Oct 242013
 

Mexico’s latest UNESCO World Heritage Site is the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve in Sonora, added to the UNESCO list in June 2013. Mexico now has 32 World Heritage Sites.

The El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve is part of the Sonoran desert, which extends from Sonora into the northern part of Baja California, and across the U.S. border into Arizona and California. The reserve covers 714,566 hectares with an additional 354,871 hectares of buffer zone. It is a relatively undisturbed portion of the Sonoran desert, and offers visitors a dramatic combination of two very distinct landscape types: volcanic landscapes (El Pinacate) and sand dunes (Gran Desierto de Altar).

pinacate-map-googleThe biosphere reserve is immediately south of the U.S. border, west of the Lukeville (Arizona) – Sonoyta (Sonora) border crossing, and 50 km (30 miles) north of the fishing and tourist town of Puerto Peñasco. The San Luis Río Colorado–Sonoyta section of Mexican federal highway 2 (which runs from Mexicali to Caborca) skirts the northern section of the reserve. Puerto Peñasco is connected to Sonoyta by highway 8. There are entrances to the park from highway 2, 50 km west of Sonoyta, and from highway 8, mid-way between Sonoyta and Puerto Peñasco.

Despite being a desert area, most parts of the biosphere reserve do receive occasional rainfall, which gives this area more biodiversity than is true for most deserts.

El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere ReserveVaried scenery

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 lava flows, cinder cones, lava tubes and circular maars (steam explosion craters). 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. The geology and landforms of this area so resemble the lunar landscape that between 1865 and 1970 NASA used it 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!

The western and southern parts of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve are entirely different. The Gran Desierto de Altar is North America’s largest field of active sand dunes (erg), more than 550,000 hectares (5700 sq.km.) in area. Several types of dunes are represented here, the tallest reaching 200 meters in height, including linear, crescent-shaped (barchans) and star-shaped dunes.

Flora and Fauna

The highly diverse mosaic of habitats in the biosphere reserve is home to complex communities and a surprisingly high species diversity. More than 540 species of vascular plants, 44 mammals, more than 200 birds and over 40 reptiles inhabit this seemingly inhospitable desert. All feature sophisticated physiological and behavioural adaptations to the extreme environmental conditions. Insect diversity is high, though not fully documented. Several endemic species of plants and animals exist, including two freshwater fish species.

The flora in Sierra Pinacate includes the sculptural elephant tree (Bursera microphylla). The name “Pinacate” derives from pinacatl, the Nahuatl word for the endemic desert stink beetle. The biosphere reserve has large caves inhabited by the migratory lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae yerbabuenae), which is an important pollinator and seed dispersal vector, and the endangered fish-eating bat (Myotis vivesi); both species are endemic.

Other noteworthy species in the reserve include the threatened Sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonorensis), an endemic subspecies of restricted habitat and the fastest land mammal in North America; bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis mexicana), the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), the Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) and desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii).

Human occupation and use

El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar contains numerous archaeological remains, some dating back more than 20,000 years. It is an important cultural site for the indigenous Tohono O’odham people who consider El Pinacate peak, where they still perform sacred ceremonies, as the place where  creation occurred.

Management issues

The El Pinacate section of the biosphere reserve was first designated a “protected area” in 1979. In 1993, it was a declared a Biosphere Reserve, along with the Gran Desierto de Altar, by then president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The biosphere reserve is managed by Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (Conanp), in collaboration with the Sonora state government and the Tohono O’odham people.

The number of people visiting the reserve has risen rapidly from fewer than 6,000 in 2000 to more than 17,500 in 2010. The two major challenges that management needs to take into account are how to ensure that indigenous views about the reserve’s use are respected, and how to limit negative impacts on the reserve from nearby tourism developments.

The potential negative impacts include:

  • increased vehicle traffic, resulting in ecological disturbance, littering and wildlife road kills.
  • pressure to extend the limited existing road infrastructure by adding new roads, though this might lead to more exotic (alien) invasive species.
  • increased habitat damage from the growing use of off-road vehicles

UNESCO considers that, “The most critical long term management issue is to address potential problems derived from tourism-related water consumption.”

