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Gone Fishing: Catching Trout in Metepec-Atlixco

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Catch-and-release licenses are available at Amatzcalli.Fly-fishing probably isn’t the first sport that comes to mind when you think of Mexico, and even if it is, you’re most likely to imagine catching saltwater species such as bonefish or tarpon or snook off the shores of Quintana Roo. But anglers who prefer cooler climes and freshwater catches can find several attractive options here in the state of Puebla. AAP-Amaztcalli-Metepec3x5

I know this not because am a fly-fishing expert — I’m merely a Pisces — but because my husband, Pablo, is a longtime enthusiast who has spent many, many hours casting and retrieving in regional lakes and streams. He even ties his own flies. The places he typically goes are so lovely that I sometimes tag along just to enjoy the scenery, often packing a camera, a book or a magazine, a picnic breakfast or lunch, and a blanket or a camping chair to sit on.

Pablo’s favorite spot is Amatzcalli, a recreational area that’s nestled behind the vacation and convention center in Metepec-Atlixco. On a clear, sunny day like those we’ve been enjoying lately, the views are stunning (all photos, this page). The small, privately run park offers both spinning and fly-fishing, as well as camping, picnic areas, and a playground for kids. A bait and tackle shop sells and rents gear and day permits for its man-made lake, which is stocked mostly with farm-raised brown and rainbow trout and sometimes black bass, bluegill, and white crappie. The on-site convenience store and restaurant sell beer, snacks, and sundries (or you may bring your own).Amatzcalli sports and camping center in Metepec-Atlixco, Puebla

The park entrance fee is 55 pesos per person, with discounts for kids and seniors. Fishing permits are either 30 pesos plus 95 pesos per kilo (2.2 pounds) of fish caught or 285 pesos for catch and release (fly-fishing only). Gear rental and fish gutting/cleaning cost extra. The trout is locally and organically farmed up the road at Xouilin, which offers recipes on its website, in case you end up with more fish than you bargained for! To get to Amatzcalli from Puebla, take the toll road to Atlixco and, just before you get there, exit at Autopista Siglo XXI as if you’re heading to Cuernavaca; here’s a map.

A fly-fisherman's bait

A bit further afield, the Ex-Hacienda de Chautla and Arco Iris Sport Fishing are ideal spots for anglers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

When we have more time (which isn’t as often as we’d like), or when there’s a fishing tournament, we head farther out of town, although both of these destinations are also close enough to the state capital for day trips.

The Ex-Hacienda de Chautla, located near San Martín Texmelucan, occupies the grounds of a former estate and offers two large, glassy lakes for trout and bass fishing. Companions who don’t fish can rent a canoe, go zip-lining or mountain biking, or simply take a stroll around the lush grounds and visit the old hacienda and castle. Tents are available for camping, too. (For a list of services and prices, click here.)

Arco Iris Sport Fishing, located near the Mexico state line and on the edge of the volcanoes national park, is one of the few places in Puebla where river fishing is safe and legal. (It also has a well-stocked lake surrounded by forest.) Although Arco Iris caters to anglers, the site hosts a variety of other outdoor activities for the family, such as hiking, horseback riding, paintball, and miniature golf. Cabins that sleep up to six adults and two kids are available for overnight stays, and two restaurants and a spa with a temezcal help to “pamper” guests who aren’t big on cookouts and camping. (For more info and prices, click here.)

Need supplies? All three spots sell and rent gear on-site, but if you’d prefer to bring your own, Pablo recommends stocking up at Jamboree Hunting and Fishing (spinning) or Torreblanca/Narak Sport (fly-fishing). —Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Going Off the Beaten Path in La Mixteca of Puebla

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Puente de DiosThis is a guest post by Margie Hord de Méndez, a Canadian expat who grew up in Honduras and has lived in Mexico for the past 40 years. She lives and works, as a teacher and a translator, in Puebla.

