A short, hour drive from downtown Mexico
City takes you to the fresh air and the dense pine and oak forests
of Desierto de los Leones, Mexico's first national park.
Located in the 3,000-meter high mountains on the southwestern side
of the valley, the abundant springs were the major water source
for Mexico City and the dense forests attracted pilgrims and loggers
The name of the park, which translates to 'Desert of the Lions'
might appear misleading. If you're looking for Lawrence of Arabia-type
sands, you will be disappointed.
This is not a desert but an area named for its (one-time) inaccessibility.
The Desierto is a pleasant retreat, made even sweeter by occasional
Sunday concerts at the Carmelite monastery (completed in 1611) in
the center of the park.
The Carmelites believed that they should worship in a house in
the wilderness to honor their spiritual founder, Saint Elias as
well as Santa Teresa de Jesus and San Juan de la Cruz.
The barefoot Carmelites took vows of virtue, isolation, poverty
and silence. They built their convent -- Desierto de los Leones,
named after the Leones family who were the monks' lawyers and spent
almost 200 years paying homage to God in the wilderness.
As the centuries passed, Mexico City grew, so much so that the
urban encroachment made the region not secluded enough for the spiritual
pilgrims, so the monks moved to the town of Tenancingo, and the
Desierto de Los Leones monastery became an "ex-convent" in 1801.
The dense forests caught the eye of investors and in the 1880s
Mexico City officials encouraged logging in the area - so much so
that the excessive forestry caused a diminished flow from the springs
that fed the Mexico City population. It was one of the clearest
cases that deforestation had severe consequences in the country.
As a result, a few years later, when the Mexico City government
auctioned off land in the Desierto, it was with the proviso that
the buyers agreed to conserve the springs and not cut down trees
protecting the underground watershed.
Such noble intentions did not go unchallenged, however. In 1914
Mexican president Victoriano Huerta proposed to convert the forest
reserve into a casino operation. Huerta had various schemes - such
as transplanting of trees from Mexico City streets to his ranch
in the northern Mexico City district of Azcapotzalco - but this
proposal of converting the park into a casino went bust amidst the
bustle of the ongoing Revolution.
To safeguard the forests, Mexico's premier conservationist Miguel
Angel de Quevedo (source of the name for the "Quevedo" metro stop)
urged President Venustiano Carranza to establish Desierto de los
Leones as Mexico's first national park in 1917.
While the forests in this park and the Ajusco mountains in general
still function as the lungs of Mexico City, they are not immune
to environmental degradation. Prevailing wind patterns in the valley
affect the forests and pollution contributed to a die-off of oyamel
firs in Desierto de los Leones in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1996 government
officials launched a new program called "S.O.S. Operation Desert"
that combines reforestation programs, agroforestry, and new natural
management techniques to boost the trees' health. Woodpeckers have
been re-introduced into the forests to help restore balance to the