Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley: originary habitat of Mesoamerica is a semi-arid area recognized for its remarkable level of biological diversity and precolonial water management system.
The site consists of 3 component areas in the states of Puebla and Oaxaca. Botanically it is not only of special significance for its cacti, but also for agaves, yuccas, bromeliads, bursera, and oaks. The diverse fauna includes threatened amphibian and bird species.
Map of Tehuacán-Cuicatlán ValleyLoad map
I visited this WHS in December 2021 and what was initially planned as quick visit due to COVID closures, turned out to be a great experience over three days. I had contacted a number of small hotels at Zapotitlan as well as a great local company called Bio Fan for more information on some hiking possibilities and to have further information whether the Helia Bravo Botanical Gardens were open since they had been closed for almost two years due to the pandemic.
After weeks with no positive reply, the day before heading towards Oaxaca from Puebla, we received good news: the botanical gardens were finally open on Christmas Eve, so we changed our initial plans and booked a very early guided tour with the friendly and knowledgable Bio Fan to Santa Ana Tecomavaca to spot the military macaws at sunrise (great with binoculars, much less for photography at least with a bridge camera) on the last day before heading to Oaxaca as it's quite on the way. We also did a shorter visit to a place known locally as El Bosque de los Sotolines which we had initially planned as Plan B should the Botanical Gardens be still closed as I wanted to make sure to see the endemic Pata de elefante or sotolin tree which is believed to be the oldest (800+ years old) in the region of Tehuacan. We simply parked our car close by and hiked slightly uphill. Next we headed to the Helia Bravo Botanical Gardens where the first thing that greets you at the small unpaved parking lot is the UNESCO WHS plaque.
I knew that there were some rudimentary cheap cabins inside the botanical gardens area so after paying for our entrance tickets, I enquired whether they were open and to my surprise they were! Well, they practically opened one for us and gave us clean sheets and a quilt, which was a perfect spot for us to stay for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, especially at night under the countless stars around a cosy bonfire/BBQ. An old man stays in one of the cabins closest to the entrance and closes the gate to the main road at night, so before sunset we were literally locked inside this WHS and had it all to ourselves. There are far more watchtowers to climb than the two at the botanical gardens and their location close to a small salt pan and a dried up river bed filled with cacti and sotolines (or Elephant's foot) succulent trees, meant there were much more birds to spot and small fauna such as rodents, the rare tlalcoyote, bats, spiny chameleons, spiders, scorpions, etc. Pay extra attention not to end up in some big spider webs when visiting the multitude of cacti and make sure to inspect your cabin and car with a small torch for pesky scorpions as we found two of them that had "pre-booked" our cabin for Christmas!
We really enjoyed visiting the botanical gardens at sunrise as it was easier to spot the small colourful birds (although quite camouflaged) feeding on the cacti. During our visit at the botanical garden we also enjoyed eating a "cactus lunch" at the quaint Itandehui "restaurant" on-site. At Zapotitlan we really enjoyed going up and down the smaller 125 road when compared to the still impressive highway for a closer look to the cacti but also for other activities such as a quick visit to the local salt pans as well as the children-oriented Paleoparque Las Ventas to view some Lower Cretaceous fossils and dinosaur tracks. We were really impressed to learn how the dried up inside of dead columnar cacti is made up of pretty resistant wood which is used locally for construction. From the different watchtowers as well as from the few vantage points along the highway, it's relatively easy to spot some of the different cacti but above all it's easy to observe why the reserve is dubbed as having "impenetrable cacti forests" as every millimetre is easily covered with different species of cacti, flowering at different times of the year.
All in all we really enjoyed this WHS and the overall experience. Hopefully the inscription on the WH list will help protect further this site from unnecassary construction as it really is a great spot to visit in Mexico.
Time of visit: November 2021
Duration of visit: 2 hours
Mode of transportation: by rental car, en route from Puebla to Oaxaca
Review and experience
Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Valley features beautiful landscape full of cacti, particularly the unique single column cacti that reminded us of garden eels in an aquarium. We visited the Zapotitlán-Cuicatlán portion of the site and were so glad we made the relatively last minute decision to make this detour happen. Along the main highway connecting Puebla and Oaxaca, we really didn't see many cacti, even as we were approaching the site (driving south from Puebla). However, a few minutes into our turn into the valley, it's as if the landscape just exploded. There were so many. Despite being a desert, it's truly a forest.
Due to COVID, the specific site mentioned in several other prior reviews - Helia Bravo Hollis Garden - was closed. Instead, we visited the nearby Las Salinas Grandes salt mine. It's directly off the road, and as we arrived during the day, there was a worker there who gave us a lovely tour of the facilities (for a very reasonable fee). We learned that this particular salt farm has been continuously functioning for the past 600 years, and it was interest to walk on the pond, taste the salt water (don't recommend... it was gross and putrid) and finished salt (recommend tasting!). We left the tour grateful to have had a brief taste of the cultural aspect of this WHS.
