MEXICO — One of the country’s first ecotourism initiatives to combine government, private initiative and organized civil society has come to fruition in the national park area around the volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. Three years in the making, the “senderos interpretativos” (educative nature paths) have been up and running for nearly a year and are now in full operation to welcome visitors.
There could hardly be a more appropriate place as the volcanoes and forested area at their skirts are the generous providers of 40% of the water that feeds Mexico City, making this an ecological nucleus and treasure trove rich in instruction as well as stunning in its beauty.
TRAVEL FOR ALL AGES
Nearly 1,000 school children have visited so far this year, and schools through DF and the whole republic are being targeted now, so that teachers are aware of this opportunity for an educational and exciting daytrip for their pupils.
Anyone at all can go, at a minimal cost, funds which go directly towards park maintenance. You can register, check maps and learn more online the website run by CONANP.
There are four short “senderos” (paths) — longer ones are in the making, such as a 14-kilometer “biological corridor” — intelligently designed to make the most of the topography of each area where they were set up and what they intend to illustrate. The information is beautifully presented (in aesthetically pleasing, natural materials) and maintained, and each labeled clearly in Spanish.
PASO DE CORTÉS
I have been visiting the Paso de Cortés, which is the area where Cortés and his army passed through between the two volcanoes on their way to conquer Tenochtitlán, since 1994 and this is the first time I have seen it — on Tuesday of Semana Santa — milling with day-trippers.
In the seventies, the Parque Nacional Iztaccíhuatl-Popocatépetl was the place to go (you even can recognize it often in Mexican movies of the period) receiving an average of 580,000 visitors per year from 1976 to 1982, from 17 different countries. By 2002 this had fallen by 90% and by 31 October 2004 it had received only 42,000.
Volcanic activity was only one of the reasons, although it wasn’t a very good reason. Hawaii and Costa Rica provide incontrovertible examples that active volcanoes are a magnet for tourism, when managed well.
Another reason is political and administrative. The Estado de Mexico, divided by Mexico City, has tended to favor development of the western side, with the industrial hub of Toluca and the luxury weekend getaway of Valle del Bravo, leaving the eastern part abandoned and disorganized.
Now, thanks to the vision, research and enthusiasm of Alejandro López, Director of Parque Nacional Izta-Popo, Zoquiapan and his sparkling team, there is something to get your teeth into, integrating the splendor of the view with the ecosystem around it.
The paths encourage visitors to understand what they are seeing in the context of its ecosystem, as well as attune to other senses such as hearing (the mountain wind through the pines), smelling (the rich “trementina” resin of the pine, or ocote) and touching (the moist soil where water has successfully been captured) — to notice and appreciate more. Five cheery guides, highly motivated biologists, a tourism expert and a zoologist, can show you around and answer questions.
The first path is called “Sendero Yolotxochitl” and focuses on the park as a water factory. It has eleven observation points, the first an introduction to the /teporingo/ — or “rabbit of the volcanoes” — as fauna endemic to the area, and also the mascot and signature image of the paths. This mountain creature is the smallest rabbit in Mexico, with small ears and short tail to preserve heat, makes its home in the mountain grasses. Its image, on the vans, signs and leaflets is sweet to look at and appealing for kids.
The leaflets are exemplary, full of thoughtfully presented and varied information, from what age the distinctive pines in the area can live to, their maximum height, nicknames for the teporingo (with an explanation), how to prevent forest fires, flowers and mushrooms, animal tracks. The cost of the leaflet is to fill in the accompanying questionnaire.
The path itself is made of attractive red tezontle, and is surrounded at this time of year with the yellow flowering Jaramillo bush, has a little bridge, shady seating area.
“We ask people what is the wood? What services does it give us … obviously being water and oxygen,” says Sandra Montaño, one of the guides. They point out how long it takes for a tree to grow (the “pino de las alturas”, or Pinus haartwegii takes a long time, as you can see later on in the nursery), and yet how short a time to destroy it with an electric saw.
In this path visitors can also see the “tinas ciegas” (blind tubs), coffin shaped holes of 2m x 50cm and 50cm deep, which help to capture water, a simple but efficient system. There are now 9,000 of these tinas on the Cerro Yolotxochitl, each one with a new tree (age labeled) growing by its side.
