Sunday, January 6, 2008

Hiking in Lake Chapala's mountains

Steep hillsides and deep ravines just west of the fishing village of Mezcala. These are typical of the mountains overlooking the North Shore, which sometimes drop precipitously to the water, leaving little space for human occupation below. I have been collecting hiking photos from my excursions into the mountains surrounding Lake Chapala since last summer, but for one reason or another have not put together a blog posting on this important part of my life until now.

Accordingly, this posting represents a variety of hikes along the North Shore with different groups of people at different times although there is considerable overlap in who shows up in the pictures. I was a bit baffled as to how to present this at first until I decided to treat it as a composite hike, representative of what a person might encounter on any particular Tuesday morning when a group of expats and other visitors gathers at Dona’s Donuts in Ajijic to get their weekly “fix” of adventure and strenuous exercise. This posting will show typical scenes encountered by these adventurous people. So, with apologies to my fellow hikers for this arrangement of convenience, let’s get on with it!

The hiking group above is typical for its international flavor, containing Americans, Canadians, and one Norwegian. The groups who gather at Dona’s range widely in size, depending on time of the year, weather, and who happens to be in town. In my experience, there have been as few as two, in the summer doldrums when the “snowbirds” aren’t in town, and as many as eighteen when a search party gathered in December to find a couple of lost hikers who fortunately turned up before the search got underway. No one knows exactly where the hike will go until the group gathers. A few of the more experienced hikers will suggest a trail, based on conditions and whether the people showing up think they can handle it. Some of these trails are relatively short two or three hour jaunts starting right from the front porch of the donut shop. Some are as much as eight hours, and involve extensive drives or even multiple bus transfers. Some have even involved rock climbing up cliff faces requiring ropes for safety. We never know until we get there, and I have learned to allot the whole day just in case.

Headin' up. A shady and relatively level beginning is not unusual, but we can always count on tougher terrain ahead, since the only way up a mountain is “up”. I have just turned sixty, and had considered myself to be in relatively good shape. The hikers I have met are generally as old or older than me, although we get the occasional 30-40 year old. Despite my relative youth in the group, the older hikers regularly leave me in the dust. I am continually amazed by the seventy-year-olds who barely slow down on the steep switchbacks and who nimbly leap from one precarious rock ledge to another. While it is sometimes a little exasperating to watch this, as I pant for breath at seven thousand feet, it does give me hope for my own future, as I get stronger and more acclimated.

Speaking of switchbacks. This photo shows the typical steepness of the trails, and the jungle-like underbrush in the shadier areas. In the summer rainy season, this jungle grows to a level of thickness that discourages any thought of venturing off the narrow trails, and sometimes conceals sudden drops and other pitfalls. Great care is needed to avoid injury in places where rescue would be difficult and many hours in coming. In the winter, the underbrush dries out and is often slashed back by Mexicans coming up to tend mountain-top fields or to herd livestock, but it can still scratch and entangle the unwary with clusters of sharp thorns which seem to leap out with evil intent.

Camote holes show another reason the Mexicans trek up these remote, rugged trails. They come to harvest camote, a tuber similar in appearance to yams or sweet potatoes. Camote grows wild, and is free for the taking by local Indians on their ejido (common) land. I am told it only grows between seven thousand and seventy-five hundred feet, in a band that rings the mountains around the Lake. Camote must be an exhausting crop to harvest since you must first climb two thousand steep feet up the mountain, find a camote plant, dig a substantial hole, and then tote your vegetable treasure down the mountain to sell on the street.

A cool reward on a hot day. Waterfalls are only active during the rainy season, from June through October. The cool moist air they create, and their wonderful sound encourage many an impromptu break on a hot sweaty hike. Unfortunately, the water is not safe to drink, so you have to take plenty with you

Dry waterfalls make for great rock climbing. During the dry season many hikes take a route either up or down the steep ravines cutting the sides of the mountains. Here, Robert, our resident rock-climbing expert, tries a route up a particularly steep dry waterfall in a ravine overlooking San Juan Cosala, which lies a few miles west of Ajijic on the North Shore. In September, a tromba (waterspout) came off the lake and dumped tons of water on a mountainside already unstable from unusually heavy rains. A massive mudslide roared down this ravine and through the middle of San Juan Cosala destroying numerous homes and cars. There were many injured but fortunately no one was killed. The slide brought boulders the size of my car from high on the mountainside down into town, and plunged autos headfirst through the sides of homes.

Path of destruction. From the top of the dry waterfall, one can see the path of destruction down toward San Juan Cosala in the distance. Mt. Garcia, an extinct volcano, rises across the lake. (Photo by Norm Tihor)

Debris from Tromba mudslide. Our hiking group posed behind some of the debris from the mudslide. You can see the size of the rocks that hurtled down the slope, pushed by tons of water and mud. Canadian Norm Tihor, who took several of these photos, stands on the left beside Martha, a Mexican from Guadalajara. (Photo by Norm Tihor)

Robert and Sven scout the gorge. The ravine narrowed into a deep gorge necessitating a detour. In the photo, Robert and Sven, our Norwegian climbing friend, assess the possibilities of a climb down the gorge before giving it up as too risky without equipment. (Photo by Norm Tihor)

On the ridge at last! After several hours of tough switchbacks, it is a relief to reach one of the ridges that run along the top of the mountains paralleling the shore. In the background, you can see both the mountain valley behind the ridge and the lake, which lies in front of it. Anna, pictured with me, is a Canadian who came down alone to visit the area. She is a gutsy woman and a strong hiker.

