Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Sierra Negra - In 24 Hours

I could see for miles in all directions. Flat pastures, brown from a lack of rain and overgrazing. Irrigated crops fields, artificial green oasis' in an otherwise barren plain. Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's tallest mountain, towered over us to our left. From our vantage point on the highway 2,000 meters above sea level, we were still 3,600 meters below its icy peak. And although it was now 9am, we were still trapped in Pico's pre-dawn shadow.
Pico de Orizaba

I was in a pick-up truck with my SEMARNAT co-workers on a highway in Puebla's altiplano, driving southeast towards Tehuacan. We were going to visit small communities in the Sierra Negra mountain range that divides the state of Puebla from the state of Veracruz. Pico de Orizaba defines the northwestern end of the range, the more traversed, populated part of the mountains. We were headed in the opposite direction.

We arrived in Tehuacan, the "land of the gods" in nahuatl, at about 10am. Tehuacan lies in a valley about 1,500 meters above sea level.  The Sierra Negras form the northern edge of that valley. Tall peaks, steep slopes, and sheer rock faces loomed large over the city, forming an intimidating barrier that stretched as far as I could see in both directions. All of the moisture that collects in the air over the Gulf of Mexico falls on the eastern Veracruz side of the Sierra Negras, leaving Tehuacan hot and dry.

Although seemingly impenetrable, we began our journey up and over the wall. A narrow road, prone to rockslides, wound its way along dangerous cliffs. Parts of the road had been washed out recently - within the last ten years - and had not been repaired. It seemed unlikely that the guard rails could stop the force of our multi-ton truck if they had to. Desert scrub vegetation was accentuated with forty foot tall candelabra  and "old man's beard" cactus.

Candelabra Cactus
Oak forest
After about an hour of going up, our road leveled off and began meandering through an evergreen oak forest. The canopy was thick and the leaves were large, dark green, and waxy. The air was cool and moist, and smelled like rich organic earth. The trees were tall and thick, but not straight. They tilted this way and that, new branches broke off at odd angles, and knots the size of cars formed wherever they pleased. The trees were covered in mosses, lichens and bromeliads. Each tree was an ecosystem that took hundreds of years to form.
Mountain creek in the oak forest.

Soon we had reached the top of the mountain range, about 3,500 meters above sea level. The oak forests were below us and had transitioned into a blanketing pine forest. A constant, cool breeze blew through the tops of the trees. The air moving through the pine needles was the only sound we could hear.
Pine forest

As we began our descent down the other side of the mountains, the forests were no longer pristine and untouched. Large swaths of trees had been cut and replaced with pastures or corn fields. At about 2,000 meters our road became engulfed in fog. We were heading down through a high, narrow valley. In most places its seep walls were barren with thousands of acres of rock that was once tropical cloud forest, once dominated by tree ferns and short hardwoods. The people who live here use slash and burn techniques to make room for corn fields. Unfortunately, their new corn fields last only two or three years; the deforested slopes quickly erode, leaving only rock not even suitable for corn. Over the last fifty years the people that live here have continued to move up the valley, into ever steeper and less hospitable parts of the mountains, searching for what little land is left to farm, before moving on again. Sierra Negra means black mountains in English. It was named that because its deep forests made the mountains appear black from below. In a few years, the name won't mean anything.
Church in the cloud forest.

Slash and burn in the cloud forest.

A mother and child at the meeting.
We reached the base of the other side of the mountains at 1pm, three hours after leaving Tehuacan. We were at sea level surrounded by dense rainforest, although it was difficult to see far through the afternoon haze. In one direction was the Sierra Negra,  in the other the coastal plain that stretched about a hundred miles towards the Gulf of Mexico. The humidity percentage was near 100 and the temperature was at least that high. In one community, we met with people at a community center for about two hours, signing them up for temporary employment projects that SEMARNAT pays for. Some of these projects make sense, like erosion control walls or tree plantings. Others do not. SEMARNAT routinely pays people to build greenhouses for coffee seedlings and watering holes for cows. Coffee plantations and livestock are the leading causes of deforestation in Mexico. SEMARNAT is Mexico's federal environmental agency and tries to give people alternatives to environmentally destructive ways of supporting themselves. I had always assumed we were trying to give them alternatives to coffee and cows.

A river in the rainforest.
We stayed in one of the mountain communities overnight. The next day we headed back towards Tehuacan, up and over the Sierra Negra, retracing our route from the day before. After passing Tehuacan, we got back on the highway and were on our way to Puebla. In the distance, thunder clouds were forming over the altiplano, pouring down from the mountains on the other side of the state. It soon began to rain. Streams of water were pouring through the eroded ravines in the desert. Growing impatient with the small car in front of us, our driver, who was Mexican and grew up in Puebla, moved into the lane with oncoming traffic to try to pass it. Our pick-up truck began swerving out of control. The driver was repeating rapidly that he didn't know what was going on, that there was something wrong with the road, there was something wrong with the road, all in Spanish. I was in the front seat and started to panic. It was raining so hard that I could hardly see the road even with the windshield wipers going at full speed. Although we started that morning in a tropical rainforest and we were now in a Mexican desert that was nearly 100 degrees only moments before, I could see that there was nearly a half foot of slushy snow on the highway, causing the driver to lose control of the truck. He had no idea what was going on and thought the road was broken.
Snow on the road.

We passed through Tehuacan at 10am, 24 hours after leaving Tehuacan the day before. In that short amount of time, we had passed through deserts, primordial oak and pine forests, the remnants of cloud forests, and through a rainforested plain, all in the same mountain range. We had driven through communities whose principal language wasn't Spanish or English, but one of the many indigenous languages spoken in Mexico. We stayed in a town that was disconnected from the world; that wasn't part of Veracruz because of arbitrary political boundaries, and that wasn't quite part of Puebla because of its remoteness. And the trip ended with a snow storm in the hot, dry altiplano desert.   

Snow along the highway.

A dust storm followed the snow.

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