Part of the charm of driving on Mexico’s highways comes from the fact that there are no billboards desecrating the landscape. The only exception to this ban on advertising is a single liquor company which, for mysterious historical reasons, has the right to put up giant cutouts of bulls but these, mercifully, are few and far between. But, if you are in Mexico City, getting on the appropriate highway may well be your worst challenge—to say merely that the traffic is awful gives little indication of just how much patience and dedication it requires. It took us several hours last week, just after Germany demolished a surprisingly inept Argentina on penalties, before we were on our way to Oaxaca, perhaps the most diverse and easily the least adequately protected of Mexico’s states. (Though Oaxaca contains only 5 per cent of the area of Mexico, it contains 50 per cent of the
total known vascular plant species for the country, 35 per cent of the total amphibian species, 26 per cent of the reptile species, 63 per cent of the bird species, and 55 per cent of the terrestrial mammal species).
The six-hour drive to Oaxaca takes you through a variety of landscapes including the 490 000 hectare Tehuacán—Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve which straddles the border between Puebla and Oaxaca. This Reserve is huge: if you include it among the protected areas of Oaxaca, about 12 per cent of the state is already under protection. But, if you don’t, only 0.3 per cent of Oaxaca is protected, all in three tiny National Parks. The argument against inclusion is that the Reserve, though situated in a biologically important and unique habitat (the southern limit of the North American deserts), is in far from prime condition. The Reserve is made up of wide arid valleys bordered by much more humid forested ranges. There are more than 170 endemic flowering plant species within it and the diversity of columnar and candelabra cacti is exceptional. The heat was intense. Our view from the road was typically of an otherworldly landscape, spiny shrublands dotted with columns of cacti. The toll road goes through relatively intact habitat but this is misleading. In Oaxaca, 35 000 people live within the Reserve; between both states, the human population is over 250 000.