Sep 012016
 

Mexico’s famed Hidden Beach (Playa Escondida), aka as the Beach of Love (Playa del Amor), has reopened for limited tourism following a three month closure  for cleaning and restoration work.

The beach is on one of the small, uninhabited Marieta Islands, in the Marieta Islands National Park, off the west coast of Mexico, and relatively close to the resort of Puerto Vallarta. It is one of Mexico’s most beautiful small beaches, looking from the air (image) like an “eye to the sky”.

Playa Escondida. Source: Google Earth. Scale: The beach is about 30 m (100 ft) long.

Playa Escondida. Source: Google Earth. Scale: The beach is about 30 m (100 ft) long.

In earlier posts, we considered how Playa Escondida (“Hidden Beach”) was formed and also looked at the not inconsiderable downside to publicizing one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches.

After a study by University of Guadalajara researchers found that local coral was dying and argued that the beach could support no more than 625 visitors a day (compared to the estimated 2500 who visit it on vacation days), federal authorities closed the beach and prohibited access while they considered how best to regulate future visits.

Mexico’s National Protected Areas Commission (Conanp) has now announced new regulations governing visits to the island and to the beach. It is limiting visitors to 116/day, well below the University of Guadalajara figure for carrying capacity of 625/day/.

In addition, no single group may have more than 15 members. No diving is allowed. Fins, face masks and snorkels are all prohibited. Visits have a strict time limit of 30 minutes. The beach, visted by more than 125,000 in 2015, will be completely closed two days each week for maintenance and monitoring.

Only time will tell if these measures will be sufficient to ensure that this particular gem of Mexico’s hundreds of amazing geosites will still be there for future generations to admire and appreciate.

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Aug 182016
 

Despite having seen this tourist promotion logo thousands of times, I had never thought about its colors and their significance until recently.

mexico tourism logoIt turns out that the colors (despite what you may see on your monitor) are actually meant to be:

  • M – brown = archaeology and archaeological sites (historical tourism)
  • é – pink = health and well-being (including medical tourism)
  • x – yellow = culture (cultural tourism)
  • i – purple = meetings (seminars and conference tourism)
  • c – green = nature (adventure tourism and ecotourism)
  • o – blue = sea, sun and sand (beach and resort tourism)

The federal Tourism Secretariat is planning a nationwide overhaul of tourism signage on major highways taking advantage of these colors. It will install new, standardized signs using these six colors as a quick means of identifying the kind of tourist attraction at each location of interest. The program has funding of almost $10 million, and the first states to have the new signs will be Chiapas, Durango, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Jalisco, Michoacán, Puebla, Tabasco, Tlaxcala and Veracruz.

Whether or not using six different colors is actually more effective than six distinct symbols on the same color background remains to be seen.

In the first half of this year, Mexico received 17,000,000 international tourists, 8.6% more than for the corresponding period in 2015, with expenditures by tourists rising 8% to $10.063 billion.

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Jun 022016
 

Following on from our look at the potentially disastrous environmental consequences of publicizing Playa Escondida (“Hidden Beach”), one of Mexico’s most beautiful small beaches, we take a look at how this extraordinary beach was formed.

Playa Escondida. Source: Google Earth. Scale: The beach is about 30 m (100 ft) long.

Playa Escondida. Source: Google Earth. Scale: The beach is about 30 m (100 ft) long.

Playa Escondida is on one of the small, uninhabited Marieta Islands, in the Marieta Islands National Park, off the west coast of Mexico, and relatively close to Puerto Vallarta.

playa-escondida

The beach is an “eye to the sky” and is aptly described by travel writer Brandon Presser, as follows:

At the center of Isla Redonda [is] a quirk of nature seen only on the pages of a fantasy novel—a sandy beach carved into the rounded core of the island like the hole of donut. Although completely invisible from the shoreline, a bird’s eye view reveals lapping crystal waters and an empty dune like dazzling colors at the end of kaleidoscope’s funnel.”

The Marieta Islands are formed of volcanic rocks and are an extension of Mexico’s Volcanic Axis.

