Just south of San Felipe is one of the delightful treasures of the Baja peninsula—Valle de los Gigantes, or Valley of the Giants. The area earns its name from the massive cardón cacti that grow to heights of nearly 60 feet tall and weigh up to 25 tons. There are 120 species of cactus in Baja, but the cardón is the largest cactus, not just on the peninsula, but in the world. Many of these prickly giants are over 100 years old and scientists believe that some cardón live to be 200 years old. The cardón cacti of this region are so unique that one cactus was transported all the way to Spain for the world’s fair in 1992.
Scientifically known as Pachycereus pringlei, the common name for this prickly giant is the “Elephant Cactus” in English. “Cardón” is the common name in Spanish, coming from the word cardo meaning “thistle.” The cardón cactus is native to northwestern Mexico found in the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, and Sonora.
The cardón is a stem succulent and can use its stored water reserves to withstand years of aridity. It has large, white flowers that are nocturnal and appear along the ribs. The cardón has a symbiotic relationship with bacterial and fungal colonies on its roots which allows it to grow on bare rock even with no soil present. The bacteria breaks down the rock and converts nitrogen from the air into nutrient compounds found in soil.
Many people mistakenly refer to cardón as saguaro, and although the two cacti appear very similar, there are no saguaro in Baja (they are found in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico). The differences between the two cacti are slight—the cardón generally have more branches that grow on the stem toward the base. They also have fewer ribs on the stems and blossoms that appear lower on the stem. The cardón have slightly different spines and spinier fruit than the saguaro.
Indigenous peoples would eat the fruits and seeds of the cardón. The fleshy parts of the stems are used by ranchers on wounds as a disinfectant, pain killer, and other healing properties. The woody ribs from the inside of the stem can be dried and used to make fences, poles, fishing spears, beds, walls, and rafters.
HOW TO VISIT
You’ll find the Valle de los Gigantes south of San Felipe along Highway Mexico 5 around Km. 14 near Rancho Punta Estrella. Once you pay the admission to enter the park (US$10 per car), you can drive and walk among the cacti. Four-wheel drive vehicles are required to explore the entire park by car, but even those without four-wheel drive can explore part of the park by vehicle, and you can always walk around on foot as well.
There’s a parking area where visitors can leave their vehicles and hike or take photos. Because of soft sand, four-wheel drive is required in order to venture farther into the park by vehicle. Temperatures can be extremely warm, so visitors are advised to bring water for walking around the park.
Don’t forget your camera—these giant cardón cacti are one of the most-photographed attractions in northern Baja and you can’t take a trip to this region without getting your photo with one of them.