Saving Paradise: Cuernavaca Residents Take Action to Protect Waterfall

Authorities say they don't have the funds to clean up the scenic gem. Instead, a determined community has stepped up.

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Saving Paradise: Cuernavaca Residents Take Action to Protect Waterfall

Laura Castellanos, GPJ Mexico

Alberto Navarro, Maricela Rodríguez, in red, and Diana Navarro clean the promenades at El Salto de San Antón waterfall in Cuernavaca.

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CUERNAVACA, MEXICO — Every Sunday morning, Alberto Navarro heads out with his broom to clean a cascade of stairs covered in vegetation. He painstakingly sweeps dozens of steps, which are separated at intervals by long, battered walkways. His wife, Maricela Rodríguez, and sister, Diana Navarro, wield brooms as well, along with dustpans and plastic bags. They sweep the 190 steps one by one, then pick up the dried leaves, plastic bottles and other trash. It takes them two and a half hours to finish cleaning the tourism facilities surrounding El Salto de San Antón waterfall.

But all of the Navarro family’s careful cleaning may be in vain. This area has been in decline for decades, as pollution from formal and informal urban settlements has spoiled the scenic site. They and other neighbors haven’t stopped trying to revive the once-thriving tourist site.

This place is like their home. Alberto Navarro played here, swam in the river, grew up watching the buses of tourists pull in. His grandfather arrived in the neighborhood 80 years ago and opened a restaurant and plant nursery. His grandmother opened a flowerpot store. His family lived for decades on the tourism generated by the dazzling 36-meter (118-foot) cascade.

“On the weekends, there used to be a man who would dive in. I was around 14 or 15 years old,” Navarro says. “The water was clean, clear. But they put new neighborhoods up there, and they started to cause the pollution.” The mighty stream darkened, and hundreds of plastic bottles and other garbage accumulated on its banks.

Pollution caused profits from his family’s nursery to dwindle. It was the same for the plant store, which Diana Navarro inherited. Throughout the neighborhood, a restaurant, other plant nurseries and handicraft vendors, and a quesadilla cart have lost 10% to 80% of their income in the past five years.

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Laura Castellanos, GPJ Mexico

Maricela Rodríguez sweeps the stairs at El Salto de San Antón waterfall every Sunday.

“Many businesses closed and those of us who were gardeners now have to find work outside of San Antón,” says Alberto Navarro, 63. Meanwhile, on Sundays, he and his family clean the waterfall, even though it looks abandoned.

Rodríguez joins in with her husband. “Every week, we’re thinking, ‘What broom will I take? What will I wear? Do I have bags?’” They bring their own cleaning supplies and empty the trash cans — painted red — which they made from large water containers.

On Sept. 19, 2017, an earthquake damaged the visitor infrastructure and the waterfall’s cliff, which features basalt prisms. The local government of Cuernavaca closed the site, and ever since, the facilities have deteriorated even more.

Locals say Cuernavaca Civil Protection warned of landslides, but the Navarro family minimizes the danger. “There are risks everywhere: in your house, in your living room, on the stairs,” Diana Navarro says. Neighborhood residents held an assembly in November 2022, and they decided to reopen the facilities themselves.

“It’s the affection and love I have for the place,” Alberto Navarro says.

A cascade of consequences

Cuernavaca is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” thanks to its system of ravines, which creates a refreshing microclimate. Rivers and streams run through 46 ravines, which extend 140 kilometers (87 miles), and both formal and informal settlements empty wastewater into them.

Some ravines used to be under the protection of the federal government, like the one that feeds El Salto de San Antón, but Cuernavaca’s local government took over responsibility in 2009, while other ravines are under either state or federal government management. This creates administrative gaps that make pollution possible, says Concepción Alvarado Rosas, a professor at the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos.

David Pineda, an 83-year-old artisan, says he has been fighting for the waterfall for 30 years. His handicrafts stall is the only vendor stall left, and it is now only open on Saturdays and Sundays. His sales have declined 80% in five years.

“We used to be 20 vendors. Where are they?” he says.