Just how was this beach formed? Prosser describes two alternative suggestions. The first is that the volcanic rocks were not uniform in composition and hardness but had differences in resistance to subaerial weathering and erosion. According to this theory, the weaker, less consolidated rocks were eroded more quickly than the surrounding rocks to leave a giant chasm in the ground. This chasm was then breached on one side by marine action.

The alternative theory mentioned by Prosser, and the only one mentioned (though without citation) by wikipedia, is that the chasm was formed by human activity, specifically by the Mexican military who undertook bombing practice in and around the islands prior to when the area was given National Park status.

Coastal geomorphologists might argue the case for considering a third theory, involving the formation, first, of the cove on the outer coast of the island, followed by a combination of marine and subaerial action to exploit a line of weakness in the volcanic rocks to create a landform known as a geo (a narrow, deep, cleft extending inland from the coast). This geo may have gradually lengthened over time, by continued cave formation at the head of the geo, with marine erosion at the back of the cave opening up a blowhole, a small opening to the sky. A sequence of collapses and blowhole formation, over time, may have created Playa Escondida, where the interior beach is the base of a former blowhole, where the roof has collapsed and the material subsequently removed by marine action or pounded into beach sand.

Whatever the explanation, this particular geomorphosite is one of Mexico’s many natural treasures, and one well worth preserving for future generations.

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Tourism index page

 Index page  Comments Off on Tourism index page
Sep 232015
 

This Tourism index page lists the most relevant posts on Geo-Mexico related to tourism, including history of tourism in Mexico, types of tourism, major resorts, and current trends. It is updated periodically.

Importance of tourism:

History of tourism in Mexico, hotels, publicity campaigns:

Magic Towns:

Cancún and the Riviera Maya (Maya Riviera), Quintana Roo:

Huatulco and Oaxaca:

Acapulco:

Geotourism and ecotourism in Mexico:

Cruise ships:

Lake Chapala, Ajijic, Chapala and the Lerma-Chapala basin:

Megaproject proposals and conflicts over tourism:

Specialized forms of tourism (tourism niche markets):

Other (miscellaneous):

Other Geo-Mexico index pages:

Community-based ecotourism in La Ventanilla, Oaxaca: success or failure?

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Jun 182015
 

Ecotourism at La Ventanilla on the coast of Oaxaca, a small community of about 100 inhabitants, located between the beach resorts of Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel, began more than twenty years ago. It is based on trips run by local guides through the mangroves lining a lagoon on the Tonameca River; the area’s wildlife includes iguanas, birds, crocodiles and sea turtles.

The main local cooperative that conducts tours is called Servicio Ecoturisticos de La Ventanilla (La Ventanilla Ecotourism Services). Income from its tours supports reforestation and other ecological projects, including a greenhouse for mangrove reforestation and a nursery to hatch and raise crocodiles for release on Uma Island, in the lagoon. A breakaway co-operative, Cooperativa Lagarto Real, also runs some local excursions, though its profits do not contribute to local conservation efforts.

La Ventanilla (Google Earth)

La Ventanilla (Google Earth)

Most visitors to La Ventanilla come only for the day; the small local community offers only limited services or accommodations for tourists. The community of La Ventanilla is often held up as a shining example of how a well-implemented “assistive conservation” ecotourism approach can combine environmental conservation with economic sustainability, while enhancing the local quality of life.

But is this apparent success story quite as idyllic as usually portrayed in the mainstream press? Dr. David Vargas-del-Río, a researcher at ITESO in Guadalajara, sets out to explore this question in his recent article, “The assistive conservation approach for community-based lands: the case of La Ventanilla”, published in the December 2014 issue of The Geographical Journal. The article is based on Vargas-del-Río’s doctorate thesis at the UPC University, Barcelona.

As Vargas-del-Río explains, “The assistive conservation approach includes strategies for conserving community-based lands based on a complex combination of traditional and modern scientific knowledge. It enjoys broad legitimacy and seems promising for conserving territories with autochthonous populations. However, as a novel strategy, it has been applied mostly to societies and environments that are fragile in conservationist terms.”

