Saturday, April 18, 2009

A trek over the mountains: Las Trojes to San Juan Cosala

The view from the top. In the Fall of 2008, a group of us decided to attempt one of the more challenging but spectacular hiking trails in the mountains rimming the north side of Lake Chapala. The photo above was shot from the 8000 foot crest of the main ridge which runs west from Chapala about 20 miles to Jocotopec, the far end of the Lake. In the foreground you can see the rugged, heavily-wooded arroyos that drain into the lake. In the middle-ground is Ajijic, then San Antonio Tlaycapan, Mirasol, Riberas, and finally the small volcanic knobs which conceal Chapala, just beyond. The Lake itself, steel gray and shimmering, stretches off 30 miles into the east, beyond the powers of the naked eye. For a map of this area, click here.

The hiking crew. We were a mixed bunch, with more women than is usually the case for the Tuesday morning group with whom I normally hike. All the men were regular hikers and had taken this trail at least once before. Although all the women were physically strong, none of them had previously done any significant hiking in these mountains. We would all need our strength because this trail is not only long, but is rugged and sometimes very steep. I had hiked the trail once before, in August of 2007. The altitude and heat nearly did me in. However, it was much cooler in the Fall of '08, and by then I was a much stronger hiker. Shown above (L. to R.) are Allie, Chris, Norm, Tom, Emma, Lil, Deb, and Bob (seated).

The ridge looked deceptively close from the trailhead. You can see the 8000 foot ridge in the background. The trail to it rises steadily up the slope through pastures and past stock ponds. Although the climb from this side is not particularly steep, you start from a much higher elevation than on the Lake side, so the effort required can be deceiving. In order to reach the trailhead, we had to take two buses, one to Jocotopec at the west end of the Lake, and a second from there around behind the main ridge and up a high valley to the tiny hamlet of Las Trojes. The first bus was comfortable, clean and well-maintained. The second was one of Mexico's famous "chicken buses". The rule, apparently, is that you can bring on any livestock that is small enough to sit on your lap. As I recall, we weren't accompanied by any squawkers, cluckers, or squealers this time, but the bus showed evidence of their previous passage.

A lush mountain valley. About 1000 feet higher than Ajijic, the valley we traversed to Las Trojes was lush with ripening crops and dappled everywhere with wildflowers. Looming in the distance to the north is Cerro Viejo, a peak that tops another even higher ridge than the one we will climb. Cerro Viejo rises to 9711 feet (2960 meters).  The only peak in the area that is higher is Nevado de Colima volcano, which we climbed later that Fall.

Kapok tree blooms beside the trail. Kapok can be found through out the mountains around Lake Chapala. The bloom on this one had been munched on a bit by critters but was still strikingly beautiful against the deep green of the Kapok's leaves. Kapok is a truly extraordinary plant. The leaves are often gone long before the flowers, leaving a perfectly bare tree with large flowers at the ends of the branches in full bloom. The ancient Mayas considered the tree holy, calling it Yaaxche. They believed it to be the World Tree; the only tree capable of reaching the heavens. Kapok produces balsa wood, used by model makers, aircraft manufacturers, and builders of supertankers. The cotton-like substance surrounding the seeds was used in WWII for life jackets because the Kapok could support 30 times its weight in water. The Kapok cotton has also been used to stuff baseballs, while the oil from the seeds is not only edible, but is used for soap and cattle feed. 

The "McDonald's  flower". Marigold or Tagetes we  found growing wild along the trail. My friend Tom calls them the McDonald's flower because of the distinctive "M" on each petal. Marigolds are native to Mexico and are considered a symbol of death. They are used extensively in the Day of the Dead altars and ceremonies. I was able to find the formal identity of the flower with the help of my Spanish teacher Joel Gomez. In addition I got the help of Ron Parsons who has an excellent website with beautiful pictures of Mexican wildflowers

Millipede crawls across the rocky trail. This little millipede was lucky he didn't get tromped by all the gringo hikers going by. I have often been puzzled by the apparent lack of animals any larger than squirrels in Lake Chapala's mountains. The mountains certainly seem to be ideal habitat for deer. When I mentioned this to a Mexican friend, he said "when a population of game animals exists side-by-side with a low-income population of humans for whom meat is a luxury, the game doesn't last long." Given the ruggedness of the mountains, I thought surely the game could find places to hide. Then I remembered that water sources are extremely limited in these mountains. You wouldn't really have to hunt. Just hang out by the waterholes and the game will come to you.

Chris prepares to enter the oak forest. An interesting feature of these mountains is the fringe of oak forests topping the ridges. After fighting our way up through the heavy undergrowth on the lower slopes, we suddenly emerged into a shady oak forest with very little underbrush. The area almost has a park-like feel to it. The lack of undergrowth may have something to do with  the acidity of the oak leaves and acorns which cover the ground. The oaks don't seem to thrive at lower altitudes than the 7500-8000 foot level. On a hot day, the cool, open, airy shade of the oaks is a welcome change.

Paintbrush or Castilleja. These wildflowers are widespread throughout the western North America (for the benefit of my Canadian and US viewers, Mexico is part of North America, not Central or South). The genus Castilleja is very large, and neither Ron nor Joel was sure which kind this was. Thanks anyway, guys! The genus was named after a Spanish botonist named Domingo Castilleja in the 1700's. 

Huge mushrooms dotted the forest floor. Nestled in the oak leaves we found large mushrooms, including this very striking orange one. None of us were mushroom experts, so we were not tempted to try a taste.

Agave exists side-by-side with oaks and pines. This large, wild agave is a relative of the plant from which tequila is produced. I found it on the trail that runs  along the very crest of the ridge. This trail stretches all the way from Chapala to Jocotopec, although some areas are pretty overgrown during the rainy season.

