Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hiking Leonera Canyon

El Rio Verde flows peacefully below the steep cliffs of Barranca de Leonera. Last November, I read an intriguing story by John Pint in the Guadalajara Reporter (the local English-language newspaper). In it he described a ruggedly spectacular canyon to the north of Guadalajara. It seems I was not alone in my interest, because the next time my weekly hiking group assembled at Doñas Donuts in Ajijic to prepare for our usual trek into the mountains, everyone was talking about Pint's story. We quickly agreed upon a date and began alerting others to this hiking opportunity. On November 30, guided by Pint's excellent directions, 4 carloads of us departed Ajijic for the 2-hour drive to the canyon country north of Guadalajara.

The trailhead begins with a scenic mirador. The mirador, or overlook, is adorned with a spread-armed statue of Jesus and a tiny shrine. The cliffs drop away immediately in front of the stone wall, providing a sweeping view of the canyon. The mirador is situated a few kilometers northwest of the small town of Acatic, which can be reached off either the #80 cuota, or the Libramiento road that parallels it. Although we had brought high-clearance vehicles to ensure we could get through on the dirt road leading up to the mirador, a street vehicle could have made it just fine. At the end of this posting, I will print John Pint's specific directions for those who might like to visit the canyon. For a Google map of the area, click here.

A snake greeted us as we arrived at the mirador. This harmless green tree-snake had somehow wandered onto the flagstone patio of the mirador. Unfortunately, some unknown person had apparently stepped on its neck, injuring the beautiful little creature. After taking a photo or two, we carefully moved him to the trees outside the mirador where he would have some chance of survival. A widespread fear of snakes sometimes leads people to act with mindless cruelty.

The view from the mirador. A brilliant, almost cloudless day provided an awesome view. You can just make out the line of el Rio Verde (Green River) at the bottom of the canyon. The terrain moves down through several ecological zones, from dry, semi-desert at the canyon rim, to riparian forest at the bottom.

Diana under the cliffs. A Canadian, Diana is an avid hiker. She stands under the vertical cliff that drops down to the cobblestone road presently under construction. The locals clearly see the Barranca de Leonera as a tourist attraction, and have several projects under way. I was glad to be able to visit the area while it still retains its serene atmosphere. The line at Diana's feet brings water to mix the concrete at the construction site further down the trail.

A break for desayuno. We encountered these friendly construction workers part way down the canyon trail. They were gathered around a small fire built to cook desayuno, the morning meal, and cheerfully agreed to a photo. Mexicans will typically eat 4 times in a day. When they get up, they may have a cup of coffee and a sweet roll or a piece of fruit. At about 10 AM, they break for a more substantial meal which may include tacos or empañadas. At around 2 PM they eat comida, the main meal of the day, after which there may be a short siesta. In the late evening, perhaps 9 or 10 PM, they eat cena another light meal. The Mexican schedule of eating may be healthier than the typical north-of-the-border method which involves a heavy meal in the evening, when the body has slowed down, and can lead to fat retention and digestion problems.

The inner canyon. The outer canyon walls drop steeply to a sloping, wooded plateau. The plateau falls off sharply in places to form an inner gorge, as seen above.

Lovely butterfly poses for our cameras. I originally thought this butterfly might be a Monarch but it is not. It graciously remained motionless for the several minutes that it took for all of us to get our shots. Butterflies can often be difficult to photograph because they tend to move around a lot, often in unexpected directions.

As we approached the canyon bottom, the reason for el Rio Verde's name became evident. The water took on the green coloring of the hillsides. The steep cliffs of the outer canyon can be seen in the distance. Although lengthy, the trail was never really difficult. It amounted to a reasonably smooth dirt road for most of the way. Generally, for aesthetic reasons, I don't care to hike on dirt roads. However, this one provided such continuously outstanding views that I was willing to make an exception.

Tilandsia, a member of the Bromiliad family. We often find these odd plants growing on the branches of trees in the wild or on power lines in town. They gather all the water and nutrients they need from the air. Bromiliads have an amazing capacity to store water. Studies have shown that 175,000 bromiliads sometimes can be found in one hectare (2.5 acres) of forest. That many bromiliads can sequester 50,000 liters (13,000 gallons) of water.

