A walk on the wild side in Mexico's Sierra Gorda mountains
Step inside a biological melting pot and visit the nature reserves funded by World Land Trust (WLT) in the Sierra Gorda
Watch out for the Bad Woman. This is our warning as we set out across the muddy trail, trampling across rocks and roots, on our first trek into the forests of the Sierra Gorda in Central Mexico.
Our guide for the day, Roberto Pedraza Ruiz from conservation organisation Grupo Ecologico Sierra Gorda (GESG), sets a jogger's pace; he's been exploring these forests since he was a child and now works to protect them with his family, who set up GESG as a grassroots movement with local communities over 20 years ago.
Roberto tells us: "I'm in love with these forests. The better you get to know them the greater your passion becomes. I’m still exploring places I have never been to before and they always have their surprises."
Not all surprises are welcome though, at least not for this British trekker; Roberto has already strapped snake gaiters to his legs and while apologising for not having a spare pair that fit my short calves, he says with a mischievous grin: "If it looks like a snake, don't step on it."
Trundling along behind Roberto, I nervously scour the ground for poisonous snakes while avoiding the Bad Woman – a broadleaf plant (Urera caracasana) given this unflattering nickname because with just one touch, it burns you badly.
I’m confident that the pumas roaming these forests are so elusive they wouldn't pose a threat, but nevertheless we soon stumble across a Paca’s skull, a large nocturnal rodent with a pig-like body: the predator’s standard meal.
Pine needles like tiny chandeliers
As we are led into the forest by ranger Abel Reséndiz, soon its beauty distracts me from any worries; it's still early and the sun's rays are only just beginning to cast beams through the leaves of towering sweetgums.
It's late October and in weeks these trees will be dressed in the golds, reds and oranges of autumn. Above us pine needles hang like tiny glistening chandeliers, purposely formed to capture water droplets from the forest’s fog.
It’s hard to imagine that just 40 years ago this was cornfields – a monoculture that’s deprived of richness, diversity and life.
Pointing to the tree-top canopy, Roberto tells us that spider monkeys used to be common here but have been wiped out in the area by uncontrolled hunting.
Spider monkeys are found in tropical forests of Central and South America, from Mexico to Brazil; the genus contains seven species, all of which are under threat. This is why GESG employs rangers like Abel, to protect the wildlife in the reserve from illegal hunters and loggers – so they don’t all suffer the spider monkey’s fate.
We’re heading towards the Cerro del Pino, a protected area of 193 acres that was brought just last month by GESG thanks to support from the World Land Trust (WLT).
For the past two years, I’ve been working as Writer and Editor for WLT and trekking alongside me is Ruth Canning, WLT’s Conservation Programmes Officer for the Americas.
I spent my days at WLT describing the wildlife and biological importance of the areas we are trying to save, hoping to inspire people to support these conservation programmes. Now, for the first time, I am standing at the signpost into the reserve, seeing the rich beauty of the forest and the importance of what we have so recently achieved.
But there is no time to stop and wonder; Roberto is proudly taking us on a sight-seeing tour of our partnership’s success: next stop, the adjacent 370 acre Cañón del Fresno (Ash Canyon). As we trek deeper into the forest, the trees close in around us, the trail disappears, and Abel swings his machete.
The forest has become a strange mix of exotic, tropical flora blending with familiar species of European woodlands. Giant acorns litter the ground, dropping from the moss-covered branches of ancient oaks that twist and distort towards the sunlight.
Young pines, which are draped in delicate pink orchids, grow alongside 1,000 year old cycads that are just a metre high. “Cycads are known as living fossils,” explains Roberto, “because they have remained unchanged for millions of years.”
To our right the earth has given way and mist rises from its chasm; we walk to edge of this sink hole but all that can be seen is the gnarled roots from a fig tree perched on the rock above, stretching downwards into the darkness.
Glistening silver in the sunlight
We’ve been trekking for three hours and suddenly Abel stops, kneels down and begins rummaging in the undergrowth. Roberto is by his side and within seconds out pops a snake – glistening silver in the sunlight as it slithers across the dry earth. Ruth and I step back.
The snake’s scale-skinned body, just below the head, is soon tucked between the index finger and thumb of Roberto’s left hand, as it curls its tail around his forearm.
"Don't worry, she's not poisonous", says Roberto, grinning. "It's important to show people that you can safely handle snakes, to teach them that they’re not to be feared. Now, who’s going to hold her so I can take a shot?"
Ruth and I take another step back. Abel is left to take on the role of photographer's assistant, allowing Roberto to capture a striking close-up, before the black tailed-indigo snake (Drymarchon melanurus) slithers back into the wilderness.
Soon Abel is leading us into a clearing in the forest; an array of butterflies flutter among the blooming wildflowers of the meadow, the sun beats down and an alpine scent drifts in the still air.
Smiling under his moustache, Abel points to a spot just 100 metres away where he had his close encounter; a few months ago, while patrolling on horseback, he hears a "very curious call" and something close to him running away. A few metres ahead he finds freshly made scratch marks and prints, when suddenly he clearly hears the cry of a big cat. He is sure it was a puma calling her cubs and was just moments away from coming face-to-face with these iconic animals.
As we trek on, with the forest's bizarre mix of flora surrounding us, it's easy to picture the many treasures lurking in the vast mountains of the Sierra Gorda.