Discovering the wild orchid garden
High in the cloud forests of Sierra Gorda, a vast mountainous region in Central Mexico, the forests harbour threatened treasures that are protected thanks to a successful conservation partnership.
Sprawling across the state of Querétaro, the Sierra Gorda is a melting pot of tropical forests, temperate mountains and semi-deserts. Here you find pines and oaks familiar to European woodlands draped in exotic orchids, with the red spikes of bromeliads sprouting from their trunks and towering cacti surrounding them. The diversity of these forests attracts a wealth of wildlife with Black bears, typical of North America, mingling with tropical species, like jaguars and macaws.
Today we’re hiking up to a cloud forest, stretching 2,000 meters high, with our guide Roberto Pedraza Ruiz from the local conservation organisation Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG). Beginning as a grassroots movement over 20 years ago, working to unite local people in the protection of their forests, GESG now manages the one million acre Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve and is creating sustainable livelihoods for low-income, rural communities. Although a vast area, much of the Biosphere Reserve is under private ownership and so its forest is still under threat from destruction and World Land Trust (WLT) are helping them create more protected areas throughout these wild mountains.
A bumpy jeep ride takes us to the Hoya del Hielo region, saved from imminent destruction thanks to GESG’s conservation work. A proposed road was set to make logging in the higher reaches of this cloud forest easier, which would have devastated this habitat and destroyed the treasures we are about to discover.
Just as we begin trekking, with the morning sun already casting beams of heat through the pine trees, Roberto spots clumps of fur littering the path. Showing us his discovery, he explains: “This is hair from a White-tailed deer and there’s a lot of it; there was quite a disturbance here and it’s likely that she was being chased, maybe by a jaguar or mountain lion [puma].” These elusive predators roam the forests of Sierra Gorda and while rarely spotted, their markings and scats are often found and their nocturnal habits are regularly photographed by GESG’s camera-traps.
Rare flora and fauna
A steep hike takes us to denser forest, where ancient oaks are carpeted with moss and wisps of old-man’s-beard lichen hang from their gnarled branches. A rare cactus species, with spikes that are soft to the touch, dangles like green ropes from the trees above; the Aporocactus flagelliformis cactus flowers with spectacular pink petals in April and this is the only place in the Sierra Gorda where it can be found.
Roberto points out a broadleaf tree towering about us; it’s a Magnolia dealbata, an endemic species to Mexico that doesn’t grow in the wild anywhere else on Earth. Found in just a couple of GESGS’s nature reserves, it’s a threatened species that is at risk from habitat destruction.
As we hike on the forest drips with soft greenery, the air is cool, still and silent – barely a bird’s song breaks the peace. But despite the surrounding beauty, this is not really what we’re here to see. “We can rest when we find the orchid garden”, says Roberto, a self-confessed obsessional photographer. He is on a mission to capture the flowering Rhynchostele rossi; an endangered species of epiphytic orchid found in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, growing in humid mountain forests at elevations of 2,000 to 2,400 meters.
Soon clusters of the flowers are displaying themselves at our eye-level: perfect for a photo shoot. Perching on a long delicate stems, every other white petal is decorated with orange speckles, like leopard print. As we rest on the forest floor, Roberto happily shoots his willing models; he’s been disappointed on our other hikes as we arrived a week too early and the lazy orchids were still in bud.
One final discovery
Having explored the forest for hours we head back downwards towards the jeep, on the way we look for salamanders under logs and in the water pools collected in bromeliad leaves. Despite failing to find any, the forest has one more treasure to show off.
Basking on a rock in the middle of the path, a lizard shines silver in the afternoon sunshine. It’s a species Roberto has never seen before and he beams with happiness at getting the chance to photograph it. An endemic to northeast of Mexico, the Bromeliad Arboreal Alligator Lizard (Abronia taeniata) is only found in an area of the Sierra Madre Oriental and threatened by habitat destruction. After capturing a striking close-up and placing the lizard it in the forest’s undergrowth, Roberto says: “What a beautiful creature. I’m glad it was us that came across her; many people think that these lizards are poisonous so they kill them. Poor guys.”