Currently off almost every tourist’s radar in Mexico is the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve, one of my favourite places to see the real Mexico off the beaten track that I discovered by accident when researching Mexico’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites (I have visited 250+ UNESCO Sites so far, and here are my Top Ten Non-Touristy UNESCO Sites that you have never heard of!). Currently the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is a tentative UNESCO Site that is being considered at the 41st Session of the World Heritage Committee in Krakow, Poland this year and I will update this if it progress’s to a fully fledged UNESCO Site!
The Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve offer’s all those quintessential shots of rugged landscapes, barren desert and cacti galore that you might expect when you travelling around Mexico – but will sorely miss if you stick to travel destinations in the south of Mexico like Palenque, Tulum, Campeche or Chichen Itza. Visiting the Tehuacán desert however is an easy day trip from either Puebla or Oaxaca, or better yet – as a convenient stop over between Oaxaca and Mexico City! However you choose to see the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve you will not be disappointed, so read on to find out what makes this biosphere so special, why it is being considered by UNESCO and how best to visit the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve.
Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is located in a valley landscape backed by mountains in Puebla and Oaxaca State, with around 500,000 hectares of protected land – 140,000 of which is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage Status and the remainder as a buffer zone in which minimal human activities are permitted. The Biosphere’s limits are defined by 4 mountain ranges; Sierra Mixteca, Sierra Zongolica, Sierra Mazateca and Sierra de Juárez, which leads to a complex geography of separate valleys divided by mountains producing the great biological and eco-system diversity seen here across an altitudinal variation of 1500 – 3200 meters above sea-level.
Indeed the diversity of display here is so great that the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is considered a global centre of endemism for flora species with a unprecedented 2,686 species of columnar cacti being found here, the largest concentration in the world. There are also around 600 vertebrate species found here as well as several endemic species, but make no mistake – the cactus are the star of the show! However if they are really not enough for you there are various types of micro-climates found here due to the altitudinal variation including tropical deciduous forest, thorny forest, oak and pine forest, grasslands and desert scrub
As if its natural significance was not enough the Valley of Tehuacán – Cuicatlán was also one of the key sites of agricultural development in Mesoamerica, with the domestication of corn, avocado, pumpkin and chilies being thought to have occurred here! So when you visit take time to thank the ancient Mesoamerican all those years ago for putting in the hard work so you can enjoy your avo on toast or – well, pretty much all the delicious food of Mexico today!
The Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is said to provide both naturally and culturally outstanding universal value as a result of the above. The large array of endemic species – of which many need protection or are in danger of extinction – and the rarity of many of its floral species make this site a centre of global biodiversity (IUCN) or a ‘biodiversity hotspot’. Further more the area is considered one of the last remaining areas of wild cactus species in such density and is a key site of evolution in ‘the Cactaceae family’. All this is said to justify it’s inclusion on the natural heritage list – and based off what I saw I would tend to agree as it truly is astounding. In addition it’s role in hosting the domestication of many key Mesoamerican crops is said to justify it’s inclusion on the cultural heritage list also – a more dubious claim to me as it seems very similar to any other Mexican site: Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, which I visited and was disappointed with to say the least. Overall however I would agree with UNESCO listing for the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve as it’s eco-systems are unique, not significantly altered, contain great wealth but are incredibly fragile and need to be protected.
Long story short – The best way to see the Tehuacan Valley Mexico is going to be with a car, if you can manage it. In such a large, open landscape with many hiking opportunities and look-outs, you could spend hours, or even days, exploring all the different ecosystems of the Tehuacan Valley Mexico! That being said – it is also possible on a bus from Tehuacan to the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve, and if you take a seat at the front the views for the hour long trip are absolutely incredible. If taking the bus option I would recommend visiting the Helia Bravo Hollis, a community botanic garden just outside the small town of Zapotitlan Salina, with paths between cacti to explore at your own leisure or guide services to learn more about this unique eco-system and to explore Mexico off the beaten path (or at least off the path in the gardens!). The bus from Tehucan to Zapotitlan Salina is hard to find and departs from Centenario and Calle 7 Ote every 30 minutes. The bus is usually waiting, but here are the GPS co-ordinates just in case! The bus driver will drop you at the Zapotitlan Salina Botanical Gardens if you ask and to catch the bus back just wait on the side of the road. If there is a few of you, or budget is no problem, you can likely organise a tour through your Tehuacan hotel in Mexico.
If you have the time the small pueblo of San Juan Raya has an interesting Community Paleontological Museum and Turritelas Ecotourism Park where you can see more of the area’s rich fossil history. In the town of Zapotitlan Salinas itself you can also visit the churches of San Martin, Reyes Magos and San Francisco which are some of the oldest in the region – and discover many artisans clay crafts from which the region is known.