From the natural aspect of the WHS, we were honestly surprised to learn that so much of the cacti family is endangered, considering the rampant amount of succulents being sold commercially. Apparently there are a lot of illegal operations in Mexico and around the world to harvest cacti for household and commercial landscape, and it's a big problem!
Frederic M has done what I believe is the best way to really appreciate the OUV of this site--taking a multi-day tour. This was what I hoped of doing when I visited Mexico, but unfortunately, I did not have enough time and resources and I was traveling with my friend who was not too inclined to do such tours. Date of Visit: April 2019
The nomination file indicates that the Tehucan-Cuicatlan Valley is an “arid or semi-arid zone with the richest biodiversity in all of North America.” It adds that the valley occupies an expansive area between Oaxaca and Puebla, which can be accessed through the scenic 135D highway. The nomination file also said that “it is one of the main centers for the diversification of the cacti family”, and “it harbors the densest forests of columnar cacti in the world”. As a biologist by education, this is the aspect of the site that I focused on.
Taking the single or multi-day tours was already out of the question given the above reasons. Hence, I had to choose properties within the core zone that were accessible for travelers with limited time. Reading through the nomination file and other sources, the following properties were mentioned:
- Parque Ecoturistico Turritelas
- Salinas Las Grandes
- Helia Bravo Hollis Botanical Garden
Sinuhe mentioned the Helia Bravo Hollis Botanical Garden in his review. Just to feel assured, I contacted the Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas, and the lovely Director of Natural World Heritage responded and confirmed that Salinas Las Grandes and Helia Bravo Hollis are part of the site, while the Parque Ecoturistico Turritelas is not.
Helia Bravo Hollis Botanical Garden became our major stop on the way back to Mexico City from Oaxaca. It is easy to get there if you have your own wheels. It is “a very good reference to the vegetation and most representative cacti of the region", as shared by the Director. Indeed, the botanical garden has tours for visitors (available in English as well, in response to Sinuhe’s review) that highlight the life of Helia Bravo Hollis and the conservation of cacti in this region of Mexico. The tours are supplemented by informative panels installed around the botanical garden, which are helpful for those who want to roam around after the tour. The surrounding “forest” of columnar cacti made me appreciate the conservation efforts of Helia Bravo Hollis and the rich floral biodiversity present in this area.
After visiting the botanical garden, we decided to skip Salinas Las Grandes, although I believe we saw it while driving along Huajuapan-Tehuacan on the way back to 135D highway.
As shown in UNESCO's website, this particular site was inscribed based on criteria IV and X, and I felt like visiting the botanical garden only slightly touches its OUV based on criterion X. Hence, I would definitely recommend to do the tour that Frederic M did, if one desires to appreciate its OUV in its entirety.
All information about the site was retrieved from the site's UNESCO page and nomination texts written by Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia & Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (2017)
Previous review by Sinuhe Reyrub is really good, but I though I could add some information here as my first review.
When planning my visit there I though it would be easy to enjoy the site due to its convenient location between Puebla and Oaxaca. But I soon realized it would be hard and time-consuming to visit this biosphere reserve on public transport. I finally found that ecotourism tour operator based in Oaxaca offering tours there (http://tierraventura.com/ruta-tehuacan-cuicatlan/).
We chose a three-day tour in the reserve starting and ending in Oaxaca, and we had a really great time. It was probably much more expensive than visiting on our own, but it was easy, nice and very instructive. I think this is the best way to visit the reserve if you rely on public transport. We visited (and stayed in) the amazing botanical garden (already well described in the previous review). The diversity of cacti there is impressive. We also spend some time in San Juan Rayas to see the countless fossils and dinosaurs footprints. Around those two regions, the landscape of cacti covered mountains is really beautiful, especially at sunset when the light gives a deeper colour to the canyons. We hiked a bit around and spotted birds, lizards and a fox at night.
On the second day, they took us to Santiago Quiotepec, a very small and remote village. From there, we hiked a nearby mountain to see some ongoing archeological works and enjoy once more the superb landscape. We even swam in the pristine river there. The ruins there were nice to see but are far from any comparison to any other Mexican prehispanic WHS. The natural beauty is more what makes the value of the valley.
On the last day, we visited the Sabino Canyon (already described here as well). I don't know for the evening visit, but the morning is an excellent time to hike the canyon. We arrived before sunrise and macaws were already numerous flying around as they leave the canyon. We enjoyed breakfast on top of the canyon and spend a couple hours there to see them returning inside. In the morning sun, their green, red and blue colours were dazzling.
I can't say from my visit that this site deserves inscription based on cultural criterion, but it is definitely a great natural site.
This will be an "easy" place to know if you're planning travel to Mexico and visit several World Heritage sites: site is halfway between Mexico City and Oaxaca. Now, not everything is as simple as you think.
