By Deborah Van Hoewyk
Ten major-to-middling mountain ranges, replete with volcanoes and caves. Two oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Sea of Cortez. Mega-biodiverse, with over 200,000 known species of flora and fauna. A plethora of online lists of 7, 10, 25 “natural wonders you must see in this lifetime!!!”
There are many must-see natural destinations spread across Mexico – Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, the Rosario sanctuary for Monarch butterflies reserve in Michoacán, Lake Chapala in Jalisco, or Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes covered in fourth-grade geography. You could even argue that the ghastly mummies of Guanajuato are a natural wonder, created by the arid soil in which they were hastily buried (apparently too hastily in multiple cases) during a cholera outbreak in 1833.
But if you’re already ensconced in Huatulco, there’s no need to wander afar – southeastern Mexico has plenty of natural wonders at hand.
Oaxaca: Hierve el Agua (“the water boils”) is located high in the mountains about an hour from Mitla, the archeological site to the east of Oaxaca City. Hierve el Agua offers a stunning pair of petrified travertine waterfalls, cascada chica and cascada grande, “falling” from high cliffs to the valley below. The falls themselves are twelve and thirty meters (about 40 and 100 feet) respectively. (The only other petrified waterfalls in the world are at Pamukkale in Turkey, so ¡Aprovechar!)
The small falls are more accessible and actually offer a better understanding of how the cascades were formed. At the top of the falls is a 60-meter-wide (about 200 feet) platform with four springs that bubble up (“boil”) and flow to small natural pools and two large man-made pools where you can swim – the high mineral content of the water, is supposed to have healing qualities. One of the springs spills over the edge, depositing minerals that extend the falls bit by bit, year over year.
There are visitor accommodations for changing clothes, getting a bite to eat, and souvenir shopping; there’s a basic hotel for an overnight. As is common in Oaxaca, you may also experience a bloqueo, a protest blockade, closing the road to Hierve del Agua. You can arrange a tour in Oaxaca City, or take a bus to Mitla and arrange a local tour or just transportation via a colectivo.
Chiapas: Sumidero Canyon is near the Chiapan capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez (the cañon is the defining feature on the state’s coat of arms). Just north of the town of Chiapa de Corzo, about 35 million years ago, the earth cracked and the Rio Grijalva emerged to start carving out the eight-plus miles of canyon. In places, the walls are now a thousand meters (about 3,300 feet) high; the canyon ends with the Chicoasén Dam, which has created an artificial lake and raised the water level in the canyon – the gorge used to be higher. Should you be a geologist, the walls diagram the history of the earth’s crust in this area, with layers of limestone boasting marine fossils.
The canyon is located in the Sumidero Canyon National Park, designated a RAMSAR wetland. (RAMSAR is the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Ramsar, Iran, being where the Convention was signed in 1971 – Mexico has 142 RAMSAR sites.)
You can view the canyon from any one of six miradores (overlooks), but the best way to “do” the canyon is via boat. (There was an EcoPark within the national park, to which the boat would take you, but at last word it had closed for financial reasons.)
Most boat trips leave from Chiapa de Corzo. The round-trip boat ride takes about 2-3 hours, because it takes a while to get from Chiapa de Corzo to the actual canyon. You might see wildlife – the park is home to several endangered species (spider monkeys, jaguarundis, ocelots, anteaters). The vegetation in the park is mostly deciduous rainforest (Chiapas is much higher than Huatulco, which has mostly selva seca, dry deciduous jungle.) You can see the entrances to a couple of cave systems in the walls.
You can arrange a tour in Tuxtla Gutiérrez or San Cristobal de las Casas (apparently the best prices are in San Cristobal, and you should make sure your tour includes at least some of the miradors and the town itself). You can also just get yourself to Chiapa de Corzo (less than 20 pesos in a colectivo) – if you can get one to drop you off at the embarcadero (boat landing) in Cahuares, great, otherwise find a colectivo in the square going to Cahuares. If you get to Chiapa de Corzo, you will have no trouble getting to the canyon boats.
The Yucatán, ah the Yucatán! The Yucatán peninsula is all nature, all the time – and archaeology, and beaches, and swimming with sharks, and shopping – but mostly nature. You could go to the flamingo reserve, visit a biosphere, or canoe through the mangroves in Celestún, in the state of Yucatán. You can swim in the hundreds of cenotes, or sinkholes formed when underground rivers caused the limestone above them to collapse (some say Cenote Ik Kil, near Chichen Itza, also in Yucatán state, is the most beautiful). You could visit the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico’s largest – it also contains the Calakmul archeological site – located in Campeche state. Or the colored lakes at the Las Coloradas salt flats, back in Yucatán. Or go kayaking on the brilliant, multicolored blue waters of Lake Bacalar in Quintana Roo.
But the Yucatán peninsula is home to the 700-mile-long Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest, which runs along the Caribbean coast from the tip of the peninsula down through the shores of Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Sometimes called the Great Mayan Reef, it’s been described as an “underwater wilderness,” with, at last count, over 100 species of coral, over 500 species of fish, not to mention multiple species of sharks, sea turtles, and dolphins – and a few sunken ships serving as artificial extensions of the barrier reef.
You can book dive trips all along the Caribbean coast of the peninsula. SCUBA divers might have the most fun, especially for the wrecks and the Museo Subaquático de Arte (Cancún Underwater Museum). Never fear, though, there are two galleries in MUSA, and both snorkelers and riders on glass-bottom boats can visit the shallower one to see the sculptures of pH-neutral concrete that explore the human-reef relationship.
Manchones Reef, off Isla Mujeres (Quintana Roo), is considered a “true paradise” for snorkeling and SCUBA diving. The waters of Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel have great visibility; SCUBA divers can visit the Felipe Xicoténcatl, a C-53 gunboat sunk by the Mexican Navy to start an artificial reef. Ideal for snorkeling is the section of reef in the Biosphere Reserve of Banco Chinchorro – only 5 feet deep and partly comprised of wrecked pirate ships. Banco Chinchorro is off the coast at Chetumal, Quintana Roo. At the Parque Nacional de Arrecifes de Xcalak, also in Quintana Roo near Tulum, the “coral heads” of the reef start only a few meters off the beach and are only 2-3 meters below the surface. The main reef is 400 meters out – if you swam the 440 in high school, and can still do it, you’re good). Xcalak is perhaps the least crowded dive site for the Mesoamerican Reef, and arguably the least spoiled by tourism.
The impact of tourism is perhaps the greatest threat to all of Mexico’s natural wonders, but this is particularly true for coral reefs. You can catch a boat out from the beach at Puerto Morelos in Quintana Roo to see or snorkel Kan Kanán, a huge snake-like construction of hollow pyramids made of cement and micro silica. (Kan Kanán is a guardian serpent in Mayan mythology.) Over a mile long, Kan Kanán lies between the beach and the Mesoamerican Reef; it is the longest artificial reef in the world, intended to protect the coastline from erosion, kickstart the formation of new natural reefs, and regenerate the marine ecosystem. Hope for the future.