Desierto de los Leones National Park

Desierto de los Leones (Desert of the Lions) National Park is located entirely within the limits of the Federal District; it stretches between Cuajimalpa and Álvaro Obregón boroughs.[1] It is located in the Sierra de las Cruces mountain range west of the city center with an area of 1,867 hectares,[2] representing fifteen percent of the entire Valley of Mexico.[3] The term Desierto (‘desert’) is used in this context in the archaic sense of “wild, sparsely populated area” rather than in reference to an arid environment. Leones (‘Lions’) refers not to the big cats but rather to the original landlord's surname.[4]

Desierto de los Leones National Park
Río que atraviesa el Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones.jpg
A river flowing from a spring.
Map showing the location of Desierto de los Leones National Park
Map showing the location of Desierto de los Leones National Park
location in Mexico City urban area
LocationCuajimalpa / Álvaro Obregón, Distrito Federal, Mexico
Nearest cityMexico City
Coordinates19°18′46″N 99°18′23″W / 19.31264°N 99.30628°W / 19.31264; -99.30628Coordinates: 19°18′46″N 99°18′23″W / 19.31264°N 99.30628°W / 19.31264; -99.30628
Area1,866 hectares (4,610 acres)
EstablishedNovember 27, 1917
Governing bodySecretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources

The park's altitude varies between 2,600 and 3,700 meters above sea level,[1] giving the area a relatively cold and damp climate. It is a forested area primarily with pines, oyamel firs and oaks with many brooks, ravines and waterfalls.[3] The park is considered to be the oldest protected biosphere in Mexico. It was originally declared a forest reserve in 1876 by President Lerdo de Tejada with the intent of conserving its fresh water springs to supply Mexico City. It was later declared a national park on 27 November 1917, by President Venustiano Carranza.[3][5]


View from the side of the Convent.
The convent (c. 1906–1920).[6]
Facade of the convent

The original name was "Desierto de Nuestra Señora del Carmen de los Montes de Santa Fe", but over time it was modified by people in nearby communities who started calling it Desierto de los Leones. It was given the name "desert" due to the location of the park that was built in a place far away from the city. There are two versions that explain why people started naming it de Los Leones. The first one says that the name was given due to the large amount of wild felines that lived in that region. The second version is attributed to the last name of a family that helped the religious order acquire legal possession of the property. Since the friars could not perform secular charges directly, they relied on the Leon family so that they could represent them before the Spanish Crown. While this beautiful forest served as a connector between Mexico City and Toluca, the order of barefoot Carmelites chose this place to build a convent that served as a retirement and a place of meditation far away from the restlessness of the city.

The first stone was laid on January 23, 1606, which started the construction of the first convent, the 10 hermitages (El Portón, La Soledad, San José, San Elías, San Juan, Magdalena, Trinidad, Getsemaní, San Alberto y San Miguel) and the wall that encircles the area.[7]

The convent had two levels and was built by the Friar Andrés de San Miguel. Since the place presented complicated weather conditions, by 1722, this structure had greatly deteriorated. As a result, it was demolished and a new one was built in its place adjoining just south of the original complex, the current convent completing in 1814.[8] Just when the war of independence had begun in 1810, the Carmelites order had to abandon its peaceful convent. The property was given to the government of the city to be used as military headquarters that lasted until the beginning of the 19th century.[9]

The post-reform government was aware of the area's resource exploitation, which had been used to fulfill the demand of the city. As a result, the mountain was declared a forest reserve area and of public interest in the year 1876. After the revolution began, President Venustiano Carranza named the mountain a national park on November 15, 1917.[10]

The monastery was declared a national monument in 1937 during the mandate of President Lazaro Cardenas.[11] Nowadays, the 18th-century structure has a number of areas that have been restored and opened to the public. The park that surrounds the monastery offers activities such as day camping, overnight camping and mountain biking.

With the growth of the city to the western valley of Mexico and the need for natural spaces, the Mexican government has sought for the expansion and preservation of this important place. On December 19, 1983, President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado decreed the expropriation of 1,529 acres which were assigned to the preservation, development and beautification of the Desierto de los Leones.[12] Subsequently, due to fires in some of the areas in 1998, the structure suffered deterioration which then became an ecological restoration zone within an area of approximately 400 acres. Finally, on April 16, 1999, the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) signed the coordination agreement where the Federal Government transferred the full administration of the "Desierto de los Leones" National Park to the local government, which was formalized with the Delivery and Reception Act on November 24, 2000.

Life In The ConventEdit

Vitral of the church located in Desierto de los Leones.
Dome of the convent

The lifestyle, complicated and selfless, that the Carmelitas has existed since before their story in the convent.