The author explores how there has been a gradual shift in the protection of natural areas from ‘top-down’ to ‘bottom-up’ models of environmental management, before turning to his case-study of La Ventanilla. La Ventanilla lends itself to such a case study since an assistive conservation approach was first implemented there more than twenty years ago, More than sufficient time to allow for some follow-up evaluation. His eventual conclusion is that while assistive conservation approaches sound good in theory, they may, over time, make local ecologies “more vulnerable to social and environmental degradation, especially as traditional management institutions once responsible for ecological integrity become obsolete”.

In reviewing the background literature, Vargas-del-Río asserts that there are “three broad critical currents” of criticism of the assistive conservation approach. These include the potential adverse impacts of utilizing protected areas for tourism. The provision of attractions, installations and other services, leads to “new dynamics, impacts and transformations” in terms of tourism providers, and may result in “competition between local actors and powerful tourism agents, both conventional and emergent.” Potential issues include changes in local consumption and behavior patterns, and the view that nature and local culture are commodities.

Just how was this manifested in the context of La Ventanilla?

Initial effects of the assistive conservation approach in La Ventanilla were positive. Restrictions were placed, and enforced, on “activities considered ‘disruptive’; that is, hunting, selling local species, harvesting turtle eggs, and felling mangrove trees…”The cooperative soon won praise for its environmental responsibility and received more funds from the government to conduct volunteer conservation projects, including reforestation in the mangroves, a deer reserve, a turtle egg nursery, and areas for iguanas, among other initiatives. Hence, it continued to receive financial and moral power which it exercised over the rest of the population, while promoting conservation and tourism over traditional uses.”

Following extensive fieldwork in the community, Vargas-del-Río found, “a marked tendency towards spatial segregation, social fragmentation, inequality and speculation; phenomena that have emerged as a direct result of the ‘conservation’ initiative with its nature-based tourism activities and imposed environmental restrictions.”The La Ventanilla Ecotourism Services Cooperative (CSELV) is “controlled by six local leaders who own the lands where the cooperative’s main assets are located, handle all accounts, and elaborate support and funding applications.” Other members of the co-operative are “simple wage earners”.

Inequality triggered by the project led to segregation, in terms of housing quality, in the central area of the community. A group of nine disgruntled members of the initial co-operative, broke away in 2004 and founded a second co-operative, Lagarto Real. They “disregarded the management plan”, “sabotaged some conservation and ecotourism initiatives undertaken in this sub-zone, and set up restaurants, shops and camping sites of their own that lacked the ‘green’ image that others were marketing.” The growth of ecotourism has led to land speculation, including a controversy over the construction and (illegal) sale of a small hotel built on communal property.

The island of Uma is controlled by the original co-operative and no longer accessible for traditional activities such as agriculture. There has been a dramatic shift in economic activities. “Agriculture and fishing are now practiced by just 7% of inhabitants and represent an important source of income for only 10.7% of households. In contrast, tourism-related activities occupy 34.7% of the people, represent 70.1% of the economically active population, and are the main source of income for 67.9% of households.”

Vargas-del-Río concludes that previous assessments failed “to take into account slow, gradual changes”. One outcome has been “a higher risk of land degradation in social and environmental terms as the local society fragments, inequality increases, more actors (external and local) strive to profit from the territory, and regulation becomes more difficult.”

In conclusion, “assistive approaches modify ways of approaching nature, restrict traditional uses in favour of tourism, weaken local management institutions and degrade environmental and social relations.” The assistive approach “undermines the cultural, economic and local environment while creating new spaces for consumption.”

Source:

David Vargas-del-Río, 2014. “The assistive conservation approach for community-based lands: the case of La Ventanilla”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 180 #4 (December 2014) 377–391.

