Our trip to Zapotitlán Salinas is a perfect representation of why we are slow travelers. When you’re not in a hurry and have the privilege of staying in places longer, you get to know them and discover things you never knew existed. Zapotitlán Salinas is truly off the beaten path and honestly, it’s lucky we even heard about it. It’s an ecofriendly place for nature lovers who love alien landscapes.
Adventure to Zapotitlán Salinas
Shortly after moving to Oaxaca we met some new friends. One of them happens to run personal tours and he wrote to us asking if we’d like to join him and another couple on a two-day road trip to Zapotitlán. After a few weeks of solitude and spending way too much time behind our laptops, we said yes without giving any thought to it.
He didn’t say much about it or hype it up in any way so we didn’t know what to expect. Cruising down Highway 135 in his clunker for two hours, stopping only for tacos and tolls, we were on a mission. Reaching the small town of Tehuacán we followed the signs toward Zapotitlán Salinas and into another dimension.
Suddenly we were winding down a valley passed billboards beckoning us to see dinosaur footprints and into a sea of cacti. We thought we were going on a quick trip to a small village, not one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen in Mexico.
It was the golden hour when we got to Zapotitlán and entered through the rusty gates of the Helia Bravo Hollis Botanical Garden. We seriously couldn’t believe our eyes! All of the cacti we saw on the drive over were now surrounding us…
Helia Bravo Hollis Botanical Garden
First, a little background on the botanic garden. Helia Bravo Hollis was a famous (and badass) botanist and cactus expert. In 1927, she became the first certified Biologist in Mexico and in 1951 she helped found the Mexican Cactus Society. Her contributions to plant studies are so significant that six species of cacti have been named in her honor.
This botanical garden is a sliver of the larger Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve. Over 80 species of cacti can be found in the park and many of them are endemic to the area. Some are in danger of extinction, but fortunately, the park is well protected. Cutting down any cacti here now comes with stiff penalties and years of jail time.
A twilight walk to the salt mines
You’ll need a local guide for hiking. Our guide Maurilio was a jovial guy and a descendant of the Popoloca people. One of two pre-Hispanic civilizations that first inhabited the area, between 1000-1560 AD. He was well informed on the different flora and fauna in the area and spoke great English.
That evening he took us on a pleasant walk to the salinas (salt mines) that his ancestors have been using for generations. The soil in the Zapotitlán Valley has high salt content, from when it was a seabed millions of years ago. Maurilio points out marine fossils in the rocks to us along the way. He also explains how onyx is extracted and used by local artisans to make handicrafts.
The salinity of the Zapotitlán soil combined with the hot arid climate is what allows the salt to be cultivated. I put a little crystal on the tip of my tongue and wow was it salty! Be sure to taste some, it definitely tastes likes the ocean. The salt has become a major commodity for Zapotitlán.
Maurilio told us stories about niñas fantasmas or ghosts of children that were sacrificed behind the salt mines when ancient people longed for the rains to come. When the Spanish arrived they outlawed sacrifices and supplanted the holy site with a cross.
Just as we returned to our cabin the last light of the day disappeared over the mountains. Maurilio then led us through a traditional prayer and musical performance of the Popoloca people. The tradition involves blowing a conch shell horn while facing north, south, east, and west. Standing together under the night sky he asked us to raise our hands up as he blew the horn. It was powerful, the sound was echoing throughout the entire valley. Between each turn he recited prayers in the Nahuatl and Popoloca languages, asking for blessings from mother nature.
Staying the night
After our hike, we were pretty hungry so we went down the road to town for dinner at Ambar restaurant. Two of the more interesting things we ate were the edible cactus fruits tetecha and garambullo. The tetecha was cooked in a sauce and the garambullo was made into a bright pink juice. We liked both! You can also sample local insects like gusano cuchamá (caterpillar). We got some delicious discs of homemade chocolate there that I still dream about.
Following dinner, we went to see the Iglesia San Martin Obispo church and wander around a little bit. Being the boozehounds that we are, we decided to go to the bodega and buy some beer. It was time to go back and start a campfire. With the cacti surrounding us lit up by the flickering flames, it was the perfect nightcap. We spent the next few hours listening to music, stargazing, and making jokes around the fire.
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Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve
The next morning we returned to town for breakfast and met our guide for the next adventure. We hopped into the back of his red pickup truck and drove to another trailhead in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve.
We went on a 3-hour roundtrip hike that became the highlight of our trip. Hiking in a landscape dominated by columns of tall cacti feels otherworldly and the views looking down into the valley are spectacular. Along the trail, Maurilio pointed out different plants, insects, and small animals. It dawned on me that what I really loved about this experience was simultaneously exercising and learning.
On the other hand, I didn’t love seeing Tiger Spiders. Even though they’re apparently not dangerous, one lady we were with walked into a web, so pay attention! There are thousands of cacti species, but most are one of three different shapes inside the park: organ (tall), biznaga (spherical), and nopal (flat). By the end of it, you feel like a cactus aficionado.
From the top of the trail, we saw Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltépetl), the largest mountain in Mexico and third highest in North America rising to 5,636 meters (18,491 ft). It’s part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, a range of active volcanoes that cover central-southern Mexico. The peak is snow-capped year-round, so you’ll know it when you see it.
Other facts and useful tips
- Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollis is located in Zapotitlán Salinas. A small town in Puebla state about 225km from Oaxaca City.
- The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 2018.
- A local guide will set you back 100 pesos per person.
- If you want to stay the night, there are several different cabaña sizes depending on your needs. Our single cost us 550 pesos ($29).
- There are also tent and sleeping bag rentals available for camping.
- Firewood is available for campfires, just ask for it.
How to get there
Renting a car or hiring a driver is the easiest way, but also the most expensive.
If you’re on a tight budget you can catch an ADO bus from either Puebla or Oaxaca to Tehuacán. Keep in mind that the website doesn’t accept foreign credit cards, you’ll have to buy tickets at the bus station. Next, you’ll need to arrange another ride from Tehuacán to the Helia Bravo Hollis Garden.
However you decide to go there, remember to slow down and stay awhile, it might become your new favorite park!
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Can you remember a time when you stumbled upon an incredible place by chance or accident? Let us know below…