Given that this reserve is on the Mexico-U.S. border, transboundary cooperation is essential, and UNESCO actually recommends that the best way forward is to establish a Transboundary Protected Area, extending into Arizona.

The combination of a volcanic shield with spectacular craters and lava flows, almost entirely surrounded by an immense sea of dunes, makes this an area of great scientific interest, and an ideal laboratory for researchers interested in geology and geomorphology.

[Note: This post makes extensive use of UNESCO’s description of the biosphere reserve, with additional information from a variety of other sources.]

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Mexico’s geomorphosites: the Primavera Forest, Guadalajara, Jalisco

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Jun 012013
 

The Primavera Forest (aka Bosque de la Primavera, Sierra de la Primavera) is a volcanic region located immediately west of Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara. The Primavera Forest occupies an ancient volcanic caldera, where the last eruptions are thought to have been about 30,000 years ago. The Primavera is a wilderness area of pine and oak woodland, with hot-water rivers, nature-trails and thermal spas. The park, which is about 30 km (19 mi) across (see map), serves as the lungs of Guadalajara and is popular, especially on weekends, for activities such as picnics, birdwatching, hiking, climbing, mountain biking and motocross.

The Primavera Forest. Credit: Semarnat, 2003

Basic map of the Primavera Forest. The distance between Tala and Guadalajara is about 35 km (22 miles). Credit: Semarnat, 2003

The main geographic and geological attractions of the Primavera Forest include:

Scenery, views, flora and fauna

The average elevation of the Primavera Forest is about 2200 m above sea level, rising to 2270 m (7447 ft) towards the eastern edge of the forest which overlooks the city of Guadalajara. The three main summits are El Pedernal, San Miguel and Las Planillas. There is easy access to the 30,000 ha of protected natural area from various points, including the town of Tala and from Highway 15 (the main Guadalajara-Tepic highway) which skirts the northern edge of the Primavera. Agriculture and settlement have made incursions into the edges of the park, with land cleared for subdivisions or for fields of sugarcane and agave (for tequila). A major wildfire raged through parts of the forest in 2012.

The park is home to about 1000 different plant species as well as 137 different birds and at least 106 terrestrial animals, including deer, puma, opossums (tlacuaches), armadillos and rabbits.

Hot springs

Thermal springs are common throughout the Volcanic Axis of Mexico, and the hot river and many hot springs in the Primavera Forest are a legacy of its volcanic history. Río Caliente, the main developed spa in the Primavera Forest, famous for several decades as one of the country’s top vegetarian and health spas, closed in 2011, following some years of uncertainty regarding its land tenure status and increasing security concerns because of its relatively remote location.

The hot springs in the park have been subject to numerous exploratory studies by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) which considers the park a potential source of geothermal power. The CFE drilled a dozen wells in the 1980s, finding that six of them offered sufficient flow for power production. The CFE believes the park could support at least three 25 megawatt geothermal plants. Drilling was suspended between 1989 and 1994 when the Jalisco state government ordered the CFE to carry out environmental restoration to areas damaged by drilling activities, and the plants have not yet been approved.

Pumice deposits

As veteran explorer-author John Pint points out in “A geopark in my back yard?”, the Primavera Forest is well known to geologists for its giant blocks of pumice, up to several meters across, which are among the largest found anywhere in the world. One of the best locations for seeing these is in the 50-meter-high walls of the Río Seco arroyo on the northern edge of the park, on the outskirts of the small community of Pinar de la Venta. The cliff face has a thick band of pumice overlying numerous thin layers of lake sediments. The pumice blocks are highly vesicular (full of holes) and therefore surprisingly light for their size.

Obsidian deposits

The Primavera Forest is also well known to geologists (and archaeologists) because it has significant amounts of obsidian, a hard, glassy, usually black rock. Obsidian is easy to find (often in big chunks) in several parts of the park. The obsidian formed when blocks of hot lava, still molten, rained into the cold waters of a lake, cooling instantaneously. When fractured, pieces of obsidian acquire very, very sharp edges. Even today, some surgeons still prefer obsidian scalpel blades, recognizing that they are far sharper than those made from even the best steel.