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Mexico’s geomorphosites: Peñas Cargadas, Mineral del Monte, Hidalgo

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Apr 232015
 

This short Postandfly video of an area known as Peñas Cargardas (“Loaded Rocks”) in the state of Hidalgo is the perfect excuse to add to our posts about Mexico’s geomorphosites – sites where landforms have provided amazing scenery for our enjoyment. This area of Mexico is definitely one of my favorites, partly because it is crammed with interesting sights for geographers, including the Basalt Prisms of San Miguel Regla, only a few kilometers away from the Piedras Cargadas, and an equally-stunning geomorphosite.

A few minutes east of the city of Pachuca, the Peñas Cargadas (sometimes called the Piedras Cargadas) are located in a valley in the surrounding pine-fir forest. The rocks comprising the Peñas Cargadas have capricious shapes; some appear to be balanced on top of others. Their formation may well be due to the same processes that formed the Piedras Encimadas in Puebla, which are actually not all that far away as the crow flies.

The nearest town, Mineral del Monte (aka Real del Monte) has lots of interest for cultural tourists. Among many other claims to fame, it was where the first soccer and tennis matches in Mexico were played ~ in the nineteenth century, when the surrounding hills echoed to the sounds of Cornish miners, brought here from the U.K. to work the silver mines.

The miners introduced the Cornish Pasty, chile-enriched variations of which are still sold in the town as pastes. Real del Monte also has an English Cemetery, testament not only to the many tragic accidents that befell miners when mining here was at its peak, but also to the long-standing allegiance that led many in-comers to remain here to raise their families long after mining was in near-terminal decline. The town has typical nineteenth century mining architecture. The larger buildings retain many signs of their former wealth the glory.

pachuca-map

The following Spanish language video has some ground-level views, as well as more information about the scenery and the area’s flora:

How to get there

The Peñas Cargadas are about ten kilometers east of Pachuca (see map). From Pachuca, follow signs for Mineral del Monte, and then drive past the “Panteón Inglés” (English Cemetery) in that town on the road to Tezoantla. The Peñas Cargadas are about 3.5 kilometers beyond Tezoantla. This is a great place for a day trip from Mexico City.

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Nov 132014
 

Mexico’s varied geography has made it a premier destination for all kinds of adventure tourism, from caving and canyoneering to jungle treks, white-water rafting and rock climbing.

This 6-minute video shows mountaineer Alex Honnold climbing the 460-meter (1500-feet) high rock face known as El Sendero Luminoso near Monterrey in northern Mexico. What makes this climb special (and slightly scary to watch) is that Honnold climbs solo and without any safety measures such as ropes.

Interviewed for National Geographic Adventure before he had seen the video, Honnold said, “I’m not sure what the video shows, but my true solo was all alone with no photogs [photographers] or helis [helicopters]. We then went back and filmed on big portions of it. In my mind there’s a clear difference between personal climbing—the actual solo—and work days—the filming afterward.”

"The Spires" in El Potrero Chico climbing area (Wikipedia photo)

“The Spires” in El Potrero Chico climbing area (Wikipedia photo)

The El Sendero Luminoso rockface is in an area known as El Potrero Chico, a short distance from Monterrey, near the town of Hidalgo.

The Wikipedia entry for El Potrero Chico describes it as having “a large range of different climbs, most of them in the 5.8 to 5.13 grade. The type of climbing can range from steep overhanging face to easy slab. The rock is usually quite sharp. The climbs are mostly situated in a canyon at the entrance of the park, while the interior offers undeveloped mountain terrain with many mountain biking routes, ranging from very easy to expert options.”

According to Wikipedia, El Potrero is “considered one of the top 10 locations to sport climb in the world. In addition to well over 500 routes, the area boasts the second longest sport route in North America, Timewave Zero, with 23 pitches and over 2,000 feet (610 m).”

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Oct 112014
 

Most monarch butterflies never migrate, but one generation of the North American monarch population undertakes an annual, long distance migration, a journey without parallel in the insect world. Every winter, some one hundred million monarch butterflies fly south into Mexico from the U.S. and Canada. They congregate and spend the winter in a dozen localities high in the temperate pine and fir forests of the states of México and Michoacán.