Closeup of a flowering Tilandsia. Bromiliads are a huge family which includes pineapples. Tillandsia is a genus within the family, and has at least 500 species. They are very widespread, from Virginia to Argentina. They can be found everywhere from the seashore to the desert. The Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas all used bromiliads for food, fibre and ceremonial purposes. They do have roots, but those are used more for gripping tree branches and telephone lines than for gathering nutrients.

A banana grove indicates a settled area is near. As we wound down the dirt road, the vegetation became more lush, even tropical. These banana trees grow in the partial shade of deciduous trees that grow toward the bottom of the canyon. Bananas may be the first fruit farmed by humans. They originated in Malaysia from two inedible species which were crossed to form a sterile species that produced edible fruit. The plant was propagated by using shoots from its base. The first edible bananas may have been produced about 2000 BC. They were first brought to the Western Hemisphere by the Spanish Friar Tomas de Berlanga in 1502, and made their way to Mexico after the Conquest.

Evidence of civilization deep in the canyon. As we moved into the welcome shade of trees near the canyon bottom, we began to encounter the adobe ruins of a tiny pueblo. I have always liked old adobe structures because of their innate beauty as well as the antiquity of this method of construction. Filtered streaks of morning sunlight created a warm glow across the rough, rust-colored surface of the old wall above. It was a photograph I couldn't resist.

An arched doorway leads into the vestibule of a small house just off the road. The slanting morning sun brought out a  delicate yellow in this old ruined structure. Adobe is one of the oldest building materials in human history. It is made of easily obtained materials: sand, clay, water, and some kind of fibrous material, often straw. In spite of the fact that they are made essentially of earth, adobe buildings are extremely durable and account for some of the oldest structures on earth. The bible speaks of the Hebrews making adobe brick for the Egyptian pharoah. Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere were making adobe for thousands of years before the Conquest, but the Spanish introduced them to the method of forming it into bricks. The Spanish themselves had been using adobe since at least the Late Bronze Age.

A small church indicated that the pueblo was not completely abandoned. Rural Mexicans are a religious people and churches are found everywhere among them. This tiny old church was perhaps 5 meters across (15 ft) and 10 meters long (30 ft). Gerry, a Canadian, watches from a distance as Mike, an American from Alabama, looks for a point of entry. Above the church you can see power lines, a fairly recent addition to the old canyon community.

Interior of the little church. Mike's efforts were successful, and we were able to briefly visit the interior of the old church. Everything was very rustic, but clearly the local people cared a great deal about their little chapel. The walls and altar contained fresh flowers, and a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe--patron of Mexico's poor and indigenous people--held the place of honor. As always, a Mexican flag hangs in close proximity to the Virgin. The Virgin of Guadalupe is not only a religious but a political symbol in Mexico. After taking a few photos, we respectfully withdrew.

Hikers are dwarfed by huge Mexican Fencepost cactus. The cactus above is formally named Pachycereus marginatus, but is commonly referred to as Mexican Fence Post. It can grow up to 7 meters (20 ft) tall. Fence Post cactus grows widely in the wild, but is also cultivated as a decorative plant, as well as being used as a very effective fence along the edge of fields (hence the name). At this point in the hike we had almost reached the river. The group above went in search of some waterfalls John Pint had mentioned in his article.

Christopher tests the water. You may remember my friend Christopher from my postings on Zacatlán and our more recent visit to Tula. To our astonishment, we found a small resort at the bottom of the canyon. It included a large swimming pool, filled by water cascading from the pipe seen above. A canopy-shaded area is available for parties and other events, as well as a rudimentary bar. The owner of the establishment invited us to sit in the shade and sample lemons from the trees grown just behind the wall seen above. We were a little dubious about the offer until we tasted the lemons. Juicy and amazingly sweet, the lemons hit the spot after our long dusty hike down the canyon road. I have never encountered anything quite like the lemons of Leonera Canyon.

A short scramble over riverside boulders led us to this quiet stream. I imagine that in wet weather, the Rio Verde gorge becomes a roaring torrent. However, on the warm, sunny, fall day we visited, the canyon was serene; only the chirping of birds disturbed the quiet. From this point, you are looking upstream to the north.

And speaking of birds... I noticed a movement far up the stream. Using my telephoto, I captured this Great Blue Heron fishing from a rock in the middle of Rio Verde. Great Blue Herons are common to my former home in Oregon. In fact, there is even a micro-brewed beer named for them and sold in Portland. Great Blue Herons are the largest species of heron in North America. They can be found everywhere from Alaska to South America.