La Mixteca is a mostly arid zone in the southern part of the state of Puebla, where many communities still speak Mixtec, although Popoloca and Nahuatl are also prevalent. It’s not the kind of place I’d choose to live, because it’s known for scorpions, and at certain times of the year the dry heat can be oppressive. However, my husband’s family is from La Mixteca, and the region — which stretches into Oaxaca and Guerrero — has its own kind of surprising beauty, like the bright pink blossoms of the árboles de cabello (ginkgo biloba trees), with their hanging tresses, in winter. Near the rivers, some of which only have water part of the time, one can find the treasures of mango and other fruit trees.

One seldom sees international tourists in La Mixteca, but there are numerous sites of interest. Acatlán de Osorio is well-known for its pottery, especially figures of the sun and the moon and “trees of life” that represent Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Near Tehuacán, the biosphere reserve offers a wealth of ecological diversity; it includes the Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollis, a fascinating garden where one can wander around and learn about the surprising variety of cacti and other desert flora and their medicinal or hallucinogenic properties. There is even a huge, ancient elephant’s foot tree (some 2,500 years old!). The species is considered sacred in Japan, and a Japanese prince is said to have had his ashes deposited here.

In Tepexi de Rodríguez, the Museo Regional Mixteco-Tlayúa displays fossils found in a nearby marble quarry, including marine animals, providing evidence that there was once an ocean in this desert. Previously, the site was known as pie de vaca (cow’s foot) museum, because of preserved footprints similar to those of cows, but experts now know they were left by now-extinct mammals related to camels. Though small and unassuming, this museum is important because of its fish and reptile fossils from the Mesozoic period.

Another sign of long-gone oceans is Zapotitlán Salinas, located in the biosphere, where salt water springs. The water is left to pool until it evaporates and the salt can be harvested. In a shop on the federal highway (125 from Tehuacán), we found artisanal bags of salt with different herbs or flavors, like garlic, added. The store also offered burnished pottery from nearby Los Reyes Metzontla, which is crafted by the Popoloca community using pre-Colombian techniques and has a unique, unadorned style.

ChigmecatitlánOn the way south, along the Puebla-Tepeaca highway (federal 150), is a turn-off that leads to the town of Molcaxac. A few kilometers beyond the town, it’s easy to miss the dilapidated signs indicating the way to the Cola de Caballo (Horsetail) waterfall and the Puente de Dios (God’s Bridge, pictured above), further down the Atoyac River. At the latter, visitors may park and, on foot, begin the long descent down hundreds of steps to the river below. Gradually, the climate seems to change and the heat dissipates, especially once you reach on the banks that flank the chilly currents. Large boulders strewn about make the path rather daunting, but they’re worth navigating to reach the Puente de Dios, a combination of huge arch, cave, and a sort of tunnel through which the river runs. Noisy birds swoop down into the canyon, adding to the magical feeling of a beautiful oasis of icy water in an otherwise arid area.

We also visited the nearby town of Huatlatlauca, where we understood there were still Nahuatl speakers. We came across a very old church, closed up except for the bell tower. It had the simple facade of an earlier Colonial church, but one could see vestiges of painted flowers that seem to have covered it at one point. Our son and his wife ventured up into the bell tower, a great place for photos, and she dared to pull on the bell rope. Ding! Fortunately, there were no repercussions, even though church bells can be used to sound an alarm, and outsiders’ meddling with them is generally unwelcome. This was on a dirt backroad, and we spoke to a middle-aged woman as she passed us. She said that the church was built by Augustinian monks. We asked whether there was a crafts shop in the town. No, people just keep their handicrafts at home and transport them to other towns to sell on special occasions. After we told her we were interested in her family’s creations, she escorted us to her home, where la abuelita (the grandmother, who spoke Nahuatl) worked away at weaving palm fronds into tiny figures.

Miniature figures made by weavers in La MixtecaIn the past, we learned, artisans would go down into holes in the ground to weave, where there was more moisture, as the palm needs to be damp to be worked well. The old woman can no longer sit on the floor to weave petates (mats), as she used to. I purchased a lovely mat that was more beautiful than most because of the special designs in variegated colors that she’d woven into it. They told us that this particular small mat is called petate de chocolate, but they did not know why. Perhaps those mats are used for grinding cocoa in some regions; however, La Mixteca does not offer the tropical climate where cocoa plants flourish.

