El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve is located in the Sonoran Desert about 40 minutes from the city of Puerto Peñasco and the Sea of Cortez. The closest United States border is in the state of Arizona.
As of 2022, there are 35 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mexico, which is the most of any country in the Americas. Mexico also ranks 7th in the world for the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I recently visited one of the 35 sites; El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve (Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar).
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Visiting the Moon in Mexico: El Pinacate UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
Pinacate comes from Náhuatl language word pinacatl, for the Pinacate beetle, a stink beetle endemic to the Sonoran Desert.
My visit to El Pinacate UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the desierto de altar Sonora was during a media trip with the Travel Writer’s Academy.
A Biosphere is defined as where organisms, from the tiniest bacterium to the largest blue whale live. The ‘place on Earth’s surface where life dwells’ is called the biosphere.
El Pinacate (Picos del Pinacate) UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a group of volcanic peaks and cinder cones. The highest peak is Cerro del Pinacate (Santa Clara volcano), with an elevation of 3,904 feet (1,190 m).
El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve
When you enter the reserve, make sure to stop and chat with one of the very helpful rangers to learn a bit about the biosphere and ask for a pamphlet and map. The driving tour is very well laid out and while it is a dirt road, a 4-Wheel Drive car is not needed.
The drive will take you to the edge of volcanic craters, which are the most dramatic stops in the biosphere. The UNESCO website describes El Pinacate, as “ten enormous, deep and almost perfectly circular craters, believed to have been formed by a combination of volcanic eruptions and collapses.
The Pinacate Peaks volcanoes have erupted sporadically for about 4 million years. The most recent activity was about 11,000 years ago. The El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve site was added to the World Heritage Sites list in 2013 and is considered one of the most significant visible land-forms in North America seen from space.
Speaking of space, one of the most interesting facts about El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve is that NASA sent astronauts to the Gran Desierto de Altar from 1965 to 1970, to train for walking on the moon, due to the similarities of the terrain to the lunar surface.
El Pinacate UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a unique mix of desert, ocean, and volcanic ecosystems. On the tour of El Pinacate, you’ll find volcanic craters can be seen along with numerous species of plants, mammals, reptiles, and birds.
You’ll find certain types of Cholla cactus that grow inside the reserve that don’t grow anywhere else in the world.
In the area, there are over 540 species of plants, 40 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 40 species of reptiles, as well as amphibians and freshwater fish.
NASA sent astronauts to the Gran Desierto de Altar from 1965 to 1970, to train for walking on the moon, due to the similarities of the terrain to the lunar surface.
El Pinacate UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is considered one of the best kept secrets in Northern Mexico and a favorite spot for hiking, exploring and camping in the Sonoran Desert. If you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
If You Go:
- The entrance fee to El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve is 50 pesos (at the current exchange rate about $2.60).
- Plan for at least four hours to see the different peaks. The biosphere is large and you need to drive from one look out to another.
- Bring lots of water. It’s hot and dry and extremely important to stay hydrated.
- Wear a hat and apply sunscreen.
- Some of the pathways are not paved, so good walking shoes or hiking boots are a must. I love Keen because they are lightweight and super comfortable. Do not wear sandals.
El Pinacate Info & Resources:
- Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar on Facebook
- El Pinacate UNESCO information
WHEN TO VISIT PUERTO PENASCO MEXICO
In Puerto Peñasco, the summers are hot and muggy, the winters are cool, and it is dry and mostly clear year round. Over the course of the year, the temperature typically varies from 56°F to 95°F and is rarely below 50°F or above 99°F.
If you enjoyed this article about Visiting The Moon In Mexico: El Pinacate Unesco Biosphere Reserve, you’ll also love Where to Eat, Play and Stay: Top Things to do in Puerto Penasco Mexico.
Traveling To El Pinacate or Puerto Penasco Mexico Soon? Here are a few tips:
How to get there: If you are traveling from the United States, El Pinacate is most easily accessed from Arizona, The Pinacate Reserve Information Center is located just off Highway 8, at milepost Km 52, just 32 miles south of Lukeville, Arizona.
Where to stay: El Pinacate is located between Sonoyta and Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. Puerto Penasco is a great base for exploring El Pinacate. There is a wide range of hotels, from budget to luxury. I recommend Las Palomas Beach & Golf Resort which is currently the #1 hotel on Tripadvisor. For a mid-level hotel, I recommend Penasco Del Sol, It’s a great location in the city center,but located on a very quiet street. The hotel rate includes a wonderful breakfast as well. Finally, for a budget hotel, try the Hospedaje Mulege.
You can also check HotelsCombined for the best Puerto Penasco hotel rates.
6 Indispensable Items to Pack for a visit to El Pinacate
- Get the Lonely Planet Mexico (Travel Guide).
- Bring a good quality mirrorless camera for getting those beautiful El Pinacate landscape shots. I use the Sony Alpha a6000 .
- Summers are hot in Puerto Peñasco, so make sure to bring Neutrogena Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 45
- A great cross body travel bag. Cross body bags prevent theft and are much easier to access.
- Don’t forget sunglasses for the beautiful sunny days. A.J. Morgan Unisex Sunglasses are a great choice and very affordable!
- Outdoor shoes are a great item to pack for this vacation. They take up little room when packing and great if you end up walking on rocky grounds.
El Pinacate Trip Essentials
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Read More About Mexico
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- Celebrating The Queen’s of Baja’s Culinary Landscape
I want to thank the Puerto Penasco Convention and Visitors Bureau for organizing our tour of El Pinacate UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Alexa Meisler is the editorial director of 52 Perfect Days. Born in Paris, France she has since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. She currently resides in San Diego with her husband and son where they enjoy exploring California and Mexico.
Travel has always been a part of her life; traveling to such places as Morocco, Tangiers and Spain as a young child as well as taking many road trips to Mexico with her grandparents as a young girl. Since then, she has traveled abroad to locations such as Russia, Taiwan and throughout Europe.
Prior to working at 52 Perfect Days she was a freelance travel writer; focusing on family and women’s adventure experiences.