Nearly Secret Gem of an Overnight Trip

DSC_5157The December party season is exhausting. After the holiday, wouldn’t it feel wonderful to chill out for a couple of days in the middle of a spectacularly biodiverse rain forest, in a large, clean cabin with killer views, incredible stargazing, a full kitchen and all the modern amenities?

Every year tourists from over 25 countries are drawn to this very spot, home to a world-renowned breeding program for green macaws, aiming to rescue them from extinction. This gorgeous nature preserve has a semi-Olympic pool, tennis court, dozens of kilometers of hiking trails, waterfalls, petroglyphs, a museum, aviary and several climactic zones. You’ll witness breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, and amazing stargazing both with your naked eyes as well as through an astronomical observatory telescope.

How far do you have to travel to get to this magical place? Costa Rica? Malaysia? Chiapas? No, the Reserva Ecológica de Nuestra Señora Mundo Natural is right here in Sinaloa, just three hours by car or bus from Mazatlán—twelve kilometers east of Cosalá. It’s home to the most important macaw rescue program in northwestern Mexico, a two kilometer long zip line that is the second highest in the country (500 meters), and an astronomic observatory that partners with observatories in Russia, Chile and New Mexico to monitor near-Earth asteroids and space junk.

Not only is the nature preserve nearby, it’s affordable—because it’s part of our state university, UAS: Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa. A three-bedroom cabin (for eight people) with loads of natural light, air conditioning and a full kitchen costs 3000 pesos/night; they also have hotel and hostel rooms for 800 pesos/night. You’ll want to be sure and spend the night: the reserve closes to the public at 5 pm and opens at 10 am, so sunrise, sunset, moon and star gazing are not available to day visitors but only to those smart enough to spend some time here. The wild macaws are also best seen at dawn and dusk, yet another reason to spend the night here.

The 60,000 annual visitors to the reserve come for the incredible biodiversity of the area. You may also meet some of the domestic and international scholars conducting research here from Guadalajara, UNAM in Mexico City, Brazil, Chile, Spain and the UK. Fauna you’ll probably see include the green macaws that the area is famous for, plus white-tailed deer, coati, ocelots, lilac-crowned parrots, iguanas, gray hawks, owls, and a few things you may want to avoid: rattlesnakes and tarantulas. Flora-wise there are loads of braziles, amapas, mautos, moras, higueras, apomos, flor de Santiago, sabinos, rosarillas y papelillos and mangos. Should you wish to hold a workshop, large meeting or party here, there is even a conference center with closed circuit TV, a restaurant and space for up to 200 people!

During my visit there were several groups of students visiting from UAS. They conducted research in nature during the day and enjoyed pizza parties at the pool in the afternoon. There was a large family reunion, with family members coming from different states to meet up here, just outside Cosalá. Quite a few area businesses conduct employee-training programs here, and the reserve plays host to religious retreats, as well.

The General Manager of the reserve, José Alfredo Leal Orduño, was kind enough to spend a few hours touring me around the property and facilities. He spends the work week in Culiacán, but is at the reserve on the weekends. Leal told me that when UAS was founded in 1968, Governor Sánchez Celis gave the fully functioning reserve property—including hot water, electricity, a huge freezer and about 85 cabins—the equivalent of 260 hotel rooms—to the university as a source of income. It seems the property owner, a mining company, was delinquent on taxes; their loss was the university’s gain. The university, however, proceeded to nearly completely neglect the facility for the next forty years. By the time Leal took over, looting had destroyed 75 of the original cabins. What remained were the two haciendas on the property, which had been used by the mine superintendents, and the service buildings. The original structures were remodeled to become the cabins, hotel and hostel we see today. The rooms are a pleasant mixture of historic, rustic beauty on the outside and modern convenience and aesthetics on the inside.

