Contrary to what the name suggests, Desierto de los Leones, in english “Desert of the Lions”, is neither a desert nor are there any lions. It is just the name of both Mexico’s first national park and the abandoned convent located within its forests.
Actually, the origin of the name comes from the forest’s remote location outside Mexico City, and because the Spanish settlers were surprised at the number of Puma they encountered in the area, which they called “lions”.
Actually, it’s said that it owes its name to the De Leon family who collaborated with the construction of the building.
Also, according to a legend, the area used to be inhabited by ocelots, but even if that were true, you won’t find them there anymore! In fact today also the Puma has become extinct in this forests.
Even if the Puma are gone, lot of other wild animals is still found within the park: coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed deer, raccoons, and foxes, however, are seldom to be seen by visitors.
It’s more probably meet reptiles and amphibians like rattlesnakes, salamanders, or birds of prey like the red-tailed hawk and Harris hawk.
Unlike other areas of Mexico, these woods were never settled by the Aztecs, who instead preferred, in this zone, to hunt deer.
Then the Spaniards arrived…
In 1606, the Catholic Carmelite order of barefoot monks chose to build their convent here, due to its peaceful surroundings and distance from the city. So, the ideal location for meditation and retreat.
Life for the monks who occupied the building would have been simple but often hard due to the vow of poverty, silence, and chastity they had taken. But it was not enough! In fact, in addition to the vow of silence that prohibited the monks from communicating with each other, they also were required to walk barefoot, which must have been terrible considering the terrain and often cold temperatures, especially by night. And in addition, it is almost always cold, misty, and humid due to the forest’s microclimate.
The convent eventually was abandoned in 1810, partly due to the deterioration and collapse of the building as a result of the constant humidity, but also due to the war of independence against Spain reaching also, of course, the outskirts of the forest.
After being used as a military barracks, the area was declared a forest reserve in 1876 and became Mexico’s first national park.
However, some local tells that the monks never really went away, and the convent ruins are surrounded by urban legends about ghosts and other supernatural entities.
Over the years, many visitors have reported seeing the ghosts of barefooted and hooded monks and feeling the presence of a sinister and unseen entity watching them!
But according to another legends, there’s a treasure buried underneath the Desert!
And it seems that some fortune hunters have asked for permission to excavate there (they made a couple of attempts in the nineteenth and twentieth century) though nothing has been discovered yet….