The Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve is a rugged 3000 meter high mountain range covered in lush tropical jungle just four hours driving North of Querétaro city, the capital of Querétaro state in Mexico. It is one of the most ecologically rich and diverse places in Mexico with some excellent hiking opportunities and several interesting cultural sites.
For more photos see https://www.flickr.com/photos/brijsman/albums/72177720305165677
Jalpan de Serra
The small town of Jalpan de Serra is very centrally located and makes the perfect home base for visiting the Sierra Gorda. It is one of 132 Pueblos Mágicos, considered to be the most charming villages in Mexico.
There are a handful of hotels in town. Our personal favorite is la Casita Ecológica where you can enjoy the peace and quiet of the forest, surrounded by the tropical trees and just the sounds of the birds. It is a fifteen minute drive out of town, so you will need your own car. The little villas are very charming, but Internet and hot water are very limited, and they use composting toilets.
There are also a handful of restaurants in town. Our personal favorites are Kawa Coffee for coffee and breakfast, Antojitos Gus Gus a popular place with great Mexican food outside of town close to Casita Ecológica, and La Casita de Alex has a great view over Jalpan town and okay food.
All the activities in the Sierra Gorda are far apart, so it’s best to have your own car. The roads are good, so a normal passenger car is fine. You get rent cars in Mexico City (a 6 hour drive to Jalpan) or in Querétaro city (a 3 hour drive). You can also get to Jalpan by public bus, but then you will have to rely on organized tours to visit the various sites.
Jardín Escultórico Edward James (Las Pozas)
The Jardín Escultórico Edward James, also known as Las Pozas, is the most amazing and most visited site in the Sierra Gorda.
Edward James was a Scottish poet and sculptor. Having inherited a vast fortune, he was an avid patron of the arts and friends with surrealist painters including Salvador Dali and René Magritte.
While traveling through Mexico, James decided to build a sort of Garden of Eden in an 80 acre plot of tropical rainforest with waterfalls and pools (Pozas) near the village of Xilitla in the Sierra Gorda. Between 1949 and 1984, he employed over 100 local workers to build scores of very whimsical and eccentric surrealist concrete structures. They used to be very colorful, but by now the colors are fading and structures are slowly being swallowed by the surrounding jungle, which makes them even more mystical and magical. James also used to keep many exotic animals and beds of tropical plants. At one point, there were close to 30,000 orchids on the property, but they were all killed in a freak snow storm.
To visit Las Pozas you must make an online reservation for a specific time slot on the website. You should do this several days in advance as they often sell out. You should present yourself 10 minutes before the designated time slot to get a guided tour which takes about an hour. Print or download your ticket since there is no cell coverage there. There are tours in English twice a day at 10am and 3pm. It is worthwhile to take a tour in English even if you speak Spanish since the group sizes are typically much smaller. Before they introduced the reservation system during the pandemic, the queueing time for the ticket office often exceeded 3 or even 5 hours. There is also a brand-new small museum on the other side of the road from the entrance which is worth a visit.
Las Pozas are located a few minutes north of the town of Xilitla which is a two hour drive east of Jalpan over good but curvy roads. While in Xilitla to visit Las Pozas, you should definitely visit the Museo Leonora Carrington and you may find it worthwhile to visit Cueva el Salitre and the Ex-Convento.
Museo Leonora Carrington
The scruffy town of Xilitla hosts the surprisingly modern and beautiful Museo Leonora Carrington. It contains a collection of large surrealist sculptures made by British artist Leonora Carrington who lived in Mexico and was a friend of Edward James.
Cueva del Salitre
The Cueva del Salitre is a massive cave on the outskirts of Xilitla. It makes for a mildly interesting short stop if you’re in town anyway for Las Pozas. From the parking lot, it is a short 10 minute hike down a marked path before you get to the cave. The cave is supposed to be home to thousands of parakeets but we did not see any when we were there in the afternoon. Supposedly they leave in the morning and come back in the evening.
