Mexico’s Valleys of Cuicatlán and Tehuacán: From Deserts to Clouds by David Yetman and Alberto Búrquez provides an accessible and photographic view of the culture, history, and environment of an extraordinary region of southern Mexico. The Valleys of Cuicatlán and Tehuacán are lauded by botanists for their spectacular plant life—they contain the densest columnar cacti forests in the world. Recent archaeological excavations reveal them also to be a formative Mesoamerican site as well. So singular is this region that it is home to the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Through firsthand experience and engaging prose, the authors provide a synthesis of the geology, ecology, history, and cultures of the valleys, showing their importance and influence as Mesoamerican arteries for environmental and cultural interchange through Mexico. It also reveals the extraordinary plant life that draws from habitats ranging from deserts to tropical forests. Below read an excerpt from the book.
I first traveled through the Valley of Tehuacán in 1969, driving an old Land Rover south en route to the city of Oaxaca. I recall very little of the region, except for a semidesert landscape, unending mountains, interminable curves, and the plodding, smoking diesel trucks crowding the narrow, shoulderless highway. Those trucks, known in Mexico as tórtones, heavy, usually overladen, are seldom seen now. In those days, tórtones clogged the mountain roads, belching black clouds of diesel smoke. Their parking brakes would often fail, so when drivers suffered a flat tire, they would block the wheels with large rocks to keep the monsters from rolling out of control. The tire replaced, the operators would drive away, leaving the large rocks behind for other vehicles to run into. My Land Rover was a good choice for that terrain, for the road was also laden with potholes, cracks, washouts, and landslides.
A modern expressway connecting the cities of Tehuacán and Oaxaca would not be completed until after the turn of the twenty-first century. The road through the Cuicatlán Valley, which connects to the Valley of Tehuacán and leads nearly to Oaxaca, was still a dirt track. It often washed out during the summer rains or was rendered impassable by multiple landslides. If paved, that route would have shortened the trip by a couple of hours.
It was not until the year 2000 that I visited the valleys themselves, walking through the hills and stopping by some of their small towns. By then the roads had been expanded and improved, and graded roads replaced many unimproved tracks. Since that trip I have logged more than twenty visits, discovering sights, peoples, and natural history features I had previously overlooked. Potholes are now fewer. Road-blocking landslides are still a hazard.
Alberto Búrquez joined me on an exploration of the valleys in 2003. He had visited previously as a lecturer in ecology at UNAM, Mexico’s National Autonomous University. He could hardly resist bringing his students to one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. I have often envied the easy access he had in those years to the valleys of Tehuacán and Cuicatlán, only a few hours’ drive from the southern limits of Mexico City, where UNAM is situated.
Alberto and I collaborated on projects throughout the 1990s, focusing on the plants and vegetation of the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, where he had been born and raised and now held a distinguished post as professor of ecology for UNAM. We had a list of places in Sonora to visit and study, he as an ecologist studying the relationships between plants and animals, I as a philosopher who found Mexico’s natural and cultural history so rich that I abandoned my philosophical musings. On another visit to Oaxaca around 2005, we agreed that it was time for us to collaborate on a book on the valleys we had come to hold in the highest esteem. Though they lie far from the Sonora with which we are familiar, the valleys bear a close ecological resemblance to that state far to the northwest. Out of that easy agreement with my friend came this book.
What would impel us to expend the effort and expense in writing a book about these valleys, so far from our homes in the Sonoran Desert? After all, the first impression visitors experience for much of the year is one of semidesert, drought, and, in places, a parched, often eroded landscape (except after summer rains). Yet unless one is in a hurry to get from Tehuacán to Oaxaca or the reverse, it is difficult not to be impressed by the vegetation and landscapes visible from a vehicle. The combination of cactus forests, plants of unusual shapes and densities, and minor roads leading off into the bush and hills in all directions poses an irresistible draw to anyone with a curiosity about natural and human history. The mountains on either side that engulf the valleys seem to shield mysteries beyond the cliffs and forests that ring the east side and the forbiddingly steep desert slopes on the west. The landscapes away from the cities and viewed up close reveal human occupation deep in antiquity. Churches, ancient as well as new, most of them visible from afar, grace every settlement, be it a village or a town. Place names roll off the tongue, evoking times long before Europeans ordered the prefacing of aboriginal names with the titles of saints, Indigenous names like Alpizagua, Atatlahuca, Altepexi, Atolotitlán, Axuxco, Coxcatlán, Metzontla, Miahuatlán, Nanahuatípam, Tecomavaca, Teotitlán, Zapotitlán, Zinacatepec, and on and on. The modern, urban Mexico of the city of Tehuacán grades quickly into hamlets and villages, where old traditions endure and life proceeds at a slower pace. Sophisticated dwellers from the megapolis of Mexico City find the allure of the valleys as compelling as I do.
The closer we looked, the more extraordinary and complex the valleys became. Dense forests of columnar cacti swathe the hillsides with their color: there are eighteen species of the giants, more than in any similar tract in the world. Within the valleys we find not just unusual vegetation, but also a host of endemic species and strange plants with names like elephant’s foot, mother-in-law’s chair, old man, and (ahem!) ball swellers. The endless varieties and combinations of trees, shrubs, agaves, yuccas, and cacti poke out of cliffs, protrude from tropical forests adjacent to barren deserts, emerge from unexcavated pyramids, lurk in obscure canyons, and hide in oak woodlands and pine forests. The Indigenous peoples of the valleys, at least eight different linguistic groups, persist, some even thriving.