If you’re travelling from Mexico City to Oaxaca, passing through the city of Tehuacan, a classic route is take Highway-135 D (Cuacnopala-Oaxaca) until arriving Oaxaca; you will surely see beautiful landscapes and a small portion of the reserve, but you will not cross the heart. So, starting today, recommend take the difficult local Highway-980 (Tehuacan-Coxcatlan-Teotitlan-Cuicatlan-Oaxaca). Of course, the difference in hours from the city of Tehuacan to Oaxaca, on this local road, is 3 or 4 hours more; so once you're going back to Mexico City, you could take the "fast route".
As a Mexican I can tell this is probably one of the most beautiful and interesting biosphere reserves around the country, and probably after Montes Azules and Zoque Jungle, the place that struck me most in the country, (well, I don't know Calakmul yet), anyway, can be very confusing if you don't bring an adequate travel plan. The place doesn't shine because of its infrastructure, promotion or knowledge throughout the country, which I believe has allowed it to be kept in a genuine and authentic way.
There are no defined routes in its nearly 500,000 ha, and there are too many places to see. I will focus on those I have visited, and are within the core area considered to be a World Heritage Site (145,000 ha.).
Last time I went (as part of my travel plan with 2 friends from Taiwan, for 2 weeks in Mexico), we first drive the road from Tehuacan to Zapotitlan. Just a couple of kilometers before reaching this village you will find the Botanical Garden "Helia Bravo Hollis", a communal botanical area that brings together a collection of almost all plants in the reserve through open fields. The place is mesmerizing, and boasts more than 50 species of large cacti. The main protagonists are the columnar cactaceae, some of which date back more than 1000 years and reach 20 meters and more. What particularly surprised me is the density (1800 ind / ha), just a look to the mountains and realize that, even if is a desert, in the strict sense could be called forest . The tours are very educational and cheap, but I don't know if are also in english. What is a fact is you will get a great effort from the locals to teach you everything about herbage, cactus and thousands of medicinal uses of plants (this is the best place to learn about something that should be intangible heritage of Mexico, its traditional medicine) (and sometimes they get 90 tourists a week, so the deal is very personalized).
From this garden we depart back to Tehuacan, to take the local Highway-980 towards Santa María Tecomavaca. The path itself is a real gem. Special attention to the landscapes and the view of "salterns" in the sides of the road. Although I suppose there are no periodic tours within the salterns, are very visible from the road. From the outside they look like authentic pre-hispanic sites (and indeed they are). These small local salt flats continue in function until today. The largest concentration of this landscape is probably in Zapotitlan; these salt-flats are composed by a small white salt desert, caves and wells, which have extracted salt from the subsoil for fifteen centuries (this salt is highly valued nationally as gourmet salt). After seeing these landscapes, I am clear the inclusion of the place as a CL. I will pause to mention that along this road is the town of Coxcatlan, where is the "Purrón dam", the first dam created by the man in Americas (what explains why in these sites of Oaxaca could be tame maize) (anyway, we overlook it, but now I read is one of the 3 core zones).
Why travel to Tecomavaca? Well, near to this town is the "Sabino Canyon", a deep canyon where lives the second largest population of guacayamas in the world (in this case Ara militaris). There is some signs to get into the canyon, but the best way to visit it, is ask to any person of the village for the canyon. All are trained to send you with local guides (maybe you have to walk one or two streets, and the guide, who also is father or farmer will stop doing their activities to show you the canyon) (in this part of the country people live in a kind of communal economy). They are kind and safe people. All.
Sabino Canyon is a beautiful site. To get there, we walked over an hour from the village, through beautiful trails of cactus and shrubs. Maybe the best time to see macaws around the world is in the evening, when they return to their caves, and can be seen more clearly. I have no words to describe this incredible place. You can ask about the village cabins, as we did, and camp one night. The services are basic but not bad, and there is no luxury, but it's part of a true experience, in an authentic primal cultural landscape. We decided with proper care, made a campfire to talk at night. The sounds of nocturnal mammals are common.
Next day we went to the city of Oaxaca, to continue our trip but maybe you can stay 3 or 4 days knowing this biosphere-reserve.
I have gone to Tehuacan-Cuicatlan more times, is very large, and it's important that you review your needs. I have not been able to go to San Juan Raya yet, a village on the northwest side where people have developed a paleontological ecotourism program. A friend says anywhere you stop in town, you are walking on shells, mollusks and snails from the Cretaceous. Formerly a sea, now the marine gastropod fossils have been left in the open due to the lack of rain. San Juan Raya, despite being a town of 2000 people, has been the scene of many mexican films. So could be "the definitive town of the rural mexican popular imaginary" (look on Youtube for the movie "La Ley de Herodes").
This TWHS is not a commercial tourist place, like all those already now in Mexico. But as soon you're there, you can see why it's one of the most important biodiversity hotspots around the country. All activities are developed by small communities, genuinely concerned about preserving the area. Maybe the best example that I know of sustainable management and use of resources in an organized way. Certainly, a great contender this year, a true definition of mixed heritage.
2018 Advisory Body overruled
ICOMOS advised Deferral for the cultural segment
Successor to former TWHS Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve (2012)
The site has 3 locations
The site has 20 connections
WHS on Other Lists
World Heritage Process
45 Community Members have visited.