Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Waterfalls of Barranca Yerba Buena - Part 1

Barranca Yerba Buena begins at the south end of the small farm-town of Citala. In Spanish, "barranca" refers to a steep-walled ravine. That definition certainly fits the one called Yerba Buena (defined either as "good grass" or "mint tea"). We discovered Barranca Yerba Buena on our visit to Windy Point, south of Lake Chapala near the small city of Tuxcueca. Standing on Windy Point's precipitous escarpment and looking south across the valley below, I spied a deep canyon cut into the plateau on the opposite side of the valley, just at Citala's southern limits. The inner walls looked very high and sheer and promised a real hiking adventure. Adding to my growing excitement, I could find no other hikers who had hiked or even heard of it. Mystery and adventure!

Part 1 of this adventure looks at the first of our 3 hikes into the canyon. We launched each of these hikes from a different direction, and made interesting and sometimes spectacular discoveries on each one. Parts 2 and 3 will cover the hikes we made on two successive Tuesdays after our first effort. Even with 3 extensive explorations, there still remain unexplored aspects to Barranca Yerba Buena.

Beginning the hike: the mouth of the outer canyon. We left the car at the trailhead just south of the highway across from Citala near highway milepost #15 of the Carretera Milpilla-Tuxcueca). The access to the trailhead is a cobblestone road directly across the highway from Ramon Corona, a street which leads into Citala. A hundred yards or so up the cobblestone road is a steel gate on the right where you can park and walk down. The canyon begins with a series of gradually narrowing cow pastures covered with volcanic rock and tall, stately Mexican Fence Post cactus. The small fields are criss-crossed by crumbling old stone walls, with a faint trail wandering through them.

The almost cloudless sky in early May promised a very hot day with a forecast of 96F. We were thankful that much of the canyon floor appeared to be heavily wooded. Surprisingly for this time of year, there was a full stream of water pouring through the base of the canyon. Both of these facts seemed to promise some moderation of the heat that was beginning to build even then. Little did we know this would be one of the hottest days of the season.

Mexican Fence Post cactus is not only attractive, but produces a tasty fruit. A few minutes into our hike we encountered a young Mexican man toting a wicker basket on his back and carrying a long pole used to extract these fruit from the cactus' prickly stems. He readily showed us the products of his efforts which we duly admired. Lacking specific information--our only guide was a Google satellite map of the area--we questioned him as well as we could about conditions ahead. He told us of some large waterfalls far up the canyon, but much of his directions were pretty vague, and his distances and times proved to be way off the mark. Still, we were encouraged by his helpful attitude.

They call it the "Gringo Tree" for a reason. These large trees, also called Gumbo-Limbo and more formally Bursera Simaruba, can be found in canyons throughout this part of Mexico. Why the name? Because the bark of the tree turns pink and peels, just like the Gringos.

A small crude stone dam crossed the stream early in our hike. The top of this dam provided the only easy crossing of many we made during the day. The trail meandered, disappeared, reappeared and grew faint again many times as we moved up the canyon. Although the canyon bottom was relatively level with little gain in altitude, the ground was rough and full of boulders and loose rocks called scree required constant attention to avoid a twisted ankle or a fall. In addition, the vegetation was thick and brambly in many places, causing us to lose the trail quite often at the start.

A quiet shady stream gave some relief from the growing heat. At this point the stream often broadened out with a slow moving current.

A water pipe points the way. Above, Tom (L.) and Chris (R.) boulder-hop across the stream under a metal water pipe. The pipe, we later found, extended most of the way up the canyon. Gradually we found that the trail, such as it might be, could be found within 50 feet of either side of the pipe. This began to make sense as we realized that the pipe required frequent repairs due to rock slides.

A Mexican repair in the back country is a rough and ready affair. Here the pipe has been supported by two forked tree branches. Liberal use of duct tape seals the cracks and holds things together. This was typical of what we found throughout this primitive, but apparently effective water system. Where the pipe might lead was still a mystery.

