Changing Planet

Conservation Accomplishment, Travel Adventure

Mexico’s Hidden Garden, the Sierra Gorda

You can sum up the key to this Mexican conservation success in one word: “Inclusion.”

Conservationist Martha (Pati) Ruiz Corzo. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

So says the cofounder of Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda, the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group. That’s Pati, or more formally, Martha Ruiz Corzo, the charismatic changemaker who has spent much of her life working to conserve this region. “Social inclusion is the main goal of the project.” She’s referring to all the rural residents of this rugged UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the central Mexican state of Querétaro.

The programs she started have helped protect the region’s five distinct ecosystems and provided an authentic travel experience for visitors from the mildly curious to the firmly adventurous. The key has been to enroll the locals in the conservation process while ensuring that they benefit from it, including from tourism.

I was eager to see this internationally recognized success story—one that our Destination Stewardship Center team was videoing for the pilot of a new series called “World’s Inspiring Places.” (See trailer below.) A personal surprise awaited me, too, but I would be on site for three days before I discovered it.

First task was to get there from Washington, D.C. Mexico’s route 120 from the Querétaro city airport leads northeast across the flat scrubland, then past the towering monolith of Peña de Bernal, and loops up and up a formidable mountain façade. At the top, the road slices through a deep cut appropriately named Puerto de Cielo, Gateway to Heaven. Beyond lies the Sierra Gorda. You could call it the hidden garden of Mexico.

“Fat mountains?” I ask, translating the name. “Fat in the sense of fruitful,” responds Pati’s son Roberto Pedraza Ruiz, who’s showing me around the region’s five different ecosystems, all of which he works to protect: Arid scrubland, temperate forest, deciduous lowland forest, cloud forest, and gallery woodlands along watercourses.

Indeed, these are not the desert mountains norteamericanos might normally associate with Mexico. They rise steep and towering, yet mostly covered in trees. Some forests seem to be growing from near-vertical walls. At every high overlook, the mountains recede like crumpled green felt, fading into blue with distance.

We meet two young women also from Washington—environmental types who’d been looking for a sustainability-themed adventure before attending a friend’s wedding in San Miguel de Allende, a four-hour drive away. Were they enjoying the trip? Oh, yes. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” enthused one.

Conservation Requires Alternative Incomes

At more than 380,000 hectares, the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve could easily swallow all of Yosemite National Park, yet unlike a park, it remains 97% privately owned, mostly by its relatively poor rural inhabitants.

That’s often a recipe for disastrous deforestation and erosion, as landowners sell off their timber and convert steep slopes to pasture. Not so much here. Pati’s program has now helped create 73 microenterprises that help take pressure off the forests. Some of these small businesses, each identified by one of Grupo Ecológico’s attractive green poster signs, are woven together into networks for travelers to enjoy. There’s a “Lodging Trail” for ecolodges, an “Artisan Trail” for workshops and craftspeople, and a “Tasting Trail” for small restaurants called fonditas.

Ladies at work in a fondita kitchen. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

“It’s building an alternative economy,” says Roberto. Thus travelers can help conservation simply by choosing where they spend their money.

We did just that at our first stop, a fondita simply named “La Cabaña,” right on route 120. While I wolf down some pork in salsa verde served up by two ladies from their open kitchen, Roberto and his brother Mario describe the educational programs they run on organic farming and the benefits of forest protection, such as potable water. A carbon credit system further discourages deforestation; the microenterprise system helps the women bring in extra money and, not incidentally, gain some independence.

To call Roberto a conservationist is to call the Pope a churchgoer. He is totally devoted. Part-time nature photographer and naturalist—he has discovered four species previously unknown to science—he devotes much of his time to battling illegal logging and helping Grupo Ecológico buy land for private nature preserves.

He calls the Sierra Gorda Mexico’s “Ark of Life”—the place where hundreds of dwindling species can survive. He constantly fears climate change, especially increased droughts and the subsequent danger of fire to his beloved forests.

