Let’s face it.
Escaping Mexico City can be a great thing.
Now more than ever.
So much so that one would think that this unrestrained monster we call the Federal District, and the paranoia revolving around it, is a modern phenomenon.
Time to think again.
In the early 1700s a century-old community of monks, dwelling along the southwest edge of the Valley of Mexico, were terribly concerned about the encroaching society of the nation’s nearby capital.
It turned out that the Carmelitas at Santo Desierto de Los Montes de Sante Fe eventually left their sacred ground in search of the ultimate hideaway.
Perhaps it was divine intervention.
Today the cradle of their order is the main attraction at Desierto de los Leones, a forested part of Mexico City where thousands peruse the abandoned monastery and picnic in its gardens.
Meanwhile, however, the Carmelitas having found their paradise a few hundred miles to the east in the town of Tenancingo in the State of Mexico are enjoying the silent meditation and prayer they are accustomed to.
Since 1796 (with the exception of a few periods when anti-clerical trends and/or military occupations forced an evacuation of the area), the brothers have meditated, prayed and educated their own atop a secluded, misty mountain that overlooks the luscious valley of Tenancingo.
They and the locals call the sacred place El Carmen de Tenacingo. You won’t find your average tourist here. In fact, you probably won’t encounter any. But for sheer beauty it’s one of Mexico’s best kept secrets.
And if you’re a Federal District kind of person—you know, the kind who inhales large doses of carbon monoxide on a daily basis—why not make an exodus of your own and discover some of that peace and tranquility. Times have changed and the Carmelitas don’t mind visitors as long as they are quiet and respect the beauty of their holy grounds.
Actually the middle-of-nowhere 15-minute drive up the mountain, with its single-lane, unpaved road, does not encourage large groups of tourists. Nevertheless it’s worth the trouble for anyone enchanted with Mexican ecclesiastical heritage or far-out colonial spots. And if you consider the nearby Malinalco pre-Hispanic ruins, the “Nevado de Toluca” volcano and the charming pueblo of Tenancingo, it starts to look like the culmination of a great country day out.
The monastery includes a large Neoclassical church, spectacular gardens, mountain-top views, rooms for retreat/prayer groups (like rooms you would find in a 5-star historic hotel), and a “clausura” a restricted men-only area where the monks and their apprentices eat, sleep, pray meditate and learn. Inside the church is a wealth of 17th-century paintings and sculptures, some of which have been or are in the process of being restored by students at the National School of Restoration.
Of particular note is “La Dolorosa,” a rare and beautiful statue adorned with hundreds of offerings from poor campesinos who live in nearby villages.
A good time to see the church is on Sundays when a few Masses are held during morning hours. The church is surprisingly filled with devout locals who literally come out of the forest from all directions to listen to the sermon and place flowers below the various saintly symbols.
Although some attractive features are completely off-limits to travelers, the main garden, “Jardin de la Cruz,” is open at various intervals during the day. The view of the valley is heavenly. It’s no wonder that this is the monk’s garden of choice for deep meditation.
Many of the young clerics have taken a vow of silence for their training and are hardly seen. There are few women around (they mostly make up the kitchen staff) and the boys are forbidden any contact. However, according to an inside source (an old groundskeeper) it hasn’t been uncommon in the past for a lad to abandon the area and the monkhood in some kind of love-struck euphoria.
For those who stay, there are vegetable gardens, a small population of livestock, horses and a wide variety of trees. But the monks aren’t totally self-sufficient or isolated as in the good ol’ days: they leave for the city or have others visit with supplies on a steady basis. There’s also a small gift shop which offers religious articles and a book on the history of the Carmelitas in Mexico. Judging by their story, it’s amazing not to find for sale some tacky bumper sticker like “Welcome to the Desierto, now go home.” However, the store does have a telephone if you want to drop a line.
Tel.: (01) 727-02-288.
How To Get There
By Car: Take the Toluca Highway (Carretera Toluca) from Mexico City. Take the Malinalco exit (Deviación Malinalco) and continue until the intersection (cruce) Malinalco-Tenancingo. Take the Tenancingo highway (it’s actually a worn-down, two lane road) to the city of Tenancingo. Continue and watch for signs of El Carmen de Tenancingo. There is only one exit and road to the monastery. Most locals can point visitors in the right direction. It’s a bumpy, mountain road. Take your time and enjoy the scenery.
Estimated travel time: two hours.
By Bus: At the bus station located at Metro Observatorio,take the bus to Tenancingo. The driver will leave passengers at the Central Camionera in Tenancingo. From there take a taxi to El Carmen de Tenancingo. Estimated travel time: two hours and 30 minutes. WARNING: If you are going to arrive in Tenancingo after 6 p.m. the bus will leave passengers at a stop along the highway. From there you can choose to take a 20-peso taxi ride to the monastery or take a 5-peso colectivo.
- Jonathan Whitaker is a freelance journalist currently based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
ANNOTATION – By Ron Mader
Endangered – Nearly 200 years after the Carmelite monks left the area, an encroaching Mexico City still threatens the Desierto de los Leones
A short, one-day side trip from 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 on the western side of the valley, the abundant springs were the major water source for Mexico City and the dense forests attracted pilgrims and loggers alike.
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 sorely 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. They built their convent and spent almost two hundred 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 of deforestation having 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 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 affected the forests and pollution contributed to a die-off of oyamel firs in Desierto de los Leones in the early 1980s. Weakened by pollution, the trees are plagued by small burrowing worms that lodge themselves between the bark and the trunk, interrupting the flow of sap.
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 are being re-introduced into the forests to help restore balance to the ecosystem. The history of this park is far from over.
Ron Mader is the author of the guidebook Mexico: Adventures in Nature and host of the popular Planeta.com: Eco Travels in Latin America website ( https://www.planeta.com).