Obsidian was in great demand in precolonial times for use as mirrors, arrowheads and knives, as well as jewelry:

“Among the people to prize obsidian were the residents of Iztépete (often spelt Ixtépete), “hill of obsidian or knife blades”, located just outside the eastern edge of La Primavera. This small, largely forgotten, and poorly-signed archaeological site in a southern suburb of Guadalajara is within a stone’s throw of the city’s periférico (ring-road).”

“Large, angular chunks of obsidian litter the slopes of Cerro Colli, the hill rising behind the 6-meter-high pyramid, which conceals at least five earlier pyramids, each superimposed over the one before. Ceramics found here suggest that occupation stretches back at least to the fifth century, but little is known about the people who built this site.”  [Quotes are from the recently published 4th edition of the author’s “Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury”]

Obsidian is found throughout this region, and while usually black in color, it can also be found in a range of hues, including red and even rainbow patterns. Not far from the western edge of Primavera, at the foot of a steep-sided knoll called El Picacho is El Pedernal, reputed to be the largest obsidian deposit in the world, covering 4 square kilometers, from which an astonishing 40,000 cubic meters of rock have been extracted over the centuries. Sophisticated chemical techniques have shown that El Pedernal obsidian was widely used in Mesoamerica, finding its way as far north as California and as far south as Oaxaca!

The pre-Columbian obsidian jewelry from this region, consisting of very thin wafers of rock, is unique to this area, and clearly the work of highly skilled specialist craftsmen. One particularly fine example (now in the museum in Tala) is a necklace fashioned out of wafer-thin obsidian carvings of human figures, each pierced by a tiny hole. In the absence of metal tools, the patience and dexterity required to have made these is truly amazing.

The art of obsidian carving has not been lost. Skilled artisans in Navajas, another nearby village, continue to this day to chip and shape chunks of obsidian into spheres, chess boards and beautiful works of art, often representing animals.

In future posts we will consider the formation of the La Primavera Forest in more detail, and also look at the extent to which the pressures resulting from its proximity to the city of Guadalajara threaten the park’s long-term health.

Want to read more?

John Pint is one of those spearheading the proposal of seeking UNESCO designation for La Primavera as a GeoPark.

U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer and geologist Barbara Dye has written a beautifully-illustrated  72-page guide (in Spanish) to the geology of the Primavera Forest: “La Apasionante Geología del Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna La Primavera”.

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Mexico’s geomorphosites: El Sótano de las Golondrinas (Cave of the Swallows)

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Apr 112013
 

El Sótano de las Golondrinas, in the municipality of Aquismón in the state of San Luis Potosí, is a massive limestone sinkhole (pit cave), one of the largest known in the world. In terms of depth, it is thought to be the second deepest sinkhole in Mexico and is probably in the world’s top 20.

The depth of sinkholes can be difficult to determine. For example, in the case of El Sótano de las Golondrinas, its surface opening is about 50 meters by 60 meters (160 by 200 ft) in size, but is on a slope. The depth on the high side is about 376 meters (1220 ft); the depth on the low side is about 330 meters (1090 ft).

sotano-de-las-golon

Below the surface (see profile) the sinkhole is roughly bottle-shaped. The floor of the sinkhole is about 300 x 135 meters (990 by 440 ft) in area. However, the sinkhole is believed to have formed from the collapse of the roof of an underground cave. As a result, the floor of the sinkhole is not solid rock but rubble that presumably came from the walls and former roof. A shaft on one side extends down at least another 100 m, suggesting that the true floor of the original cave lies at least that far beneath the current rubble-strewn floor.

US photographer Amy Hinkle shot some spectacular images earlier this year in this cave.  The accompanying article highlights the “secret garden” that “nestles 300 meters beneath the surface of the earth”.

