Traveling in Style : MEXICO’S SECRET GARDEN : San Miguel de Allende’s New Botanical Preserve Isn’t Just a Bunch of Pretty Flowers: It’s an Ecologically Sensitive Wonderland of Desert Life

<i> Jeff Spurrier is an L.A.-based free-lance writer who spends part of each year in Mexico</i> . <i> His last article for this magazine was on the Mexican beach resort of Puerto Escondido. </i>

IT’S A FOUR-HOUR BUS RIDE NORTHWEST FROM MEXICO CITY to San Miguel de Allende, a trip that takes the traveler far from streets choking with smog, factories belching smoke, body shops engulfed in clouds of paint fumes--far from people, people, people.

But San Miguel in the middle of a fiesta is not much of a refuge. My wife and I arrived there recently for Easter weekend to find ourselves in the middle of the Mexican version of Spring Break. Hordes of drunken day-trippers from Mexico City packed every bar and restaurant and roamed the downtown streets whooping, crowing and belting off-key serenades. Walking up to the church of the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri, I was met by an army of street sweepers in orange jumpsuits busily cleaning up the refuse from the day’s Good Friday procession. Billows of dust and manzanillo petals swirled in the air, mingling with the diesel exhaust of buses disgorging an endless stream of new arrivals ready to party. That night, as I tossed and turned, there was a constant clamoring of church bells that sounded neither romantic nor exotic--more like a John Cage composition of sheet metal percussion playing an endless loop in my brain.

I’ve never considered myself a cranky traveler, but this was too much. Even my wife was muttering about finding some over-the-counter Valium. But the next day, someone suggested that we flee the city and take a stroll through the region’s newest and most un-resortlike attraction--the botanical preserve called El Charco del Ingenio, The Pool of the Ingenious One.


The Charco, which draws its name from its series of rock pools and from the fact that the term ingenio was traditionally applied in colonial America to those who constructed waterworks, covers more than 160 acres on the plateau above San Miguel. Although only 15 minutes from the center of town by taxi, it is so far off the beaten tourist track that even my cabdriver didn’t know where it was. I had him drop me at Gigante, the huge, ugly, orange-and-pink neo-deco supermarket that sits coincidentally close to the new prison. I trudged over the dusty plain, through a local dump decorated with what looked like the remains of a love gone sour--underwear, rebozos and shoes tossed angrily among burnt cans and broken rum bottles--and followed a dirt road that led to a wide wooden gate. Here was El Charco del Ingenio. And for five pesos, peace was mine.

I had plenty of room to indulge my desire for solitude: Thirty of the 160 acres are laced with nearly five miles of well-marked pathways leading to a domed conservatory, as yet unfinished, containing hundreds of species from a dozen Mexican states, then down along the shore of La Presa de las Colonias (a large reservoir that supplies water to the towns north of San Miguel) and along the edge of a dramatic steep ravine. The ravine, called the Landeta Arroyo, is dotted with a series of descending rocky pools, shrouded by pepper trees, willows and giant garambullo cacti. Down in the green waters of the deepest pool, nestled in the sheer granite walls of the arroyo, it is said, lives Chan, the local Chichimecas’ god of water.

The botanical gardens and the 130 acres of ecological reserve on the far side of the arroyo retain a strong connection to the indigenous Toltec-Chichimeca peoples. All the stone border pathways, mosaics and the four large plazas of the garden were designed and built by Chichimeca stone masons and ironworkers, contributors to a lasting landmark to the culture that inhabited the area before the arrival of the Spanish 500 years ago.

In the Plaza of the Four Winds, roughly in the center of the park, stands a large red stone cross on a pyramid of stones and flowering plants. The cross is left purposefully rough on one side and is overlaid by another cross made of cane. Here is where the Spanish and Chichimeca intersect, for the cross is a symbol sacred to both cultures. The pyramid was completed and purified by Chichimeca elders when the garden was dedicated, at precisely the moment of the total eclipse of the sun visible in San Miguel on July 11, 1991.

The plaza is the centerpiece of the garden, offering the best view not only of the preserve but also of the surrounding countryside to the Chichimecas’ four cardinal points, the four distant mountain ranges, the four winds of life. There are four circles marking these points on the inlaid stone floor, each with a mosaic highlighting the Chichimeca world view: To the north is a brown pyramid, the color of earth; to the south in green and blue is a swirling spring, signifying water; to the west, colored red, is a coyote, representing the animal kingdom, and to the east is a yellow maguey plant, the most important member of the plant world in this semi-arid land.

