Tips for Preserving our Desert Cacti

IT'S A FOUR-HOUR BUS RIDE NORTHWEST FROM MEXICO CITY to San Miguel de Allende, a trip that takes the traveler far from streets choking with smog, factories belching smoke, body shops engulfed in clouds of paint fumes–far from people, people, people .

But San Miguel in the middle of a fiesta is not much of a refuge. My wife and I arrived there recently for Easter weekend to find ourselves in the middle of the Mexican version of Spring Break. Hordes of drunken day-trippers from Mexico City packed every bar and restaurant and roamed the downtown streets whooping, crowding, and belting off-key serenades.

Walking up to the church of the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri, I was met by an army of street sweepers in orange jumpsuits busily cleaning up the refuse from the day's Good Friday procession. Billows of dust and manzanillo petals swirled in the air, mingling with the diesel exhaust of buses disgorging an endless stream of new arrivals ready to party. el charco del ingenio caring for cactiThat night, as I tossed and turned, there was a constant clamoring of church bells that sounded neither romantic nor exotic–more like a John Cage composition of sheet metal percussion playing an endless loop in my brain. I've never considered myself a cranky traveler, but this was too much. Even my wife was muttering about finding some over-the-counter Valium. But the next day, someone suggested that we flee the city and take a stroll through the region's newest and most un-resortlike attraction–the botanical preserve called El Charco del Ingenio, The Pool of the Ingenious One.

The Charco, which draws its name from its series of rock pools and from the fact that the term ingenio was traditionally applied in colonial America to those who constructed waterworks, covers more than 160 acres on the plateau above San Miguel. Although only 15 minutes from the center of town by taxi, it is so far off the beaten tourist track that even my cabdriver didn't know where it was. I had him drop me at Gigante, the huge, ugly, orange-and-pink neo-deco supermarket that sits coincidentally close to the new prison. I trudged over the dusty plain, through a local dump decorated with what looked like the remains of a love gone sour–underwear, rebozos and shoes tossed angrily among burnt cans and broken rum bottles–and followed a dirt road that led to a wide wooden gate. Here was El Charco del Ingenio. And for five pesos, peace was mine.