Meet Me at the Oasis
In the face of forces destroying other parts of Mexico, the Sierra Gorda reserve holds its own--a miraculous, biological melting pot unmatched on the North American continent. Black bears mingle with jaguars and macaws, and stands of tropical trees, draped with orchids, abut hills dotted with cactus.
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 Queretaro, 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 Munoz, 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 Queretaro 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 Queretaro--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 Queretaro, 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.