Getting inside the convent was difficult, not only due to the wall surrounding the building, but also because this wall only had one door located in the only existing road, connected to Cuajimalpa. After that, there was a paved road protected from end to end in both sides, in which end there was a fountain that protected the main entrance and received the people who came. The main door was always closed, so the visitors had to ring a bell and wait to be granted access.

Besides the main door, there was a painting which symbolized the practices and modus vivendi of the Carmelita's community. Next, is the description made by Father Friar Agustín de la Madre de Dios, the official chronicler of the Carmelitas of New Spain:

“The first thing one sees in the painting is a Carmelita who is frightening everyone who sees it because it is an image of what happens inside. The Carmelita is crucified on a cross, with a padlock in his mouth, silicon in his eyes and where a baby Jesus is resting within his visible broken heart inside his chest. The friar’s right hand is formed into a fist, which exemplifies a harsh discipline and in the left hand he holds a candle: to watch others and see the candle burn. Two trumpets touch his ears. Two misconceptions, where one is death telling him that life is over and the other is an angel calling for a trial in a frightening voice. The padlock in his mouth means the eternal silence that the Carmelitas must live in alongside discipline and continuous penance.”

The painting represents how the monks must conduct themselves: by discipline, humility, service, penance, prayer, silence, and other values mentioned by Friar Agustin.

The monks dedicated themselves to prayer and the realisation of their domestic labours. These values or attitudes were present in every moment of the community's life, ever since the beginning of the convent's construction process. As soon as dawn was upon them, every member of the community had to go to mass, and later continue with the construction of their new home. After the mass was finished, all the priests would cut down the nearby trees, which later would be dragged by yokes of oxen. Cleanliness was of utmost importance since they rarely found themselves in a messy environment.

The sacristy was simple in comparison with others, without too many ornaments, nor figures made of precious metals. In any case, the decoration was based in “al fresco” paintings of religious themes, all of them were huge and in large quantities.

An important aspect for the Carmelitas was to fulfil their vows of chastity, poverty and reflexive prayer. Due to the little contact they had with the world outside the convent, they were considered hermits. The ones living all alone in the hermitages surrounding the building were worthy of admiration, because of their attitude regarding the search of a greater mission. They lived for the spirit, with only their basic needs, in silence and meditation of nature and themselves.

Despite living in their own community, monks were mainly focused in accomplishing with devotion their personal duties, but not participating in collaborative projects or supporting the other monks who lived in their community. This belief agreed with their vows of silence. With the purpose of avoiding confusion of said vows, the Carmelitas developed a system of signs and signals to allow effective communication. For example, they would make the sign of the cross with an open hand in order to ask the priest for something or pretend to beat eggs in order to request their presence in the kitchen.

The Carmelitas had few cows to supply the little milk they drank every few days as a way to accomplish their vows of poverty and austerity.

As a result of the custom of their time, women weren't allowed to access the convent, thanks to a decree of Pope Clemente VIII, which said that any woman who trespasses the wall would be banned from the Catholic Church. Another relevant point, was living in penance, which is why they asked for ordinary mortifications to the president of the community. In requesting penance, they had to take off their habit capes and be on their knees, accepting the assignments without refutations. Some penances were ordinary, such as walking barefoot at night with a heavy cross and with a crown made of thorns, like Jesus in the Passion, or the flagellation on Holy Friday. The penances varied according to the liturgical time, or for welcoming or saying goodbye to visitors just to name a few.

In ordinary days, they would attend mass, read, have silent meditation and spend time soul-searching, focusing more on the spiritual life than in the necessities of the human body.[13]


In 1876, the then President of Mexico Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, enacts Desierto de los Leones as an ecological reserve in order to protect existing natural springs and provide water to Mexico City. With this decree, Desierto de los Leones became the first Natural Protected Area in Mexico.

After the Mexican Revolution in 1917, the forest Desierto de los Leones became the first National Park in the country.[14]

The Decree by which the area known as Desierto de los Leones is constituted as a National Park was published in the Official Gazette of November 17, 1917 designating with it an area of 1,529 hectares under President Venustiano Carranza's rule.

The first article of the decree stipulates that Desierto de los Leones would now be named as Desierto de los Leones National Park.

The second article states that the management, conservation and improvement of the park would now be in charge of the Ministry of Public Works. With the exception of historical ruins, whose care and conservation would depend on the Ministry of Communication and Public Works.