Where do the Monarchs overwinter?

The exact sites where the butterflies overwinter were only found in the mid 1970s after a search of nearly forty years. Scientists are still unable to explain all the details of this enigmatic annual migration, but their unexpectedly sophisticated navigational ability seems to rely on an incredible innate accuracy in pinpointing their position by using their eyes and antennas to measure the angles of the sun’s rays, compensating for time of day, and ensuring they continue to fly in a southerly direction towards the state boundary separating Michoacán from the State of México.

How fast can they fly?

The tagging of butterflies has proven that they make the 2500 kilometer trip each way at an impressive average speed of 20 km/h, with maximum speeds of up to 40 km/h (25 mph). Monarchs don’t fly at night, partly because they need daylight to navigate and partly because they fly best when sunlight has warmed their wings, like miniature solar panels, raising their body temperatures some 10 to 15 degrees Celsius above ambient air temperatures.

The butterflies are energy-efficient flyers, making regular nectar stops along the way to refuel. One third of their dry body weight is energy-giving fat but far from losing weight on their exhausting journey south, they actually appear to gain it! There are still many mysteries about the monarchs but they certainly provide one of the most amazing natural spectacles to be seen anywhere on earth. Millions of orange butterflies, with black and white-spotted wings, whether flying overhead or, as on cooler days, clinging apparently lifeless to the grey-green fir trees in such numbers that the trees appear to be in blossom, are an absolutely unforgettable sight.

Based on original map design created by Paul Mirocha (paulmirocha.com) for Monarch Watch.

Based on original map design created by Paul Mirocha (paulmirocha.com) for Monarch Watch.

The journey south

In September and October, as temperatures in the U.S. and Canada fall, and food supplies become scarce, the monarchs fly south in small groups. Some of these groups fly only as far as Florida or western California where they spend their winters in milder conditions. But many of the small groups from east of the Continental Divide eventually coalesce and fly much further south, as far as Mexico, arriving en masse in the state of Michoacán towards the end of November.

This migratory group is comprised of as many as 120 million individuals and spends the winter in semi-dormancy, on the pine and oyamel (sacred fir, Abies religiosa) trees found at elevation of about 3050 meters (10,000 feet) along Mexico’s central Volcanic Axis. Until spring comes, in March or April, these butterflies cling to the branches and trunks of the trees, enjoying temperatures between 10 and 16 degrees Celsius, protected from cold northerly winds. Their metabolism slows down in these low temperature, low oxygen conditions and they exhibit movement only on warm, sunny, days.

The generation that flies into Mexico does not mature sexually until the following spring. In February and March, the best months to see them, early spring sunlight begins to penetrate the groves of fir trees, temperatures begin to rise and the forest floor slowly comes alive with new plant growth. The butterflies, having successfully overwintered the worst weather, unfurl their wings and flutter about in search of food and water. As they regain their strength, so they become sexually mature and the mating process starts.

The journey north

After mating, the butterflies begin to leave the reserves, flying back towards the north. Five days later, in northern Mexico and the southern U.S., each female lays two to three hundred eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. They first check (by smell and touch) that no eggs have already been laid there, and then space their eggs in such a way so as to ensure that each larva that hatches two to three days later will have an adequate supply of food. The larvae grow quickly, changing their skins five times before becoming pupae. After a further two weeks, butterflies emerge, and fly northwards. Each generation of monarchs probably acquires a different chemical “blueprint”, based on the exact species of milkweed it eats, giving it the information it needs to know where to fly. Eventually, by April, the northernmost butterflies reach Canada.

No individual butterfly completes the entire 5000 kilometer round trip. Most of those that fly south die soon after mating in spring (with males often dying in the reserves and never starting their homeward trip), while those who head north cannot hope to survive long into the summer, when normal reproductive cycles, each lasting from four to six weeks, are reestablished.