MORE PATHS TO FOLLOW
At the Paso de Cortés, only 7 kilometers from the crater of the puffing Popocatépetl (currently at a non-dangerous Yellow Phase 1 of alert), you will find the other paths (such as “Recuperación del Bosque” and “Teporingo”), as well as the CONANP building. Inside there is a little module with refreshments, photos, postcards and souvenir keyrings, as well as an interesting relief map of the four states that border the volcanoes, large posters with detailed information, and basic bathrooms. Not everyone realizes they are free to walk inside and seek out information, so be bold. This is also where you will find the guides, unless they are out in the field.
The Viveros de Adaptación (adaptation nursery, referring to the plants’ need to be acclimatized to the height, here at 3,600 meters) is where you can see the pines at all their stages of existence, from the cones to seedlings, through to age two, which is when they are planted and left to fend for themselves.
You find out that in addition to forest fires and illegal lumbering, one of the greatest threats to reforestation and to the woods in general are cattle which have been allowed to graze. Wires with an electrical charge are in evidence here, to keep them from eating the saplings.
However, it should be emphasized that this is not just about learning and conscience — that is, it’s not just for “tree huggers,” as the dismissive expression goes. There is also a trout farm and restaurant to enjoy 15 minutes from the Paso de Cortés called Las Truchas (follow signs to Buenavista), and an old church to see called La Ermita. Izta is a major international sports destination for alpinists, and with the help of the park folk, you can easily organize a stay in the lodge and a guided climb to one of the volcano’s peaks.
MYTHS AND LEGENDS
If you are lucky enough to have a guide, you will hear about the myths of the volcanoes, which they always explain carefully as a legend, and one that has different versions. The one “everybody knows” is of the princess Xochiquetzal (Izta), who is in love with Azteca (Popo) but the scheming Tlaxcalteca (the Pico de Orizaba, visible to the east in Veracruz state) says her beloved was killed in battle so he could marry her himself.
In this rendition Popo is the faithful mourner, keeping an eternal flame to watch over the princess’ dreams, but another version the guides learned from local children, which has Popo as a wizard who has put a spell on Izta so she never wakes up from her sleep, and marries her true love the Nevado de Toluca!
There is much else to be seen and learned, from how to tell the age of a tree, how lumbering has been eliminated from the park (crafty mounds so trucks cannot pass through), projects such as “fogones ahoradoras” to reduce firewood consumption, and a heartening garbage clean-up project for mountaineers who climb up to different points of Iztaccíhuatl.
They are invited to take a sack with them and bring some of the plastic detritus and tin cans down. If you bring down 7 kg or more (scales ready and waiting in the CONANP building) you win a hat, and a certificate which tells you thank you, in various languages including Náhuatl: Tlazocamatzin.
In the larger picture of ecotourism in Mexico, and even on an international level, it is significant that López is an anthropologist and used to be the town chronicler. His ample knowledge of and affection for the area have fed into the quality of information and services, as well as helped to motivate and instill a pride in all the other participants. The work in evidence here goes well beyond official tourism initiatives, and even further than conservation, as an isolated imperative, but integrates culture and history as well.
And before one gets nervous, thinking such initiatives have in this country a habit of starting out well and disappearing into the ether, with sexenial flux and cultural aversion to long-term planning, this is still only the beginning, López’ team assures enthusiastically.
Thanks to funding and from Grupo Modelo, Fomento Ecológico Banamex, and Grupo Bimbo as well as support from the NGO Pronatura, the National Forest Commission, Biodiversity Commission (CONABIO), the Parks Commission (CONANP) and SEMARNAT, the Environment Ministry, more is to come. Soon Televisa will be supporting a similar project on the ascent to Iztaccíhuatl, and it is hoped Pemex and Telcel will be lending their help to restore a hill on the other side, near Popo.
Moreover, this model, combining private funders, government and civil society, has shown itself to be so efficient and encouraging that new projects are already ahead in the parks around Pico de Orizaba and Nevado de Toluca as well.
TRANSPORTATION — Travel to Amecameca from Tapo (Line Volcanes), departures every 10 minutes (seats not numbered, journey time about 1 and half hours).
Register to visit the park through CONANP or at Parque Nacional Izta-Popo, Plaza de la Constitución Num. 9, CP56900, Amecameca de Juárez, Estado de México.