Do you drive to or from Mexico via Texas? If so, I hope you have or will soon stop at Cuatro Ciénegas—Four Marshes—located in the state of Coahuila between Monclova and Torreón. Here you’ll find, in the middle of the largest desert in North American, an intricately interconnected series of gorgeous rivers and over 400 springs, ponds and wetlands! These are located within fifteen minutes of pure white sand dunes, exotic rock formations, and salt flats, in a valley surrounded by breathtaking mountains. Nearby are also prehistoric cave paintings; a refreshingly cool, swimmable river; thermal springs; and a marble mine! Plus, you’ll see butterflies galore! How they love this valley!
The clear, fresh water has such gorgeous blue-green colors that you’d swear you were in the Caribbean! You’ll also see ponds that are amber and orange. Due to the fact that the underground river system is closed (no inlet or outlet), Cuatrociénegas Biosphere Reserve rivals the Galapagos in terms of unique plants (800 endemic species) and animals (60 unique species). It is a sister park to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, USA.
NASA has stated that Cuatro Ciénegas could have strong links to discovering life on Mars; they studied the gypsum dunes of Cuatro Ciénegas because they are similar to Gale Crater on Mars. The New York Times wrote a fascinating article about it. And it’s not just life on Mars that peeks scientists’ interest. This area is a unique treasure trove. According to Wikipedia:
Live stromatolites inhabit Cuatro Ciénegas’ pools. These are cyanobacteria colonies, extinct in most of the world, linked to the origin of an oxygen-rich atmosphere over three billion years ago.
The pools are an oligotrophic environment with little available phosphate, leading one local bacterial species, Bacillus coahuilensis, to acquire the genes necessary to partially replace its membrane phospholipids with sulfolipids through horizontal gene transfer.
The Information Center for the 53,000 square mile the private Poza Azul Reserve is about an hour west of Monclova, just off a paved highway through unbelievably gorgeous mountains. There is a small museum highlighting the geology, flora and fauna of the area. Directly outside is the Poza de la Tortuga, Turtle Pond, an emerald green spring-fed pool filled with fish. The water is so very clear that you feel you are looking into an aquarium, except this one has clouds and mountains reflected in its surface and box turtles swimming amidst the fish. Click on any photo to view it larger or see a slideshow.
Greg and I walked about a kilometer into the Reserve to reach the Poza Azul, or Blue Pond. Many others just drove in. This pond looks as if it has a turquoise eye with a sapphire pupil in the center of it. At its deepest the pond is five meters. It is surrounded by reeds, some beautiful flowers, and contains a few lily pads, as well as fish and turtles. Again, the water is crystal clear.
The ponds are roped off to protect the water, but this of course makes it difficult to get a good photo. There is fortunately a viewing platform rising about 10 feet above ground at Poza Azul, offering a view of the pond and the mountains beyond. At Poza de la Tortuga there is a dock you can walk out on to get a better view.
Beyond the Blue Pond is a marble mine, though we didn’t visit it. On our way back to the Information Center, we walked along a beautiful boardwalk that paralleled a gurgly stream—Sendero el Borbollón—in the middle of the desert!
As we left the Poza Azul area, we paid for a ticket to get us into the Dunas de Yeso, Gypsum Dunes or white sand dunes, which are an incredibly beautiful sight. According to the USA National Park Service:
Gypsum is a common mineral, but it is extremely rare in the form of sand dunes. The conditions must be in just the right order for gypsum sand to form. White Sands and Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Cuatrociénegas are two of only a handful of places where this unusual sand can be found.
Since both gypsum and basins are so common all over the world, you might wonder why gypsum sand isn’t found in more places. The secret is something rarely found in deserts—water! Like the rest of the Chihuahuan Desert, White Sands and Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Cuatrociénegas receive less than ten inches of rain per year, but because of their unusual geology, they are both very wet environments. Water helps keep the gypsum sand from blowing away.
The dunes are 12 kilometers down the road from Poza Azul, and you can drive all the way in to both places. No need to walk if you don’t want to, though of course you’ll want to walk around the ponds and the dunes, at least a bit. The sun-glinted white sands were mesmerizing, with their wind-whipped waves, and the natural sculptures were incredible.