Ex Convento San Augustin
The Ex Convento of San Augustin is not particularly beautiful or interesting when compared to the Missions, but since it is free and located very close to the Museo Leonora Carrington, you may as well saunter in for a quick look around.
The Franciscan Missions
The five Franciscan Missions of the Sierra Gorda are a not-to-be-missed UNESCO world heritage site. Each one of the missions is a church with elaborate colorful decorations on the facade. This insides tend to be simple and sober.
The missions are spread out over several locations in the Sierra Gorda:
- The Santiago de Jalpan mission in Jalpan de Serra.
- The San Miguel Concá mission in Concá.
- The Nuestra Señora de la Luz de Tancoyol mission in Tancoyol.
- The San Francisco de Asís del Valle de Tilaco mission in Tilaco.
- The Santa María de la Purísima Concepción del Agua de Landa mission in Landa de Matamores.
It makes sense to visit the last three on the way to Xilitla, as you can see in the following rough map.
Puente de Dios
Puente de Dios is a very scenic river passing through a natural rock bridge formation, where it it is fed by waterfalls appearing out of nothing from underground rivers. It’s a 30 minute walk through a lush tropical canyon.
The entrance is 25 km (35 min) South-West from Jalpan, on the road to Querétaro. There is an entrance fee and you will be assigned a guide. Or, if you do the Pinal de Amoles hike mentioned below, you will actually pass through the cave (wading knee-deep through water) along the hike.
Mirador Quatros Palos
The Mirador Quatros Palos, about 1.5 hours driving out of Jalpan, is a viewpoint located on one of the highest mountain tops of the Sierra Gorda. It is a very popular spot for tourists to view the sunrise, leaving from Jalpan at 5am or staying in the hotel at the Mirador itself. The views are indeed spectacular, but it is quite a circus, with hundreds of cars at the parking lot. In fact, you need to make a reservation in advance and fill in waiver forms just to pass the checkpoint a few km before the parking lot if you go by your own car (as opposed to an organized tour). We went here only because it is the starting point for a fantastic hike to Bucareli (see below).
The Sierra Gorda mountains are very rugged with steep mountains and deep canyons. The vegetation varies from pine trees to lush dense jungle depending on the altitude which varies from 300 to 3100 meters. It would be ideal for hiking, but unfortunately Mexico doesn’t have much hiking infrastructure in terms of marked trails etc. Still we managed to find a few challenging long day hikes:
- Pinal de Amoles to Escanelilla. A 17 km hike through mountain pine forests and canyon jungles over tiny trails passing through Puente de Dios along the way.
- Quatros Palos to Bucareli. A 13 km hike starting from Mirador Quatros Palos and ending in Bucareli where you can visit the exconvento with amazing views of the surrounding mountains and desert during the entire hike.
- Cerro del Sappo. A short but steepish 5 km hike to the top of a small mountain with great views from the top. This is a nice little hike to do when you visit the mission in Tilaco.
I recommend hiking with a guide for the first two hikes. The trail for the Pinal de Amoles hike is difficult to find. And for the Quatros Palos hike it is difficult to get to the entry point and back out from the exit point. Our guide was Erick Guevara and he was very good.
While hiking from Quatros Palos to Bucareli we also came across some signs for Camino San Junipero Serra, a 200 km long pelgrimage hike from Querétaro to Jalpan with stops in communities along the way which was inaugurated in 2019.
Puerta del Cielo
The last and least tourist attraction on my list is the Puerta del Cielo near the town of Pinal de Amoles. At 2600 meters, this is the highest point on the highway towards Jalpan. There really is absolutely nothing to see here – it is just a stretch of tarmac highway just like any other. But for some hilarious reason, it is an obligatory stop for Mexicans to risk their lives by taking a photo of themselves standing in the middle of the road with traffic raging by in both directions.