“We look and listen to the mortally wounded nature … where the worst is yet to come.”
We have been waiting in sweltering humid days for drops from the sky to give us a respite. We move through the world masked-up, struggling to breathe and wondering when relief will come. Grey skies that yield not a drop and thunderous sounds seem to taunt us. May and June on the Oaxacan coast are months filled with longing and anticipation. The landscape is brown and thirsty, its hunger mirrored by the people, who after an anemic tourist season, are also in limbo.
This month our writers explore the environment. To most of us, this means nature but it is also a state of being. We accept in nature the cycle of life which inevitably leads to death; dry tree branches or a fish that ends up on our plate. That which once danced through the fantastic blue depths of the ocean eventually stops swimming, whether by having fulfilled its allotted time or by being prematurely snatched up in a net.
For the past year we have lived in a collective environment, whether you are in Calgary or Delhi, we have all been moving towards a common purpose and defeating a common enemy. Humanity has become a school of fish that moves in sync like some other worldly dance. Yes, there are still so many things that we disagree about, but we are like the great network of trees that communicate through root systems; united by our fears and worries.
I have never felt greater reverence for nature than I have this past year. The symphony of birds is like the voice of god, whichever one you believe in, majestic trees have been reminders of our own individual insignificance. How can we ever improve our environment more than a tree does?
The world is slowly unfolding into its previous normalcy. People say it will never be the same but I believe they are wrong. We will slip back into our minutiae of concerns; getting more stuff, more power, just more for the sake of more. Will this time have been in vain? I hope we will remember the importance of nature when contrasted with the human experience and revere the one that has the greatest importance.
Then the sky opened, rain fell and suddenly everything is green.
See you next month,
By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Standing in the midst of a massive grove of bamboo is a sensuous experience. The beauty and power of the fastest growing plant in the world is breathtaking – literally. The genus Bambusa regulates the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and so one feels a sense of rejuvenation simply being amongst the vast expanses of bamboo. A simple grove of bamboo releases 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees.
A visit to the nonprofit (or A.C., Asociación Civile) Plantación Bambuver in the tropical town of Huatusco, Veracruz (only 4 ½ hours from the city of Oaxaca), teaches about not only the environmental importance of the 1,200 or so species of bamboo (the most common being Bambusa vulgaris), but also the multiplicity of diverse uses and applications: from commercial/industrial to artistic/aesthetic, from domestic/home to, of course, horticultural. Within the context of a three-hour tour of its installations, one cannot help but be impressed, through learning of the plant’s remarkable versatility and its environmental and ecological value as a sustainable industry.
Bambuver works in collaboration with the state of Veracruz, the national forestry commission, the national science and technology advisory board, and other national as well as state and local government branches. Its mission centers on the ongoing development and promotion of an integrated bamboo industry.
The Bambuver facilities are spread over three main locations in and around Huatusco, all easily visited in an afternoon.
- The green area consists of expansive forests comprising several species of bamboo, and includes a science and research center in addition to greenhouses for propagation. There is also a sales component so visitors can purchase small plants in plastic sleeves, and three-meter lengths of mature bamboo also suitable for growing back home. One can also buy large sacks of compost, with or without lombrices (earthworms). Lombrices create the compost from feeding off the exterior casings of coffee beans. Nearby coffee plantations (which can also be visited) provide Bambuver with the outer bean casings, otherwise waste, to use as feed for the lombrices. You’ll learn of the symbiotic relationship between the bamboo industry in Huatusco and the current as well as historical presence of the region’s coffee plantations; each and every bamboo forest at Bambuver has been nurtured with the aid of this natural fertilizer. You can even buy a bag of lombrices enabling you to kick-start or enrich a compost bin!
- A showroom in downtown Huatusco displaying examples of the plethora of uses for bamboo for domestic/home applications.
- A processing factory where the bamboo is treated and then fabricated for home and commercial/industrial use. The natural/renewable resource can be substituted for other building materials, to the extent that entire homes are now being built using bamboo rather than reinforced steel and other manmade construction products.
In the course of a tour of Bambuver, one inevitably begins to appreciate and consider the use of bamboo in construction, given that it is available in a variety of thicknesses, strengths, textures and colors (natural and dyed). It is used for building frames and beams, roofs, flooring, walls, windows, decorative interior panels, home bars, furniture, craft products, and much more.
