Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cactus, Mexico's plant

Who knew a botanical garden of cactus - cacti? - could be so interesting? El Charco del Ingenio in San Miguel de Allende came as a surprise to all of us who traveled there.

Having the second largest collection of cacti and succulents in Mexico (Mexico City has the largest) in its 167-acre nature reserve doesn't mean much until you see the diversity and hear of the plants' importance to the economy and culture.

That its location on the upper ridges of the Charco Canyon overlooking a wildlife sanctuary and next to the Las Colonias reservoir provides many Kodak moments helps too.  

Tip: Don't let this description deter you, Levelers. What you want to see is reached by easily ambled, mostly flat paths.

That it is run and supported as a nonprofit by volunteers is impressive. So is that the Dalai Lama came here in 2004 during his first visit to Mexico and sanctified it a Zone of Peace.

That personable and informative director Mario Hernandez would fit comfortably into an issue of People Magazine's Most Beautiful People doesn't hurt!

Cacti are the real stars, though, and Mexico is home to 550 different varieties, the world's richest. Most are edible with spiritual and medicinal properties. Some even have funny nicknames such as the Golden Barrel Cactus, Echinocactus grusonii, otherwise known as Mother-in-law's seat.

Others look like garlands ....

the rocks around them .....

or like the tribbles that infested the Starship Enterprise.

There are 400 different types of agave alone and 60 can be found in the Agave Garden, from the agave asul which gives us tequila to the maguey that produces fiber for ropes and textiles, medicinal remedies, the drink pulque and nutrients and water for man and beast. Humans can retrieve a gallon of liquid three to four times a day and a cow can live on the plant alone for around nine months.

The Conservatory of Mexican Plants showcases varieties from the collection both inside and out.

The Plaza of the Four Winds is the primary scenic and ceremonial gathering place. From its outlook you can see three different habitats - dry scrub land, canyon and wetlands - as well as the surrounding mountain ranges - La Margara, Los Picachos and Santa Rosa.

Inspired by the 16th century Chichimeca-Toltec codex, the Plaza is where indigenous communities gather for celebrations such as the festival of the Holy Cross (July) and where suchil, religious offerings, are made.

You can see where the material comes from, too. Cucharilla, literally "little spoon," are very shiny, soft, curving pieces that look like plastic but come from the base of a cactus-like plant. Like many cacti here, it is endangered. According to Mario, once a year extra specimens are distributed to indigenous peoples who use them in their rituals.

Shoppers will be glad to know there's a gift shop and everyone can benefit from the small cafe and nice banyos.

As with almost everywhere else I stopped in the states of Jalisco and Guanajuato, I could have stayed longer.

Ah, that most frequent, most hopeful and saddest of travelers' phrases: Next time.


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