The Desierto de los Leones (Desert of the Lions) National Park is considered to be the oldest protected biosphere in Mexico. The park’s altitude varies between 2,600 and 3,700 metres above sea level, giving the region a relatively cold and damp climate. It is a forested area, primarily with pines, oyamel firs and holm oaks, and it has many brooks, ravines and waterfalls.
The ex-monastery within the park occasionally holds art exhibitions, but the park’s main attraction is the nature that surrounds the complex. The park offers activities such as day camping, overnight camping, hiking and mountain biking. Facilities include picnic tables, grills, children’s playgrounds. There are also shops selling wooden handcrafts and restaurants near the old monastery.
The area of the park was used as a retreat for a religious group, thus the name Desierto (desert), meaning not populated. The first monastery complex was constructed there between 1606 and 1611. The park was declared a forest reserve in 1876 with the intent of conserving its fresh water springs to supply Mexico City. In 1917 it was declared a national park.
The monastery was built in the very early 17th century for a group of Carmelite monks who came from Italy to evangelise the Native Americans. By 1711, this structure had deteriorated greatly. It was demolished and a new one was built in its place, adjoining just south of the original complex. By the end of the 18th century, the cold, damp weather and increasingly frequent visitors forced the monks to move their monastery to Tenancingo in 1801. The monastery was declared a national monument on 16 May 1937. The 18th-century structure has a number of areas that have been restored and opened to the public. The area was declared a national park on 27 November 1917 by President Venustiano Carranza who was motivated by the landscape and the cultural value of the abandoned monastery which lends its name to the park. The park remained under federal management until 2000, when Secretary of the Environment, Natural Resources and Fishing gave control of the park to the government of Mexico City.
Outside the main gate of the monastery, just beyond the traces of the walls of the original monastery, there is the “Chapel of Secrets”. It has a domed roof and its acoustics allowed monks to face into the corner to speak to another monk during the long stretches of imposed silence in the monastery.
Surrounding the entire complex of the monastery there is the so-called “Barda de la Excomunicacion” (Wall of Excommunication) named so because, supposedly, any woman that crossed it was subject to excommunication from the Catholic Church.
The climate of the park is relatively cold and damp due to its altitude. It rains there daily much of the year and fog is common year round. Because of this climate and the rugged terrain, it has many ravines, brooks, streams and a number of waterfalls.
Animal life in the park has decreased significantly since it was established. Animals that can still be found include raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, white-tailed deer, lynxes, ring-tailed cats, coyotes, grey foxes, skunks, bats, long-tailed shrews, salamanders, rattlesnakes and lizards. There are a number of species of birds.
Plant life in the park is dominated by pines, oyamel firs and holm oaks, which are broken up by meadows. Other flora include Hartweg’s pine, alchemilla procumbens, sage, little leaf snowberries, muhlenbergia, festuca, calamagrostis, lupins, beard-tongue, ragwort and oaks.