To get to the Protected Natural Area we drove through the outskirts of the small town of Cuatro Ciénegas, a Pueblo Mágico. We planned to head back there for a late lunch and to visit at least one of its two wineries. On our way back, however, we again passed the entrance to Balneario Rio Mezquites, which is an area with palapa huts, picnic tables, grills, lifeguard stands, changing rooms, and porta-potties, on the River Mezquites. This area was very tempting, as it’s obviously hot and arid in the desert, and you can’t swim in any of the protected waters. Even here in the river, however, the water was amazingly crystal clear, and despite the holiday (Independence Day) weekend, not very crowded. I hadn’t brought my swimsuit, but I jumped in and enjoyed a swim anyway! They say the snorkeling is great there, and soon they’ll have kayaks to rent.
The town of Cuatro Ciénegas de Carranza—Mexican President Venustiano Carranza was born here—is home to about 12,000 people. As you enter the town from Monclova you’ll see a huge, seven ton monument to Carranza up on the hill. The Pueblo Mágico has a shady plaza surrounded by restaurants and shops, a beautiful church (San José, 1825), a couple of museums, two wineries, and four or five hotels. It is surrounded by the mountain ranges of Sierra de San Marcos and Sierra la Fragua.
Cuatro Ciénegas is the site of quite a bit of cross-border collaboration, as mentioned above with the US National Parks Service, and also with Arizona State University. Read more about that here. The drive in and out is magnificent, as you’re in a valley surrounded by mountains, with a broad variety of desert vegetation.
How to Get There
From Saltillo take highway 57 to Monclova and then continue on highway 30 to Cuatro Cienegas. You can take a bus from Saltillo, Torreon or Monclova. Distance Chart: To Monclova 82 km; To Saltillo 273 km; To Torreon 222 km
Greg had heard about this beautiful place, so I researched it on the Internet. While there were many pages that talked about the area, none of them contained the information needed for an enjoyable visit. So, I’m hoping this will help you:
- The Reserve is open from 10am – 5pm each day, sadly making photography somewhat of a challenge (we like sunrises and sunsets, blue hours and golden hours…)
- Entry to the Poza Azul area is 30 pesos, and to the Dunas de Yeso is another 30 pesos.
- Most sites told us we needed a guide or we would get lost. Untrue! The sites are well marked and easy to get to. Of course, you can hire a guide for a reasonable price and benefit from all the information the guide will share, but you’d be hard-pressed to get lost without one.
- Most sites told us we’d be doing a lot of walking and would need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Again, untrue. You can drive to the ponds near the Information Center, and you can drive out to the white sand dunes as well. The road to the dunes is gravel and has potholes, but nothing worse than the road to Las Labradas.
- Many sites told us you can swim in the ponds. UNTRUE! It is strictly prohibited from swimming in the protected waters. You can, however, swim in the Rio Mezquites, as I describe above.
- If you want to go swimming in the river, take your suit and a towel, and bring food to barbecue. There are plenty of grills at the site.
- I recommend you take plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat. You are in the desert, after all!
- The Poza de la Becerra is mentioned by quite a few websites. It was very much closed during our trip. We could see that the area had been a swimming area—huts with tables, grills, bathrooms. Our guess is they are giving the area time to recuperate or recover from over-use, and then they will reopen it in a more protected and eco-friendly fashion.
- The wineries in the town of Cuatro Ciénegas were highly touted on the websites I visited. They are just on the outskirts of town, on highway 20 heading towards Ocampo. The closest to town is called Bodegas Ferriño, and a few doors farther down is Vinos Vitali. The wines are mostly sweet and not to our liking, though it’s always fun to taste and to walk around a winery.?
If you visit, please let us hear about it! And send your pics!
Wonderful, thanks for this. Imagine, rivaling the Galapagos!
I know, and so close to us! The caliber of people studying the area is pretty amazing, too.
Great article Diane! We came back from the states this way, but not knowing any of this was there. It’s beautiful, great photos! Thanks for sharing!
We’ve gone that route several times without being able to stop. So glad we made time this time around.
great article–can’t wait to visit! Thanks for all the great info and photos!
You bet! I hope this helps as I found it really difficult to find reliable information. It was all scattered in bits and pieces and much of it out of date.
I sincerely hope you will all visit. It’s an incredibly magical place. Great for hiking and exploring. I’m very sad it’s only open 10-5, as I’d like to go back and take sunrise, sunset and starry night photos! Photos of white sand in full sun are far from optimal, lol.