The cave’s name (literally “basement of the swallows”) derives from the thousands of white-collared swifts that inhabit the overhanging walls of its interior. They spiral out of the cave every morning over a period of 25-30 minutes and return to their cave homes close to sunset. Large numbers of green parakeets also live in the cave.

The floor of the sinkhole is home to a rich plant life, as well as a diverse selection of  fungi, millipedes, insects, snakes, and scorpions.

The original cave is thought to have been formed by a lengthy period of water erosion along a major fault line in the lower Cretaceous limestone in the Sierra Huasteca (part of Mexico’s Eastern Sierra Madre). Over time, the cave became larger as a consequence of both the water erosion and due to mass movements (landslides, rockfalls) on its walls. Eventually, the size of the cave was so large that its walls could no longer support its roof which then collapsed into the cave, leaving the open air sinkhole seen today. Following heavy rain, short-lived waterfalls cascade down the sides of the sinkhole.

The first documented exploration of El Sótano de las Golondrinas was apparently in 1966. Since that time, the cave has become a popular destination for various adventure sports including rappelling, abseiling and base jumping (no longer allowed).

There are several other very deep sinkholes in the same general area, including Hoya de las Guasguas (with a 202 m deep entrance shaft) and Sótano del Barro (402 m in depth).

Some ornithological studies have found that the bird population of El Sótano de las Golondrinas is decreasing, perhaps due to the disturbance caused by the increasing number of human visitors. To limit disturbance, access and activities are more tightly controlled. For instance, descents into the cave are now strictly limited to daylight hours when the birds are absent, and a no-fly zone has been established around the cave, primarily to avoid helicopter disturbance.

El Sótano de las Golondrinas is yet another outstanding example of a geomorphosite in Mexico. Mexico has literally thousands of geomorphosites. Among those described in previous Geo-Mexico posts are:

References:

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Magic Towns #58-62: Chiapa de Corzo, Comitán de Domínguez, Huichapan, Tequisquiapan, Batopilas

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Magic Towns #58-62: Chiapa de Corzo, Comitán de Domínguez, Huichapan, Tequisquiapan, Batopilas
Oct 252012
 

Well… the spate of Magic Town nominations shows no sign of slowing down. The federal Tourism Secretariat has announced that it hopes to have 70 towns in the program before the new administration takes office in December. The latest five additions to the list of Magic Towns are:

#58 Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas

Chiapa de Corzo is a small city (2010 population:  45,000), founded in 1528, located where the PanAmerican Highway (Highway 190) from Oaxaca to San Cristobál de las Casas crosses the River Grijalva, 15 km east of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in the state of Chiapas. It is the site of the earliest known Mesoamerican tomb burial and has considerable archaeological significance. The massive La Pila fountain, dating from 1562, is one of the most distinctive structures anywhere in Mexico. The town has more than its share of historical interest, including the well-preserved 16th century Santo Domingo church/monastery and a museum dedicated to traditional lacquer work (a local craft). It is best known to tourists as the main starting point for boat trips along the Grijalva River into the Sumidero Canyon National Park.

Sumidero Canyon National Park

Sumidero Canyon National Park

#59 Comitán de Domínguez, Chiapas

Comitán is a town of about 85,000 people, south-east of San Cristobál de las Casas, and close to the border with Guatemala. The town attracts mainly Mexican tourists on their way to the Lagunas de Montebello National Park and several remote Mayan archaeological sites in the border zone.

Lagunas de Montebello National Park

Lagunas de Montebello National Park

#60 Huichapan, Hidalgo

Huichapan has some interesting history and architecture, but relatively little to interest the general tourist. (Even Wikipedia has little to say about this town!)

#61 Tequisquiapan, Querétaro

This very pretty town has already been described in several previous posts on geo-mexico.com, including:

Tequisquiapan

Tequisquiapan

#62 Batopilas, Chihuahua

Designated in mid-October 2012. This small town, situated at an elevation of 501 meters above sea level, on the floor of the picturesque Batopilas Canyon, in Mexico’s Copper Canyon region, was once an important silver-mining center. The great German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt called Batopilas the “metallic marvel of the world”. Some of the old buildings in Batopilas have been restored in recent years. Still in ruins is the former dwelling of Alexander Robert Shepherd, one-time Governor of the District of Colombia, USA.

