Secret Forest Expedition

The Secret Forest Expedition

An Exclusive Journey into the Tropical Deciduous Forests of Álamos, Sonora, México | October 19–28, 2019

$2,500 + Eventbrite fees. Includes transportation, accommodation, and most meals. (Student Fellowships available, see below)

As of August 10th the trip has filled up. Please do add your name to the waiting list by emailing We are accepting student applications until Septemebr 1st.

The late author and borderlands journalist Charles Bowden described the tropical deciduous forest surrounding Álamos, Sonora, Mexico, as a “wonderful collision of desert and tropics and sierra,” a forest yielding the raw ingredients for the spiritual as well as everyday needs of its inhabitants. The dry tropical forests of Mexico are one of the least-known and most endangered habitats in North America. They are the crossroads of the deserts and the tropics, where jaguars stalk mountain-savvy white-tailed deer and military macaws flounce through forests of two faces: dry from December to June, turning emerald green at the onset of the rains, marking the true beginning of the new year. These beautiful, remote forests cling to the skirts of the mighty Sierra Madre Occidental and very few people are afforded the chance to explore their secret canyons and native stories.

The Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill has brought together a team of expert biologists, naturalists, authors, and photographers to lead a small group into the heart of the “secret forest” from October 19 to 28, 2019. The group will travel by four-wheel-drive convoy from Tucson, Arizona, to Álamos, Sonora, where we will spend two days at El Pedregal Nature Lodge, acclimating and exploring this Pueblo Mágico. The core of the trip will be six days and five nights exploring the Monte Mojino Reserve, managed by Nature and Culture International, where we will be immersed in the land of jaguars and barrancas (deep canyons), where the real stories begin.


While in Álamos, your accommodations will be the elegant, peaceful, and ecologically conscious El Pedregal Nature Lodge, situated on 20 oasis-like acres in the town of Álamos ( Each of the eight unique casitas at El Pedregal are designed to enhance the comfort and enjoyment of your stay and feature quality beds, fine linens, towels, pressurized water, Wi-Fi, mini fridges, ceiling fans, and air conditioning.

While in the forests of the Reserva Monte Mojino, we will be based at the low-elevation Rancho Palo Injerto, along the banks of the Río Cuchujaqui, before traveling up to the pine oak woodlands of the idyllic Rancho Santa Barbara. Each ranch house in the Reserve has indoor accommodations for four people and flat shade covered camping conditions adjacent to the ranch houses. For those not indoors, there is ample space for cots (provided) and tents (your own). At Rancho Santa Barbara, we will be the guests of Rúben and Pi Alvarez, who have lived in this high valley of the Sierra Madre adjacent to the Chihuahua border since their family settled there in the early 1900s. 


As a Pueblo Mágico, Álamos provides a range of dining options. For the three days and four nights we are in Álamos proper, two on either end of the trip, lunch and dinner will be on your own, breakfasts included. Our town days fall on weekends when the open-air markets are open and the best food stands are open in the morning. Also not to be missed are the carnitas at the corner of the central market, Teresita’s bakery and restaurant, the bar at Hacienda de los Santos, and getting a nieve de pitaya (organ pipe cactus fruit ice cream) and sitting along the Alameda.

In the Reserva Monte Mojino, all food will be provided for you. Meals are made on-site in beautiful, rustic kitchens by an excellent cook from Álamos. Menus will feature the fresh and local ingredients of the region including pozole, fish from the river, and the best corn tortillas you can imagine. Vegetarian options are available for all meals and lactose-free and other dietary needs can be reasonably accommodatedThere will always be a selection of beverages available (juices, tea, coffee, wine, and purified water).


Days will be spent exploring the lowland tropical and highland oak-pine forests through the eyes of Desert Lab and local experts. The degree of activity will range from relaxed time exploring around the ranch house, where bird and animal watching abounds, to more adventurous hikes and exploration farther afield. While at Rancho Palo Injerto, along the Río Cuchujaqui, activities can include swimming and exploring the magnificent El Cajon slot canyon, setting up camera traps for jaguars, birdwatching, and more.