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Laura Castellanos, GPJ Mexico

David Pineda, 83, sells handmade maracas near El Salto de San Antón waterfall. He has been fighting to conserve the site for 30 years.

Pineda participated in an initiative to save the waterfall from pollution with interventions from citizens, institutions like the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the San Antonio de Padua parish, and the government of Cuernavaca from 2004 to 2008. They created a board of trustees, and he served as its first president.

“We picked up an enormous amount of trash. We had seven collection points,” Pineda says. They raised funding and installed a biofilter at a school that had been polluting a river that feeds the waterfall. In 2007, the artisan counted 4,635 visitors in one month. He says internal conflicts arose in the board of trustees. The initiative didn’t last.

Pineda’s tireless activism over three decades has made him the face of the rescue movement. “I have participated in seven waterfall rescues, but they fail because the authorities don’t get the people involved. I’m worried about my age. My abilities have diminished a lot, and they’ll keep diminishing,” Pineda says. “I’m tired of fighting.”

Other people in the neighborhood are advocating for the waterfall in their way. José Luis Valladares owns the restaurant El Salto. He started there as a cleaner in 1978. “I was 13, I was in middle school, and I started working there to pay for school.” He took over as owner in 2004, and although his clientele has dropped by 40% in the past five years, he is not considering closing. “On the contrary, I’d like it to grow more because I have a second floor,” he says.

An absence of comprehensive policies

Biologist José Alberto Rodríguez San Ciprian is head of Cuernavaca’s Dirección General de Desarrollo Sustentable, the department that regulates sustainable development at the municipal level. He also participated in the initiative Pineda took part in, as director of the ravines. His post lasted until 2009, when the municipality’s administration changed.

He says the local government intends to repair the damage caused by the 2017 earthquake, but they have not had the budget for it so far. “Unfortunately, the funding has been directed toward paying the debt” they inherited from five previous administrations, which has represented 30% of the municipal budget for the past two years.

The biologist says there is a possibility that, in 2024, they will dedicate funds to restore the infrastructure, but not to clean up the waterfall. The latter requires more time and money, and municipal authorities are up for election in June.

So far, the Cuernavaca government has not intervened in the neighbors’ collective decision to reopen the space. Global Press Journal’s repeated requests for comment from Civil Protection received no response.

Professor Alvarado says rescuing the waterfall will be effective when the ravine system in Cuernavaca is no longer fragmented between the federal and municipal governments and only one authority protects the ravines. She proposes “granting them cultural heritage status” and creating networks of paths and parks.

Laura Castellanos, GPJ Mexico

El Salto de San Antón waterfall pours into a dark pool. Its basalt cliffs were affected by an earthquake in 2017.

Architect Manuel Quinto, one of the driving forces behind the rescue of Amanalco, a ravine in Cuernavaca that was turned into a tourist area in the 1990s, agrees with Alvarado. He says there should be a comprehensive solution that includes civil organizations and citizen participation. “The local people know about the problems and can provide follow-up on the projects when there is a truly participatory methodology.”

Paloma Martínez, 32, represents San Antón as a liaison with the municipality, managing the demands of the neighborhood with the local government of Cuernavaca. Her family owns the most plant nurseries in the neighborhood, and she is a third-generation shopkeeper. “My family used to have 17 stores, and now only four remain,” she says.

Martínez says she’s seeking public funding to rehabilitate the waterfall and create a cultural and community space. But she thinks restoring it will only be possible if the neighbors commit to caring for it.

“We, the locals, have to be the ones [to do it]. Then we can involve the authorities,” Martínez says. “If we don’t do it, it’s unlikely anyone else will.”

Like Alberto Navarro, Martínez grew up near the waterfall, and her family depends on tourist revenue. Navarro is confident that her determination will help her accomplish her goal. For his part, he plans to keep cleaning the facilities “until the desire is gone.” He believes El Salto de San Antón will shine again. Until then, he’ll keep sweeping.

Laura Castellanos is a Global Press Journal reporting fellow based in Mexico.


Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.