Silent Otherworld

Mexico's Sierra Del Pinacate Reserve

It is a black desert: a barren and seemingly endless stretch of heat and inhospitability. The Pinacate Reserve, which includes Mexico's largest desert and dunes, has recently been named a national reserve. Yet this trove of desert ecosystems, stark vistas, and volcanic spires is unknown to most Mexican and American hikers.

Officially, it is known in Mexico as Reserva de La Biosfera de El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar (Pinacate and Grand Desert Biosphere Reserve). It is named after the hardy, but rather insignificant Pinacate beetle, which, when threatened, stands on its head and emits a strong stench. But, for all its reputation of foul beetles, Gila monsters, black widows, scorpions, and rattlesnakes, the Pinacate is a land of stark and diverse beauty.

In recent millennia, more than 400 volcanoes erupted, spewing black pumice, rock, sand, ash, and giant lava tubes. What stands today is a moonscape of cinder cones, volcanoes, and 18 massive calderas. Ten of them get the most attention. These are the rare maar craters which dominate the landscape. They are a unique type of crater; formed between five million and 150,000 years ago. Scientists theorize that rising magma met up with ground water, creating highly pressurized steam. The ensuing pressure caused explosions as powerful as atomic blasts and left these grand, perfectly round holes in the earth. Some are as wide as a mile, and as deep as 750 feet.

Among these dunes of black, countless lime-green cholla cacti lay bare and low to the ground everywhere, like pawns on a chessboard. Against the black sand, they serve to illuminate the desert with their bright colors and give the Pinacate its distinct surreal character. The much taller senita cacti and the infamous saguaro tower like kings and queens above everything else.

In February and March, this desolation turns into a madness of blues and lavenders and reds and yellows. In a good year, the desert wildflower bloom of Pinacate is unbeatable.

Equally spectacular to the black Pinacate region is the southernmost section of the reserve—Gran Desierto de Altar. This desert, which becomes visible south of the Sierra Blanca mountain range, is a stark contrast to the Sierra Del Pinacate range. The vast, giant dunes can be seen from miles away; and what sets them apart is their color—not black like the rest of the reserve, but bright peach-beige sand.

These are genuine dunes, on par with the magnificence of those found in the Middle East and North Africa. They started out as silt from the Colorado River entering the Sea of Cortez. Funneling winds coming from the south through the Sea of Cortez pushed the silt into this area.

Before Pinacate became a reserve, it was known more by reputation than fact; myths, legends, and anecdotes recounted it as "the gateway to hell" or "the most useless place." The manager says that the reserve still receives only five thousand visitors a year. With all of its vastness, this is a welcome fact: the amazing diversity here is fragile. It is quite possible to be entirely alone in Pinacate—adding to the many other factors that makes Pinacate an almost dead silent land of solitude.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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