Ruins of former Shepherd mansion, Batopilas

Ruins of former Shepherd mansion, Batopilas

In 1880, Shepherd moved here, complete with family, friends, workers, dogs and grand-piano. His son, Grant Shepherd, describes in his book, The Silver Magnet, how this piano, the first ever seen in this part of Mexico, was carried overland more than 300 km in three weeks by teams of men, each paid the princely sum of US$1.00 a day for his efforts! Shepherd lived here for thirty years, running a silver mine and entertaining stray foreigners who passed through. He employed English servants. When the Mexican Revolution began, he abandoned Batopilas and the mansion fell into ruins. Shepherd is said to have mined more than US$22 million worth of silver here; he was behind the amalgamation of all the mines into a single company, the Consolidated Batopilas Mining Co. in 1887.

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Oct 012012
 

Mexico currently has 65 Magic Towns (Pueblos Mágicos), some of which we have described in previous posts. Regular readers will know we have some reservations about the program, especially about the inclusion on the list of some places that have relatively little to attract the average tourist.

Are Magic Towns distributed evenly across the country?

The map shows the distribution of the 57 Magic Towns, by state, as of 1 October 2012. Magic Towns are clearly not evenly distributed across Mexico. Two states – the State of México and Michoacán– each have five Magic Towns, while Jalisco has four. It is no surprise that the Federal District (México D.F.) is not designated a Magic Town, but it is a surprise that there are no Magic Towns in Baja California, Durango or Nayarit. Mexcaltitán, an island town in Nayarit, was one of the first towns in Mexico to be designated a Magic Town, but had this status revoked in 2009.

Mexico's Magic Towns, by state (September 2012)

Mexico’s Magic Towns, by state (September 2012)

Southern Mexican states appear to be drastically underrepresented, especially when area of state, population and indigenous groups are taken into account.

Population density map

Mexico’s population density in 2010

Larger states (in area and/or population) would surely  be more likely to have more Magic Town candidates. However, it is clear from comparing the maps of Magic Towns and population density (above) that the number of Magic Towns does not appear to be related to either the area of states, or to their population density.

The major indigenous groups in Mexico

The major indigenous groups in Mexico

Indigenous groups are relevant because they tend to live in relatively remote areas of great natural beauty, such as the Copper Canyon region or the Huasteca, and they also exhibit many distinctive cultural traits, giving them a head-start in the race to demonstrate their attractiveness for tourism. Again, though, there is little common ground between the map of indigenous groups and the map of Magic Towns. In particular, the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Campeche all seem to have fewer Magic Towns than might be expected.

Voting patterns in presidential elections, 2006 and 2012

Voting patterns in presidential elections, 2006 and 2012. All rights reserved.

Even politics does not appear to help explain the distribution of Magic Towns, though it must be pointed out that the pattern of voting for presidential elections (maps) may not match the pattern of municipal voting which would be more relevant to applications for Magic Town status.

If and when more towns are added to the Magic Towns list, perhaps the reasons for their distribution will become more obvious.

This post examined the distribution of Mexico’s Magic Towns, as of 1 October 2012, at which point there were only 57 in total. Since this post was written, additional Magic Towns include:

There is no doubt that Mexico has many other places that would be very worthy additions to the list. Which places would you add?

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Jul 052012
 

By virtue of its geography, the Gulf coast state of Veracruz is one of the best places in the world to see the annual migration of birds of prey (raptors) from North America to Central and South America.

Between 4 and 6 million birds (eagles, hawks, vultures, falcons, and kites) make this trip each way each year to trade the harsh winter and scarce food in one hemisphere for better conditions in the other hemisphere. The migration south takes place September-November, and the return migration passes overhead in March-April.

Since most raptors are relatively large birds, and they are accompanied by other species such as storks, white pelicans and anhingas, this annual migration is one of the most awesome birding spectacles anywhere in the world. Each passing flock contains tens of thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands, of individuals.