A clearwing, one of several hundred Sierra Gorda butterfly species. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

My lightning tour didn’t allow time for proper bird-watching, but Roberto says he can show visitors Sierra Gorda’s signature military macaws (said to be so named for their parade-uniform plumage), green parakeets, and any number of the other 341 birds species here. Jaguars roam the forests, but don’t expect to catch a glimpse of the elusive cats. Roberto cautions that touring Sierra Gorda is not a megafauna adventure. “I can guarantee military macaws”, he says, “but for mammals, it’s a tracks and scat experience.” Far more common and delightful to see are some of the reserve’s 800 species of butterflies and numerous orchids.

Adventure and history

Much of the Sierra Gorda is built of Ordovician limestone, riddled with fossils and caves. One, a huge vertical tube called a sótano, provides the roosting space for hundreds and thousands of swallows and parakeets. Another shelters the remaining population of military macaws. Indeed, the whole region is riddled with caves. Only ten percent have been explored, according to Mexico’s leading spelunker, Carlos Lazcano, who plans to open a caving center here.

My Pot. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Plenty of history awaits as well, such as the five 18th-century Franciscan missions that now collectively constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site. Deep in the Bucareli canyon, you can wander the romantically melancholy roofless corridors of a ruined convent, abandoned unfinished two centuries ago.

Toward the end of my third day we visit a pottery workshop run by a women’s coop. Here, you can buy a colorful pot—I couldn’t resist—but also learn how to make one yourself.

A Pleasant Surprise

Outside, the workshop was identified by another one of those green poster signs Grupo Ecológico had put up. I really like them. They’re scattered all over the area, presenting interesting information about small businesses, the wildlife and ecosystems, the geology, history, and so on. Visually they also help tie the region together, lending a sense of identity. Their very presence tells you that you’re in the Sierra Gorda.

Ubiquitous interpretive posters lend the region a sense of identity. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

I say as much to Roberto, asking “How were you able to get the funding for all these signs? How many are there?”

His eyebrows rise. Didn’t I know? “It was that Geotourism Challenge in 2010, with the InterAmerican Development Bank. It’s 96 signs.” He goes on to complain about how much work it was to get them all installed, but I’m not quite listening.

The Geotourism Challenge! Why, that was the program I had supervised at National Geographic in cooperation with Ashoka Changemakers. In the last of that competition’s three years, the InterAmerican Development Bank joined in, finding the Challenge competition a good way to screen funding applicants. I knew Sierra Gorda had made the cut but never knew what happened afterward. These signs were one of the benefits.

I feel absurdly pleased. We actually helped something happen, not in a distant Washington meeting room, but right here, on the ground, making a good place a little better.

Now Grupo Ecológico would like to ramp up tourism, but not too much and in the right way. I ask Pati what kind of visitors she hopes for there. Says she, with typical zest, “I want the finest human beings who want to be connected with nature.”

So go—if you’re worthy, that is! To learn more, check out our new videos about Sierra Gorda on the World’s Inspiring Places channel. A five-minute version focuses on Sierra Gorda as a travel experience:

For a deeper dive into how Grupo Ecológico works, watch the 13-minute WIP Documentary :

Practical points

Sierra Gorda is for true travelers, seeking authentic experiences amid gorgeous scenery, friendly people, healthy nature, and good food. It’s not for those who need coddling or pampering. Tourism here has so far been largely domestic, so most local folks speak only Spanish. If you don’t, you’ll need a phrasebook and (preferably) a good guide. Printed information is also in Spanish only, even the Grupo Ecológico poster signs and the explanatory plaques in the excellent little Jalpan historical museum.

Cuatro Palos Ecolodge, Sierra Gorda. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

For reasonable comfort, you can stay in perfectly adequate hotels in the central town of Jalpan de Serra and make daytime forays into the surrounding countryside. For a closer-to-nature stay, try one of the sustainable ecolodges on the Lodging Trail. Facilities are basic but comfortable, often with your own bathroom. The remote Cabañas Rincon de Ojo de Agua even has a swimming pool. Be sure to admire the star-soaked night sky.

After three decades as a National Geographic senior editor and writer, Jonathan Tourtellot continues to work as a travel journalist and consultant in destination stewardship and sustainable tourism. He founded and ran National Geographic’s former Center for Sustainable Destinations and directs its successor, the Destination Stewardship Center. You can reach him at info@destinationcenter.org . His latest webinar is on Overtourism, conducted in cooperation with the George Washington University and Travel Massive.

National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC

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