The Mixtecs are better known for their woven work than the Nahuas. It is a fascinating sight as they trudge along, weaving hats as they walk, hardly glancing down as their hands fly at work. In cities around Mexico, it is easy to identify Mixtecs, as they usually sell all sorts of woven items, now mostly made from colorful artificial fibers, in the streets. Each town seems to have a specialty. Chigmecatitlán has a museum in its main square, where one can appreciate samples of their miniature animals, nativity figures, and jewelry. We were impressed by a large sign made for the patron saint’s festival; upon coming closer, the letters turned out to be made of tiny woven figures. My father-in-law, from a different town, used to weave miniature palm objects such as scorpions, a wonder to behold.

On the way back from Puente de Dios, we pulled over to the roadside to see if we might buy some of the local fruit we saw for sale at little stands. There was no need to leave the car, as immediately—boom!—several women crowded around the windows offering samples of their fruit (chicozapotes, anonas, mamey, granadas chinas). The latter, literally a “Chinese pomegranate,” is an elongated orangey fruit with a sweet, slimy pulp and many seeds that look almost like frog eggs and slide down the throat easily.

This area is not frequented by many tourists, as its attractions are more subtle than elsewhere. Yet, for me, that adds to its appeal: What you see is what you get. There are no facades put up to look quaint or typical or old or native. Traditional markets are more common than craft shops. If you are looking for what’s genuine, not put on for show, you’ll find it in La Mixteca. —Margie Hord de Méndez

Photographs courtesy Esteban Méndez (Puente de Dios) and Refugio Méndez (church, woven figures)

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Take the Kids to Zoo Parque Loro in Puebla

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

Zoo Parque LoroMany of Puebla’s popular tourist attractions — resplendent churches, art and history museums, archaeological sites, culinary festivals, and antiques fairs — aren’t necessarily ideal places to take young children, especially those with short attention spans, on vacation. Fortunately, the city offers plenty of other activities for kids 12 and under, particularly those who love animals.

We recently had the pleasure of visiting Zoo Parque Loro, a relatively small, engaging zoological park in Tlaxcalancingo, on the outskirts of town. The site started in the 1990s as a ranch for miniature horses and has since evolved into a full-fledged zoo. It currently cares for some 400 animals of 96 different species, including at least 50 that are in danger of extinction. What’s more, the grounds are impeccably kept, can be easily navigated with a stroller, and do not require tons of walking to hit the highlights.

Visitors can see Zoo Parque Loro’s impressive array of birds (loro is a Spanish word for “parrot”), monkeys, and big cats in about two hours. Or stay longer for special activities, such as recycled-art projects and personal visits with the animals, which sometimes cost extra. For 1 peso, children of all ages can buy a handful of pellets or sunflower seeds to feed the resident rabbits, squirrels, guinea pigs, and more. On the weekends, visitors may also handle and have their pictures taken with the zoo’s friendlier creatures, too. Tip: If you plan to go in the next few weeks, be sure to ask about the white lion cubs that were born on-site this summer. (We cuddled with one of them, thanks to strategic-development manager Adolfo Lazzari, who gave us free passes and asked on-site veterinarian Hector, who’s pictured on the homepage, to show us around.)

Zoo Parque Loro recently renewed its accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums of Mexico and is in the process of updating its habitats with colorful wildlife- and Mexico-themed murals by Poblano artist Batik Díaz Conti.

Zoo Parque LoroZoo Parque LoroWhite lion cubs at Parque Loro.Want more? Check out Africam’s expansive drive-thru safari, Museo Viviente’s vast collection of reptiles, amphibians, and insects, and Acuario de Puebla’s marine life.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Zoo Parque Loro is located just off the old highway to Atlixco (kilometer 8.5) in Tlaxcalancingo, between San Andrés Cholula and Chipilo. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., seven days a week. Admission: 99 MXP for adults and 89 MXP for children. Photographs with the animals cost 110 MXP.

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Cuetlas: Sampling One of Mexico’s Edible Insects

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Boiled and unfurled, these cuetlas are ready to fry.It probably wasn’t the smartest plan to arrive at the Grandiosa Tardeada de Cuetlas feeling absolutely famished. But we’re adventurous eaters who sometimes enjoy bugs in Mexican cuisine, particularly regional specialties like escamoles (ant eggs), chapulines (grasshoppers), and gusanos de maguey (pulque worms). So, we showed up at the 13th annual cuetlada in Puebla on Saturday afternoon ready to sink our teeth into some serious butterfly larvae.

