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Baja Nature Diaries
By Jay Gittens

Garden of Eden

Santuario de Los Cactus - The Cactus Sanctuary of El Rosario. B.C.S., Mexico

By Jay D. Gittens

Horses in Baja Sur Horses in Baja Sur

The sunlight partially penetrates into the opulent forest of mesquite trees and cacti, piercing down through the thick canopy like great daggers of light. The resulting dappled pattern on the forest floor is ever-changing in response to the foliage that dances in the cooling breeze. I mumble “This place is like The Garden of Eden” into my voice recorder and so the title stands.

53 kilometres south of La Paz on Highway One, a little-known cactus sanctuary occupies six hectares of a 50-hectare natural reserve, harbouring at least 50 species of cactus along with a diversity of other plant life including shrubs, bushes, succulents and vines and the pre-mentioned mesquite trees in their hundreds. Of course, this habitat supports a wide exhibit of animal life as well represented by birds, reptiles, insects and small mammals. This natural park concept was developed between the years 1993 and 1997 by Dr. Héctor Nolasco and Dr. Fernando Vega of the INTERCACTI Group. It serves to preserve a part of the natural cactus forest ecosystem while promoting awareness and education regarding the threats this biome faces due to deforestation, habitat alteration and the collection of wild plants by hobbyists and suppliers. It became an official cactus sanctuary in 1998. La Comisión Nacional Forestal, or The National Forestry Commission (Conafor), is responsible for its upkeep and conservation.

Cactus Sanctuary Baja Sur Cactus Sanctuary Baja Sur

The turn off of the highway is clearly marked after which six kilometres of easy dirt road need to be covered before you’ll arrive at the entrance of this ecological park. Along the way I encounter a small herd of beautiful but fairly twitchy horses. My gentle approach was enough to elicit them into a canter before the horses left side of the track and backed up into their safe spot in some trees that line the road. The many foraging cows along my path were much more comfortable around humans, allowing me to carefully navigate my motorcycle between the herd without so much as a flinch.

Upon arriving to the garden’s entrance, I pull into a completely empty car park. Opposite the entrance is the most beautiful little graveyard where lost mothers, fathers, sons and daughters lay to rest. Their grave stones and chapels are well-kept and some are painted in those vibrant colours’ emblematic of Mexico. It’s now around 3pm and I’m the only visitor here. My stop falls pre-season and the dozen or so entries of names I see in the visitors’ book for today are of people that have been and gone. I part with 50 Pesos and in return receive a bracelet for my entry into the reserve. The guardian gives me a short briefing before leaving me to explore this little paradise alone.

Cactus Sactuary Baja Sur Cactus Sactuary Baja Sur

Away from the noise of people and traffic, the silence is soothing and only contradicted by the faint sounds of little creatures scurrying around in the undergrowth and the sounds my footsteps making contact with the crisp surface of the fertile soil. The combination of the browns, greens and yellows that surround me resembles a late-summer deciduous forest gearing up for autumn. A path of white-painted rocks creates a circuit, serving to protect the fragile areas to the sides of the trodden way where delicate new cacti and seedlings are starting out in life. The density of the flora is evident that the forest is almost perfectly preserved with only the regular footsteps of humans preventing the pathway from being reclaimed by nature. The trunks and branches of the mesquite trees twist and turn through the forest giving the impression of a mystical garden. Several trees that lay almost horizontal continue to thrive and are evidence of past hurricanes and storms. As I penetrate deeper, I begin to hear the chatter of exotic birds and before long I can see individuals of several species flitting around in the branches and between trees. Lizards that vary in size and colouration confirm their presence with loud groans and grunts as they bask in direct sunlight to regulate their core temperature.

Cactus Sanctuary Baja Sur Cactus Sanctuary  Baja Sur

The almost constant cooling breeze occasionally whips up into a localised gust that rustles the leaves on the foliage as it sweeps through this desert garden, helping to naturally regulate the temperature beneath the forest canopy. As my mind begins to process little details, I notice some species of cacti functioning as pseudo-epiphytes, growing on the trunks and branches of mesquite trees, particularly those that had been toppled by past storms. I recall from biology classes that this survival strategy is not parasitic to the trees since epiphytes derive their own nutrients and moisture from the air and rain. They are simply using the tree as something on which to grasp.

In all, the spiralling circuit I followed through the forest was around 1800 metres in length and can be covered in 30 minutes or so. There’s no rush though, take your time and even sit and rest on one or more of the benches along the trial which makes the garden easily accessible and enjoyable for all the family. The sanctuary is open daily from 9am to 5pm.

For more information about El Santuario de Los Cactus, you can visit their Facebook page here .

Contact:
+52 1 (612) 197 5824
Website
jaydgittens[at]gmail.com