Those who happen to come across images of the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve, with its countless towering cacti as far as the eye can see, often wonder how to go about planning a visit. But despite having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018, online searches still yield few helpful results.
My trip to the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve, therefore, was something of an experiment. Armed with little information, I went to see what I could find and learn about the place in person. Now having been, I’ve created this guide to help you plan your trip to the reserve as efficiently as possible.
For clear details on exactly how to reach the reserve and where to stay, be sure to check the end of the article. But you may still be wondering – what exactly is this place?
What is the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve?
The massive reserve is a protected area that’s spread across 490,186 hectares in both the states of Puebla and Oaxaca. Its name, in fact, is derived from the two main cities at either end of it – Tehuacán in Puebla and Cuicatlán in Oaxaca. The average visitor, however, will be coming from Tehuacán and will only see the part of the reserve located in Puebla’s Zapotitlán Valley.
The reserve is bordered by the Sierra Madre mountain range to the east and the Sierra Mixteca to the west. And it’s these mountains that block many of the rain clouds present in surrounding regions, giving the area its semi-arid climate. The average annual rainfall in the reserve is only 380-400 mm, and the contrast between here and the wet, humid climate of nearby Veracruz is tremendous, especially considering they’re just a few hours apart.
The Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve contains one of the highest concentrations of columnar cacti in the world. In fact, it’s home to no less than 45 different species out of the seventy in Mexico as a whole. In regards to fauna, the reserve is home to dozens of reptile and hundreds of bird species. And as we’ll cover below, the area even features ancient pre-Hispanic ruins.
The confusing part about visiting the reserve is that most of it lacks roads or trails of any kind, so it’s largely inaccessible to visitors. The experience, therefore, is quite different from visiting similar protected areas north of the border, such as California’s Mojave National Preserve.
When first planning my visit, I envisioned something like a National Park, complete with different sections and hiking trails. But in reality, visiting the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is more akin to visiting a botanical garden.
As we’ll cover below, the main part that visitors have access to is indeed called the Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollins. The spot was named after Helia Bravo Hollins, one of Mexico’s first biologists. Among various other subjects, she spent much of her career focusing on the succulents endemic to the arid regions of Mexico and made great contributions to the field.
The garden contains nearly 200 species of plants which can be found growing throughout the entire reserve. The upper portions of the area, meanwhile, are natural rather than manicured.
The Lower Garden
My minibus from Tehuacan (more below) arrived just as the reserve was opening at nine in the morning. At the time of writing, the Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollins is open daily from 9:00-17:00.
The basic entry fee is 90 pesos for foreigners and 45 for locals. And on top of the basic fee, you’ll have the option to hire a guide. While the guide is technically free, a tip is expected at the end.
Note that your guide will likely only be able to speak Spanish, so if you’re just a beginner at the language, you’re likely better off on your own.
You’ll find informational signs posted throughout the site which are also in Spanish only, though you could at least photograph those and translate them later.
As the name suggests, the lower portion of the Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollins is indeed a botanical garden created by humans, and it’s meant to serve as a showcase of the various species that be found throughout the entire reserve.
As we’ll cover shortly, the flora found around the upper levels of the site are completely natural and wild.
Among the species on display here are the cucharilla, an evergreen shrub native to Mexico and the yucca, a perennial shrub found throughout the Americas.
You’ll also see things like Dragon’s Blood, which, as my guide explained, has a wide variety of medicinal properties. For example, it’s antimicrobial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory – something locals have been aware for centuries.
Another fascinating plant is the beaucarnea, a succulent plant that almost looks like an overweight yucca. The particular species here is only found in the Tehuacán Valley, and some of the plants live to be hundreds of years old.
You’ll also find plenty of agave plants. For a long time, locals would extract fiber from agave which they would use for various products. But as my guide explained, it’s now so easy to import fiber from elsewhere that it’s seldom used in this area these days.
Agave, of course, is still widely used throughout Mexico for the production of alcoholic beverages like mezcal and tequila.
But if there’s anything the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is known for, it’s cacti. Among the various species on display at the lower garden are the xoconostle cactus, barrell cacus, garambullo cactus, nopal cactus, tencholote cactus, and of course, the towering tetecho, a type of columnar cactus.
As mentioned above, the reserve is home to one of the highest concentrations of columnar cacti in the world, and many of them are massive, Next, we began heading uphill to see more of them in the wild.
Up the Path
The taller a columnar cactus, the older it is. Cacti, like other plants, rely on photosynthesis to survive and grow. But they only open their stomata to absorb CO2 at night when temperatures are cooler.
Otherwise, they’d lose too much moisture in the heat. As a result, they grow extremely slowly. As such, those towering at around ten meters, for example, are estimated to be no less than 140 years old!
Not only are many of these cacti as tall as trees, but their interiors resemble wood. The substance is still used by locals for a wide variety of products, some of which can be seen at shops in the nearby town of Zapotitlán Salinas.
My guide also mentioned how many of them end up falling down if their roots become too weak. He also pointed out how some of them appear to be bent, as they tend to grow toward the sun.
Believe it or not, these massive plants that are able to survive in extreme conditions are actually quite vulnerable when young. In fact, young cacti can die when out in the open and require constant protection from other plants to survive.