Chris and Lil look east along the ridge crest. The ridge is fairly narrow in some places, creating a knife-edge effect with steep drops on both sides. You can see the oaks which line the very crest. Chris and Lil are sitting on an outcrop of rock that is part of a dramatic overlook facing the Lake. The slope of the ridge facing the Lake is blanketed with thick, jungly vegetation.

San Juan Cosala from the ridge overlook. The ground dropped off precipitously below us. Rugged fingers of the ridge, separated by deep arroyos, extend down to the town of San Juan Cosala. Immediately below the ridge lies the Racquet Club, a wealthy suburb of the small Mexican village which lines the water's edge. San Juan Cosala is a very old village, mentioned in reports by Franciscan friars who visited the area about 1530*. Presumably the Coco indians had been dwelling there from a far earlier date. One of the attractions to the early indians was a system of hot springs. The springs are still utilized by locals and tourists. According to the Franciscans, when the population of San Juan grew too large, the Cocos resettled themselves in what became the Lakeside towns of Jocotopec and Ajijic. 

*Tony Burton, "Lake Chapala through the ages", Sombrero Books, 2008

Salvia, also known as sage. Once again Joel and Ron came to my rescue. I was  concerned at first because one of them called it Salvia and the other Sage, but when I googled it,  I found that both were names for the same plant. Salvia is extremely widespread, with species found not only in Mexico, but in China and Africa. Salvias are members  of the mint family and some kinds are used in tea. The plant has been mentioned as early as the 1st Century AD by the Roman Pliny the Elder.

The Four Musketeers. (L. to R.) Lil, Allie, Emma, and Deb. The men on the hike dubbed our less-experienced but still game hiking partners "The Four Musketeers".  They more than held their own throughout the hike, and their good spirits and energy raised ours. Deb has returned to the US, and Emma was in New Zealand the last I heard, but Allie and Lil still live in Ajijic. 

Shrines with tall white crosses dot the ridges of the mountains. These shrines form an important part of the local Mexican religious traditions. On various days important to Catholics, they climb the long steep trails to decorate the crosses with flowers and streamers and leave burning candles and other offerings at the  base. This shrine marked the intersection of the ridge trail with the main trail down into San Juan Cosala. It was time to begin the long descent.

Lil and Bob pick their way along the rocky trail. The trail was very rocky, and sometimes tangled with vines or other obstructions. A good hiking stick to maintain balance and close attention were vital for safety on the trail down. In many places, the edge of the narrow trail dropped off into 30 feet or more of empty space. A missed step could create a serious problem.

The "who knows?" flower. Neither Joel nor Ron was able to identify this beauty. It grew in clumps on a large shrub beside the trail and its deep glowing yellow was striking. I would appreciate anyone who can enlighten me (and Ron and Joel) as to the name. You can leave your entry for the "who knows?" contest in the comments section below.

Taking a breather. Norm and Allie stopped part way down to rest and enjoy the spectacular view. I later kidded Norm about his vaguely Napoleonic stance. Regular stops are important for safety because more people get hurt coming down from a mountain than going up. When one is tired and thinking about the cold beer at the bottom, it is easy to make a mistake.

The way down. This  shot gives a good  example of the narrow and very rocky trails one finds in these mountains. In the summer months, when the rains have spurred an explosion of vegetation, the trail can virtually disappear. This requires a great deal of "bushwhacking" and even greater care in walking because the lack of visibility sometimes hides sudden drops.

Making a new friend. Finally, we emerged from the last arroyo onto a broad grassy plateau. Almost at once, we encountered a couple of very friendly burros. Actually they responded to us much more like lost puppies, immediately approaching us when we spoke to them. Allie found she had a few goodies left from the hike and the burros were delighted to try them out. They seemed very happy to be petted and stroked, and even attempted to follow us when we turned to leave. I guess things had been a little slow lately in the burro world. 

Agave, the  tequila type. Agave fields are ubiquitous in Jalisco. They are even planted on remote ridges and mountainsides reachable only by foot or horseback. Planting this crop is a leap of faith because it can take several years for the plant to mature. The price and supply of tequila may have altered drastically from when the field was planted. Fortunately, Mexicans seem to have an inexhaustible thirst for tequila, and there is an unbelievable variety.

The reward of the trek. This small tienda sold just what the doctor ordered: a large supply of ice-cold beer. The overhead sign for Chinese beer is evidence that globalization has reached even this small shop in an ancient indian village. 

This completes my posting on the hike from Las Trojes to San Juan Cosala. Feel free to comment in the section below, or drop me an email.


  1. Beautiful shots! Keep it up, people are reading!!!

  2. Thanks Jim,

    Some say that the oak forests extended down to the lake before WWII when coke, charcoal from the oak wood, was used heavily for metal {particularly copper} production. Replanting hasn't been a big issue here either.


  3. I enjoy reading all of your blogs. I've been to Ajijic two times and plan on returning. I am now writing a story about the area, and enjoy seeing your blog, and photos, to help me remember details. Thank you. AARON G.

  4. Hi Jim
    I was on one hike with you in the winter and enjoyed seeing the photos and commentary of this hike. Please say hi to Ron and Lil for me from Sharon Waldman (Lil kindly gave me some pepper spray for walking at night) Hasta Luego, Sharon

  5. Thanks Jim for the wonderful pictures and so much information about our Mexico. Like Ed said, people are reading your blog -- myself included. You are a wonderful writer!

  6. Beautiful pictures I wish 1 day I can visit too.God bless everyone there ..your friend from san diego ca.....


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