, and the chilly wraiths of windswept fog that periodically blot out the stunning view and make us shiver inside our fleeces.
When the fog parts, we find a breathtaking view of Cerro de la Media Luna, the Hill of the Half-Moon, an immense, semicircular upthrust of pale, pinkish limestone, hazy in the distance. Flocks of white-throated swifts, twittering wildly, all but part our hair as they race by on curved wings. A zone-tailed hawk comes streaking down on a lizard or a mouse that apparently fell for this ebony raptor’s ability to masquerade as a harmless vulture.
Sprawling across the state of Querétaro, the Sierra Gorda is one of the most unusual reserves in Latin America and a biological melting pot unmatched on the North American continent—a place where temperate mountains, semi-desert hills, and lowland jungle mix to spectacular effect; where you find species typical of the Rockies, like black bears and Douglas-firs, mingling with tropical specialties, like jaguars and macaws; a place where, in just a few miles, you can venture from a foggy cloudforest of firs and sweetgums draped in exotic orchids, to arid hills of columnar cactus and agave.
This amazing reserve owes its existence to Martha Isabel “Pati” Ruiz Corzo and her husband, Roberto Pedraza Muñoz, the remarkable couple that founded Grupo Ecologico Sierra Gorda (GESG). Their small Mexican nonprofit, launched in 1987, pioneered land preservation, sustainable forestry and reforestation, environmental education, and community ecotourism ventures throughout the region. Pati is a stout, vibrantly energetic woman who, in the early 1980s, traded the high heels and makeup that complemented her city life in Querétaro as a professional violinist and music teacher for Roberto’s old family homestead high in the Sierra Gorda—with no electricity and only a mule for transportation.
From the moment she and her family arrived, they could see that the Sierra Gorda was under siege. Mountainsides were being stripped of their protective forest cover, replaced by eroding cornfields; keystone species like jaguars and pumas were being hunted to oblivion; without the forests, rivers were drying up. Yet despite these assaults and centuries of poverty and poor management, the Sierra Gorda remained a uniquely intact mountain ecosystem that could be rescued and restored.
With her accordion in tow, Pati led sing-alongs to unite the residents of hundreds of little villages to preserve the region, creating a groundswell of support from 100,000 people. “I am a spider,” she says of her efforts to preserve the Sierra Gorda’s million acres, which have inspired the protection of a new, 600,000-acre sister reserve in Guanajuato state. “I weave all the time, weaving together people and the mountains. That’s why we are here—to keep the integrity of the forest and the people as much as we can.”
Her weaving paid off: In 1997 President Ernesto Zedillo proclaimed that roughly the northern third of Querétaro—most of it in private hands—would become the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, and he appointed Pati to manage the land preserve. She has received many international accolades and awards for her work, but David Mehlman, director of The Nature Conservancy’s migratory bird program, perhaps says it best: “Pati is the personification of the belief that one person can change the world.”
Pati’s love of the landscape has clearly carried over to the next generation, including her own children. “This is the most eco-diverse protected region in Mexico,” says her son, Beto, a lean, quiet man in his early 30s with a dark beard, whose plan for the next week is to give me a sampling of both the reserve’s birdlife and some of the innovative, community-based ecotourism opportunities sprouting up throughout the region. The Sierra Gorda, he explains, contains no fewer than eight major ecosystems. “It goes from the southern tip of the Chihuahuan Desert on the western slope, and tropical evergreen forest with ceiba trees and breadnuts on the eastern slope, up to 3,100 meters [10,170 feet] along the crest of Sierra Madre, with trees like Douglas-firs and aspens that are found in the Rockies. [There are] oak–pine forests, tropical dry forest, semi-desert scrub. There are 650 species of moths and butterflies, 2,308 species of plants, 329 species of birds—nearly a third of all the kinds of birds found in Mexico.”
From the city of Querétaro, our group heads into the mountains, driving from the ocotillo-studded edge of the Chihuahuan Desert up into oak and pine forests, and then higher still into cool cloudforests of fir and sweetgum. The clouds part when we reach the small village of Cuatro Palos, home to about 150 people, where farmers wield their hoes in corn patches on dizzyingly steep slopes.
We eat lunch in a low-roofed stone building, formerly the village chapel, transformed into a cafe with a whitewashed interior filled with bright flowers and the tang of woodsmoke, plus the sharp slap-slap-slap of fresh tortillas being made. We hike farther up the ridge, past thick-set maguey agaves, whose juice is harvested for the mildly alcoholic brew called pulque. With the seasonal rains gone, now is a time of cool days and lush blooms throughout the sierra. We walk among red and blue salvias on which white-eared hummingbirds feed, tall purple mints, and the bright orange-yellow flowers known as cempasúchil that will soon be picked for Day of the Dead garlands, the All Saint’s Day tradition when Mexicans decorate homemade altars and the graves of their loved ones.
