Monday, May 11, 2009

The Waterfalls of Chiquilistlan Gorge

Double falls in the deep canyon of the Chiquilistlan River.  Five of us, two Americans, two Canadians, and a Mexican, recently decided to explore a remote canyon in the mountainous plateau southwest of Guadalajara near Tapalpa. Robert, our American rock climbing expert, had visited this canyon once before. He persuaded us that for a hot May day, the cool pools and rushing waterfalls were just the ticket. Our Canadian friend Larry offered to drive the group. It would be a long drive, so we piled into Larry's 4-wheel-drive at 8 AM. For a Google map of the area, click here.

Fill 'er up! Larry noticed his gas was low when we arrived in Chiquilistlan, the nearest town to the gorge of any size. We circled through the town, looking for one of the ubiquitous green PEMEX stations, distributors for Mexico's government-owned petroleum company. None were to be found. Figuring that we had somehow missed the station, we asked several local people for directions. As usual in Mexico, we got several contradictory answers. Finally someone directed us back to the road where we had entered town. Still no station. Some local cowboys lounging nearby nodded vigorously when we asked, pointing to a rather anonymous-looking adobe building across the street. Someone went into a small store next door and, in a moment, a young man came hustling up spouting cheerful apologies. He filled up a large plastic jug from a big green holding tank inside the adobe building, and siphoned in enough gasoline to fill our tank. Welcome to Mexico's back country!

This was cowboy country. Cattle were everywhere, as were tough-looking Mexican cowboys in their stetsons and leather chaps. We parked in the small village of Comala, on a bluff overlooking the river and its canyon. At the gate of the road leading down into the canyon, we encountered these two critters. They were torn between fright and curiousity, and huddled in their protective mother's shadow.

Tom, suiting up. Tom is a fellow Oregonian, a retired dermatologist, and the possessor of an extraordinary knowledge of birds, geology and a great sense of humor. By May, the "snow birds" (temporary Gringo residents) have returned home and the hikers left are the hard-core. Tom and my companions are of this group. Because of the watery nature of the proposed hike, I had left my camera behind. Tom brought his and generously offered to share it with me while we hiked. I have identified the pictures which are his.

The first falls of Chiquilistlan Gorge. Not far from the trail-head, we heard the roar of a cascade and encountered these beautiful falls. The pool at the bottom is both deep and wide enough for a good swim. The locals have rigged up a knotted rope which you can see hanging from a branch in front of the falls. Because there is easy access to this point, unfortunately there is a fair amount of trash strewn about. This is not public land, and there is no one to police any rules. I have noticed this kind of problem both north and south of the border. I have also noticed that the trash problem fades away as one gets to the point where a person's arms get tired carrying a cooler of beer. Since the country above this waterfall requires increasing levels of effort to reach, it got cleaner and cleaner as we went along.

Another critter encounter. Tom discovered this beautiful butterfly sunning itself on a rock along the stream.  (Photo by Tom Holeman)

Robert and Larry taking a breather. Behind them is the rim of the first big falls. Each set of falls required some sort of climb. In some cases it was a steep, slippery trail, in others a serious rock climb. Robert came prepared with a rope for safety's sake. As we moved higher into the canyon, the walls closed in and the climbs got trickier.

The Double falls was graced with a deep green pool. The water in the pools and stream was crystal clear, and safe to swim in, but probably not to drink. The deep green--almost turquoise--water was not in the least murky. The color may come from minerals, or from the reflection of the trees and vegetation close around.

An odd sort of "moss" drew our attention. As we moved up into the gorge, we kept encountering this fuzzy moss-like feature on the rocks and on the sides of trees. The line under this rock over-hang is about 30 feet long and 6-12 inches wide.