Interesting Stops En Route to Huatusco
Starting from Oaxaca (or perhaps the Puebla-Cordóba-Acayucan route to Huatulco), consider a 2 – 3 day driving trip. The route north and east on the toll road from Oaxaca passes through several appealing towns and regions, some steeped in history (Córdoba), others producing crafts using materials native to the particular area (San Antonio Texcala for onyx and marble), still others showcasing environmental attractions (the water museum near Tehuacán, the biosphere near Cuicatlán, and the thoroughly impressive snow-capped Pico de Orizaba). And for the home garden aficionado, you’ll be passing through Fortín de las Flores, noted for cacti, succulents and anthuriums, to name just a few.
Take the toll road north from Oaxaca until reaching the junction of 135D and 150D. Exit to the right, towards Orizaba / Córdoba, and continue along 150D. Leave the toll road when you see the Fortín / Huatusco sign. After paying a toll, keep right, and then left at the Huatusco sign, then left again at the next Huatusco sign. This takes you to Mexico 125, on which there will be clearly marked signage to downtown Huatusco.
Lodging and Bambuver Contact Info
Hotel Huatusco has underground parking, a restaurant, and even a conference center. It’s clean, with reasonably priced rooms (including a floor fan for the asking): Av. 1 Ote 399, Centro Huatusco 94108 (tel: 273 734 3852).
Bambuver A.C. is located a few blocks from the hotel: Av. 4 Ote 336 (tel: 273 734 0680 – both their website page list other numbers); you can learn more at http://www.bambuver.com.
Tours are available for 6 – 20 people, but smaller group / private tours can be arranged with sufficient notice, in either case at a nominal charge.
The one three-meter length of mature bamboo Alvin Starkman purchased at Bambuver several years ago is now a small forest. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
By Julie Etra
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO), president of Mexico, recently called on Mexican farmers to stop using the herbicide glyphosate by 2024. By his final executive order of 2020, AMLO made a surprising decree to phase out both genetically engineered corn (GE, maíz transgénico), often referred to as GMO, or genetically modified, corn, and the use of the herbicide glyphosate.
Glyphosate, commercially known as Roundup, is a non-selective herbicide in that it kills all herbaceous (non-woody) vegetation to which it is applied. GMO corn, however, has been genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate. This creates a market cornered by the multinational agro-chemical giant Monsanto (bought out by Bayer in 2016), as they produce both the genetically modified corn (among other crops) and the herbicide. The national campaign, known as “Without Corn There is No Country” (Sin Maíz, No Hay País), and Greenpeace Mexico support the initiative that opens a path to eventually eliminate the use of glyphosate in Mexico by 2024. They urged AMLO to sign and publish the decree in the government’s Official Gazette of the Federation (Diario Oficial de la Federación), which occurred on December 31, 2020.
According to Reuters (May 24, 2021), the decree has held up: “A Mexican federal judge ruled against a request by the National Farm Council to freeze a government plan to ban genetically modified (GMO) corn and the widely used herbicide glyphosate by 2024, the national science council said on Monday. Judge Martin Adolfo Santos Perez’s ruling allows the executive order issued by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador late last year that outlines the planned ban to proceed.”
This is a huge economic issue. Since the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during the Clinton administration (1992), there has been a catastrophic decrease in domestic production, particularly of what we would call heirloom corn (maíz criollo) by small farmers who could not compete with the industrially-produced U.S. corn that poured into Mexico after passage of NAFTa. (An essential read on the subject is Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico, by Alyshia Gálvez [Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018]).
On the Mexican side, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed NAFTA betting that privatizing the economy and relying on market forces would modernize and grow the country, so to speak. This has not quite worked out as planned. Of the 20.4 million metric tons of corn imported by Mexico from the United States during from 2018 through March 2020 – 95% of it yellow corn, and 78% of it (16 million tons) in 2020 alone. According to Mexico’s national feed association (CONAFAB, Consejo Nacional de Fabricantes de Alimentos Balanceados y de la Nutrición Animal), Mexican feed companies used about 11.1 million tons of imported corn in 2020, the vast majority of it sourced from U.S. farmers; U.S. corn represented nearly 70% of the sector’s total corn purchases for the year.