The raptors fly during daylight and rest overnight. Their New World songbird cousins, who also migrate in vast numbers, prefer to feed and rest during the day and then fly at night. Most songbirds take a direct migration route from the eastern USA to Central and South America, flying directly over the Gulf of Mexico in a “single, epic 18-hour flight”. Raptors, on the other hand, prefer a more leisurely approach, leap-frogging along the coastal plain.

Why do they fly through Veracruz?

The main reasons are:

1. Relief: Mexico’s mountain ranges, especially the Sierra Madre Oriental {Eastern Sierra Madre) and Volcanic Axis, funnel the birds towards the east coast, but the Gulf of Mexico provides a natural barrier preventing the birds from attempting routes further to the east. At its narrowest, this funnel is only 25 km (15 miles) wide.

2. Climate: The wide coastal plain warms up sufficiently to provide ascending thermal “bubbles” which help keep these large birds aloft and minimize  the energy expenditure required to soar and fly large distances. Raptors use the thermals to soar to about 1000 meters (3000 feet) above the ground, before gliding in their desired direction of travel gradually losing height until they pick up another thermal at a height of about 300 meters (1000 feet), repeating the process as often as needed. On a good day, they will cover more than 320 km (200 miles) in this fashion before resting for the night.

3. Biogeography: The varied landscape, vegetation and animal life in habitats ranging from tropical wetlands to temperature forests, offers plenty of potential food sources for the raptors.

This massive migration has been studied since the early 1990s and scientists continue to tag birds today in order to update their estimates of bird populations and of the precise timing and routes involved. An official counts is held each year from 20 August to 20 November, organized by Pronatura Veracruz. The count is held in two locations: Cardel and Chichicaxtle (see map).

The counts have confirmed that Veracruz hosts the most concentrated raptor migration in the world.

This short video clip highlights Mexico’s leading role in studying the population and routes of these annual international raptor migrations:

One of the major long-term threats to this migration is habitat change in central Veracruz. Pronatura Veracruz sponsors an environmental education program known as “Rivers of Raptors” which tries to address this issue, helping local landowners appreciate the need for watershed protection and for an end to deforestation.

Pronatura’s work with raptors and the local communities is partially funded by ecotourism, and hawk-watching has become an important component of Mexico’s fledgling “ornithological tourism” market. Other key sites in Mexico for birding tourism include the tropical forests of the Yucatán Peninsula and Chiapas, and the San Blas wetlands in the western state of Nayarit.

Map of Central Veracruz

Map of Central Veracruz; all rights reserved. Click map to enlarge

In fact, Mexico is one of the world’s most important countries for birds, home to 1054 species of birds, 98 of them endemic, including 55 globally threatened species. Mexico has no fewer than 145 recognized “Important Bird Areas” (IBAs) of global significance, which between them cover 12% of the national land area (see summary map below).

Important Bird Areas in Mexico [Birdlife.org]

Important Bird Areas in Mexico [Birdlife.org]

Want to read more about the raptors?

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Jun 072012
 

The Peña de Bernal, in the central state of Querétaro, is one of Mexico’s most distinctive geomorphosites. Geomorphosites are “landforms that have acquired a scientific, cultural/historical, aesthetic and/or social/economic value due to human perception or exploitation” (Panizza M., 2001). See Geotourism and geomorphosites in Mexico for a brief introduction to the topic.

The Peña de Bernal is a dramatic sight, which only gets more imposing the closer you get. How high is the Peña de Bernal? We are unable to give you a definitive answer (it depends where you start measuring from) but claims of 350 meters (1150 feet) sound about right, assuming we start from the town.

Peña de Bernal. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

The Peña de Bernal. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

According to its Wikipedia entry, this is the “third tallest monolith in the world”, apparently only exceeded by the Rock of Gibralter and Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. Others, including Melville King, have described it as the “third largest rock in the world”. These claims may (or may not) be exaggerated, but in reality it is definitely a very steep and tiring climb, even to reach the small chapel that has been built half-way up! The photo below is taken from this chapel, looking out over Bernal and the local farmland and vineyards.

