Meet Me at the Oasis
We eat lunch in a low-roofed stone building, formerly the village chapel, transformed into a cafe with a whitewashed interior filled with bright flowers and the tang of woodsmoke, plus the sharp slap-slap-slap of fresh tortillas being made. We hike farther up the ridge, past thick-set maguey agaves, whose juice is harvested for the mildly alcoholic brew called pulque. With the seasonal rains gone, now is a time of cool days and lush blooms throughout the sierra. We walk among red and blue salvias on which white-eared hummingbirds feed, tall purple mints, and the bright orange-yellow flowers known as cempasúchil that will soon be picked for Day of the Dead garlands, the All Saint’s Day tradition when Mexicans decorate homemade altars and the graves of their loved ones.
Many of the young men have left villages like Cuatro Palos, seeking jobs in cities as far away as the United States. The GESG and biosphere staff are trying to create other, sustainable opportunities for those who remain, particularly for women—ceramics shops, dried flowers, beekeeping, cooking classes for new food products, embroidery. To save the forests, locals are trained to grow and plant native seedlings—and encouraged to use solar cookers to avoid using cut firewood. Landowners who fence out cattle and preserve forests are compensated for protecting the benefits from local ecosystems, such as clean drinking water supplies for cities in the lowlands.
A number of communities focus on ecotourism, making it easy and inexpensive for a visitor to savor the sierra’s beauty while giving a direct boost to residents within the reserve. Unlike me, most of the tourists who come are day-trippers and weekend vacationers from Querétaro or Mexico City; last year only about 5,000 foreigners visited the nearly 1,500-square-mile region. Here is a rare place still so remote that an unfamiliar face—Mexican or otherwise—brings life to a friendly but curious halt.
A night or two later we settle into comfortable pinewood cabins near the tiny village of San Juan de los Durán, tucked in a narrow valley beneath soaring mountains. Solar panels power electric lights in the cabins, but the dining room flickers with candles around a simple Day of the Dead altar, and aromas of chicken, squash, beans, and corn waft from the kitchen. Mingling with the happy chatter of a group of Dutch visitors is a string of deep, two-noted hoots from a mottled owl in the woods outside.
The Sierra Gorda is underlain by limestone, and with eons of rain, it has eroded into what geologists call a karst landscape—steep-sided mountains, conical valleys known as joyas, and a bewildering number of caves, caverns, and huge sinkholes called sótanos, all connected in a mammoth subterranean plumbing system that channels away the abundant rainfall. One sinkhole, Sótano del Barro, is among the largest of its kind in the world, nearly 1,500 feet deep and home to one of the last of central Mexico’s colonies of military macaws, huge green-and-blue parrots more than two feet long.
From our base at San Juan, we had planned to visit Sótano de las Golondrinas, where thousands of swifts nest on the sheer walls. But a series of hurricanes has lashed the mountains in previous weeks, and the dirt roads are a soupy mess; the next day, accompanied by Pati’s husband, Roberto, our group blows a tire getting to Las Arenitas, a private reserve the family manages in the lower, more tropical hills. Beto suggests a change of plans. “We can’t make it to Golondrinas before dark. I know another sótano, one that my father and I found. It’s not as big as Golondrinas, but it has flocks of green parakeets that nest and roost there—and if we hurry, we’ll be just in time to see them.”
By sunset we are in a high, lonely reach of the mountains, wildly vertical pinnacles and dark conifer forests playing hide-and-seek behind rolls of fog backlit by the low sun. The woods are going dim and gray, and everyone moves in silence, except for a metallic zing of Roberto’s machete blade against the occasional shrub and vine. With burring wing beats, a quail flushes from near our feet, but otherwise the forest is quiet.
Down, down, then at last the sótano opens before us, a half-round cliff rising a hundred feet above our heads and dropping straight down several hundred feet more into blackness. The domed roof of an old cave collapsed to form the sótano, and weathered gray stalactites still cling to the walls of the shaft.
Everyone speaks in whispers while a brown-backed solitaire—a drab thrush whose long, complex song is one of the signature sounds of the high sierra forests—pours out its music. Then, with a rush of wings and ear-splitting screeches, flocks of parakeets begin arriving, filling the trees with life and noise but staying out of sight. “They know we’re down here,” Beto says softly, and as the darkness grows it seems the nervous birds might outlast us. But finally they begin to hurtle down into the sinkhole, dozens of iridescent green-yellow shapes whirring around and around, alighting on vines or clinging sideways to ancient stalactites before disappearing into the nooks and crannies where they roost each night.
It’s a powerful moment for all of us, deep in a still-wild land on the very edge of night, breathing in the cave’s damp, earthy exhalation. We celebrate down in the tiny hamlet of Valle Verde over blue corn tortillas, spicy carne, even spicier diced zucchini, and big, cold bottles of Sol beer. Curious children and adults crowd the cafe door, peering in at us. “They stare at us, too, when we come here,” Beto whispers. “They just never see anyone from outside this village. Not even from Querétaro.”