Natural Worship in Mexico

Religious pilgrims are trampling the grounds of the El Carmen monastery in the Sierra del Nixcongo Mountains near Mexico City. Thousands of them flock there on Catholic holidays to set up camp and walk a forest path that recreates Jesus" crucifixion. But they don’t just walk. They drive through the forest and park wherever they can find room. Opportunistic food vendors caught on, setting up shop in a clearing that was meant for meditation and reflection, not hot dog sales.

The result has been air and water pollution, soil erosion and an endangered canopy of cedar, spruce and oak trees along the steeply declining, half-mile path, which starts in the tiny village of El Carmen (population 1,000) and leads to the monastery. The site got so bad that Padre Carlos Martinez, a former head monk at the monastery, sent out a call for help.

Architecture students at the University of Arizona redesigned the forest path at a popular monastery near Mexico City to better protect the environment.
Courtesy of University of Arizona Architecture School

Enter six University of Arizona architecture and landscape architecture students. For their semester project in a class taught by professors Chuck Albanese and Mario Schjetnan, the students developed a plan to manage runoff, limit erosion and direct the flow of people and cars near the monastery. They drew up plans for campgrounds, a re-paved path and a series of reflecting pools to collect rainwater. They designed a visitor’s center and an open-air marketplace near the entrance so vendors wouldn’t need to encroach on the path.

The students also got a bit spiritual. They designed a retaining wall with niches where pilgrims could leave religious artifacts, and they suggested ways to stabilize a series of uprooted "cross stations," markers along the path that depict Jesus" last days.
"We’re trying to bridge tourists, the community, the forests and the monastery, and at the same time keep the sacred pathway intact," says student Harry Cooper.

So far, the padre likes what he’s seen. "I am very impressed by this experience," Martinez said after reviewing the students" plans in December. "For us Carmelites in Mexico, this convent, this monastery, is like the heart of our whole institution."