Chiancuetlas, or cuetlas for short, are edible catepillars that grow in Jonote and other types of trees throughout south-central Mexico. The larvae are typically consumed in the Mixteca region of Puebla, Oaxaca, and Guerrero, where they provide an imporant source of dietary protein. You can also buy them locally from tianguis in Atlixco—25 pesos for a sardine tinful—and at the Feria de Cholula. During the rainy season (August and September), the live caterpillars are collected from Cualagua, Cuaulote, and Pochote trees in the gullies near Huaquechula and gutted to remove their green entrails. Many cooks then boil the larvae in salt water, unfurl them by hand, and fry them in oil until they puff up and turn golden brown, and serve them as the main ingredient in tacos.

Guillermo Duque de Estrada (pictured), who invited us to the Grandiosa Tardeada de Cuetlas, has co-organized a semi-private culinary celebration with Antonio Álvarez Moran and a lively group of entomophagous friends since 2000. At previous events, the cuetleros have tried using the caterpillars as a protein in various gourmet recipes, from paella to cuetlas en nogada. They’ve even stuffed the finger- to cigar-sized larvae with tiny grasshoppers and sautéed them with garlic in olive oil.

Guillermo Duque de Estrada fries cuetlas for the taquiza.This year, Duque de Estrada—also known as “Don Cuetlo”—and crew hosted a traditional taquiza featuring fried caterpillars for tacos with eight different homemade salsas, avocado slices, black beans, and grasshopper-infused rice. Those of us who had never tried one before received our “first communion” of a single fried cuetla, so we could savor the larvae in all its salty and crunchy yet chewy glory. The experience was sort of like eating a rehydrated dried mushroom that’d been plunged into a deep-fryer. I jokingly called it cecina de árbol.

Want to try them yourself? El Mural de los Poblanos restaurant (Calle 16 de Septiembre #506 at 7 Oriente) is serving cuetlas for another week and offering them as part of a beer pairing menu this Thursday, Sept. 26, at 8 p.m. (Side note: Álvarez Moran is the painter responsible for the historical murals on the restaurant’s walls.)

In the end, we can’t say that we’d routinely choose cuetlas over carne asada as a taco filling or that the larvae satiated our hunger. But the caterpillars were certainly edible. And, seeing as more than 1,000 types of insects are eaten by choice worldwide—including 67 species of butterflies and moths in Mexico—we’ve arrived terribly late to the dinner party. We’re convinced there’s a Lepidoptera out there we’ll enjoy as much as escamoles.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Coping With the Volcano: Popocatépetl Safety Tips

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

AAP-Popocatepetl2-wmrkPopocatépetl has been blowing a lot of smoke lately. The active volcano sent so much ash, steam, and glowing bits of lava into the air — sometimes more than a mile above its crater — this past week that it looked like it had snowed in the Puebla capital. Wayward ashes were reported as far away as Guatemala, and flights were suspended at the city’s airport Wednesday until the cleanup crew could sweep up the mess on the runway.

The increased activity led the National Center for Disaster Prevention in Mexico to raise its alert level for the volcano. An official report [PDF] released Sunday morning explained:

“The increase in the general activity of Popocatepetl volcano during the last weeks and especially the acceleration of the seismic activity registered yesterday, today at 1:40 a.m., the Interior Ministry raised the Volcanic Alert Level to Yellow Phase 3. During the period in which the volcanic traffic light remains in this level, two bulletins will be issued daily: the first at 10 a.m., with a summary of the activity of the last 24 hours and the second at 7 p.m., featuring updating the data reported in the first. If necessary, the updates will be reported more frequently. … The volcanic alert level is in YELLOW Phase 3.”

This is the third-highest warning on the center’s seven-step scale [PDF], and it essentially means that the experts who keep an eye on Don Goyo think his activity level may continue to increase.