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José Alfredo Leal Orduño, General Manager of the Reserva

All cabins have hot and cold running water, air conditioning, private bath, and a full kitchen with refrigerator/freezer, stove, microwave and coffee maker. While you have a kitchen and can cook when you wish, if you let staff know ahead of time they will arrange for a local woman to come in and cook meals for your party. There are large decks as well as lookouts and rest areas where you can read a book or watch the nature around you. The cabins are accessible by car, making this an enjoyable respite for the mobility impaired, and the reserve’s 18 employees stand ready to help.

If you are physically fit you can take an early morning hike with a biologist from the lower Habitas River Valley, with its mines, petroglyphs and waterfalls, all the way up to the top of the Sierras, through several climactic zones. The reserve is on the border between Sinaloa and the state of Durango.

When is the best time to visit? Leal says it’s winter, November to May, the dry season. Anytime between June and October is when the rain forest is in full regalia, the river is at its highest and the waterfalls their most powerful. He showed me videos of a thunderstorm taken from within a cabin and it was absolutely beautiful—the sound of fresh, wet summer air! Macaw courting season is in February and March, which should be quite the experience, though Semana Santa is always sold out months ahead of time.

60% of the reserve’s visitors are from Culiacán, with a very small percentage from Mazatlán. That is strange to me, since the two cities are equidistant from the nature preserve. What a loss that mazatlecos don’t take better advantage of this terrific public resource! I trust you’ll help me change that reality by visiting soon.

The Reserve is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm, though I urge you to spend the night. To make your reservations call (696) 9650306 between 9 am and 1 pm or 4 – 7 pm (English spoken).

The Best Views in Mazatlán

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Looking back at downtown over Goat Island from the top of Deer Island

Where are the best views of Mazatlán? Atop the lighthouse? From up top of the Freeman? I believe that the views from atop Deer Island rival even those taken from the air in a helicopter. They are some of the most glorious vistas our fair city has to offer.

If you’ve taken a kayak, catamaran, or any other kind of lancha over to the islands, or if you’ve swum, you know that. The water around the islands is so crystal clear—the color of turquoise—and you can view Mazatlán in its entirety, from north to south, with the Sierras as a backdrop. Click on any photo to enlarge it, or to view a slideshow.

Then, as you climb up the island from the beach, each hill reveals new views and surprises. I have climbed up the first hill before, but I had not done a trek of three of the four hills, as we did this past Tuesday. I have not gone to the backside of the island, and looked out from different elevations. It is truly stunning!

Petroglyphs in Mazatlán. No, not Las Labradas. Here in Town.
And, on Deer Island, in a cave on the back side, there are petroglyphs. Not just those north of town, in Las Labradas. There are petroglyphs right here in Mazatlán!

When our friends saw the photos, they said the petroglyph of the footprint looks like proof that aliens were here. Right next to the foot is a petroglyph of an animal with a long tail.

Footprint petroglyph on Deer Island, Mazatlán on the right. Modern-day pedicured foot on the left. ;)
Footprint petroglyph on Deer Island, Mazatlán on the right.
Modern-day pedicured foot on the left. 😉

Our Photo Class
It’s a funny story how I discovered this. I’m taking a (wonderful!) photography class with Salvador Herrera, and loving it. Well, he invited us to Deer Island for photography practice. He advised us to wear tennis shoes, and to bring sunscreen, a lunch, and water. He also said we’d be home by 2:00 pm. Little did we know that we’d be hiking all day, in quite precarious conditions, seeing the most spectacular views imaginable, and then even rappelling down into the cave with the petroglyphs, to return home after 5:00 pm! You gotta love Mexican communication style and spontaneity! It was an incredible day!

One of the students in our class is a cheerleader. He had a friend visiting him from León, and she’s a cheerleader, too. They were kind enough to do some jumps and flips for us, so we could practice our photography skills. Take a look.

Where is the Cave?
The cave with the petroglyphs is on the back side of Deer Island, just below the crest of the third hill. You climb up from the south side of the island, on the southern end of the beach. From the top of that first hill, you’ll proceed along the crest of the island, down and up two more hills. Then, on the top of the third hill (not the fourth or northernmost, the second from the north), you turn west and hike down in altitude a bit.