Many of the young men have left villages like Cuatro Palos, seeking jobs in cities as far away as the United States. The GESG and biosphere staff are trying to create other, sustainable opportunities for those who remain, particularly for women—ceramics shops, dried flowers, beekeeping, cooking classes for new food products, embroidery. To save the forests, locals are trained to grow and plant native seedlings—and encouraged to use solar cookers to avoid using cut firewood. Landowners who fence out cattle and preserve forests are compensated for protecting the benefits from local ecosystems, such as clean drinking water supplies for cities in the lowlands.
A number of communities focus on ecotourism, making it easy and inexpensive for a visitor to savor the sierra’s beauty while giving a direct boost to residents within the reserve. Unlike me, most of the tourists who come are day-trippers and weekend vacationers from Querétaro or Mexico City; last year only about 5,000 foreigners visited the nearly 1,500-square-mile region. Here is a rare place still so remote that an unfamiliar face—Mexican or otherwise—brings life to a friendly but curious halt.
A night or two later we settle into comfortable pinewood cabins near the tiny village of San Juan de los Durán, tucked in a narrow valley beneath soaring mountains. Solar panels power electric lights in the cabins, but the dining room flickers with candles around a simple Day of the Dead altar, and aromas of chicken, squash, beans, and corn waft from the kitchen. Mingling with the happy chatter of a group of Dutch visitors is a string of deep, two-noted hoots from a mottled owl in the woods outside.
The Sierra Gorda is underlain by limestone, and with eons of rain, it has eroded into what geologists call a karst landscape—steep-sided mountains, conical valleys known as joyas, and a bewildering number of caves, caverns, and huge sinkholes called sótanos, all connected in a mammoth subterranean plumbing system that channels away the abundant rainfall. One sinkhole, Sótano del Barro, is among the largest of its kind in the world, nearly 1,500 feet deep and home to one of the last of central Mexico’s colonies of military macaws, huge green-and-blue parrots more than two feet long.
From our base at San Juan, we had planned to visit Sótano de las Golondrinas, where thousands of swifts nest on the sheer walls. But a series of hurricanes has lashed the mountains in previous weeks, and the dirt roads are a soupy mess; the next day, accompanied by Pati’s husband, Roberto, our group blows a tire getting to Las Arenitas, a private reserve the family manages in the lower, more tropical hills. Beto suggests a change of plans. “We can’t make it to Golondrinas before dark. I know another sótano, one that my father and I found. It’s not as big as Golondrinas, but it has flocks of green parakeets that nest and roost there—and if we hurry, we’ll be just in time to see them.”
By sunset we are in a high, lonely reach of the mountains, wildly vertical pinnacles and dark conifer forests playing hide-and-seek behind rolls of fog backlit by the low sun. The woods are going dim and gray, and everyone moves in silence, except for a metallic zing of Roberto’s machete blade against the occasional shrub and vine. With burring wing beats, a quail flushes from near our feet, but otherwise the forest is quiet.
Down, down, then at last the sótano opens before us, a half-round cliff rising a hundred feet above our heads and dropping straight down several hundred feet more into blackness. The domed roof of an old cave collapsed to form the sótano, and weathered gray stalactites still cling to the walls of the shaft.
Everyone speaks in whispers while a brown-backed solitaire—a drab thrush whose long, complex song is one of the signature sounds of the high sierra forests—pours out its music. Then, with a rush of wings and ear-splitting screeches, flocks of parakeets begin arriving, filling the trees with life and noise but staying out of sight. “They know we’re down here,” Beto says softly, and as the darkness grows it seems the nervous birds might outlast us. But finally they begin to hurtle down into the sinkhole, dozens of iridescent green-yellow shapes whirring around and around, alighting on vines or clinging sideways to ancient stalactites before disappearing into the nooks and crannies where they roost each night.
It’s a powerful moment for all of us, deep in a still-wild land on the very edge of night, breathing in the cave’s damp, earthy exhalation. We celebrate down in the tiny hamlet of Valle Verde over blue corn tortillas, spicy carne, even spicier diced zucchini, and big, cold bottles of Sol beer. Curious children and adults crowd the cafe door, peering in at us. “They stare at us, too, when we come here,” Beto whispers. “They just never see anyone from outside this village. Not even from Querétaro.”
Yet if Valle Verde seems far off the beaten track, our final stop is so remote that until recently, there had been no track at all. Or, more correctly, there was one, if you were determined enough—a torturous footpath climbing 2,000 feet up the steep mountains to the community of La Trinidad, where 15 Huasteca families live in some of the finest old-growth cloudforest left in Mexico.
The state recently built a small four-wheel-drive track to the village, which has opened a modest ecotour venture much like San Juan de los Durán’s. Tucked among head-high fingers of limestone, four rustic cabins sit at the edge of a forest of oaks and pines draped with ghostly tendrils of old-man’s-beard lichen, their trunks furred with moss and heavy with orchids and enormous, bright-red bromeliads.
As the wet air flows in from the Gulf of Mexico and rises over the mountains, the peaks of the Sierra Madre squeeze the moisture from it—and Lord, how they squeeze. We no sooner stow our gear when the rain begins, gently at first, then with rising intensity. Beto wants to show us an exceptional stand of old growth, and because he isn’t deterred by weather or terrain, he shrugs on a raincoat.