Another tree often found in these canyons. These trees are typically found clinging to the sheer sides of rocky canyon walls. What makes them so remarkable are the roots. The tree trunk may be found anywhere on the side of sheer rock cliff, with the roots extending down the rock face, moulding themselves to the contours of the rock as they go, until they reach a place where they can sink into some earth. Above, Tom examines the root system of one we found near some caves.

Anyone who knows the name of this tree is welcome to leave a comment at the end of this post or to email me directly.

Caves provide shelter to modern Mexican travelers as well as the ancients. This kind of cave typically can be found at the base of a rock cliff where it meets a softer surface. The area can be hollowed out into a shallow shelter. This was one of several caves under the face of this cliff. They were big enough for 2-4 people to huddle together for protection against the elements. The ubiquitous plastic soft drink bottles provided evidence of recent occupation. I have no doubt that Indians used this and similar shelters for countless generations before the Spanish arrived.

Cafe Con Leche river. We debated over the proper name to give this small muddy river and finally settled on the name of a popular Mexican drink made up of milk mixed with coffee. We felt entitled to name it since local Mexicans in Citala insisted it had no name. Later we found that someone had given the canyon the name of Barranca Yerba Buena, but there is still no indication whether that is also the name of the river. Until we hear differently, it shall be the Rio Cafe Con Leche.

Home for sale, needing only a little tender loving care. While we were stopped for lunch, I decided to explore a little way up the trail and discovered this small crumbling cabin next to the river. The structure was made from tree branches and a piece of corrugated iron or chicken wire here and there. Inside we found the remains of previous habitation, including an empty picture frame, a rusted-through milk bucket, and a wire animal trap. An old set of bed springs was suspended from the ceiling. A local Mexican had lived here while he tended his animals and perhaps a small milpa (field) or two.

A small banana grove near the cabin. The whole field measured perhaps 30 feet by 30 feet. Since bananas are usually a crop found in the tropics, it seemed odd to find them growing in an arid semi-desert area. However, the whole area is a transition zone and I have sometimes found moisture-loving ferns growing in the shade of a large cactus. Were these bananas still tended by the former cabin owner? Another mystery of the Barranca. Bananas were introduced to Mexico by Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, a rather saintly figure from the 1530s, shortly after the Conquest. He brought over many crops and taught skilled trades to the indians in order to help them better their miserable lot under the cruel Spanish system.

Picking his way carefully. As we moved up the canyon, the walls closed in and required some careful moves around tricky spots. Here, Tom squeezes around a narrow ledge. We took it slowly, one at a time. This far back in the canyon, no one wanted to get hurt because the way out would be rugged even without injury and rescue from the outside was probably out of the question.

Bugs in a huddle, yet another mystery. Just what kind of insects these were, and what they were doing puzzled us. My best guess is some sort of mating behavior. These bugs ignored us even when we intruded in their world with our camera lenses for close-up pictures. Anyone with a knowledge of insects is welcome to identify these critters and tell us what in the world they are up to.

Discretion is the better part of valor. This bridge crossed just above a waterfall. Other than the narrowness of the log, what made it interesting was the tendency of the log to roll as you walked over it. I wasn't so much worried about getting wet on that hot day as I was about falling on one of those rocks below. I suspected that my fellow hiker, to whom I had lent my camera, was hoping for a dramatic, mid-air shot. I was happy to disappoint him

A powerfully rushing waterfall, as we enter the inner canyon. Larry (above) was with me when we discovered the Barranca from Windy Point, and when we explored the trailheads at both ends of the canyon several weeks previous to this hike. The speed and force of the water was definitely picking up. This was also the terminal point of the metal pipe, which ended in a small concrete cistern. The cistern was fed by numerous plastic pipes that extended out to various springs in the area. The canyon was getting more scenic by the minute, but time was running out since we had pledged to each other to turn around at 2:15 in order to get back to Ajijic at a decent hour.

Wayne in careful mode. The rough bouldery terrain showed few traces of a trail at this point. We all made good use of our walking sticks for support and for testing the steadiness of rocks we were hoping to use as stepping stones. Not far from here, I unwisely attempted to use a tree root extending out over the canyon as a support for my foot. Down I went, and hard. I drove a large wooden splinter into my elbow which resisted normal tweezers after my fellow hikers pulled me back up. Tom, a retired doctor, watched this for a while, then whipped out a pair of Leatherman pliers and after a bit of probing yanked out most of the splinter. I kidded him about his choice of surgical tools. "It worked, didn't it?" he said with his impish smile.