The last article authorizes the Ministry of Public Works to exploit resources within the park, such as dead, diseased, defective or outdated trees, and those which can alter the development of the forest. They would be able to improve the park using their own products. Also, Ministry of Public Works would be the only one allowed to cut trees among the park. The Secretariat is not authorized to contract or grant permissions to individuals for the exploitation of these resources, neither is for hunting and livestock grazing.[15]


The park is located in the Federal District of Mexico City distributed between the boroughs of Cuajimalpa and Álvaro Obregón. Its altitude varies between 2,600 and 3,700 meters above sea level.[1] The park is seven km long, three km wide with an area of 1,867 hectares.[2] It is one of the most important natural areas of the Federal District, protecting much of the Sierra de las Cruces mountain range[2] and represents about 15% of the Valley of Mexico.[3] The climate of the park is relatively cold and damp due to its altitude.[3] It rains here daily much of the year and fog is common year round.[16] Because of this climate and the rugged terrain,[2] it has many ravines, brooks, streams[3] and a number of waterfalls.[16][17]


The Desierto de los Leones National Park is located in the center of Mexico to the southwest of the Mexico's Basin. It is part of the Sierra de las Cruces geomorphological unit, which at the same time is part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. The two mountain ranges form part of the topographic composition of the park. Both of these ranges have their origin in the San Miguel hill. The first range is formed by three hills: El Caballete, Los Hongos y Colorado hills. The hills Cruz de Colica, Xometla and Ocotal integrate the second range, which has a northwest orientation. All these hills converge into the Santo Desierto stream and are separated by three ravines. The park is located in one of the regions with the highest altitude above sea level in all of Mexico City. The terrain descends in altitude from south to north with an elevation of 3,790 m.a.s.l (meters above sea level) and connects with the area of the former monastery at an elevation of 2,700 m.a.s.l. The protected area has a medium altitude of 3,500 meters above sea level. The main hills of The Desierto de los Leones National Park are shown in the following table:

Hill Altitude (Meters above sea level)
La Venta 2,860
Antiguo Convento 2,960
Colorado Hill 3,090
Cruz Blanca 3,160
Cruz Blanca Hill 3,180
El Potrero 3,250
El Ocotal Hill 3,530
Xometla Hill 3,560
Cruz de Coloxtitla Hill 3,500
Cruz de Colica Hill 3,610
Los Hongos Hill 3,680
El Caballete Hill 3,680
San Miguel Hill 3,790


The geology of the national park is composed of volcanic rocks from the Cenozoic Era, that was characterized by an intense volcanic activity. The movement of the tectonic plates that lie below the park caused the emergence of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Due to the intense volcanic activity in the region where the park is located, the geologic deposits are composed of elements such as andesite, hypersthene, tephra, ash and volcanic sand.


There are several springs originated by the hillsides that make up the Desierto de los Leones.

These springs feed some rivers in the basin of the Valley of Mexico. Nowadays, with the expansion of urban areas and the need to find fresh water deposits by the Mexican population, some of the rivers and springs in the park are recklessly exploited.

Starting from the watercourses which are fed from the springs that flow into the Desierto de los Leones, two of the most important rivers of the Valley of Mexico originate in the park, the Mixcoac River and Rio Hondo, which are fed by the water of other streams that form the Agua de Leones Stream. There are three main water currents that flow through the hillsides which also establishes the park boundaries. The main water current emerges from San Miguel Hill and descends from a height of 3,700 meters. Along the way, the water current is fed from springs such as Caballete and Los Hongos. Two water currents originate from the Cerro de Cruz Colica and Xometla and another two water currents that flow through the glens are called Las Palomas and El Trozal.

The rich, natural resources of the Desierto de los Leones is undeniable and its available deposits of fresh water is the greatest virtues of the park. Diverse springs exists in which institutions such as the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, CONAP, has sought to protect and restore the environmental damage that has been a constant threat.

A previous example is the Taza Vieja spring is located in middle of the park and composed by thirteen outcrops; Piletas, San Miguel, Zorrillas, Lagunillas, Lobos, Ruedas, Palmas, Llorona, La Portería, Monarcas, Otales, Arce y Capulines. The Leones Dam is composed by the following streams: Agua de Leones, De la Cruz y Llano Grande.

Finally, the famous Chorro de Agua is located at the eastern area of the park and it is merged with the springs Ajolotes, Agua de Peña and Agua de Gallinas.



Plant life is mostly dominated by pines, oyamel firs and holm oaks which are surrounded by meadows. Due to forest fires, new tree species were introduced in the park as a measure of reforestation; the original species that stands out in most zones is the pinus patula which can be found in small populations.