“In past years, the type of activity reported was associated to the ascent of magmatic material and the growth of the lava dome. This activity leads to the following likely scenarios: intermediate to high-scale explosive activity, dome growth, and possible lava emission; explosions of growing intensity; occurrence of pyroclastic flows [a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock]; and ash fall on the closer villages and in lesser amounts in the more remote places, depending on the wind direction.

“The Popocatepetl volcano is monitored continuously 24 hours a day. Any significant change in the activity of the volcano will be [reported] promptly.” For the latest update in English, click here.

Volcano Health & Safety Tips

There’s currently no reason to panic or to cancel your trip to Puebla. But if you live here or are traveling in the area, it’s in your best interest to stay abreast of the situation. Pay attention to local news reports for updates. (We’ll do our best to share any new information, as it becomes available, through our Twitter and Facebook accounts, too.)

In general, this is not a good time to visit El Paso de Cortés, the mountain pass between Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. The road is permanently closed to through traffic (to Mexico City), but it provides access to the national park, where there’s an observation point and hiking and climbing are permitted on Iztaccíhuatl.

The reason to stay away: Communities near the volcano will be among the first evacuated in the event that the alert level gets raised again. As a preventative measure, Puebla state officials on May 12 put El Plan Operativo Popocatépetl in place. The plan provides for the evacuation and shelter of residents in high-risk areas; the city of Puebla, situated 28 miles east of the crater, is outside this radius.

“This is a prevention phase,” the state governor told local media. “There is no immediate danger and people are calm, but we must be on constant alert.”

Foreign residents and travelers should contact their embassies for instructions in the event of a major emergency. The local equivalent of 911 is 066.

Ashes from the volcano — essentially a very fine gray dust — can cause or aggravate respiratory issues and allergies, including itchy eyes. The city’s civil protection agency recommends that you refrain from outdoor activities, keep doors and windows closed, and cover your eyes and mouth with protective wear (particularly if you use contact lenses). If your eyes or throat become irritated, rinse them with purified water. Avoid al fresco dining, from restaurants to street food. Keep your pets inside. Protect household water sources, including tanks and cisterns.

In addition, authorities note, ashes make surfaces slippery. To clean them up, it’s best to use a broom or a dry cloth to remove them from surfaces. Getting ashes wet first will turn them into cement-like mud. Collect and use this new soil (which is rich in minerals) to fertilize your yard or garden.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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New Birdwatching Book Touts Puebla’s Diversity

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

Mexico ranks fifth among the world’s nations in biological diversity, with nearly 29,000 plant and animal species living in its deserts, rainforests, mangroves, and mountains. The state of Puebla, known for its mild climate and varied ecosystems, is home to large percentages of this flora and fauna — including more than half of the country’s 1,100 different species of birds. A new e-book in English, The Birdwatching Hotspots of the State of Puebla, Mexico, provides a free field guide for novices and experts alike.

Common Yellowthroat, ValsequilloHerons and Egrets, ValsequilloRed Warbler, La MalincheCooper's Hawk, Valsequillo

All About Puebla asked author Jajean Rose-Burney, a Peace Corps volunteer from New York who recently finished a two-year assignment here, how he got started as a birdwatcher, why he decided to write the book, what he’d like readers to get out of it, and where he likes to go birdwatching in Puebla. Here’s what he had to say.

AAP: How did you end up studying birds in Puebla?

Rose-Burney: My wife and I joined Peace Corps, a program of the U.S. federal government that has volunteers all around the world. We are both urban planners and were looking for a little break. During training in Queretaro, we were told that our assignment would be SEMARNAT, Mexico’s federal environmental agency, in the city of Puebla. I was devastated. I didn’t want to live in a big city, and I didn’t want to work in a big government planning office.

Fortunately, I got everything that I didn’t want — and am incredibly lucky. During the past two years, I’ve worked on some great conservation projects, including the establishment of a new natural protected area at the Valsequillo Reservoir. I’ve met and worked with great people. I had the opportunity to travel throughout the state and most of southern Mexico. And I have been able to turn my love of birdwatching into my work.

When did you start birdwatching?