Looking downstream to the south. The inner part of Leonera Canyon widens a bit here, before narrowing between the steep inner-gorge cliffs seen in picture #7 above. El Rio Verde contains long deep pools that look like they'd make for good swimming. Since it was a bit late in the year, and I had no bathing suit (we were in a mixed party), I decided against giving it a try. Perhaps some other time.

Beginning the long return trek. Three of our party hike along the road as it wanders through a beautiful grove of shady trees. The waning afternoon required us to begin our hike out of the canyon. We never did find Pint's waterfalls. We later speculated that they might be up a side canyon from a trail we had seen branching off the road. We'll save them for a return trip.

Late afternoon sun begins to stretch shadows across the canyon. In the center of the photo is a large oval area with light colored vegetation. This was a cleared area of pasture land on the intermediate plateau. Looking closely, we could just see some stone walls and a couple of tiny sheds. In the distance, the canyon winds off toward the north. While we saw a great deal from the various viewpoints along the way, that unexplored (by us, anyway) and mysterious inner canyon still tweaked my imagination. At this point, I was about 1/2 way up to the top of the canyon.

My American friend Tom strolls up one of a long series of switchbacks. While the hike down was easy enough, the hike back felt much longer. None of it was really steep, but it went on and on in the hot afternoon sun. That is the penalty of hiking down into a canyon, as opposed to up into the mountains. Just at the time when you are tired and the sun is highest, you must go up rather than down. No one complained (much), however. The day had been luminous with late fall light, the views had been wonderful, and we had found a new hiking playground.

How to get there. By John Pint

"Near Tonalá (on the eastern side of Guadalajara) take the Tollroad-Autopista heading for Mexico City. Fifteen minutes later, the road divides. Take the left fork (signposted Zapotlanejo). Again the road divides and again you take the left fork, this time for Tepatitlán. You should now be on Autopista 80D, heading northeast. A half hour later take the Acatic exit. As you enter the town, set your trip odometer to zero at the Pemex gas station. Drive straight north through Acatic. Some zig-zaging is necessary due to one way streets, but you should eventually exit the town on Calle General Andrés Figueroa and find yourself on a half asphalted road well sprinkled with potholes. 6.6 kilometers from the gas station you'll come to a fork. Take the left branch and drive northwest. At 7.2 kilometers on the odometer, you'll come to another fork. Keep right and continue going northwest. At eight kilometers you'll arrive at the Lookout Point (mirador), which has a parking lot. Here you can begin your hike along a cobblestone road heading north. Driving time from the eastern edge of Guadalajara to La Leonera Mirador and parking spot: about one hour."

This completes my posting on our Leonera Canyon hike. I always appreciate feedback, so if you'd like to comment, you can do so either in the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. I enjoy reading your blog with the amazing photography and factual information which you give about each photo. You obviously enjoy doing the research as well.

    I am writing from Canada where the snow continues to fall so I vicariously enjoyed your hike in the quite warm weather.

    It is also good to read into your blog that you feel safe hiking in Mexico given all the negative accounts about what is happening in Mexico in the newspapers and on the TV.

    I have visited Ajijic several times and have always enjoyed my time there.

  2. Michael recovered the snake at the end of the hike, patched his broken skin with duct tape, supplied him with water and after a few weeks he appeared well. He was released near Michael's house and later was seen as road kill in front of his house. A sad ending to the loving effort.


  3. Hi... I also ended up in La Leonera Canyon following John's instructions, 2 Saturdays ago.

    My 12 year old son, one of his friends and I, hiked down to the Rio Verde... a very nice hike down.

    In the Mirador, we asked about the waterfall to the bunch of cyclists we found there, and just as you thought, you have to go right in the only -I recall- trail branching off the main trail.

    The thing is, you have to go in rain season to enjoy it, as it is dry off-season. It's a 20 minute walk from the main trail, you have to go past a rustic fence made of barb wire and logs very near the main trail.

    We enjoyed those delicious lemons, too, they are great!

    I must admit we didn't walk up the mountain at the end of the day: we had a ride from a local family in their confident 4x4 truck... it was easier for us to go up, than to go down... :-) Scary thing, though, as we were greeted that day with a tow car towing up a pick up that had just fell off the cliff a couple of days before...

    - Huetzín

  4. Congratulations! You got further than I did in Leonera Canyon...guess I'll have to go back...with pleasure! John Pint


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim