Tourism as a Force for Change in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

In an area of Mexico that takes the word "biodiversity" to a new level, tourists contribute to turning around the mindset and income streams of an entire region.

Sierra Gorda tour

When we arrived in the village of La Trinidad it felt like a scene from a suspense movie come to life. Misty clouds rolled across the unnaturally green grass. The sheep munching on that grass made the only sounds, their bells jangling as they moved. Only one space between the houses where streets would be normally had tire tracks, the rest being grass walkways. Jagged limestone boulders stuck out from the ground in random places and when the clouds parted occasionally a steep cliff was visible behind the village.

After exploring for a while, we walked to the house where we were having dinner, in the smoky kitchen of a mother of six. She patted tortillas by hand as little chicks ran around pecking for food and her kids ran around outside the house barefoot. The one bulb that provided cooking and eating light was powered by a battery charged by a solar panel each day.

Sierra Gorda cabin

We slept in a simple wooden cabin with a porch that was built and maintained by the local villagers, one of several on site that gives a taste of the country life to visitors mostly coming from big cities. The cabins don't have electricity. A steaming hot shower is ready after some patience, however: the tank is heated by burning wood. That night we fell asleep to the sounds of cicadas and wind whistling through tall tree branches, as we rested up for a long hike the next day.

In the morning as we walked back to the house where the woman would pat her tortillas and fry her just-laid eggs, we saw the men filing off in a line to go work in the forest. Seeing them climb the trail through the woods with picks and shovels over their shoulder, the "Heigh-Ho" off to work song to get stuck in our heads for the rest of the day.

The men get paid through the same organization that includes the company running the tour we're on. The villagers keep the trails cleared, put diversions and dikes in place to prevent floods when the streams overflow, and keep an eye out for poachers. It's a model of community development and nature preservation, just one part of a whole network of efforts run by the Sierra Gorda Alliance.

The Sustainable Side of Mexico Tourism

Mexico is a very large country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific and would take days to drive across. The vast majority of foreign visitors don't see much of what's in the middle though, preferring to go lie in a lounge chair in the sand or by a pool in a resort area that's the very opposite of sustainable development.

In the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in Queretaro and San Luis Potosi states, it's another side of Mexico. Cloudforests, jungles, deserts, and mountains covered with pine trees all share the same 1,480 square mile reserve. This is not a case where people were kicked off land to create a national park, however. Around 70% of the land is privately owned, but the owners take part in education and job creation programs meant to create income from sustainable farming, infrastructure improvements, tourism, and handicrafts rather than logging the forests and killing off endangered animals to sell.

La Trinidad trail flower

Getting to this point took a lot of work, of course. A group of forward-looking individuals worked for more than a decade to get the Mexican government to officially designate the region as a protected reserve. They achieved that in 1997 and this is now the largest one in Mexico. Here the altitude ranges from 200 meters to 3,160 meters in elevation and the annual precipitation ranges from desert dry to rainforest soggy.

Sierra Gorda Ecotours is part of the alliance that made that happen and oversees the tourism efforts of the protected region. By booking a tour with them, visitors are doing some good at the same time. They help support anti-poaching efforts, environmental education, and job creation in remote areas where there aren't many other options. By bringing people with money into towns and villages that don't have much, the group has demonstrated to the locals that a change of habits can lead to a better standard of living.

Nature Beyond the Exit Ramp

My family and I had been through this area before, but just passing through on the winding highway on our way to Las Pozas, the bizarre jungle sculpture park near the town of Xilitla. I had always regretted that we were just zipping past all this that time, enjoying the scenic views and some quick mission church stops, but having no clue about what was beyond.

Sierra Gorda biosphere

This trip we met up with our young guide in the Pinal de Amoles town that's surrounded by evergreen trees and headed to Chuveje Waterfall in a green, lush forest. It brought me back to my childhood home in the mountains of Virginia with its evergreen trees, lichens, and moss. It felt strange to be in such a lush and wet area after passing dry cacti-studded hills an hour earlier on the way.

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