One of the main problems the park faces, is the appearance of the bark beetle, a 3 mm insect that attacks pines. This insect causes plagues in forests by attacking trees that were damaged by fire or lightning strikes, then it starts reproducing itself and attacks healthy trees.[18]

There have been 16 forest fires in the last 8 years that affected an average of 0.8 hectares of woods, although the biggest one was in 1998, which caused the loss of more than 500 hectares.[19]


Within Desierto de los Leones, approximately 102 species of fungi can be found. These species belong to the Ascomycota division, which is broken down in 6 different families and 47 types of Basidiomycota that have 22 families. Moreover, the division that has a major diversity of fungi is the Tricholomataceae that counts with 18 species, followed by 10 species of Polyporaceae, 8 species of Amanitaceae, 7 species of Boletaceae, 6 species of Morchellaceae and 6 species of Pezizaceae.

The fungi in the region are either edible or poisonous, and every single one of them are of vital importance to the forest. Some of the edible species of fungi are Amanita caesarea, Boletus edulis and Lactarius deliciosus. Found among the poisonous species are Amanita gematta, Amanita muscaria and Amanita pantherina.

Furthermore, there are 7 species that are endangered:

  • Morchella conica Pers. ex Fr
  • Morchella elata Bull. ex Fr
  • Morchella esculenta Pers. ex Fr
  • Morchella costata (Vent.) Pers.
  • Morchella angusticeps Peck
  • Amanita muscaria (L. ex Fr.) Hook
  • Boletus edulis (Bull. ex Fr.)[20]


There are 7 species of amphibians, 9 reptiles, around 30 mammals and almost a hundred of different birds. It has been reported that in the area consisting of the park and the southern part of the Valley of Mexico, there are at least 30 species of vertebrates that have been classified as endemic, and which half of them have been classified as in endangered or subject to a special protection species.[21]

It is worth mentioning that all species of amphibians and reptiles are endemic, meaning that they only exist in this region, and many are in danger of extinction. Some mammals are Mexican squirrel, White-tailed Deer, Ring-tailed cat, opossums, rabbits, gophers, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, skunks, Bobcats, Mexican volcano mouse, Golden mouse, and Long-tailed shrew. Common birds are Red-tailed hawk, Steller's jay, American robin, American kestral, and Peregrine falcon. There are also several woodpeckers and flycatchers.

According to the National Biodiversity Information System of Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO) in Desierto de los Leones National Park there are over 750 plant and animal species from which 43 are in at risk category and 47 are exotics.[22][23]

As a recreational and ecotourism attractionEdit

Inside the National Park, different recreational and environmental activities are offered to the visitors, including: camping, hiking, mountain biking, horse riding and trekking. Moreover, every month the park organizes special sport activities as 100 miles wild races, or the “Meta Desierto de los Leones”, a 10 kilometers long race.[24]

To protect the endemic flora and fauna, diverse programs had been created to conserve vegetal and animal species. Reforestation is constantly carried out in zones where old trees have died because of plagues or wildfires. Also, some animals original from this forest, especially the deer, are being protected by taking care and feeding them in a safeguard place.

All of this activities are perfect to escape from the everyday life in the City without going out of it. In addition, the woods are always patrolled by the Forest rangers, who cater for the visitors’ needs.[25]


Parque Nacional Desierto de Los Leones is encompassed by the boroughs Cuajimalpa and Alvaro Obregon within Mexico City.

Environmental situationEdit


From the announcement of the National Development Plan carried out by the government of the Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid, the protection over the natural areas in Mexico City was notoriously increased.

Some of the main aims of the plan are:

  • To improve the quality of the environment for its inhabitants through the restoration and preservation of the ecological balance; this by the awareness of the good use of the forestry areas and green lands of the city, considering them as “lungs” and essentials for the preservation of life.
  • To comprehend that the environmental pollution and the inadequate use of natural resources represents a permanent menace towards the people's health. This is translated on the unpostponable need to stop the environmental damage through the creation of legal regulations that observe the public authorities that work towards ecological preservation.


The national park Desierto de los Leones is one of the main green lands of Mexico City. Its wooded area represents 11.9% of the 15,702 hectares that make up the Mexican capital. Nevertheless, the 26% of the park's structure is found damaged, because of the 205,000 visitors that come to the park each year.

Desierto de los Leones is divided in two areas, the first one corresponds to the public space, equivalent to the 19% of the total surface which covers the ex-convent, the path to the desert and the white cross. On the other hand, the ecological restoration area counts with 1,233 hectares which represents the other 81% of the complete surface. This area contains the space devastated by the 1988 fire. Nowadays the park has presence of wildlife and some exotic plant species. However, it faces pollution problems, forest fires and messy water extraction.