These protective plants are referred to as ‘nurse plants,’ and they allow vulnerable young cacti to grow in a cooler temperature and a more humid environment. In the case of the tetecho, the young cacti rely on shelter from a plant known as ‘mimosa luisana.’
As we walked along the path, we encountered a lookout tower from which to view the surroundings. The view from up here was incredible, overlooking what could best be described as a cactus forest.
And then, after having walked along all the paved pathways, my guide told me that we’d seen everything. While the Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollins just takes an hour or so to see, there is indeed more that one can do at the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve.
But having had no idea until I got there, I didn’t come prepared…
The Reserve's History and Archaeology
The Tehuacán Valley is extremely important in human history, as it’s believed to be the very first place where humans first domesticated maize, squash and beans. And the area continued to be inhabited for millennia throughout the pre-Hispanic period.
While I had already visited the Tehuacán el Viejo ruins on a previous trip, I had no idea until my arrival that the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve contains ruins of its own.
The centuries-old stone ruins and tomb were built by the Popoloca people who still inhabit the region to this day. But it’s a long hike to reach the ruins, and there are no properly marked trails (nor do trails appear on any app).
As such, visitors must hire a local guide to make the journey which lasts around three hours roundtrip. I was quoted a very reasonable 350 pesos for the service, but I’d arrived completely unprepared for a long hike.
Not only was I not wearing my hiking boots, but I’d come without snacks or water. Hopefully, I can try it during a return visit.
Finished with the botanical garden, I next walked toward the town of Zapotitlán Salinas. It was about a twenty-minute walk along the highway, and while there were no official sidewalks, it was fairly easy to avoid traffic.
When researching the area, I found that Zapotitlán Salinas is often talked up as a destination in its own right. But what is there to do?
Frankly speaking, not a whole lot. While somewhat quaint and charming, the tiny town lacks the vibe or atmosphere that would qualify it to become a Pueblo Mágico, in my opinion.
It does, however, have a beautiful church called Parroquia San Martín Obispo that was established in the 16th century.
Aside from that, the main thing to do in Zapotitlán Salinas is to eat a cactus-based meal. That’s right – there are so many cacti in the region that they’ve become a staple of the local cuisine.
While several of the restaurants in the town center serve it, I happened to go with Ambar. My meal consisted of small, juicy pieces of columnar cactus together with some more typical nachos, beans and cheese. But my salsa, according to the menu, was made with ants!
There was actually an entire section of the menu dedicated to insect-based food, but I wasn’t feeling that daring.
While, as mentioned, Zapotitlán is the name of the local valley, Salinas is Spanish for ‘salt flats.’ And there are indeed salt flats that people can go and visit in the area, though they’re located north of the botanical garden and not walkable from town. Nor is there any bus stop close to the nearest parking lot.
And based on one source I read, getting to the flats requires a local guide. While I’m not completely sure, it may be possible to visit as part of your hike to the Popoloca ruins (see above). If you’re interested, be sure to ask at the botanical garden while you’re there.
As mentioned above, I went to the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve without knowing a whole lot and largely had to wing it. But if I had to do things over again, this is what I would do:
I would arrive at the Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollins just after opening at 9:00 and tour the area with a guide. But I would come prepared in advance with proper hiking shoes, snacks and water.
I would then arrange for a guided hike to the local ruins, which should take at least three hours roundtrip. (I’m still not sure if the salt flats would be included in such a tour, but it would be wise to ask.)
I would only bother to head over to the town of Zapotitlán Salinas if I still had time and energy left over. As mentioned, while the church is indeed beautiful, the only real reason to visit the town is for the novelty of eating the local cactus-based cuisine.
If you have a rental car, getting to the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve is pretty straightforward. But many travelers in Mexico do not, so what follows are instructions on how to reach the reserve via public transportation.
While you may just manage to squeeze in a visit to the reserve as a day trip from Puebla, it’s highly recommended to spend a night or two in Tehuacán.
To get to the Biosphere Reserve from Tehuacán, you’ll need to take a bus bound for the town of Zapotitlán Salinas. First, head to C. Josefa Ortiz de Domingues, just west of the Monument to Miguel Hidalgo (see map above). As routes can change from time to time, it would be wise to confirm the exact spot in advance with someone at your hotel.
At the time of my visit, buses departed every half an hour and cost 17 pesos, but things are always subject to change on these local routes. Again, it’s best to confirm with a local ahead of time if you can.
You’ll want to get off at the Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollins which comes before Zapotitlán Salinas, so be sure to remind your driver when you pass it. In total, the ride from Tehuacán should take about 30-40 minutes.
Coming back, simply wait at a bus stop along the main highway and flag down the next bus headed for Tehuacán.
In the city of Tehuacán, I stayed at Ken Tehuacán, which has comfortable rooms and is conveniently centrally located. It’s a small yet modern hotel situated above a Japanese restaurant, and the location was ideal for getting to the bus stop for the reserve.
It’s also possible to stay in Zapotitlán Salinas itself. At the time of writing, these cabañas are the only option available on Booking.
Currently, there are no tours to the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve available on any of the typical booking websites. As such, you’ll likely have to go about it independently.
This is one of the only comprehensive articles about the reserve I’ve come across, and the author does mention going with a guide. But it appears to have been arranged privately with the author’s personal acquaintance.