What remains unclear as of this writing is that, although the ban would eliminate GMO corn for human consumption, the decree did not clarify what products would be included and it appears that feed corn would be exempt from the decree.
On the other hand, and as the wagons circle, the executive decree of course has its detractors. Mexico’s national association for Crop Protection, Science and Technology (PROCCYT, Protección de Cultivos, Ciencia y Tecnología), among others, rejected the order. PROCCYT warned that “the greatest economic and social blow will be dealt against Mexican farm workers, by promoting the publication of the Decree by which any possibility of import and use of glyphosate to protect food crops, despite the fact that it is scientifically proven that this herbicide does not harm health or the environment.”
But supporters of the decree have vowed to “defend our corn, since Mexico is considered the center of origin, domestication and diversification of at least 64 breeds of corn, and more than a thousand other species, including chili, beans, squash, vanilla, cotton, avocado, cocoa and amaranth.” The origin of corn is indeed Mexico, and more specifically the state of Oaxaca, where it was cultivated from its ancestor, the wild plant known as teosinte. Corn has achieved its current robust form over 8,000 years of plant breeding (my three-part article on the history of corn in Mexico appeared in The Eye in 2012).
Although there are few valid studies that link glyphosate to human health problems, the selective breeding of corn just for the ease of industrial production and the associated resistance to herbicides (and maximum profit) is anathema to Mexican culture, and has resulted in loss of nutrition and exhaustion of the soil as a natural, living resource. This depleted soil now relies on huge inputs of commercially produced, high nitrogen fertilizer, accompanied by its own suite of environmental problems. And the summer sweet corn we are accustomed to eating in the USA is mostly water and sugar and tastes nothing like the street corn – esquites y elotes – we find locally.
From this writer’s perspective Mexico has taken a big, progressive step forward.
By Julie Etra
Sembrando Vida in Mexico
On October 8, 2018, President Andrés Manual López Obrador (AMLO) kicked off a new program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), in the hope that it would achieve two parallel purposes. The program encourages sustainable communities through cultivating trees with commercial value – fruit-producing (mango, cinnamon, soursop) and timber (mahogany, cedar, rubber, cocoa) trees. It also combats rural poverty and environmental degradation; planting trees combats environmental degradation because they uptake carbon, a greenhouse gas, thus fighting climate change.
By paying residents of rural areas to plant the trees, along with garden crops for their own use, the government hopes to “rescue” rural areas, reactivate local economies and regenerate the social fabric in communities. The program works by turning communal land into a strategic tool for developing the countryside, increasing the productivity of rural areas, and thus reducing the economic and social vulnerability of farm families in remote areas. Inaugurated in 2019, Sembrando Vida has been adopted in 20 of Mexico’s 32 states.
Sembrando Vida will end up costing the Mexican government between 12 and 15 billion pesos; growers receive 4,500 pesos a month in addition to the value of what they grow. Many of these people participated in a program fielded by the previous administration, through which communities were paid to protect and maintain the jungle and its ecosystems. Sembrando Vida replaces that program, with the unfortunate result that, in order to provide land to qualify for Sembrando Vida, farmers have chopped down or burned the same jungles they had been protecting. This is not encouraged by Sembrando Vida, of course, which intended to reforest/replant “degraded land.”
Sembrando Vida and the World
But this unintended consequence (among others) is not why Sembrando Vida is in the news in 2021. In April, at U.S. President Biden’s virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, AMLO promoted Sembrando Vida as a tool to resolve the dual continuing crises of Central American migration north to the United States through Mexico, and climate change. AMLO claimed that planting three billion trees in southern Mexico and Central America would create 1.2 million jobs, which in turn would cut down on northward migration to the U.S.
The U.S. would pay for the expansion from Mexico into Central America. Reuters reported that AMLO also suggested that the “U.S. government could offer those who participate in this program that after sowing their lands for three consecutive years, they would have the possibility to obtain a temporary work visa” to the U.S., followed by U.S. residency or citizenship.
