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

Your Trip Can Help Protect Your Destination

While doing a video shoot last year, two young guys from Minnesota discovered a steeply beautiful region in central Mexico. They also discovered how — just by visiting and having fun exploring — you can sometimes help both a place and its people. And learn a lot about both in the process.

That’s because this place is unusual: The Sierra Gorda. I’ll explain. But first, check out their trailer:

The video is now released in several versions, free for all. It’s the pilot of a new short-form series called “World’s Inspiring Places,” a project of the Destination Stewardship Center, the volunteer nonprofit that I direct, dedicated to informing people about how tourism affects places for better or worse.

The Sierra Gorda is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the state of Querétaro. To get there, you follow Mexico’s route 120 northeast from the Querétaro city airport. The highway arrows across flat scrubland, then rises, curving past the towering monolith of Peña de Bernal, and looping up and up a formidable mountain façade. At the top, the road slices through a deep cut appropriately named Puerto de Cielo, Gateway to Heaven.

The renowned road cut that leads into the Sierra Gorda. Photo: Hassen Salum

Beyond lies the heart of the Sierra Gorda. You could call it the hidden garden of Mexico. It won designation as a Biosphere Reserve because it comprises five different ecosystems, from semi-desert to cloud forest. The Reserve 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, thanks to the work of the award-winning Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda, the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group, and one remarkable woman.

“Social inclusion is the main goal of the project.” So says Pati, or more formally, Martha Ruiz Corzo, the group’s charismatic cofounder, who has spent much of her life working to conserve the region. Her team has pioneered a model that emphasizes community inclusion, environmental education, and developing small businesses as a counterincentive to logging and deforestation for livestock.

“Pati” Ruiz, changemaker. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

That’s where we travelers come in. Those little businesses provide charming, authentic experiences 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.

Every time you spend money enjoying one of these businesses, you’re taking pressure off the forests by providing an alternate source of income to people urgently in need of it.

To help you find and understand things, Grupo Ecológico has put up green poster signs to identify businesses, wildlife and ecosystems, geology, history, and so on. I really like these posters. Visually they help tie the region together, lending a sense of identity. Their very presence tells you that you’re in the Sierra Gorda.

Poster signs (in Spanish only) throughout the Sierra Gorda inform visitors. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Now Grupo Ecológico would like to ramp up tourism, but not too much and in the right way. I ask Pati what kind of visitors she hopes for. Says she, with typical exuberance, “I want the finest human beings who want to be connected with nature.”

One of Sierra Gorda’s 800 butterfly species, a clearwing Ithomiini butterfly. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

So go — if you’re worthy, that is! To learn more, check out our new videos about Sierra Gorda on the World’s Inspiring Places channel. Keep in mind as well: We want to do more such videos in other destinations, each telling a stewardship success story from a traveler’s point of view. We look for sponsors to help. In this case our thanks go to Freightliner of Mexico.

Here’s the five-minute version that focuses on the Sierra Gorda travel experience. Enjoy:

If You Visit

Don’t miss what is surely Sierra Gorda’s weirdest attraction. Amid the waterfalls of the eastern slopes, near the hilly town of Xilitla, you’ll find 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-20th-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 — 20 acres of wonderful weirdness. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Sierra Gorda is for true travelers, seeking authentic experiences amid gorgeous scenery, friendly people, healthy nature, and good food. It’s not for those who need coddling or pampering. No international franchises here. Tourism has so far been largely domestic, so most local folks speak only Spanish. If you don’t, you’ll need a phrasebook and (preferably) a good guide. Printed information is also in Spanish only, even the Grupo Ecológico poster signs and the explanatory plaques in the excellent little Jalpan historical museum.

View from the Cuatro Palos ecolodge. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

If you want a reasonable measure of comfort, you can stay in perfectly adequate hotels in the central town of Jalpan de Serra and make daytime forays into the surrounding countryside. For a closer-to-nature stay, try one of the sustainable ecolodges on the Lodging Trail. Facilities are basic but comfortable, often with your own bathroom. The remote Cabañas Rincon de Ojo de Agua even has a swimming pool. Be sure to admire the star-soaked night sky.

To nominate a new destination for a new World’s Inspiring Places video, learn more here.

Photos and portions of this post also appear in National Geographic Voices.