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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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Puebla’s Ring of Fire

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

A spiral staircase leads visitors down into the cone.The high valley of Cuetlaxcoapan, where Puebla was established in 1531, is surrounded by some of North America’s tallest mountains—Pico de Orizaba, Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, and La Malinche—and, on clear days, a mere glimpse of them can be spectacular. The most impressive peak, owing to its stature and proximity, is Popocatépetl: the active volcano rises 17,802 feet into the sky from its base, just 25 miles northwest of the city.

Since its last eruption in 2000, Popo has regularly sent up plumes of gas and smoke, giving it a somewhat ominous aura, but scientists monitor the site continually as a precaution. Due to the activity, visitors aren’t allowed any nearer to Popo than the mountain pass that separates it from the dormant Iztaccíhuatl to the east. Those interested in the area’s seismic history, however, can get an up-close-and-personal look at a related crater—in fact, a spiral staircase leads you right down into it—without straying too far from the center of town.

Cuexcomate has been called the world’s smallest volcano, the devil’s navel, and one of Mexico’s more unusual tourist attractions.

Located in La Libertad, a neighborhood in northwest Puebla, Cuexcomate (the Nahautl word for “mud pot”) was once the only landmark in the area. It is believed to be a secondary crater, or an extinguished geyser, created by bursts of magma and sulfuric water from Popocátepetl during its last violent eruption in 1064. The little limestone cone measures a mere 43 feet high and 76 feet in diameter. On the bilingual plaque outside the cone, an observer from 1585 describes Cuexcomate as “a very large rock crag standing alone, six or seven states tall, with circular form, in whose summit there is a great mouth, as if it was made to hold a well. It is very deep, and at the bottom there is foul-smelling water.”

Whether that stench was residual sulfur, or something else entirely, is unknown. The sign outside suggests that the cone once served as a site for human sacrifices to indigenous gods and later a depository for citizens who committed suicide, because “they didn’t merit being honorably mourned or buried in sacred ground.” Perhaps due to these horrors—or the fact that the inside of the cone is a popular spot for smooching teenagers—the people who lived near Cuexcomate were sometimes referred to as “children’s of the devil’s navel.”

Is it dangerous? The geographers at Geo-Mexico.com say no. “Cuexcomate is considered ‘inactive’ and highly unlikely to burst into renewed activity. However, Popocatépetl itself has been increasingly active over the past few years, leading to several temporary evacuations of the villages around its base. If Popocatépetl were to erupt violently again, some locals believe that perhaps the subterranean link to Cuexcomate might be re-established. …Let’s hope that never happens. It would bring an end to one of the more unusual tourist attractions in this part of Mexico.”

Cuexcomate is located at 3 Norte and 2 Poniente, a few blocks from the intersection of Reforma and Esteban Antuñano, in Colonia La Libertad. Admission is 10 pesos per person.

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