Most analysts consider the Sembrando Vida program to be naïve, simplistic and unlikely to substantially curb the violence and poverty that has fueled immigration from Central America. According to the Mexican newspaper Reforma, the U.S. responded a little more clearly: “The United States is not interested in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposal to link an extension of the Sembrando Vida program to Central America with a plan that offers work visas to Central Americans.”
If you check out the official government webpage for Sembrando Vida, it makes no mention of Central America (www.gob.mx/bienestar/acciones-y-programas/programa-sembrando-vida). It’s been suggested by Carolina Herrera, a writer for the U.S. nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), that AMLO was “attempting to distract from Mexico’s failure to advance a clean energy transition.”
In his presentation at the Leaders Summit, AMLO offered two other proposals – first, Mexico would limit crude oil production to domestic use and refine it locally, and second, Mexico would modernize existing hydroelectric plants to displace the use of fossil fuels. Given that Mexico has made few efforts on the federal level to curb greenhouse gases and encourage renewable resources, the first proposal demonstrates AMLO’s intention to support PEMEX, the state-owned petroleum company, over working on renewable energy options. Modernizing hydro plants supports the state-owned electric company CFE at the expense of solar and wind.
AMLO’s proposals, Herrera argues, will “essentially ensure that Mexico will not meet its international climate commitments and clean energy targets” for the international Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030.
By Randy Jackson
Few countries on earth have such an abundance of green energy potential as Mexico. The geography and geology of Mexico provides three substantial sources of green energy: solar, wind and geothermal.
Solar: Potential energy from solar projects seems obvious, with much of the country bathed in sunlight for a good portion of the year. Also, the lower the latitude, i.e., the lower the distance from the Equator, the higher the energy concentration of the sun. The northwest area of Mexico has the highest average number of days of sunlight in the country. The sunniest spot on earth is just north of Mexico, in Yuma, Arizona, and the surrounding areas stretching well into Mexico have a very high average number of days of sunshine. Days of sunshine, concentrated by lower latitudes, end up in a measurement called “insolation.” Insolation is a measurement of kilowatt hour per square meter, essentially a measurement of sunpower at a given location. All this leads to the calculation (using existing solar panel efficiency) that just 25 square kilometers of solar panels, were they located in the Sonoran Desert or the state of Chihuahua, would be sufficient to provide 100% of Mexico’s electricity demand.
Wind: Many of us who are familiar with Huatulco and the surrounding area know of the substantial wind energy facilities in the narrower part of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Eurus Wind Farm in Juchitán de Zaragoza is the largest wind farm in Latin America. In Mexico overall, the states of Oaxaca, Yucatán and Tamaulipas all have locations with average wind speeds greater than 28 km/hour – 15 Km/hour is the minimum average speed normally required for a wind farm. Average wind speed is one determining factor for wind farms; the other is air density. Sea level locations, as at the Eurus Wind Farm, have higher air density when compared to higher elevations. This means the air has more mass, essentially giving the wind more power to turn a wind turbine. REVE, the Spanish wind energy magazine, reports that Mexico has wind energy potential of about 70,000 MWH (megawatt hours), about the total current electrical generating capacity in all of Mexico.
Geothermal: Mexico has 48 active volcanoes, a testament to the high degree of tectonic activity below the earth’s surface in Mexico (has anyone not experienced an earthquake in Huatulco?). Geothermal resources are most often found along tectonic plates where the earth’s magma is closer to the surface. This superheats rock that can be easily drilled into from the surface; water is then injected and the resulting steam drives turbines to create electricity. The world’s second largest geothermal power station is located in the state of Baja California, near the city of Mexicali. This location, known as Cerro Prieto, sits atop of a unique geological fault usually only found under the oceans. The Mexican ministry of energy envisions 1,670 MWH of electricity from geothermal plants by 2030.
Before hosting the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexican President Felipe Calderón set out goals for Mexico to reach one-third of its energy from renewables by 2024. Some reforms and laws were initiated in Calderón’s term of office to move towards these renewable energy goals. In Mexico, energy is state owned and controlled.
Energy resource ownership, particularly oil but also electricity generation, is a sensitive national concern for Mexico. However, in 2013, President Enrique Peña Nieto was able to pass a reform that allowed private companies to participate in the energy sector, with the control, transmission and distribution of energy remaining exclusively within the control of the state. This initiative, followed up with specific regulations, allowed private investments in renewable energy projects to recover their investments over time, by selling electricity to the state owned CFE (Comisión Federal de Electricidad) under negotiated contracts.