The climb gets steep and is not for anyone without great balance as well as good strength and stamina. The final entrance to the cave involves a five-meter sheer drop. Agile climbers can find footholds and handholds, but we used a rappelling harness and rope for added safety.

The Three Islands/Las Tres Islas
Quick! Do you know their names? Starting from the south: Isla de Lobos/Wolf or Sea Lion Island, Isla de Venados/Deer Island, and Isla de Pájaros/Bird Island. Many people and websites erroneously call the southernmost of the three islands Isla de Chivos/Goat Island, but that is actually the island in front of the lighthouse.

The biodiversity of the islands in our bay is an incredible treasure. Four climactic zones are found within such a small area: semi-desert, tropical, coastal and mountains. Over 500 species of birds can be found here, including gorgeous waterfowl and my favorite, blue-footed boobies! 20% of the species found here are unique to this area—you can’t find them anywhere else! The islands are composed of volcanic rock, landslides and foothills. On the islands you can find cacti, agaves, lichen, and deciduous shrubs including lots of beautiful plumeria. Plus, of course, goats, lizards, a multitude of butterflies and other wildlife.

The middle island, Deer Island, is the most-visited of the three. Its attractions include its beach, with fine white sand and crystal clear water, rippling out from the beach in increasingly darker shades of turquoise. The north side is great for snorkeling, lobsters and scallops, and it makes for a terrific kayak trip. Deer Island is 2.3 kilometers off the coast, 1.8 km, long and between 250 and 700 meters wide. It’s highest point is 178 meters (and don’t my legs know it!), and it has an area of about 54 square hectares.

Bird Island, on the north, is 120 meters high and has an area of 48.5 hectares. Goat Island is pretty much inaccessible.

For Sale?!
While most anyone in town will tell you that these three islands are an ecological preserve, and I sincerely hope they are protected by legislation, there is currently an advertisement to sell these three natural treasures.I do hope it’s a joke!

Do You Know the Legend of the Three Islands?
It is said that the indigenous people of this area were suffering from a succession of horrible hurricanes and flooding. The Mazatl people were beside themselves with grief; they were exhausted and starving.

The village chief asked the curandero what he could do to put things right and bring prosperity back to his people. The curandero went into a trance, and told the chief that the only way to put things right would be to sacrifice one of his three daughters—one of the three beautiful princesses—in order to restore the welfare of the pueblo. The chief loved all his daughters dearly, and was distraught because he loved his pueblo, too. He just could not bear to sacrifice one of his daughters.

Unbeknownst to the chief, his daughters swore a secret pact. The three of them loved their home, their neighbors, and their father so much, that they would sacrifice themselves and thereby restore the prosperity of the area. One night, under a full moon, dressed in white and with the diamond their mother had given each of them when they were born, the three princesses held hands and walked into the ocean, drowning themselves for the sake of their people. One sister’s hand came free, and she was swept slightly away from her sisters, but the other two sisters hung onto each other tightly.

The morning after their sacrifice, the Mazatl people saw three gorgeous islands out in the Bay of Mazatlán! One island was located slightly to the north, on its own, while the two to the south were connected. That was when they discovered that the princesses were missing! Such an act of pure, selfless love!

Thereafter, the climate changed and the weather of Mazatlán became tranquil and pleasant. To this day the three princess islands continue to protect the people, sheltering them from winds, storms and hurricanes. It is said that in the heart of each of the three islands can be found a diamond.

Do you know the name of the annual swim out to Deer Island? Yes? The Travesía!

Even if you are not incredibly mobile, you can get out to Deer Island on a boat and enjoy the views from the beach. If you haven’t done so, I highly encourage it. Spend the day; you’ll feel like you’ve gone to a Greek Island. If you are fit, take a hike up, at least to the first hill. The views will astound you. If you want to go to the cave, I’d recommend you go with someone who knows the route; it’s pretty tricky, at least for my level of adventurism.

And, of course, we couldn’t have asked for a better day!

An update/adaptation of this post appeared in M! Magazine in October, 2015 under the title, “Three Time’s a Charm.”