Lovely yellow flower graces a stream-side tree. I am told by my botanist friend Ron Parsons that this is an Allamanda in the Apocynaceae family, but he doesn't know the species. Based on his information, a Google search shows that it looks a lot like an Allamanda cathartica, a species which oddly enough also grows in Surinam, where it was discovered by a Swiss botanist named Fredrick Allanand in 1770. The leaves can be used as a powerful laxative and purgative. How it ended up in a remote Mexican canyon is another mystery of the Barranca.

End of the line for this hike. When we reached this suspiciously rickety footbridge, we decided it was time to head back. The bridge is held together with barbed wire. With all the gaps between slats, a missed step promised a rather uncomfortable straddle of that wire. We probably could have crossed at another point, and we were tempted to keep going. However, we had become separated from Chris and needed to find him and head back. We hoped to reach the north shore of Lake Chapala with plenty of daylight left. Only those with exceedingly tight sphincter muscles willingly choose to drive Mexican back roads at night.

Citala welcoming committee. After a long and very hot hike back down the Barranca, I was famished for a cold drink. I was so thirsty, having neglected to bring sufficient water, that I downed an entire bottle of water heated to a sharp temperature while it sat in Wayne's car all day. I just craved something wet.

On our initial exploratory trip, Larry and I had noticed a small tienda in Citala with a sign outside that said "cerveza" (beer). After reaching the car, the our group made a beeline to the tienda and ran into fellows above. After eyeing our scruffy, sweaty appearance for a while, they politely inquired about our day. They seemed a bit puzzled that anyone with more sense than a burro would willingly hike all the way up the canyon on a hot day like this, but they were interested in our experience.

On the left end with the crossed arms was a friendly guy named Jose, who also happened to speak very good English. It turned out he had lived in Los Angeles, California, not too far from the house where Carole and I had lived. Small world! When we asked about the rules for camping in the area, Jose looked at us with astonishment and laughed. "Rules? Do what you want, no one cares." I was starting to like this place.

A two beer hike. It has become a tradition among this group of hikers to seek out a beer or other cold drink of choice immediately after a long hike. In fact, hikes are rated as one-beer, two-beer, and so on for their difficulty. This had been a two-beer hike, at the very least. From left to right: Tom, Jim, Larry, Wayne, Chris. The picture was taken by our new friend Jose.

In Part 2 of the Barranca hiking series, we approach the inner canyon from another direction and reach the lower of two very tall and scenic waterfalls. I hope you have enjoyed this hiking adventure and will check in for the next installment in about a week.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Enjoyed it I did! The bugs were icky but the rest is nifty. I love the sense of excitement and adventure!

  2. Jim, I really enjoy your blog! Your photos and descriptions are superb and help those of us who aren't there yet enjoy Mexico too. Thanks, and don't stop!

  3. Hi Jim.
    Congratulations, your writings are very interesting and I’m so exciting to be part of your blog.

    Thank you.

  4. Dear Jim, I just want to say, Thank You so much for allowing me to see the canyon. I never got to hike up the "cerro" (seh-rro. Spanish for mountain).
    While I grew up in Atotonilco, Citala.
    Just about a mile and half from Citala.
    Thanks again. Oh yeah, and those cactus fruit are called "pitayas"
    and they are yummy! Try them.
    They only grow from May to maybe June, or July..

  5. hey thanks for the pics and all that good stuff you say about my home town my name is manuel lopez and i'm really sorprise you guys went to all those places where i just to go hunting all the time with my friends isn't lovely huh??? if you wanna know more about us and my home town i invite you to my web page

    1. That's my home town too. One of the pics it shows 2 of my uncles

  6. Jim, regarding the tree with the amazing roots, it looks very much like a strangler fig to me. Thanks for sharing this amazing hike and terrific photography - love it!


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