These reforms and Mexico’s abundant green energy potential allowed many Mexican and international companies to step forward to propose and develop green energy projects. To facilitate these projects under state control, Mexico held three auctions to purchase renewable electricity under long term contracts; 41 projects were selected under the auction process. Solar energy projects accounted for 4,867 MW, wind energy 2,122 MW and geothermal 25 MW. In 2017 private investment in renewable energy in Mexico was $6.2 billion USD. Mexico seemed to be off to a good start towards its green energy goals.
In 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO) was elected. Shortly after taking office, AMLO cancelled any future auctions to purchase green electricity by CFE. Then, in early 2020, under the guise of COVID-19 measures, Mexico changed the rules of how wind and solar projects could access the electrical grid. The new policy imposes a new requirement on developers of wind and solar projects to obtain a generation permit. These permits are subject to further regulations that prioritize CFE electrical generation from oil and gas electricity plants. These changes have raised international concerns regarding regulations that effectively cancel existing legal contracts. The European Union sent a letter to Mexico’s Energy Minister, Rocío Nahle García, saying the new rules would negatively impact 44 renewable energy projects and jeopardize $6.4 billion (USD) in renewable energy projects from EU companies. Bloomberg News reported March 16 of this year that the Canadian government expressed concern to the Mexican Economy Secretary, Tatiana Clouthier Carrillo, about stranding a potential $4.1 billion (USD) in renewable projects by Canadian companies. These concerns have also been expressed by the US and other countries using diplomatic channels.
The arguments made by the current Mexican administration in defending their change to regulation regarding private investments in the electrical energy grid are numerous. AMLO has suggested that corruption was involved in awarding some of the contracts to purchase electricity. He has also argued that the sporadic nature of renewable energy destabilizes the electricity grid. He also said there is just too much bureaucracy overseeing the energy sector in Mexico, and more central control is needed.
Some of these regulatory changes are currently being challenged in Mexican courts, so the final outcome is yet to be determined. However, the substantial green energy potential of Mexico is out there, available, awaiting the right political conditions for it to be harvested.
By Carole Reedy
The environment, migration, and conservation are not new topics for novelists. For many of us, our first book on change and migration due to a deteriorating earth was required reading. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is the landmark 1939 novel in which the Joad family is forced to leave their homestead in Oklahoma, ravaged by the Dust Bowl, for the promised land of California.
Hindsight is foresight. In 1962 Rachel Carson was accused of exaggeration by the government and big business when she challenged the use of chemical pesticides in her groundbreaking book Silent Spring.
For this column, I’ve chosen several books from numerous recent novels exploring these increasingly urgent themes.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
The individual stories and plots of the nine US environmental activists who populate the novel play second string to Powers’ intensely detailed descriptions of the symbiotic relationship between trees and forests and their unique role in the survival of our planet.
Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018, this seminal work is referred to regularly in any discussion of the environment and its degradation.
Three Novels by T. C. Boyle (Thomas Coraghessan Boyle)
I’ve written about the novels of T. C. Boyle multiple times over the past eleven years, and with good reason. The Tortilla Curtain remains among my top ten reads of all time and has been lauded as one of the most insightful on migration in Southern California.
Boyle, without fail, entertains while illuminating our grasp on issues that concern him and our planet, and he does it in an amusing style that can prompt readers to chuckle, despair, or contemplate simultaneously.
A Friend of the Earth
This piece of eco-fiction takes place in 2025, which seemed a long way off in 2000 when Boyle wrote it. It was interesting for me to revisit this book in 2021 after reading it 21 years ago. That which seemed far-fetched in 2000 is more realistic now. Many of his premises ring true: the degradation of ecosystems, deforestation, change in climate, the building frenzy, shortened life expectancy, and overpopulation.
The story is told through the eyes of the main character, Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater (Boyle’s character names are as intriguing as his own), a 75-year old disheveled man looking back on his life as an environmental activist. Tierwater’s future seems as hopeless as the state of the earth. Boyle does not politicize, but rather tells a compelling story that keeps your mind spinning. Spoiler alert: it ends on a bittersweet but satisfyingly positive note.