I walked west toward the far end of the garden, to Sunset Point, where the path curves around onto the edge of a steep precipice. This is where the arroyo’s mouth widens and marches to the north to the Mountain of Dangerous Water. Directly in front, it falls away into another reservoir, where the ruins of an old mill stand decaying. A section of an aqueduct dating from colonial times rises from the water. And to the south rise the spires of the churches of San Miguel. The gothic needles of the main church, the Parrochia, are most prominent, and are elegantly offset by the silver and gold dome of the Oratorio church. From here the context of the town is fulfilled, its relation to the land revealed.

Crows came cawing up the arroyo, while to my left, I could hear the scream of a peacock in Atascadero, the complex of condominiums and mansions, complete with lap pools and 40-foot-high living rooms, where much of San Miguel’s wealthy expatriate population lives. The view from Atascadero is much the same as the one I was enjoying at the moment--but I couldn’t help feeling that these visual riches were mine alone.

MY CRANKY MOOD DISSIPATED AS I slipped into the rhythm of the countryside. The ragged sound of an out-of-tune, out-of-sync brass band floated up in the wind, mixing with the brays of burros, the barking of dogs, the plaintive bleat of a herd of goats nibbling at the edge of the lower reservoir. A pair of snow-white ibises meandered through the muck at the edge of a pool hundreds of feet below me, probing repeatedly in the mud.

It was nearing dusk as I finally headed back to the main entrance. Along the way, I passed a field of golden barrel cacti, a few of them an astounding four feet high. Their tops were bright gold and as the spines tapered down along the ribbed sides, they softened into yellow, ochre and pale white. It’s reassuring to see them because they are a rare species in the Mexican wild, where 90% of their natural habitat has disappeared in recent years. Beyond them I could see the border of the garden, now railway ties and wire, but growing slowly in an even line was the fence of the future: the stubby deep green pillars of organ cactus.

To beat the twilight closing, I raced along the water-side trail of the Presa de las Colonias, dodging overhanging mesquite and garambullo. I wanted to visit the conservatory, which is dedicated largely to succulents. In this pipe-frame structure, the variety of specimens is enormous, ranging from globular mounds that look like brightly speckled eggs to fuzzy, wispy brushes to tall and twisty pipe shapes to earth-hugging dollops that are more mineral than vegetable in look. Many are ringed in tiny flowers, tiaras of ruby and emerald and yellow gold and sapphire.

Near the entrance, in a covered shed, hundreds of smaller cacti were lined up in tiny posts, selling for $1 to $5, depending on the rarity. The retail stall is a fairly new addition to the park, part of the plan to make the project self-supporting and to foster among locals an economic respect for the environment. As I inspected the plants, I heard a bicycle on the dirt trail behind me. It was a guard, making his round through the park. Another guard lives in a small cottage across the presa , he told me, who conducts his daily circuit on horseback.

The bicyclist stopped to peer through a pair of binoculars.

“What do you see?” I asked, expecting him to point out one of the scores of migratory birds that use the lake as a stopping-off point.

“Look,” he said, handing me the glasses. “See the people?”

On the far side of the lake, near the ruins of an old hacienda, I spotted a pair of kids jumping the fence. No collecting of anything is allowed in the reserve--no firewood, no nopales, no cacti fruit. Without another word, he set off on his bike, pedaling furiously.

THE NEXT DAY I WALKED OVER TO the headquarters for Cante, the private nonprofit foundation that is the organizing force behind the botanical gardens. My host was Federico Gama, a former sociologist and co-founder of Cante--a Chichimecan word meaning “water that gives life.” Construction of the garden began four years ago but as Gama quickly told me, “a botanical garden never ends.”

Gama, middle-aged, born and educated in Mexico City, formed Cante in 1987--a nonprofit concept centered on rural development projects with an ecologically Mexican bent, mixing art and cultural preservation with conservation and self-help communal associations. Cante developed slowly, but then Gama met Charles Glass, one of the world’s foremost experts on cacti. Glass had just returned to Mexico from his home in Arizona to resume research he had started decades earlier. Concerned that urban growth and expanded agriculture were threatening the Mexican cactus population, Glass was investigating means of artificially propagating these species. He was immediately attracted to Gama’s multipart plan for a large natural garden dedicated to the arid and semi-arid lands of the high plateau, a nature preserve for endangered species from all over Mexico and a reforestation project in the mountains to the southeast. The two began collaborating, and the seeds for El Charco del Ingenio were sown.

