Take the highway east from San Miguel de Allende. Shortly after crossing the Guanajuato-Querétaro state line the tiny community of La Monja appears. There a roadside sign points out the winding cobblestone road to Parque Joya. Billed as an ecological park, we anticipated a place of natural features and good hiking. Four of us set out to explore it one early morning.
The park was created in 2003. More than 600 acres of ejido land were set aside to preserve some of the last unspoiled country near Querétaro.
A couple of steep trails provide access to the park features: panoramic views, cool forests, abundant wildflowers.
Away from the forest canopy, rocks exposed to sunshine host colorful lichens, those unlikely symbioses of fungi and algae.
Steep trails offer glimpses of the park picnic grounds, well developed with concrete shelters, picnic tables and parrillas. The John Muir Wilderness this isn't, and appropriately so. Mexicans are far less likely to seek solitude in backcountry hiking. Their focus is on family activities. To attract them, access to nature needs to be designed for everyone from aged abuelos to niños.
The park contains a camping area. The picnic area includes playground equipment and bathrooms (so, as the Tourist-A website says, you won't have to go behind a tree). Also—rare in Mexico—there are recycling bins. Environmental progress in this country is heartening: smoking bans, plastic bag prohibitions, and now, recycling.
I was almost shocked to see a ban on music players. This is asking a lot: no family gathering is complete without fiesta music.
We hiked up a steep, muddy trail. I estimate our altitude was 7,500 feet. The air was cool and invigorating. One of our party, our friend Angela, is a gazelle. She bounded to the top of a ridge and was resting at a mirador (lookout) as the rest of us come puffing up.
Parts of the ascent were so steep they were scary. We debated the merits of continuing onward along the ridge in hopes of finding a gentler descent. Ever enthusiastic and energetic, Angela volunteered to serve as scout.
The path she found looked promising, but farther along, we began to wonder if retracing our ascent might not have been better. One stretch of the new trail would have been impassible but for a thick rope someone thoughtfully had tied to a tree.
Here Laura demonstrates her rappelling form.
Laura and I became separated from our companions and took a wrong fork in the trail. After backtracking, hopping a stone wall, and much yoohooing, we found our way back to open meadows and the road back to the park entrance.
The park staff works to eradicate evidence of prior agricultural use. A nursery contains thousands of native plants. I noticed a hillside that at first glance seemed to be littered with hundreds of one-liter plastic coke bottles. They turned out to be serving as individual greenhouses for newly transplanted seedlings—an old gardener's trick.
All this effort and expense has created a real jewel—as the name of the park implies. So many so-called ecoparks in this country are little more than commercial enterprises where people swim with dolphins or some other such outrage. Parque Ecológico Joya is the real thing; an attempt to save and provide access to a natural place.
It's a hard place to find. Turning south at La Monja means leaving behind the last directional sign. The cobblestone road winding through the pueblo of La Barreta provides ample opportunities for wrong turnings. I followed the practice of those experienced at driving through Mexico, asking at every opportunity: "¿Es la ruta al parque Ecológico?"
(On back roads, signs are unnecessary. Installing them would only deprive travelers of brief encounters with friendly people along the way, of opportunities to exchange courtesies.)
Parque Ecológico Joya opens at ten every day and closes at seven (except for campers). We hopped the fence at eight in the morning and nobody seemed to care. Fees are $10 pesos for entry and another $10 to use a picnic shelter. If you live here, you should go there.
[The only map I could find locating the park is at this link.]