The last generation of each summer, perhaps prompted by shorter days, soon departs on the next wave of mass migration to Mexico. Those from furthest north will cross the Great Lakes on their return in a single day’s flight, an impressive feat in its own right. They have been spotted flying south at heights up to 1500 meters and exploit thermals to gain height and save energy.

Where to see Monarch Butterflies

Several monarch reserves are open to the public each year. Each has its own distinctive character. Two of the most important reserves are close to the town of Angangueo. Sierra Chincua, north of the town, is the site where the first Canadian-tagged monarch was found in the mid 1970s. This is also where I first saw the butterflies, in 1980, while looking for a potential site for geography fieldwork. It was a serendipitous discovery, and led to me being mistaken for a BBC reporter, but that’s another story!

Angangueo. Sketch by Mark Eager; all rights reserved.

Angangueo. Sketch by Mark Eager; all rights reserved.

The most accessible reserve open to the public is El Rosario, south of Angangueo, where there are dozens of souvenir stalls and rustic snack stands—don’t miss sampling the delicious hand-made blue-corn tortillas. The narrow trails in the sanctuary, with information boards at regular intervals, wind steeply several hundred meters uphill, reaching a maximum altitude of 3050 meters. This altitude can cause some shortage of breath and air temperatures are generally low, so be sure to bring a sweater.

El Rosario can be reached from either Angangueo (steeper but more direct approach) or Ocampo. Anyone driving their own vehicle to El Rosario is advised to use the route via San Felipe (on Highway 15) and then Ocampo. From Ocampo any vehicle with adequate ground clearance, including the local taxis, can negotiate the fourteen kilometers to the monarch sanctuary parking lot.

The San Felipe-Ocampo junction on Highway 15 is marked by a line of fruit and soft-drink stalls, many of which in season sell delicious granadas (pomegranates). Also at this junction is an interesting sixteenth century church which, until as recently as 1995, had tombstones in its atrium, unusual in Mexico. Normally, the Spanish buried their dead as far away from the churchyard as possible, presumably to avoid the risk of disease.

Want to read more?

This post is based on chapter 36 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (link is to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature), also available as either a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

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Back to the drawing board for US-Chinese tourism project near Cabo Pulmo

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Back to the drawing board for US-Chinese tourism project near Cabo Pulmo
Jun 232014
 

Good news for Cabo Pulmo, the marine park in Baja California Sur! Cabo Pulmo is a 7,111-hectare (17,550-acre) marine reserve that boasts the best-preserved coral reef in Mexico’s Pacific region. The proposed tourist megaproject known as Cabo Dorado on the edge of the park has been shelved, at least for now.

The US-Chinese joint venture behind Cabo Dorado said it is halting plans to build the tourist development due to the “well-founded” criticism of environmental groups. [See New threat to Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park] The $3.6 billion project was to have included construction of thousands of hotel guestrooms in the area where another giant development project, Cabo Cortés, had been planned. The Cabo Cortés project was cancelled by government officials on the grounds of environmental concerns.

The firms behind Cabo Dorado are Glorious Earth Group (USA) and Beijing Sansong International Trade Group (China), together with China State Construction Engineering Corporation. The initial proposal was for a project involving the construction of a new “ecotourist city” on 3770 hectares (9317 acres) of land, including 6,141 homes,9 hotels, 2 golf courses, a landing strip, shops and a convention center.

The group has now halted its initial environmental-impact study of the Cabo Dorado project, with the intention of resuming this procedure in the near future with a new project “that meticulously takes into account the well-founded criticisms that have been expressed and which we’ve listened to carefully and with the utmost respect”.

