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The World’s Inspiring Places: Sierra Gorda

The stewardship success story of Mexico’s hidden garden

Guest Contribution By Jonathan B. Tourtellot, Destination Stewardship Center. This post is part of the “The World’s Inspiring Places” blog series which showcases stories of destination stewardship success. Click here to learn more about the series and watch other videos.  

Few road cuts have a romantic name, but this one does: Puerta del Cielo—the “Doorway to Heaven.” It’s where Mexico route 120 winds upward from the dry flats north of Querétaro city, past the towering monolith of Peña de Bernal, and finally slices through the top of a forested ridge into the region called Sierra Gorda.

Destination stewardship means taking care of the places we love, and Sierra Gorda leads the way in doing just that, creating a memorable destination for the types of travelers who want a friendly and genuine Mexican experience. On a week-long visit here, you can sample flavorful food and drink, explore lush and healthy natural areas, try adventures from zip lines and spelunking to hiking and rock climbing, check out beautifully maintained historic missions and village streets, and visit locally run businesses and workshops, all amid steep, eye-grabbing mountain scenery, much of it still clad in voluntarily preserved forest.

Sierra Gorda vista with pine. Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda calls the Biosphere Reserve "The most diverse ecosystem protected area in Mexico, with the largest social participation in actions for conservation." Photo: Jonathan B. Tourtellot.

This region is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, comprising five different ecosystems, from semidesert to cloud forest. It could easily swallow all of Yosemite National Park, yet unlike a park, it remains 97% privately owned, mostly by its relatively poor rural inhabitants.

That’s normally a recipe for environmental destruction. Not here. Much of the credit for the region’s conservation successes goes to the award-winning Sierra Gorda Ecological Group, which has pioneered a model that emphasizes community inclusion and small tourism-business development instead of deforestation for logging and livestock. The result is a win-win for visitors: mini-restaurants with homemade cooking, artisan workshops where you can try your hand at such skills as pottery or embroidery, and ecolodges in remarkable settings—all locally owned and run. No international franchises here. (And be prepared: not much English either).

Amid the waterfalls of the eastern slopes, near the hilly town of Xilitla, you can also visit one of the world’s most bizarre sculpture gardens, Las Pozas—20 acres of fantastic cement forms, towers, and bridges intertwined with the surrounding jungle. It was the mid-century creation of millionaire poet and artist Edward James, first drawn to the region by its abundance of orchid species. Count him as one more visitor charmed by the Sierra Gorda.

Las Pozas sculpture garden. Photo: Jonathan B. Tourtellot

Thanks to the Destination Stewardship Center, the Sierra Gorda’s stewardship success story has been brought to life through their new video series, titled The World’s Inspiring Places. To discover some of the people and experiences that are protecting and supporting this region, scroll down and click play on the video version that interests you!

Full-length short-form documentary (13 minutes)

Travel focus (5:16 minutes)

Stewardship focus ( minutes 4:30)

If you’d like to learn more about this video series and our partnership with the Destination Stewardship Center, click here.

Header Image: Sierra Gorda video hosts Ian Hill and Christian Tigges at Cuatro Palos, Sierra Gorda. Photo: Hassen Salum.

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