WHEN I FIRST HEARD ABOUT EL CIELO, the forest in the mists, I thought it must be a mythical place. I could hardly imagine a cool, verdant cloud forest, with ferns, orchids, macaws, and lofty alpine meadows, all within a day’s drive of the Texas border in the dusty state of Tamaulipas. Although it was named a biosphere reserve by the United Nations back in 1985, El Cielo (which means “the sky” or “heaven”) has remained something of a secret, hidden high within the eastern folds of the Sierra Madres. Clouds drifting inland from the Gulf of Mexico, trapped by the mountains, linger and drop more than 120 inches of rain a year on the forest, creating a treasure trove of biodiversity—a rare crossroads where a jumble of flora and fauna from north and south come together in startling proximity.
El Cielo has been protected, in part, by its remoteness. It lies less than three hundred miles south of the border, but it feels as mysterious and otherworldly as any place I’ve been in Mexico. And it’s not an easy place to visit. Getting there is difficult, and there are no travelers’ amenities within the cloud forest other than a couple of research stations and, on the far edge of the forest, a primitive lodge in a tiny village named Alta Cima. The entire reserve is officially off-limits to the general public—the government is still working out a policy to protect the place while balancing the interests of tourism and the local economy—but the reserve’s administrative office, located in Ciudad Victoria, about fifty miles north of El Cielo, will usually grant permission to visitors who express an interest in learning about the cloud forest’s unique ecology. (We faxed our request to the office and received a prompt reply by phone.) With no fences or entry gates to mark its boundaries, El Cielo currently operates on the honor system.
The State of Tamaulipas maintains a research station called El Canindo in the upper reaches of the cloud forest with dormitory-style bunkhouses that must be reserved in advance. They were booked on the only nights in March when my husband and I could get away, but we were able to reserve a room with bunk beds at El Pino, the tiny lodge in Alta Cima, which, a friend who had stayed there told me, is a step or two above camping in a tent. (The hot water at both places can be intermittent at best.) The villagers who run El Pino keep an office in Ciudad Victoria through a nonprofit group called Terra Nostra (when you call for reservations, you should be aware that no one there speaks English).
For our first night in El Cielo, we arranged to stay at the other research station, Rancho del Cielo. It has been administered since the sixties by Texas Southmost College, part of the University of Texas at Brownsville, more recently in conjunction with the Gorgas Science Foundation, a Brownsville-based nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and teaching. (Because Rancho del Cielo was known to so many scientists and researchers, it lent its name to the whole biosphere.) Ordinarily, Rancho del Cielo is open only to students, researchers, and twice a year, small groups of birders. But we happened to be arriving between scheduled student groups, and Larry Lof, the station’s director, agreed to help us discover what makes El Cielo such an ecological treasure.
The only way to get to El Cielo is by car, and the closest border towns are Brownsville and McAllen, where you can buy food and water and exchange your dollars for pesos. Before crossing, it is necessary to buy Mexico car insurance (Sanborn’s, a reputable company, has offices in San Antonio and most border towns). In Reynosa, just across the border from McAllen, we made the required stops at the immigration and nearby Banjercito (state bank) offices, completing the paperwork for taking our pickup into Mexico and paying $10 for a car permit, and emerged with a silver car-shaped permit to stick on our windshield.
Right away we realized that reaching El Cielo would be something of a test—an ascent to heaven through various trials of fortitude. We had already violated the first rule of road travel in Mexico by scheduling an appointment at our destination, the timing of which left little leeway for the vicissitudes of traffic, weather, road hazards, and law enforcement. In fact, the drive from the border to El Cielo, which usually takes about six hours, would take us seven with no stops.
The first test was an unexpected trial by water—the first thirty or so miles of Mexico Highway 97 south of the border were flooded from a downpour the day before, and we had to drive on faith, following the wake of other cars and trucks through the deep slosh. We were heartened by the sight of the “Green Angels,” the bright green tow trucks operated by the government for the benefit of tourists, waiting at the other end of the flood.
After about a hundred more miles, we merged with Mexico 101, heading toward Ciudad Victoria. The next hurdle was the trial by construction—miles and miles of single-lane traffic along sheer drop-offs and detours onto dirt roads. Once the ambitious improvements to the highway are completed, the driving will be considerably easier. (On our return home, we took a different route, through Monterrey and Laredo, and found the driving less stressful.) It was the trial by truck, though, that was the most harrowing. Once we took the clearly marked bypass around Ciudad Victoria to head south on Mexico 85 toward El Cielo, the surface of the road became washboard bumpy and the truck traffic had us pinned in, with truckers in both directions often trying to pass on blind curves. We began gauging the relative peril of various stretches of road by counting the roadside shrines, little more than crevices carved into rock ledges.
Things got much better when we passed the