I have been birdwatching as a hobby since before I started walking. My parents worked at nature reserves and ran a summer camp when I was little, so I grew up around the outdoors. I always brought my binoculars on family camping and hiking trips. Before coming to Mexico, I had never done birdwatching for work. It was always just a hobby. I have actually done more birdwatching while in Puebla than at any other time in my life. When we travel, whether it be to Cholula or to Tulum, we go birdwatching.

I helped start and was a guide for a recreational bird club, called the Club de Observadores de Aves de Puebla, which goes on monthly field trips to parks and nature reserves in the city and throughout the state. To sign up for the tours, you can contact the club.

What prompted you to write the book and, more specifically, focus on Puebla?

Many other places in Mexico are well-known for birdwatching. Although there are a few dedicated birdwatchers in Puebla, the state has been practically ignored by the outside world. Fortunately for me, Puebla is an awesome state to go birdwatching in.

As you will see in the book, Puebla is one of the most diverse states in Mexico, and trails only Chiapas, Veracruz, and Oaxaca in total bird species. Puebla has many migratory species, those that nest in the U.S. and Canada and winter in Mexico, Central America, and South America, like the ducks and herons in Valsequillo. Puebla has numerous endemic species — species that only exist in Mexico — like the Red Warbler in La Malinche and the Paso de Cortes. Puebla also has many really beautiful and attention-grabbing species, like the Blue-crowned Motmot in Cuetzalan.

What are your favorite places to go birdwatching in Puebla?

The Valsequillo Reservoir is my favorite place to go birdwatching within city limits. The large reservoir attracts thousands of ducks, grebes, herons, and other birds. On any given day, especially during the winter migration, you can cross the reservoir on the ferry boat (known locally as la panga) in San Baltazar Tetela and see at least 60 species of birds. Ease of access, diversity of birds, and beautiful views of the reservoir and surrounding volcanoes makes Valsequillo a must-see.

Picking a favorite place to go birdwatching in the surrounding state of Puebla is difficult. Rather than chose one site, I would say that the entire Mixteca region in southern Puebla is the most fascinating. Tropical deciduous forests and cactus forests — both more colorful in the dry season — reach as far you can see, while the river canyons are lined with majestic ahuehuetes, or Mexican cypress, a tall evergreen that is also Mexico’s national tree.

The Mixteca is home to numerous species that are endemic not only to Mexico, but also to the Mixteca itself, meaning that they exist nowhere else in the world. These include the Dusky Hummingbird, Grey-Breasted Woodpecker, Boucard’s Wren, and Bridled Sparrow, among others. There are also many emblematic species, like the ruby, emerald, and white Elegant Trogon, or the large, rufous-colored Squirrel Cuckoo, or the sparrow-sized Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. And then there are the beautiful people, the food, the languages, and the history…

What do you hope that readers will take away from the book?

I am a conservationist at heart, and everything that I do is aimed at promoting the conservation of nature. Low-impact, sustainable ecotourism — like birdwatching — can have positive impacts on conservation. When tourists visit a place, pay for a hotel, or a guide, or even just lunch, they demonstrate to a community that protecting natural resources can have greater benefits for them than using them up.

I want this book to inspire people to love nature, the outdoors, and birdwatching the way that I do. And I think that in order to love nature, you have to experience it, to touch it, to smell it and see it. When someone reads my book, whether a novice or a seasoned birdwatcher, I hope that they get the urge to visit some of these places and experience them for themselves. The places and birds that I describe in this book are so spectacular, so beautiful, and so unique, that anyone lucky enough to see them will have no choice but to fall head over heels for them.

To download the free book, which includes maps and other helpful information, click here.

Text by Rebecca Smith Hurd / Photographs by Ana Hernández Balzac (homepage) and Jajean Rose-Burney

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The “End of the World” as We Knew It

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Sunrise on December 21, 2012, as seen from atop the Cholula pyramid.Today held so much promise in the minds of so many people. December 21, 2012 — the date the Mayan calendar was set to roll over — spelled everything from doomsday to the dawn of a new era, the first day of winter to the last Friday before Christmas, depending on whose opinion you asked. All the hubbub compelled us to do something we’d been meaning to do for quite some time: watch the sun rise from atop the Great Pyramid of Cholula. No matter what happened, we figured we would at least enjoy nature’s spectacular display, take a few photos, and pay our respects to the millions of people who (like us) have helped to continuously inhabit this place over the past 2,000+ years. And that’s exactly what we did. Here’s our favorite shot of dawn breaking over the city of Puebla. —Rebecca Smith Hurd

