It's one of Mexico's best kept secrets, a biosphere rich in wildlife and nature, clothed in a sea of green in the cloud forests of a unique and mysterious region. Welcome to El Cielo and a close-up encounter with raw nature...
It's a place of great mystery and boundless surprises; a rare ecological wonder just a few hours across the Texas-Mexican International Bridge at Brownsville. La Reserva Biosfera El Cielo, or Mexico's El Cielo Biosphere Park, is a 356,442 acre reserve that spans four distinct ecological systems and ranges in elevation from just a few hundred feet above sea level to well over 7,500-feet at the peak of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains in the state of Tamaulipas.
The reserve is known for its spectacular cloud forest that serves as a rainwater catchment for the low tropical forest and commercial agricultural region to the east and southeast. El Cielo was established in 1985 by the state Secretariat of Social Development - Tamaulipas (SEDESOL). Shortly after establishment, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) accepted El Cielo as a Biosphere Reserve (MAB) of international significance.
For 30 years, until the 1960's, commercial lumber companies worked the
mountains of El Cielo in Northeastern Mexico. It was then acknowledged that
the area's biodiversity was among the highest in the world - it lies on the climate
transitional zone between North and Central America.
The mountain range catches the warm, moist winds of the Gulf of Mexico, turning them into rain clouds that dump meters of water upon the mountains each year. The tropical forest around the town of Gomez Farias near El Cielo is a paradise for bird watchers with species such as the warbling vireo, amethyst-throated hummingbird and least pygmy-owl.
The reserve is open to travelers willing to venture off paved roads for fantastic views of unusual wildlife and dramatic vistas. Just donít confuse it with Rancho del Cielo, a biological research site within the preserve operated by UTB/TSC that strictly limits visitors.
El Cielo is a state park covering about 560 square miles of isolated mountains and valleys. It is located 230 miles south of Brownsville. From humid tropical forest to dry chaparral, rocky spires and sinkhole caves, El Cielo offers diverse habitat for animals and plants and provides rustic accommodations for ecotourists.
Tucked in a valley beneath soaring mountains and abundant foliage, the village of Alta Cima appears upbeat, even in the rain. Phone and power lines donít reach here, but the government has provided residents with high-tech solar panels that perch outside the mud-and-wattle, tin-roofed houses. Orange-flowering vines crown giant avocado trees in the downtown section of the village, which is actually an exceptional place to observe birds, along with burros and goats, amid the banana and guava trees and rock fences.
In Alta Cima, the Hotel El Pino offers cabins (11 rooms) with baths, for about 200 pesos ($20) per night, with coffee and fresh pan dulce delivered to your door every morning. A bare light bulb (solar powered) shines down on comfortable beds with plenty of blankets.
In addition to a varied plant life, wildlife in the area include the feared Mexican jaquar. Safety should be taken when venturing into the forest alone. El Cielo includes four distinct eco-systems: tropical jungle, mountain forest, pine-oak forest and dwarf oak and heath forest.
Most of the recreational options are centered in Alta Cima, located inside the reserve and offering rustic lodging and some services. There is a variety of hiking ranging from a short interpretive trail, half-day hikes or long treks through the jungle.