View from the Peña Bernal, with the town of Bernal in the foreground.

View from the Peña de Bernal over the small town of Bernal. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

How was the Peña de Bernal formed?

The most likely explanation is that this monolith represents the hardened magma (molten rock) from the central vent of a former volcano. This rock was much more resistant to erosion that the layers of ash and/or lava that formed the volcano’s flanks. Centuries of erosion removed the sides, leaving the resistant core of the volcano exposed as a volcanic neck. We will examine this idea in slightly more detail in a future post.

The town of Bernal

The town of San Sebastián Bernal is also well worth visiting. Having become a magnet for New Age types, it now boasts several decent restaurants, good stores and a range of hotels including high quality “boutique” hotels. Bernal was designated one of Mexico’s “Magic Towns” in 2005. To learn more about the town of Bernal and see some fine photos, we highly recommend Jane Ammeson’s article “The magic of Bernal, Querétaro: wine, opals and historic charm.

At the Spring Equinox (March 21), the town is invaded by visitors “dressed in long, white robes or gowns, and red neckerchiefs” who come seeking “wisdom, unity, energy and new beginnings”. (Loretta Scott Miller writing in El Ojo del Lago, July 1997).

How to get there:

From Mexico City, take the Querétaro highway (Hwy 57D) north-west to San Juan del Río. Then take Highway 120 past Tequisquiapan as far as the small cross-roads town of Ezequiel Montes. Turn left for about 11 kilometers, then right… and you’re there! Taking this route gives you glimpses of the Peña de Bernal from afar. Allow 2.0 to 2.5 hours for the drive.

Other geomorphosites worth visiting:

Mexico has literally thousands of geomorphosites. Among those described in previous posts are:

 

Nov 142011
 

A few months back, we wrote of the conflicts surrounding the proposed tourist mega-development near Cabo Pulmo. The controversial plans for Cabo Cortés involve building on the virgin sand dunes, and will undoubtedly have adverse impacts on the small village of Cabo Pulmo and the ecologically-sensitive Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park and its coral reef.

Later, we followed up with an in-depth look at how the establishment of a Cabo Pulmo Marine Park had led to an astonishing recovery of the area’s biodiversity:

Cover of Greenpeace's position paper on Cabo Cortés

"Cabo Cortés: destroying paradise" (Greenpeace)

This story, which essentially pits mass tourism against ecotourism, continues to attract lots of media attention. The latest major article is Plans for resort in Mexico ignite concern about reef, published in The Washington Post. The article looks at the Spanish companies involved in the ownership and construction of the proposed resort and quotes the opinion of local people who hope that the economic crisis in Europe will put an end to their grandiose plans.

The Spanish firms involved are “ailing Spanish development conglomerate” Hansa Urbana, which bought the meg-development site in 2007, and a  savings bank called CAM (Caja de Ahorros del Mediterraneo), which lent Hansa millions of dollars.

Later, Hansa gave CAM the property in exchange for having its debt wiped clean. CAM has since been bailed out to the tune of $3.8 billion by the Bank of Spain, in which the Spanish government has a controlling interest. The Bank of Spain plans to auction CAM, but only after the upcoming Spanish elections.

As a result, and as the Washington Post article makes clear, “environmental activists are not even sure who controls the resort project anymore.”

Mexico’s federal Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat) originally gave Spanish firm Hansa Urbana the green light to begin construction, but now say that construction can only begin if the developers can prove that the reef will remain unharmed.

Mexican authorities are reported to be consulting with “expert marine biologists and U.N. officials”:

The government has set a deadline of January 2013 for the submission of a detailed report showing that construction will not cause any environmental damage to the Marine Park.

The deadline comes only a month after President  Calderon leaves office, which, as many locals realize, could be very unfortunate for the future welfare of the reef and local ecotourism activities.

Uxpanapa, an example of forced migration

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Uxpanapa, an example of forced migration
Oct 312011
 

Almost all internal migration in Mexico in recent history has been voluntary. Tens of thousands of rural Mexicans have decided that life might be better somewhere else and have left their farms for the bright lights of the nearest large city. Their motivation is usually economic, but sometimes may be based on educational opportunities or access to health care.