When the Killing’s Done
A compelling premise for this 2011 novel: An animal rights activist takes on the National Park Service, which is removing invasive species (rats and pigs) from the Channel Islands National Park in California. Based on historical fact, here Boyle relates actual occurrences by shrouding them in a family story. Other actual events from the islands make their way into the always engaging story that Boyle tells.
As I review T. C. Boyle’s novels I’ve come to appreciate them more with each passing year, and this one especially. His books ring true in so many ways, especially during these days of Jeff Bezos and his space exploration schemes.
In this 2016 novel set in 1994, a group of eight prepare for possible colonization on Mars by spending months in a biosphere facility called Ecosphere. As always, Boyle’s insight and exploration of human reactions, relationships, shortcomings, and strengths are the focus throughout the characters’ isolation together.
By the way, T. C. Boyle’s favorite novelist is Gabriel García Márquez.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Latin America’s favorite son and a Nobel-prize winner from Colombia, García Márquez focuses on his country and its larger setting in the vast collection of novels and short stories he left us. The magical realism woven throughout his novels carries the reader through time and the lush ambience of the country he loves.
There is no better time to read this 1984 novel, which takes place over six decades, during which an intermittent cholera epidemic affects not only South America, but also the world. In addition, the arrival of the 20th century brings with it severe environmental damage from deforestation. For many of my friends who are avid readers and fans of Marquez, this is their favorite.
The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
For me, the outstanding characteristic of this novel is the intelligence and perceptiveness of the twelve children compared to the naïveté of their clueless parents. After being forced into a supposedly grand family getaway in a remote mansion, the children rebel when they perceive environmental dangers that the party-loving parents ignore. The children escape to a safer location, leaving their parents to their debauchery.
Millet has earned well-deserved attention from the New York Times, BBC, and Washington Post. This book was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Attention bird lovers: the focus here is on the main character’s quest to follow the Arctic terns on what she believes, due to extreme climate changes, to be their final journey from Greenland to Antarctica. The book transports the reader along with its main character, Franny, on a boat from Greenland to the Southern Ocean. While the novel explores her search and the adventure of following the terns, it also delves into her innermost secrets, shortcomings, and personal issues in need of resolution. Franny’s outer search echoes her inner one. Formerly the author of young adult fiction, here McConaghy debuts as an adult novelist.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Considered by some to be the ultimate in environmental disaster stories, The Road has been made into a film. Don’t be tempted – read the book. The book has a power all its own, with multiple elements including the centerpiece father-son relationship. Praised for its ability to portray the earth’s destruction and yet criticized for its minimal plot and characterization, this book is hailed by many as the masterpiece of our climate emergency. The unusual writing style and use (specifically, the nonuse) of punctuation irritates many readers, me among them, though I understand the source and reasoning behind the author’s choice. This short, intense book will transport you.
How fortunate to live in a world filled with brilliant minds who can raise our consciousness, stir our emotions, inform, teach and at the same time even entertain us.
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.
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
- Sunscreen: wash it off before swimming in lakes, lagoons or ocean bays. Previously, much of coastal Mexico was a natural aquarium, teeming with brightly colored fish and exotic sea life feeding off myriad varieties of coral. Today, many of the most accessible bays and lagoons have a visible oily slick of sunscreen on the surface, with mainly dead coral and greatly reduced sea life. Many inland lakes have also been polluted.
There are still wondrous places to snorkel and dive, mainly accessible by boat. If you are fortunate enough to visit some of these sea or lake homes to see thousands of aquatic creatures, please help preserve them by wearing a sun-guard shirt (an inexpensive teeshirt will do) instead of poisoning the waters with sunscreen.
- Picnics: if you carry it in, carry it out. The beaches, vista points and forests in Mexico are great places for a picnic. It’s tempting after an afternoon of eating and drinking to just leave your empties and other trash behind. If you do, you’re basically creating an unattractive garbage dump and providing the animals with materials that can choke or otherwise kill them. It’s so simple to bring and use paper bags to collect your detritus (recyclables in one bag and trash in the other) and dispose of them in bins for recycling.