We will then move camp and follow a winding road through the forest, past giant fig trees, and travel up in elevation to Rancho Santa Barbara. While only several hours away, you will have been transported into the cool air and back in time. We will explore the Alvarez family orchard, lechugilla (sierra mezcal), and agricultural fields; hike to the mirador to gaze upon the Sierra undulating into the horizon; and explore the most tropical pocket of Sonora in Arroyo Verde. Towering trees, hundreds of kilometers north from their core range, and guacamayas (military macaws) fill the air. After several days in paradise, we will head back down the mountain and into Álamos for a last day or relaxation, showers, and a final great meal before returning back to the Old Pueblo of Tucson.


The entire trip will be taken in the context of safety being a primary focus. Trip leaders are well-versed in the terrain of the area and are experienced backcountry travelers and guides with associated first-aide training. It is essential that all participants take common-sense precautions, and we advise each participant to have their own health and travel insurance. The group will travel with a satellite phone and back-country first aid kit at all times.

At the time of registration you will sign and agree to a waiver form that provides a detailed overview of the risks and health and safety details of the trip. Signing of this waiver is mandatory for participation.

Expedition Leaders and Experts

Your team of experts includes:

         Dr. Benjamin Wilder            Director, Desert Laboratory; botanist, and biogeographer 

Dr. Mark Dimmitt                  Ecologist and first-hand historian to the creation of the Monte Mojino Reserve from a pipe dream to reality

Robert Villa                         Research Associate; Desert Laboratory; Herpetologist, botanist, and musician

Trica Oshant Hawkins        Community Outreach and Conservation Education, Desert Laboratory; Interpretive naturalist and bird guide

Roseann Hanson                Art & Science Program Coordinator, Desert Laboratory; Naturalist and field sketch-biologist

Jonathan Hanson               Photographer, author, naturalist, and expedition travel expert

Clark Reddin                       Director of Operations, Desert Laboratory; jack of all trades

Local experts from Nature and Culture International

This is an exclusive opportunity, not available through any other institution or tour operator. Expedition slots are limited, and participants should be prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with tent camping and remote, four-wheel-drive travel through parts of the legendary Sierra Madre few people have had the chance to see.

Registration and Tickets

$2,500 includes travel, lodging, and meals. To particpate and purchase tickets, please go to this link:

Costs go to directly cover travel expenses and directly benefit Nature and Culture International and the Desert Laboratory.

Student Fellowships

Due to the generosity of anonymous donors, we are able to offer two fully funded spots for students (undergraduate, graduate, or nontraditional). If you are a student whose research and personal development would benefit from participating in this trip, please send an email to Ben Wilder ( and the Desert Laboratory ( Submit your completed application by September 1, 2019. There is no need to purchase tickets via the Eventbrite page. Selected students will be notified promptly.

Include the following information:




Phone number (best number to reach you):

What level of student are you:

(1) Please provide a brief description of your background and area of interest.

(2) How would you benefit personally or professionally from participating on this trip?






October 19 (Saturday)

Day 1. Depart Tucson, arrive Álamos.

Night at El Pedregal Nature Lodge (

October 20

Day 2. In Álamos for trip preparation.

El Pedregal

October 21

Day 3. Depart Álamos, arrive at the Monte Mojino Reserve (Nature and Culture International, NCI)

Rancho Palo Injerto

October 22

Day 4. Full day in the Monte Mojino Reserve along the Río Cuchujaqui.

Rancho Palo Injerto

October 23

Day 5. Travel in the Monte Mojino Reserve to Rancho Santa Barbara.

Rancho Santa Barbara

October 24

Day 6. Monte Mojino Reserve, Rancho Santa Barbara.

Rancho Santa Barbara

October 25

Day 7. Monte Mojino Reserve, Rancho Santa Barbara.

Rancho Santa Barbara

October 26 (Saturday)

Day 8. Depart Rancho Santa Barbara, return to Álamos.

El Pedregal

October 27

Day 9. In Álamos.

El Pedregal.

October 28

Day 10. Depart Álamos, return to Tucson.

 Suggested reading

• The Secret Forest,

• Explorations on the Rio Mayo,

• Gentry’s Rio Mayo Plants, and

• Rio Mayo Plants,

• The Tropical Deciduous Forest of Alamos Biodiversity of a Threatened Ecosystem in Mexico,

• Mayo Ethnobotany,

• Trees of Sonora,

• Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests (Cambridge),

• Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests (Island Press),