In December I had the opportunity to explore the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. I traveled with Tam Warner Minton of Travels with Tam and Red Travel Mexico. Red Travel Mexico is an eco-friendly travel agency based in La Paz. The trip included Scuba diving at the Cabo Pulmo Hope Spot, exploring the Sierra de La Laguna Biosphere Reserve, and enjoying the “sunsational” Playa Balandra. These remote and protected areas were a welcome alternative to the more popular and glitzy Cabo San Lucas.
Sustainable Tourism, EcoTourism, Agritourism; what does it all mean?
These names have become buzz words across the tourist industry. An altruistic traveler gets lost in the nebulous definitions and details. Let’s see if we can hone in on helpful specifics.
Ecotourism Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples… International Union for Conservation of Nature
Agritourism The practice of touring agricultural areas to see farms and often to participate in farm activities… Websters
Sustainable tourism Tourism that respects both local people and the traveler, cultural heritage and the environment’. It seeks to provide people with an exciting and educational holiday that is also of benefit to the people of the host country…United Nations
These are official definitions but travel and tour agencies can use them indiscriminately. Often ecotourism refers simply to travel in natural areas and leaves out the important emphasis on conservation, education, traveler responsibility and active community participation. If these vital components are included, ecotourism moves into the realm of sustainable tourism.
While I value responsible travel and supporting the local economy, my favorite opportunities involve actually interacting and learning from the local peoples. After years as a traveler and several volunteering experiences, I am convinced it is developing relationships that makes the most memorable trips.
Biosphere Reserve Sierra de La Laguna
Down the center of the Peninsula runs a chain of mountain ranges. The southernmost range is the isolated Sierra de La Laguna. UNESCO designated this range a Biosphere Reserve in 1994. The range represents dry forests and scrub land on the lower slopes, pine-oak forests at higher elevations, with beautiful oases and waterfalls along the river basins. UNESCO, an arm of the United Nations developed the Biosphere program to advance “Science for Sustainability”.
We headed across Baja backroads to the Rancho Ecologico el Refugio. This tranquil setting about 90 minutes north of Cabo San Lucas, exemplifies sustainable ecotourism. Rogelio Rosas Lopez, the leader of the settlement proudly guided us around his “refuge”. Lopez is a biologist, botanist, geologist agriculturist artist and ornithologist. He and his family lived in open air shelters, using all their environmental resources judiciously and lovingly.
Farmer Rogelio showed us his small sustainable fields. We gathered delicate squash flowers for our later meal. Avocados at various stages of sprouting scattered the property. The soft clinking of bells on cows just out of sight filled the air. Cacao trees burst with coffee berries and jars of honey told of hives somewhere nearby.
Botanist Rogelio pointed out indigenous trees and flora. He explained their human uses and importance to the ecosystem.
Artist Rogelio demonstrated his leatherworking. A small grove served as tannery, workshop and gallery. It was obvious that everything from the cattle was resourcefully put to use.
Geologist Rogelio took us bouldering along the river bed. We rode small waterfalls like a water slide, and splashed through crystal clear water. The unique ecosytems were displayed in front of us. It became apparent what motivated UNESCO to set this region aside for protection.
Sustenance for Sustainable Tourists
Rogelio’s final performance was to serve us lunch. The first act was to teach us how to form tortillas from a ball of dough. Cooking over an open fire, the warm tortillas browned up. The local cheese melted over our freshly harvested squash flowers. Steaming in a massive kettle was their homemade chorizo. A campfire coffeepot brewed the roasted coffee beans from the cacao trees on our hike. Finally, the golden honey from the nearby hives sweetened the deal.
This was an extraordinary day and opportunity to meet local environmental champions. The love that Rogelio has for every living thing in his refuge is palpable and encouraging. If you get the opportunity to visit the Baja Peninsula, be sure to meet Rogelio and his Rancho Ecológico El Refugio.