A hairy-looking mass. Upon closer inspection of the fuzzy "moss", it looked like the fur of a very long-haired black dog. Robert, who'd been here before, pointed out that the individual hairs were actually the legs of tens of thousands of "daddy-long-legs". These creatures, also called "Harvestmen" are sometimes called spiders but are not actually true spiders. They have small oval bodies about the size of a pea and long thin legs. You can see some of the spider bodies in the light colored area of the picture. I'm not particularly phobic toward spiders, and these definitely weren't dangerous, but so many together gave me the "willies".  At one point, I walked a little to close to a tree with one of these masses along the trunk and a huge foot-ball-sized glop peeled off and dropped to the ground. The mass exploded in all directions with running spiders. (Photo by Tom Holeman)

One of the trickier climbs. This one gave us a bit of concern until Robert pulled out his rope. A fall without the rope would have dropped me back on some rather nasty looking rocks. Robert is very safety conscious, and I sometimes get a little impatient with the slow pace of his rope-rigging, but as I climbed up I was glad that he knows his stuff. (Photo by Tom Holeman)

Omar finds his own way. Omar, our Mexican hiking friend, decided to forgo the ropes and climbed directly up through the pouring water of this cascade. He managed to find hand and foot-holds in the slick, moss-covered rock and emerged soaking wet but triumphant. Above, he surveys the route he came up. When I told him he was "muy loco" he just grinned and gave me one of his infectious laughs. (Photo by Tom Holeman)

Omar and Tom discuss the finer points of gorge climbing. Omar, a very smart and personable young guy, had the time to accompany us on our adventure because he recently lost his job due to the economic downturn in Mexico. He and his girlfriend Angie came along last November on our trip to climb the Nevado de Colima volcano. He has the confidence of youth and I'm sure he'll land on this feet.

The walls of the upper gorge began to close in. The higher we climbed, the narrower the gorge became, with vertical walls on either side of more than 100 feet. The space to walk on either side of the stream became increasingly limited and we moved by jumping from rock to rock. This was a very peaceful setting, but I could imagine the raging torrent that would pour through here in the rainy season. I wouldn't want to get caught here in a flash flood.

Dripping, mossy stalactites covered the walls. Ferns sprouted from small islands in the stream bed and others from crevasses in the walls. Heavily mineralized springs have created rock formations known as travertine, much the same as dripping water in caves creates strange stalactites.

Long green moss-covered stalactites pour down the slope. What looks like a fringe on the edge of the stalactites are small extensions of the travertine rock above. The whole atmosphere of the place was ethereal. I half-expected Hobbits to pop out from the canyon walls.

End of the line. Finally, we reached a point where the walls were so close and the water so high that to continue meant to swimming. Sometime I'd like to attempt it, but the day was getting late and we faced a long hike back, and an even longer drive before we reached our homes. (Photo by Tom Holman)

The hikers' reward. It is a tradition of my hiking group to end each adventure with a cold beer or other drink of choice. Sometimes this occurs outside an anonymous little tienda in a small mountain village such as Comala, where we emerged from the gorge. One of the local cowboys was kind enough to take this group photo for us. Left to right: Jim, Larry, Tom, Robert, Omar.

This concludes my posting on the cascades of Chiquilistlan Gorge. Please feel free to comment in the section below or directly email me. I enjoy hearing from people. Also feel free to pass along a link to this blog to your friends.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Green with envy! I'm not sorry to miss the harvesters but the rest of it...

    Damn! Wish I were there!

  2. Jim thanks for sharing, the place looks amazing. Keep the blog coming.

  3. The butterfly was only 3 cm wide, Jim.

  4. Thank you fro sharing you visit to this wonderful town....,not many people know of it. My dad is from Chiquilistlan and I love it, I try to go every year. there was a lot more to see than just the cascadas de Comala. Hope you visit again soon =)

  5. I'm glad to hear that you guys had a great time visiting places like Comala, the village that has the waterfalls, wrongly called "Las Cascadas" because their real name given by our grandpas is "El Salto". What irritates me is the fact that one of our neighbors, the town of Jalpa has connected his sewer system to the river putting in danger our health. The water now stinks and has changed its color. What a shame!

  6. I´m Angelina and I was born in this beautiful town Chiquilistlan, When are you visiting us again?!


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