Northbound on the 40, the toll freeway from Monterrey, is also called the Carretera Interoceánica. But we weren’t driving to the ocean.
The landscape changes almost immediately after you leave the city, a sprawling concrete jungle of more than 4 million people and about as many freeways and boulevards. There are garlic vendors with massive braids of bulbs on the roadside. There are open plains of wind turbines as you cross the north end of the Sierra Madre Oriental between the states of Nuevo León and Coahuila.
Within a two-hour road trip you arrive at a museum that’s only 20 years old.
The Museo del Desierto is one surprise after another. The lobby is large enough to host a correspondence dinner. Down a gradual descent a nondescript entrance opens into the museum itself.
Each exhibit is called a pavilion. The paleontology pavilion wraps around massive replicas of an Isauria, Sabinasaurio, Quetzalcoatlus and a T-rex. Every wall boasts fossils discovered after historic erosions.
Next, you wander from pre-history to the arrival of man, petroglyphs and rupestrian paintings. Cave art is our first introduction to the cultural anthropology of the nomadic people that once roamed this area.
Then, continuing their intuitive layout, we arrive in the evolutionary biology pavilion. I’ll be honest. I’m not totally sure which animals were fake displays and which were taxidermied.
We spent hours wandering the natural history and archeology exhibits. From cretaceous mollusks to coal-mining to the Franciscan missionaries, the history of Coahuila’s geology, biology and cultural history is laid out chronologically in one of the best designed natural history museums I’ve ever been to. Each exhibit is designed to match the geography of each era and ecosystem displayed. It is a uniquely immersive experience.
Like every great museum, completing your tour feels like “edutainment”. This academic endeavor is never boring. But we weren’t even done.
As we left the last pavilion I thought the exit would open out onto the parking lot. But it was actually a rip in time that led back to my childhood in Oklahoma.
For only $160 pesos I was transformed into a six-year-old gushing over the prairie dogs popping up in front of me and the late afternoon sun shining through their fur.
Contrary to scientific classification, prairie dogs are actually tiny waddling bear squirrels that like to play whack-a-mole with each other in desert climates.
It was only the beginning of what is a bonafide zoo, complete with a herpetology lab and a biodome, caracals, bison, wolves and goats. Although I was predictably disappointed by the size of some of the cages and enclosures I was overwhelmed by the outdoor spaces for the bigger animals. Though I’m sure it nowhere near approximates the size of their natural range it’s better than cages and fake plants.
This museum offers you the chance to explore the paleontology, geography, ecology, anthropology, biology and climatology of Northeast Mexico in an interdisciplinary way. Laymen get to learn like experts.
The fossils are exceptional, the zoo was completely unexpected and the nursery was a pleasant surprise. And the animatronic dinosaur exhibit has good reviews online.
At sunset, heading south to Nuevo Leon the desert is all mauves and sandstone grays and clay beige. It looks more soft than dry and the subtlety is beautiful.
The museum is worth the drive from any direction. And the road trip is a gorgeous bonus.