Wild, Wild West Texas

Santa Elena Canyon Reserve

Oct 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

I assure you, the cow is more sacred in Mexico than in India, laments Julio Carrera, wildlife project chief for the three-year-old Santa Elena Canyon Reserve. He's probably right. Mexico's reserves are lands where rudimentary tasks such as management plans and species inventories trump tourism, and where people live and raise cattle on private inholdings. Indeed, the fate of this particular protected area depends largely on the goodwill of more than a hundred leery ranchers who have run their cattle on the sun-baked badlands for generations. Carrera spends most of his time trying to protect the indigenous bobcats, black bears, and ten endangered cactus species that most cattlemen would just as soon trample.
The refuge's lonely cliffs and wind-blasted gorges can be accessed with Lajitas Stables, a horse-packing outfitter based in its namesake American border town. We saddled up in Paso Lajitas, a hardscrabble village on the Mexican side, and ambled south, winding through the pre-Columbian Indian camps of Las Mangas Canyon, where ocher petroglyphs still decorate the walls. At sunset, we spread our bedrolls by the fire at Rancho Conchanillas, a private cattle ranch, and settled in beneath the stars and the watchful gaze of the Virgin of Guadalupe, ensconced in a shrine on a nearby hill. The next day's ride took us through increasingly surreal terrain, several pink tuff canyons in which wind and erosion have molded volcanic ash into virtual cityscapes populated by throngs of hideously deformed, humanoid figures.

I didn't spot any actual humans until the end of our second day, when we clip-clopped down the stone streets of San Carlos, a sleepy pueblecito 20 miles south of the border. At La Gloria, a hacienda inn perched on the lip of San Carlos Canyon, I climbed off my tired horse and marveled at the oasis before me—a rock-terraced garden of red geraniums, white lilies, and pink bougainvilleas irrigated by a whispering acequia and shaded by stands of pecan and peach trees. That evening Gloria Rodriguez, the owner, plied us with chicken mole and sotol tequila on the veranda. We watched the stars come out as Onario Orozco and Lico Miller, our trail guides, sang folk songs into the night.
The remainder of the itinerary depends on the severity of your saddle sores. I continued by horseback deep into San Carlos Canyon to an abandoned silver mine called La Mina Grande. Wandering burros and spinning dust devils are the only residents left in an adobe ghost town that housed 1,500 workers earlier in the century. If that's more than your rump can take, simply stretch out in one of La Gloria's garden hammocks with a margarita and snooze the day away.