“Well, it’s not going to stop, so I guess we’d might as well go,” he says, and we set out in what soon becomes the kind of deluge that floats arks. The trail is now a stream. We have to repeatedly ford knee- and even thigh-deep, bracing ourselves against the current. Yet to see the cloudforest ripe with the rain that nourishes it, lush and green and dripping, noisy with the roar of rushing water, is well worth the hours of slogging in sodden boots. The immense firs and sweetgums soar above our heads, their crowns disappearing in the fog—the “fat boys,” Beto calls them for their tremendous 13- to 20-foot girth. Rivers of water cascade over their moss-covered bark, and orchids and bromeliads cling to their branches.
The cabins are snug, though, candlelit with wood-fired water heaters for very welcome hot showers. Nearby is a small kitchen and dining room that will eventually offer wraparound windows—once the glass arrives, that is; our visit is a bit premature, and not everything is ready for tourists. No matter. We cocoon ourselves in fleece and windbreakers for dinner as the candle flames sputter in the rain-swept breeze, and tuck into plates of steaming, traditional food of the Huasteca region, including gooey, lightly toasted squares of pungent local cheese and mugs of hot, sweet tea made from wild mint that drives away the cold.
By the next morning the rain has stopped, and the landscape is alive with birds—a wonderfully disconcerting mix of the temperate and tropical, resident and migrant, east and west. I stand in one small clearing for half an hour as a seemingly endless flock of songbirds flit through—western migrants like Townsend’s and hermit warblers with their bright splashes of yellow, eastern species like black-throated green and black-and-white warblers that might have passed through my Pennsylvania yard a few weeks earlier, and resident birds like tufted flycatchers, which with their small crests look like cinnamon-colored titmice. We see orange-billed nightingale-thrushes and black thrushes, the latter a close cousin of the American robin, though coal black with a bright-yellow bill. Mexican jays give their musical chink calls, and Beto excitedly points out a strong-billed woodcreeper, a rusty-brown, foot-long bird with a curved, outsized beak nearly a third its total length.
Heading back toward the distant village for lunch, we take a different route for a change of pace. Soon Beto stops and admits it is a path he doesn’t know. Beto, you must understand, loves to find a path he doesn’t know, and he cocks a mischievous eye at us.
The trail strikes off to the north and east, away from the village, and we abandon any thought of lunch, caught up in the spirit of adventure, mesmerized by the beauty of the forest, narrow grottos festooned with wild begonias, the flocks of riotously colored birds. It is hard, sweaty going, the footing treacherous, the trail muddy and steep, as we climb out of one joya and immediately begin sliding down a half-vertical slope into the next. And again. And again.
But often at the bottom of a valley we find a sótano, each lovelier than the last. One is a shaft 30 yards wide, on a narrow shelf on which grows a tall, orchid-bedraped oak overhanging the main pit of the sinkhole. “I can guarantee you that no one except the Huasteca in La Trinidad have ever been back here,” Beto says.
By now it’s late afternoon, and we have to turn back soon if we are going to make it to the village before dark. But Beto urges me to go just a little farther. Climbing quickly—the man is a mountain goat—he shouts to hurry. I can see light through the trees ahead, hinting at a great space beyond. “This isn’t another joya,” I think to myself. “This feels like the edge of the sierra.”
And it is.
Below us, the mountain falls in a sheer, thousand-foot cliff to the crumpled foothills and the tropical plains. If only it were a clearer day, we might be able to see the silvery glint of the Gulf of Mexico more than 100 miles away. What we can see—all too clearly—is how the lower hills have been stripped of their forests for cornfields. We are standing on a million-acre island in a sea of agriculture and development.
No single moment—no single view—encapsulates so well for me the twinned promise and threat at work in the Sierra Gorda region. As immense and intact as the landscape remains, it is clearly under siege by all the forces of deforestation and blind destruction that have already wrecked so much of the rest of Mexico. Protecting the forest—most of it privately owned—for the future means giving the people of the Sierra Gorda, like the villagers of La Trinidad, more sustainable choices than those forced upon the residents of the lowlands at our feet.
We toast what we’ve accomplished in our hike by draining the last drops from our water bottles, and glance at the fast-falling sun. The wood stove will be hot back in the kitchen when we arrive, the candles lit, soft tortillas with homemade queso melted over the fire, chicken and rice and beans heaped on our plates. But the trail, worn by generations of Huastecan feet, disappears ahead into the gloom, casting a powerful charm. Now it’s hard to turn back, not knowing what new wonders the trail will pass ahead, what deep sinkholes full of screeching parakeets it skirts—knowing that as darkness comes, the jaguars and pumas will be traveling its narrow passages, their muscles flexing in the moonlight, the last tropical black bears moving through the shadows, the calls of owls and nightjars echoing through the dusk.
We hang for long minutes on the edge of decision, prudence warring with adventure in each of us. In the end, dinner and the candles of the village win out.