“It is possible to make an experience like this self-sustained, without destroying nature,” Gama said. “It’s an attempt to fight modernization, in which progress means changing everything in a way that harms nature. It’s hard to explain to people. Many see us as ecology freaks who are doing something very nice. My feeling is we are doing what has to be the future of nature.”

I asked him why he even bothered trying to educate a population largely dependent on tourist dollars--a population whose roots in the campo are growing ever weaker. He shrugged and shook his head. “Why not?” he answered.

Why not indeed?

I ENLISTED MY WIFE AS Awalking partner the next morning, and we set off to visit the pool where Chan, the water god, lives. We headed up the ravine, walking under the shade of pepper trees and willows. At the first pool, the path we had been following faded into nothing and we wandered lost for a few minutes. I crawled out of the brush and heard the thick drone of a beehive thrumming busily in the rock face above me. This wasn’t the way--or at least not our way.

At the second pool, we came upon a pair of lovers entwined in a desperate embrace. Coughing loudly to announce our approach, we said our good days and asked where the trail to the water god’s pool was. The young man smiled awkwardly and pointed over his shoulder at the opposite side of the ravine. “It’s over there,” he said. “Turn right at the garambullo.” His girlfriend kept her head discreetly buried in the crook of his arm.

The trail hugged the side of the arroyo, just above where the high-water mark would be in rainy season, and as we scrambled through the bushes and over the dried lichen of rocks, we regretted our Gap shorts and our walking shoes designed more for concrete than an uneven, dried riverbed.

One pool led to another and as we progressed up the arroyo, the walls closed in on us. Looking up we could see the nests of birds and scores of garambullos and other cacti clinging to small ledges in the granite. The view from here was far more intimate than that afforded from the garden above. The trail petered out against a solid stone wall and we angled back in to the riverbed, climbing over huge rocks.

After another hour of scrambling over rocks, we eventually came to the end of our journey, the still, deep pool of Chan. Far above us, the stone walkways of the garden were clearly visible as they zigzagged along the walls of the arroyo.

This was as far as we could go and it was just as well. My feet were killing me and we had run out of water a half-hour earlier. But I wasn’t sorry we had come. While the view from the garden had opened my eyes to the country, making the trek to the pool of Chan was the closest I had come to the home of a god.


The Gardens of San Miguel

Telephone and prices: The country code for Mexico is 52 and the area code for San Miguel de Allende is 465. Prices are approximate and are computed at the rate of 3.3 new pesos to the dollar. Hotel prices are for a double room for one night.

Getting there: There is no commercial air service to San Miguel de Allende. The nearest major airport is that of Mexico City, about 150 miles away; smaller airports are those of Leon and Queretaro, approximately 110 and 60 miles away, respectively. Numerous carriers fly daily nonstops from Los Angeles to Mexico City, including Mexicana, Aeromexico, United and Delta. Alaska Airlines has one daily nonstop from Ontario. There are also many connecting flights. Aeromexico offers one daily flight from LAX to Leon, via Puerto Vallarta. Mexicana has connecting flights to Queretaro via Mexico City or Guadalajara. From Mexico City, take a rental car or the four-hour nonstop first-class bus from the city’s Terminal de Autobus del Norte, or Northern Bus Terminal, about $12. Unless you have a rental car, the best transportation to San Miguel from Leon or Queretaro is by taxi. Figure about 90 minutes and $100 from the former, a bit less than an hour and $35-$40 from the latter--though it may be possible to bargain these prices down a bit.

Where to stay: San Miguel is full of good hotels. Particularly recommended are: Casa de Sierra Nevada, Hospicio 35, telephone 204-15, fax 223-37. A small, nicely furnished inn with a pool and some fireplaces available. Rates: $75-$180. Hacienda de las Flores, Hospicio 16, tel. 218-08, fax 218-59. In a colonial-style hacienda, with a good restaurant attached. Rates: $87-$126. Hotel Villa Jacaranda, Aldama 53, tel. 210-15, fax, 208-83. An attractive hotel with fireplaces and some private patios. Rates: $78-$96.

Visiting the gardens: El Charco del Ingenio is a 15-minute taxi ride from the center of San Miguel; fare, approximately $4. You can also approach the park from its western entrance at the top end of the Balcones housing area. To ascend the arroyo from its base, take a cab to the Presa del Obraje (about $2) and follow any of the paths up the arroyo. At the first pool, walk toward the right-hand wall of the arroyo and follow the stone path to its end. Admission to the park is about $1.75.

For more information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067; (310) 203-8191.