- Flora and fauna: observe but do not disturb. Plants and animals, both on the land and in the water, are fascinating. We can spend hours watching whales playing in a bay, or geckos scrambling around our patio walls, or an octopus hiding under a rock and sending out a tentacle to catch a fish or a sea turtle nesting on a beach. We’ve also watched in horror as people use sticks to poke at iguanas and disfigure other animals, or disturb nests of turtle eggs, or surround whales with multiple motor boats, or dig up plants that support multiple forms of animals. Please remember that you are a guest in their homes and, just as you wouldn’t enter a human home and purposely maim or torment your hosts, be a good guest to the animals and plant life here.
- Paths and trails: stay on the beaten path. In addition to not trampling or otherwise disturbing flora and fauna, staying on the beaten path will help you avoid unpleasant encounters with the native life. Many forms of plants and animals in Mexico have developed excellent forms of self-protection, including sharp spines, toxic stingers, pincers and teeth that can deliver a painful bite. Not all snakes rattle or give a warning before they spring. So keep on track and keep your eyes where you are about to step.
- Drinking water: avoid plastic bottles. In many places in Mexico the water is fine to drink. If you are at a moderately or expensively priced hotel or restaurant and you are served water from a pitcher, it generally is filtered and potable. The same is true of ice. If you are at an economy-priced place where you are not sure about the hygiene, you can ask for a glass of water from their garafon, the huge jugs of filtered water kept on hand for the staff to use. But please, please, please, help stop the world-wide pollution of the earth with billions of tons of plastic bottles. Until someone figures out how to turn plastic back into its natural components (a future Nobel-Prize-winning discovery), every plastic bottle of water you drink and discard will contribute to choking off life in Mexico and around the world.
- Restaurants: no plastic straws or one-use plastic anything. Plastic straws are literally killers. They find their way into the ocean and are gobbled up by short-sighted sea turtles. Hundreds of turtles die each year from ingesting a plastic straw. Many fish and sea-birds are also injured. Other plastic utensils also contribute to the injury and death of marine life. If you must use a straw, at least use a paper straw. But folks, who really needs a straw? Every sip from a plastic straw you take shortens the life of rapidly disappearing species.
- Shopping: bring your own bags and select ecofriendly packaging. Buy organic.
Fortunately, most Mexican supermarkets are legally prohibited from providing plastic bags for packing your purchases. And there are wonderful colorful cloth or other material shopping bags for sale in gift shops and from vendors all over Mexico. They’re not always environmentally friendly but they are easily packed, great souvenirs. But before you even reach the checkout counter, please think ‘green’ before you place something in your shopping cart. Two or three tomatoes really don’t require a thin plastic bag to keep them separate from an avocado; and the avocado comes in its own natural wrapper. By reaching for the fruit and vegetables that are labelled ‘organic’ you may pay a little more, but you are helping keep toxic pesticides out of drinking water and out of the bodies of many living creatures – including your own.
- Signs: read them and obey them. Much thought and effort has been spent on placing signs around Mexico to protect wildlife and to protect you. The road signs depicting silhouettes of local fauna are charming – but they are danger signs. Keep your eyes peeled on the road in front of you and to either side and slow down so you can stop in time to avoid an animal that darts out to cross to the other side. The signs on beaches and in parks that have the universal multiple “no” symbol should be studied and heeded. At the very least, they will give you a heads-up about human behavior required to protect life in Mexico. And ultimately, you may be saved from a hefty fine or even drowning.
- Showers: keep them short. Many places in Mexico, as throughout the world, are suffering from severe water shortages. You are encouraged to shower off before entering pools to save filtration systems; but all that is required is a quick rinse to remove sand and salt. A long hot shower before you dress is as passé as a flip-top cell phone. Remember to save water in other ways too. Turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth. If you have a kitchen, fill that dishwasher before you run it. And although washing your hands frequently is highly recommended, turn off the water while you soap and sing the canonical ‘happy birthday’ song twice.
- Prevent COVID: You may be on vacation, but the coronavirus never takes time off from work. Until Mexico vaccinates most of its population and enters a low COVID tier, wear your mask, frequently wash your hands and stay at a safe distance. The life you save could be your own.