A proper forest management is required in order to maintain the fauna and wild life due to a degree of deterioration showed nowadays and mainly caused by the pollution that comes from the urban area.

Wildlife in the Desierto de los Leones, although its already scarce, is composed of hundreds of birds, 7 kinds of amphibians, 9 kinds of reptiles and about 30 mammals. It is found that in this region, some of the most important species that live here are the opossums, coyotes, raccoons, white-tailed deer, rabbits, among others.

The wildlife inhabiting in the Desierto de los Leones is mainly composed of stray dogs and they feed themselves on wild animals, which can cause a disease transmission.

In relation to the disorderly water extraction, the region is considered moderate infiltration capacity for water, however, many of its springs are exploited to supply this resource to the urban area.

Problems of the parkEdit

The forest area of the park has deteriorated due to natural and man-made reasons.[17] Some of the natural problems include the arrival of a larva that strips barks from trees[17] and residual problems from a forest fire in 1998, which destroyed about 450 hectares in the higher elevations of the park. Now there is a fire station called Brigada Regional Uno de la Delegación Cuajimalpa in the community of La Venta and an observation tower at San Miguel peak to watch for fires.[3] There are also trees that are dying from acid rain.[3] Other problems are man-made, as there is insufficient control over human activities in the forest.[1] No one lives in the park proper but urban development has nearly surrounded the entire forest and over 16,000 people live right on the park's borders.[1][3] There is insufficient vigilance and control of access especially in the southern section.[1] Parts of the park are being used for pasture, garbage dumping,[1] logging, and off-path mountain biking.[3]

Photo galleryEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Desierto de los Leones". Archived from the original on 2008-06-28. Retrieved 2008-12-20.
  2. ^ a b c d "Destinos en Mexico: A descansar en el Desierto de los Leones". Archived from the original on 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2008-12-20.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Carreon, Gerardo. "Parks Watch: Un Parque sin Desierto ni Leones". Archived from the original on February 20, 2005. Retrieved 2008-12-20.
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  6. ^ Monasterio Carmelita, Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones, Ciudad de México. Fotografía de Hugo Brehme, 1882-1954. Universidad Metodista del Sur. Biblioteca DeGolyer: México – Fotografías, Manuscritos e Impresiones. [1]
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  8. ^ "Desierto de los Leones". Federal government of Mexico.
  9. ^ "Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones". Desierto de los Leones. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  10. ^ "Programa de Conservación y Manejo Parque Nacional Desierto de Los Leones". INECC. INECC GOB. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  11. ^ "Areas Naturales protegidas de Mexico con decretos federales" (PDF). INECC. INECC GOB. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  12. ^ "Programa de Conservacion y Manejo Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones". INECC GOB. INECC. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  13. ^ de Orozco, F. G. (1922). El Desierto de los Leones. Anales del Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía, cuarta época (1922-1933), vol 1, 280-292.
  14. ^ "Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones [Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas] (s.f) Recuperado de" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-10-01. Retrieved 2016-09-29.
  15. ^ * «Distrito Federal». Áreas naturales protegidas de México con decretos federales (1899-2000). México: SEMARNAP, PNUD, RDS. 2000. p. 303. ISBN 968-817-376-2. 968-817-376-2. Consultado el 27 de Septiembre, 2016.
  16. ^ a b zerko81 (2007-09-02). "El desierto de los leones". Archived from the original on 2008-12-17. Retrieved 2008-12-20.
  17. ^ a b c "Desierto de los Leones". Mexico Desconocido (in Spanish). Mexico City: Impresiones Aéreas. October 2008. Archived from the original on 2009-02-04. Retrieved 2009-01-19.
  18. ^ Billings, R. F., H. A. Pase III and Jaime Flores L. 1990. Los escarabajos descortezadores del pino, con énfasis en Dendroctonus frontalis: Guía de campo para la inspección terrestre. Texas Forest Service Publication 146. 19 p
  19. ^ Cruz, A. L. M. (2005). El valor consuntivo del Desierto de los Leones. Gaceta ecológica, (75), 51-64
  20. ^ SEMARNAT (2006) Capítulo 4, Programa de Conservación y Manejo Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones, pp 34-35.
  21. ^ "Programa de conservación y manejo Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones". Consultado el 4 October 2008. En formato .PDF.
  22. ^ Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad. "Enciclovida (2022). Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones". Retrieved 19 July 2022.
  23. ^ Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad. "Naturalista (2022). Proyecto PN Desierto de los Leones, CDMX". Retrieved 19 July 2022.
  24. ^ "Desierto de los Leones - Deportes, eventos deportivos".
  25. ^ "Desierto de los Leones - Deportes".