Story & Photos by Emily Grey
Last fall, 10 Americans drove 350 miles from McAllen, Texas into Tamaulipas, Mexico. Our weekend mission was to explore El Cielo, an International Biosphere Reserve per UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) guidelines. Like Virginia Eastern Shore’s Barrier Islands, this cloud forest exemplifies how humans and nature can coexist harmoniously.
The eastern escarpment of the Sierra Madres of El Cielo is a crossroads of North and South America. An amazing biodiversity flourishes year-round in this 300,000-acre oasis. Tropical and thorn brush plants such as mesquite, cacti and ebony grow beside sugar maples, sweet gum and other temperate zone trees. Millions of dragonflies migrate through every August. As it lifts and banks along the mountain peaks, moisture from the Gulf of Mexico forms clouds. Rains, over 10 feet per year, come often and disappear quickly.
Porous limestone, the foundation of the mountains, channels rainfall from higher to lower elevations nourishing the rich forests, cascades and other habitats. Dissolved nutrients spread rapidly and are processed by fungi and other organic matter. Fallen trees create openings, a boon to flora, butterflies and hummingbirds. Den trees attract termites, other insects and woodpeckers.
An hour past the border, the landscape gave way to ponds, trees and interesting sights. Children along roadsides dangled chili peppers and jerky for sale. Billboards advertised dove, quail and waterfowl hunting at lodges. Cattle and horses roamed at will. A mariachi band and banquet awaited us our first night near Llera, the oldest town in the State of Tamaulipas. The next day, some of our group members kayaked while others hiked along the Guadalejo River.
Later, we dined on mango pie and fresh tilapia fillets and sautéed langustinos (prawns) raised in the eatery’s concrete tanks. A memorable blue morpho butterfly flittered by our picnic table. A yellow iron ball and highway sign denoted the Tropic of Cancer a few miles southward. A gravelly road signaled adventure as we slowly ascended thousands of feet. Openings provided spectacular valley vistas with white clouds brushing the summits. Ninety minutes later, after paying the gatekeeper $1 U.S, we entered the community of El Cielo.
A few rustic homes are scattered along this rugged terrain. Shy children, unaccustomed to strangers, hid behind their mothers’ skirts as the elders prepared our dinner in the restaurant. Raindrops beat the tin roofs of our primitive adobes through the night while donkeys continually brayed. One morning, a glorious sunrise peaked through silhouetted Spanish moss. Several professional guides and trainees joined us at meals and outings. The June through October rainy season did not hinder our bird watching expeditions. Within a 50-foot radius, we counted nearly 30 species in a few minutes. A crested caracara, altimira oriole and elegant trogon perched in the treetops. Ten percent of the globe’s fauna and flora are found in Mexico. At least 555 avian species, including 120 “charismatic” species, which cannot be seen in Canada or the United States, are found there.
Officials in Mexico are beginning to realize the value of the land and its wildlife watching resource. Tamaulipas is busily preparing birding routes, training guides and planning infrastructure and shuttles for its fall Nature Festival. Mexicans are eager to learn more about the natural world and work together to accomplish their goals. Representatives are seeking an alliance with the Texas Rio Grande Valley, a world-class birding and nature festival venue.
At our hosts’ requests, we offered ideas on attracting nature tourists, developing programs and selling indigenous art. When El Cielo was designated a reserve in 1985, local women formed a co-op to sell homemade preserves and beautiful embroidery. Profits are used to help other poor communities tap their talents and become productive.
Timbering, once the major livelihood in El Cielo, has abated. Residents, who have learned the economic significance of nature watching tourists, are sparing more trees. An area farmer, interested in sustainability and responsible land stewardship, opened his catfish ponds, citrus groves and hiking trails to us. He also offers snorkeling, jungle trekking, kayaking and bird watching on his cattle ranch. A jacana and chachalaca tread through the brush while a crocodile rested in a pond. Mexico has a treasured resource in El Cielo, a conservation success for future generations. Here’s hoping that our southern neighbor and the United States can effectively unify to preserve and conserve the valuable migrating birds, butterflies and other wildlife that we share.
If You Go: El Cielo
Travelers interested in seeing El Cielo should plan to travel with a tour group. Guides can meet nature tourists at a central spot and lead them to select destinations. English is widely spoken except in isolated villages.
For more information, contact:
Nancy S. Millar, Director
McAllen Convention and Visitors’ Bureau
PO Box 790
1200 Ash Avenue
877-622-5536 toll free
Ave. Terrasol 105
Col. Villas Terrasol
Garza García, N.L. 66230