A burst of beauty. One of the rewards of these hikes is to suddenly come upon a small bit of beauty among the rocks and brambles. This flower, as yet unidentified by me, thrives at high altitudes in the area. The blossoms grow at the tip end of the bare branches of a medium size tree, and are very striking against the brown winter landscape.

Predator in disguise. We found this Preying Mantis on the trail after nearly stepping on it due to its excellent disguise. The creature is at least six inches long and its mandibles look very capable of catching a meal.

Taking a break. Barbara, who is visiting from Sonoma with her husband Larry, takes a break with Sven. Sven grew up in Norway during the time of the Nazi occupation. I am told he is a former gymnast, which helps explain the amazing agility of this seventy-year-old man.

The youngster of the group. Chris, a young father with twin eight-year-olds, is one of the few younger people I have seen on these hikes. A low-key, friendly type, he is a partner in an investment company in San Francisco and owns a home in Ajijic on property that used to be part of a gold-mining operation. His family has owned property in Ajijic for many years including a former convent.

Isla Mezcala, fortress island. Mezcala Island lies a couple of miles off the town of Mezcala. The island has a long and colorful history as a fortress and later a prison. During the Mexican War for Independence from Spain, rebels held the island against Spanish royalists for four long years. They raided the small towns and villages along both North and South Shores, and resisted repeated assaults by Spanish troops. The Spanish, frustrated and worn out by these stubborn patriots, finally negotiated an honorable surrender that allowed the rebels to go home. This was a fairly unusual arrangement for the Spanish who tended to favor rebel heads stuck on pikes outside the town gates. Mezcala fishermen take tourists over to the island when their fishing boats are not otherwise occupied. On the far side of the Lake you can see the distant ridges of the Sierra Occidental del Sur, beyond which lies the Pacific.

From the ridge on the west end of the Lake. At the far western end of Lake Chapala, about 20 miles from Mezcala, lies Jocotopec, a good-sized town of about 40,000. Some expats live here, but many fewer than Ajijic or Chapala, so it has much less of a “gringo” feel to it. It is mainly a commercial and farming center, and is a gateway to Guadalajara for those who live at this end of the Lake. The white patches seen in the distance are plastic sheeting over vegetables. The farming operations around Jocotopec seem very modern compared to the small plots cultivated around Ajijic. The long green strings in the Lake are “lirios” or patches of floating hyacinth. This is an invasive species and there is a constant battle waged to keep it in check and unfortunately poisons are sometimes used. We are looking down from about two thousand feet up on the ridge.

Larry points the way as Gerry checks his GPS. Larry, standing next to his wife Barbara, points out features of the country back of the ridge (looking north toward Guadalajara). Rick, the Canadian with the black walking stick moves forward for a better look. Anna, in the background, seeks shade from the glaring mid-day sun. This was a typical section of ridge top, a broad rocky trail surrounded on both sides by low dry brush, dropping off to splendid vistas in either direction.

Another stretch of the ridge trail. An agave cactus, relative to the plant from which tequila is made, grows in the foreground. In the distance the trail passes through an open meadow allowing another great vista, and then into a small forest of low oak trees. The hiking was very pleasant along here, gently rolling with periodic shade, one of the rewarding aspects of the long trudge up.

A rest and some chow at the summit. This particular summit overlooked the Jocotopec vista seen previously. There is always something triumphant about reaching a summit, the place where you can look down on everything around you and relax in the knowledge that it’s all downhill from here. You can see on the faces of the hikers: “we made it!”

A remote ranch in a mountain saddle. Looking down from one summit, we saw this ranch set in a saddle overlooking both the Lake and a broad mountain valley to the north. Somebody who values his or her peace and quiet owns this place. The main crop seems to be corn, possibly for cattle we saw grazing in the area, but there is a field of agave nearby, seen as the gray-green rectangle at the right of the cornfield. Agave is considered a cash crop, but it has apparently been over planted in recent years and since it takes several years to mature, the farmer never really knows whether the market will be there when the crop is ready. Ah, well, you can always drink the profits.

All downhill doesn’t mean easy downhill. As you can see, switchbacks up often lead to switchbacks down, and often through more tangled jungle. Whenever you look ahead on the trail and see people moving in opposite directions on different levels, you know you are in for a dose of switchbacks. Down can be more tricky and dangerous than up when you are tired, your muscles are quivering, and gravity is pushing you forward. Generally more people get hurt coming down a mountain than going up and the extra concentration the downward trek requires adds to the strain.

Farm kids shucking corn. Kids like these probably shuck the corn harvested on the mountain ranch. These kids were having a whale of a time when we came by, and all waved excitedly at the strange gringo hikers. They were probably wondering who these crazy people were who walked up mountains for fun. When I turned the camera toward them, some grinned, some screamed with laughter, and some hid their faces. Kids are the same everywhere.

Low-tech energy transportation system. Burros trudging into Mezcala carry heavy loads of firewood gathered in the mountains. Burros have been carrying loads like this since biblical times, but it would not be unusual to see the drover on horseback text-messaging on his cell phone.

The final reward: a flat spot to sit and a cold drink. The end of this particular trail was Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos, after a long hike down a ridge from an eight thousand foot summit overlooking Chapala to the south and small lakes and farmland to the north. Ixtlahuacan has a bus station on its plaza where we caught a bus back to Ajijic for about 90 cents. Now for a cool shower and a long nap.