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A Walk in the Park at Ecoparque Metropolitano

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

I never had the occasion to visit Valle Fantástico, the now-defunct amusement park next to the Tec de Monterrey campus on Vía Atlixcayotl, but from what I can tell, there really wasn’t anything all that fantastic about it. Among the park’s lingering remnants is a bizarre structure the shape of a blonde girl lying face-down, blue jean-clad buttocks aimed skyward, a door at her feet. I imagine that the building once served as some sort of “fun house,” though I shutter to think of what awaited visitors inside the horrifyingly huge güerota. (I’ll admit that this may sound absolutely fantastic to some readers, but for me craptastic is far more apt.) Fortunately, the state government recently began transforming Valle Fantástico into an ecological park.

The orchid garden at Ecoparque MetropolitanoEcoparque Metropolitano permits pets on a leash.A water filtration system at Ecoparque MetropolitanoEcoparque MetropolitanoOne of the water filtration systems at Ecoparque MetropolitanoSculpture at Ecoparque Metropolitano

Ecoparque Metropolitano, which was inaugurated in May amid the festivities commemorating the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, is—as Mexico President Felipe Calderón put it during his visit—“truly a fantastic park.” The green space currently occupies 32 of the 47 acres of land once allotted to Valle Fantástico; the other 15 acres remain the subject of a legal dispute waged by its former operator.

Although Ecoparque Metropolitano is still a work in progress, it’s open now for the public to enjoy. Visitors are welcome to stroll through its various gardens (orchids, cactus, bamboo, regional plants) to admire the diverse flowers and greenery as well as a dozen art sculptures and several natural water-filtration systems. The park also provides access to a cushy new 5.2-kilometer jogging path, made from recycled tires, that runs alongside the Atoyac River between boulevards Niño Poblano and De Las Torres. What’s more, the site is bicycle and dog-friendly (for people who keep their pooches on a leash and pick up after their pets); special park access points are under way.

The ecological park was conceived as part of a plan to rescue the Atoyac River, which for years has been contaminated by illegal dumping. Workers and volunteers removed nearly 9,000 cubic feet of garbage, planted 5,000 trees and 300,000 plants, and hauled in 8,000 tons of compost in order to revitalize the area. Amy Camacho, the state’s environmental secretary, in May told Milenio news that the effort has prompted the return of wildlife, including butterflies, hummingbirds, turtles and other reptiles, and even a pair of hawks. Camacho noted that while the area is safe to visit, people should avoid contact with the water (because environmental remediation takes time).
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Ecoparque Metropolitano is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The main entrance is located on Vía Atlixcáyotl next to the Tec de Monterrey campus; ample parking provided. Alternate access behind Cabo San Lucas restaurant near Plaza Palmas (follow the blue MIRAtoyac signs); Paseo del Río is on the other side of the river. Admission is free, but parking costs $10 MXP per vehicle.

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Botanical Garden Fosters Native Plants of Puebla

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

The garden is divided into ten sections, including a quercetum (oak plantation) near the main building.Few nations on the planet boast greater biodiversity than Mexico, which ranks fifth worldwide in total number of species and first in cacti and pines. The state of Puebla alone is home to an impressive array of flora, both wild and cultivated, according to a new book in Spanish co-authored by the experts who run the BUAP Botanical Garden.

Plants of Economic Importance in the State of Puebla describes more than 850 edible, medicinal, and ornamental species, providing their common and scientific names, where to find them, and how they’re typically used. The book is designed, like the botanical garden, to provide an accessible means of appreciating and learning more about some of Puebla’s most valuable natural resources.

