Mycotourism flourishes in a mushroom-rich Mexico

PUEBLA, MEXICO — Miguel Ángel Reyes and his brother, Jorge Reyes, had not visited their hometown of San Miguel Canoa in several years. Working as chefs in tourist sites throughout Mexico, the brothers decided in early 2019 to return to the small town located at the foot of the La Malinche volcano, or Matlalcuéyatl, in the eastern state of Puebla.

They were shocked to discover that a fire had devastated the ancient forest surrounding the city. The smoke darkened the air “like a movie,” recalls Miguel Reyes. After the disaster, the brothers had an idea: they would use their ancestral and culinary knowledge of wild mushrooms to organize a Wild Mushroom Festival, which they hoped would attract tourists and gain support for reforestation.

Little did they know that they were jumping headlong into a growing industry: mycotourism, or tourism focused on finding, identifying, and learning about wild mushrooms.

But young chefs have a secret ingredient for success. They are Nanacateros, a Nahuatl word to describe a select group of Nahuatl speakers who possess ancient knowledge of wild mushrooms. As interest in protecting forests and fungal habitat grows, scientists and the general public increasingly recognize and value that expertise, cultivated by indigenous communities in Mexico for centuries.

Miguel Reyes learned to identify mushrooms from his grandmother, who began teaching him when he was only 10 years old. In the mycotourism tours carried out by Miguel Reyes together with other experts, he safeguards that ancestral knowledge. He provides the Nahuatl name for the fungus; he talks about the traditional ways of cleaning, cooking and preserving each specimen; and shares its meaning in indigenous rituals.

Based on the oral tradition of their parents and grandparents, who were also nanacateros, mushroom pickers have learned to distinguish varieties and assess their safety, toxicity, and uses. They have also learned the best times to forage and how to find the desired mushrooms, a skill with significant economic impact.

Mexico has the second largest number of edible mushroom varieties of any country in the world, according to data presented by Dr. Jesús Pérez Moreno, an internationally recognized authority, at the Second Fungal Biology Colloquium, a fungal biology symposium organized by the Faculty of Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Daniel Claudio Martínez Carrera is technical director of the Center for Biotechnology of Edible, Functional and Medicinal Fungi, a center that studies the biotechnology of fungi. According to the center’s studies, which Martinez says are the first conducted in the country, the value of the mushroom supply chain, including large- and small-scale mushroom growers as well as harvesters, exceeds $250 million per year. .

“The economic flow is important,” says Martínez, “and generates more than 25,000 jobs, direct or indirect.”

PATRICIA ZAVALA GUTIÉRREZ, GPJ MEXICO

Participants in a mushroom tour forage for food during a five-hour hike on the slopes of La Malinche volcano in La Malinche National Park. Rodrigo Romero García, 19, a scout and hiker, holds a basket of mushrooms picked in the park.

For María Isabel Juana Pérez Manzano, a nacatera from San Isidro Buensuceso, in the state of Tlaxcala, collecting mushrooms represents an additional income for her family. Mushrooms, as a non-timber forest resource, represent a considerable source of income for many families, with an income per feeding season of between 3,360 and 4,320 Mexican pesos ($163-$209), according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. the Agriculture. .

But the mushrooms represent much more than a few pesos for the collectors.

Adriana Montoya Esquivel, an ethnomycologist at the Center for Research in Biological Sciences, a research center at the Autonomous University of Tlaxcala, says that fungi are vital indicators of the health of their environments. Connecting the local and scientific knowledge of indigenous communities will improve understanding of threats to biodiversity, which include illegal logging in the area and forest fires, among others, and promote sustainable alternatives, she says.

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Humberto Thomé Ortiz is the founder of the Mycotourism Social Laboratory in Mexico, an experimental space for collaboration in mycotourism between indigenous communities, the academic sector, the government and the general public. He says that the knowledge that communities possess about wild mushrooms must be preserved, as it provides critical biological data that scientists may not have access to.

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PATRICIA ZAVALA GUTIÉRREZ, GPJ MEXICO

Erick Ricardo Estrella Ramírez, in the background, Esteban Joel Landa Huerta, in the center, and Yamil Hernández Urquieta, in the front, observe and listen to Professor Eloy Herrera Vázquez, on the left, a fungal biologist, during a tour of fungi in the National Park The Malinche.

A warning on the website of the Digital Multimedia Repository for the determination of edible and toxic fungi in Mexico, a project developed by mycologists from the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says: “This site should not be used to identify fungi in the field and consume them. The only safe way to consume wild edible mushrooms is to buy them from mushroom pickers who have deep traditional knowledge to identify them.”

There is a growing number of mycotourism experiences in Mexico, but Thomé believes that not all of them are well structured or regulated because Mexico, unlike Europe, lacks legislation dealing with mushroom picking.

For Thomé, mycotourism, when well formulated and carried out, can be a model for an important and restorative experience that helps society value and protect the environment.

And many mycotourists say the experience is well worth the time and effort.

Alejandra Ávila Cossío, 19, an explorer and hiking enthusiast, says it was “fascinating” to learn about mushrooms. And Yamil Hernández Urquieta, 25, a pharmaceutical biochemist who says he was drawn to the tour because he is passionate about biology, was left wanting more. “It was great,” he says, “and we hope to come back next year.”

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