However, not all internal migration has been voluntary. There have been some cases of forced migration, where the inhabitants of a village or area have been made to move away in order to make way for large-scale infrastructure projects such as reservoirs, tourism resorts and hotel complexes.

Since most good dam sites are in remote highland areas, with sparse population, forced migrations due to new dams are relatively rare in Mexico. One good example is when the building of the Cerro de Oro dam in the 1970s in northern Oaxaca, on a tributary of the River Papaloapan, flooded 360 square kilometers (140 square miles) and meant the forced relocation of more than 5000 Chinantec Indians. [Aguilera Reyes] The resettlement plan was one of the most forward-looking of its time. Villagers received compensation for their existing homes, trees and crops, and were offered a choice of possible resettlement sites.

They chose an area of rainforest-covered ridges and valleys near the headwaters of the Rivers Coatzacoalcos and Uxpanapa in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. With government assistance they built a dozen new villages named, somewhat unimaginatively, Poblado Uno, Poblado Dos, etc. Extensive agricultural support was provided for several seasons, but the plan failed to live up to expectations, in part because its architect, the distinguished Mexican geographer Jorge Tamayo, was killed in a plane crash in 1978.

Many of the area’s young people have migrated (voluntarily) north. The remaining villagers grow ixtle, a fibrous cash crop produced from rainforest bromeliads that can be used for ropes and belts. They are also trying to introduce ecotourism to preserve what is left of their tropical jungle hideout, which has a rich biodiversity, including spider monkeys and jaguars. [Ginsberg]

References:

Aguilera Reyes, S. 2004 “Desarrollo, Población y Uso de los Recursos Naturales en el Valle de Uxpanapa.” Universidad Veracruzana Facultad de Sociología thesis. Xalapa,Veracruz. Marzo 2004.

Ginsberg, S. 2000 Report from Uxpanapa. Can bromeliads save Veracruz’s last rainforest? [6 September 2009]

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This post is an edited excerpt from chapter 25 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!

Mexico adds three more Magic Towns to its list

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexico adds three more Magic Towns to its list
Oct 272011
 

Mexico’s Magic Town (Pueblo Mágico) program seeks to promote inland destinations that offer a complementary tourism based on historic and cultural attributes. The federal Tourism Secretariat has announced there will be 52 Magic Towns by 2012, when the promotional program is currently due to end. As many as 70 towns are reported to be seeking accreditation as Magic Towns. Some of these applicants are likely to join similar promotional groupings such as “Pueblos con Encanto” (Towns with Charm) and “Pueblos Señoriales” (Noble Towns).

Mexico currently has 44 Magic Towns:

The three latest towns to be added to the list are:

Magic Town #42: Mineral del Chico (Hidalgo)

Mineral del Chico is a small town (population 6700 in 2005; altitude 2351 m) at the entrance to the El Chico National Park in Hidalgo. The National Park, with its forests, mountains and waterfalls, is much better known than the town itself. This was the one of the earliest forested areas to be officially protected in Mexico. It was declared a Forest Reserve in 1898 and became a National Park in 1922.

Magic Town #43: Cadereyta (Querétaro)

The designation of Cadereyta as a Magic Town creates a great multi-day tourist trip including two other Magic Towns: Bernal and Jalpan de Serra. Cadereyta is known for its noisy and ebullient Holy Week (Semana Santa) processions, a tradition said to date back to the 18th century. The town has several interesting churches and two genuine colonial treasures. The gilded retable of the church of San Pedro and San Pablo has to be seen to be believed.

Magic Town #44: Tula (Tamaulipas)

Close to the northern border, Tula, founded in 1617, is the oldest still-inhabited settlement in the state of Tamaulipas. The town has several colonial buildings but is best known for making elaborate leather jackets (cuera tamaulipeca), first designed in the 1950s.

These three latest newcomers all have their attractions, but, at least in my humble opinion, are not in the same league in terms of their historical and tourist interest as most previously-designated Magic Towns.

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