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The landforms of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve

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Nov 092013
 

The breathtaking scenery of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve in the northern state of Sonora affords visitors a dramatic combination of two very distinct landscape types: volcanic landscapes (El Pinacate) in the east, and sand dunes (Gran Desierto de Altar) towards the west and south.

pinacate-map-googleVolcanic scenery (El Pinacate)

The eastern section of the Biosphere Reserve, El Pinacate, is a dormant volcanic area of around 200,000 ha (2000 sq. km), centered on the El Pinacate Shield (or Sierra Pinacate) which has 3 main peaks: Pinacate, Carnegie and Medio. The El Pinacate Shield is a composite structure, comprised of extensive, successive black and red lava flows, some more than 20 km long, seperated by desert pavement. The El Pinacate Shield boasts a wide array of volcanic phenomena and geological formations. Most of the lava is basaltic (alkaline) in composition, making it relatively fluid when molten; it is mainly of the aa (blocky) type, though some pahoehoe (ropy) lava is also found. The total volume of lava is estimated at between 150 and 180 km3.

Elegante Crater, El Pinacate

Elegante Crater, El Pinacate (example of a maar)

Besides the lave flows, the Pinacate area has more than 400 cinder cones (formed 1.2 million years ago) and several lava tubes. The lava flows and cinder cones are only a prelude to the most visually striking features in the reserve: 10 enormous, deep, and almost perfectly circular maars (steam explosion craters). Maars are believed to originate from a combination of explosion caused by groundwater coming into contact with hot lava or magma and subsequent collapse. The maars of El Pinacate are rivalled only by similar formations in Africa. The largest single maar is El Elegante, formed 32,000 years ago, which is 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) from rim to rim and 140 meters (460 feet) deep. It takes visitors a two to three-hour hike to reach its rim and be rewarded by a spectacular view.

The volcanic forms of El Pinacate are relatively recent in geological terms, most having been formed during the Quaternary Period, which began some 2.8 million years ago. The most recent volcanic activity in this area was only about 11,000 years ago. Some volcanologists believe that some of these craters could become active again in the future, with the potential to form volcanoes up to a few hundred meters in height.

Ron Mader, the founder of Planeta.com and a foremost authority on responsible tourism in Mexico, has marveled at the “bizarre and mind-boggling scenery” of El Pinacate., which so resemble the lunar landscape that between 1865 and 1970 it was used by NASA as a training ground for astronauts preparing for the moon landings. The lava field is so vast and sharply defined that it later turned out that the astronauts could easily recognize it from space!

Sand dunes (Gran Desierto de Altar)

The western and southern parts of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve have entirely different scenery. The Gran Desierto de Altar is North America’s largest field of active sand dunes (erg). Several types of dunes are represented here, the tallest reaching 200 meters in height.

The sand needed to form and maintain these dunes comes from the fluvial and deltaic sediments of the Colorado River delta (to the west), the beaches of the Sea of Cortés/Gulf of California (to the south), the River Sonoyta (to the east) and the smaller river and stream fans formed in those parts of the reserve where there are volcanic and granitic mountains.

Sand dunes of Gran Desierto de Altar

Sand dunes of Gran Desierto de Altar

Prior to the opening of the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California), vast amounts of sediment accumulated in this region brought by rivers of which little trace remains today. The creation of the Sea of Cortés, 5.3 million years ago, shortened the rivers and increased their average gradient (rejuvenation), causing them to cut into the pre-existing landscape leaving behind river terraces, remnants of the former higher level floodplains.

The fields of sand dunes of the Gran Desierto de Altar cover more than 550,000 hectares (5700 sq.km.) Several different kinds of sand dunes are found here–linear, crescent-shaped (barchans) and star-shaped–and they can be simple, compound or complex, depending on seasonal changes in the direction and strength of the wind.

Although linear dunes dominate (70%), crescent-shaped complex dunes and star-shaped dunes are of more interest because they exist in only a few locations in the world. Spectacular and very large star-shaped dunes, up to 200 meters high, occur both singly and in long ridges up to 48km in length. Star-shaped dunes possibly evolved from crescent dunes which changed their direction of movement becoming “reversing dunes”. Side winds may account for the multiple arms of some star-shaped dunes.

Other features – Granite massifs

In addition, there are several granite massifs (inselbergs), such as the Sierra del Rosario, emerging like islands from the sandy desert flats and dunes. They range in elevation from 300 to 650 meters above sea level. They represent another remarkable landscape feature harboring distinct plant and wildlife communities.

Main source:

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