BIOSPHERE RESERVE TEHUACÁN-CUICATLÁN – DESERT: CHECK, WASTELAND: NO!
Twenty years ago, the 135D highway connected Oaxaca with Puebla, Mexico City and "the world outside". Since then, every year, thousands of tourists drive through this unique and wildely romantic (semi) desertical landscape to reach the colonial city at the foot of Monte Albán (or in the opposite direction, from Oaxaca to Puebla). The 135D overcomes the Mixtec mountains and for a stretch of many kilometers, it cuts through the biosphere reserve of Tehuacán-Cuicatlán.
With its nearly 5.000 km² surface, this nature reserve is almost twice as big as Saarland, a region in Germany, and it is home to a particularly species-rich flora (ca. 2.700 species) and fauna; about 10% of the existing plants and animals only live here. When watching the unreal looking woods of organ-pipe shaped cactusses, that resemble a grey-green stubbly beard adorning the hill's face, many people feel the desire to really immerge in this exotic nature. However, the contact with the unknown biosphere is often restricted to a few photo stops.
However, anyone who reserves some time specially for Tehuacán-Cuicatlán –ideally one or two days- will be amply rewarded. The "Entrance" to this nature reserve is the small town of Zapotitlán Salinas, in whose immediate surroundings, a botanical garden of a special kind can be found, rather a route through the natural vegetation as if it were a cultivated garden. Embrace an ancient beaucarnea, and sense the life under its knotty bark...! After climbing a hill, you can discover the only partly laid bare archeological site of Cuthá, the fortification of the perished empire of the Popoloca. On another hill, close to Zapotitlán, bizarre and up to seven meters high basalt prisms are witness of the vulcanic activity.
A bit closer to the reserve, and somewhat further away from the highway, you will get to San Juan Raya, the starting point for a trip into the history of the earth (!), as there are places here, where countless fossiles of turritellas and other sea animals or their shells have been found. These animals used to live here, when this area was still a sea, some 120 million years ago. The dinosaurs' tracks are more "recent": the round ones belonged to the gentle herbivores, while the triangular ones are from the fast carnivores. It is quite a funny feeling to realize that only time separates you from these giant lizards.
Also the actual vegetation of the biosphere reserve would make a wonderful scenery for the dino's running through it. In the valley of the giant biznagas, for instance, you can perfectly imagine being on another planet, or even in another era. These "mother-in-law's cushions" are normally round, but here, the more ancient ones mutate into oblong specimens, looking like churros bigger than a man. On other spots, remarkably much impressive but also elegant beaucarneas wave their leaves standing together in a grove, in which you can take a pleasant walk.
Who feels more about a real "expedition in the animal kingdom" can go and explore the canyons, that are home to the lovely green macaw. Those interested in (some particular example of) culture in the spirit of rural tourism will probably enjoy a visit to the salt mines, that were already exploited during the prehispanical era. Or maybe you feel more excited about getting to know the palm weaving handicraft of San Pedro Atzumba or the pottery of the handcrafters of Los Reyes Metzontla. In these austere but most imaginative workshops, the pots are basically fabricated following the prehispanical traditions. The people of Metzontla belong to the etnical group of the Popoloca, who share the biosphere reserve with the Mixtecs, six related indigenous groups and the mestizos.
The cultural influence of the original inhabitants is mainly manifested in the traditional cuisine, in which everything that can be found in the (semi)desert and the other (micro)climates of the biosphere reserve is used: besides cactus fruits and several flowers, also different insects are part of the ingredients. Now, you should not definately try the latter -finally, you are not in the jungle camp-, but don't miss out on taking a look in the pots and ask a few things, when your friendly hosts invite you to do so.
Conclusion: Not too far from the highway between Puebla and Oaxaca, a diverse, magnificent area is waiting for a visit by anyone who has an "Antenna for these things": for exotic (semi) desertical vegetation, for the whims of nature, for zoology, geology, paleontology, archeology (though not "offered on a tray"), for other people, their way of living and their creations. Here, it is definitely worth it to get away from the beaten tracks.
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