Agriculture is so economically and historically vital to Puebla that the state’s coat of arms includes a hand holding a plant with farmland in the background. The industry today accounts for 8 percent of the state economy. Indeed, one cannot help but notice the abundance of cornfields flanking the rural stretches of highway that lead visitors from both the Puebla and Mexico City airports to the center of Angelopolis. However, due to rapid growth in and around the capital over the past two decades, urban green space is increasingly hard to find. The botancial garden, which occupies 25 acres of land on the BUAP’s University City campus in the San Manuel neighborhood, doubles as one of the largest public parks in the city.

Did you know that tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) can be used not only to make delicious salsas, but also to treat tonsillitis, cough, and bladder infections?

A large lake at the BUAP Botanical Garden attracts various species of birds.Founded in 1987, the botanical garden features hundreds of species — trees, grasses, succulents, wildflowers, and more — from areas around the state. Its overall mission includes the study, conservation, and promotion of native and new varieties of plants that have horticultural and economic-development potential. To this end, the garden is divided into ten distinct sections, from a semi-arid zone to a seasonal wetland, each based on the geography, ecology, taxonomy, and use of the species growing therein. The site also features a small butterfly garden and a sizable lake, which attracts some 90 species of birds throughout the year.

All visitors are welcome to take a leisurely self-guided tour by following the paths that wind through the garden. Groups of 10 to 40 people can book docent-led tours (in English or Spanish), during which they’ll learn about the site, the scientific and common names of myriad flowers, plants, and trees, and their significance as food, medicine and potions, crafts and dyes, and religious symbols.

The Jardín Botánico Universario is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free. Tours and workshops offered to groups for a fee. The garden is located on the BUAP’s CU campus in Colonia San Manuel near the 24 Sur entrance. For more information, call (222) 229-5500, ext. 7032 or 7030.

Copies of the book Plantas de importancia económica en el estado de Puebla, by Maricela Rodríguez Acosta, Allen Coombes, and Alberto Jiménez Merino, are available for purchase (350 pesos each) at the garden and Gandhi bookstores in limited quantities. All proceeds support continued work in the field.

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A Trip to Puebla’s Drive-Thru Zoo

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Kangaroos enjoy a nap in the walk-thru habitat at Africam.After seeing big cats and other exotic animals paraded through city streets in cages to advertise traveling circuses, it’s easy to be skeptical about the zoo experience in Mexico. Fortunately, Africam Safari not only defies stereotypes, but also promotes top-quality conditions for all creatures by pioneering best practices for the industry worldwide. The drive-through zoo, located on the outskirts of the city of Puebla, is a wonderful place for wildlife lovers — and kids of all ages — to visit.

Africam Safari was the first zoo in Latin America to receive accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, due largely to its conservation efforts and its high standards of animal care. With partners in Mexico and around the globe, Africam works to recover wild populations (such as the golden eagle) and to preserve ecosystems and soil. The park itself protects scores of endangered species and indigenous flora and fauna and strives to teach the public about them. Thousands of animals — from alpaca to zebra — roam freely in large, well-maintained habitats in which human activity is heavily controlled. In a single trip, it’s possible to watch a hippo bathe, a Bengal tiger wake up from a nap, a blackbuck antelope toss around a fallen tree branch, a joey emerge from mama kangaroo’s pouch, and more.

Be prepared to stop for the occasional ostrich, herd of mouflon, or rhino crossing the road and to have a gang of monkeys climb onto the roof of your SUV.

Inside the black bear habitat at Africam Safari.Safari means visitors must travel through the lion’s share of the park in a motorized vehicle, whether it’s a car or a public bus; if you don’t have your own wheels, Estrella Roja and Tip Tours run excursions from the zócalo to Africam at least once a day. Traffic must always yield to animals, and humans may not leave their cars. Posted signs indicate when windows need to be closed. (Tip: Honk your vehicle’s horn if you need assistance and a park ranger will appear.)

At the end of the safari, visitors can enjoy the lunch they packed in the picnic area by the parking lot, then continue their exploration on foot inside the Adventure Zone, or pedestrian portion of the zoo. Here you can meet more critters — bats, butterflies, turtles, and more — and even treat toddlers to a pony ride. Africam staff also occasionally put on animal-themed shows. Night tours are offered in late December and January.

Africam is open daily, year-round, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (park closes at 6:30 p.m.). Admission is 198 pesos per adult (192 for kids). For driving directions, click here.

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