Friday, September 11, 2009

Ajijic's back yard: Tepalo Waterfall hike

Mountain views of Ajijic and Lake Chapala can be stunning. On a clear day, Lake Chapala seems to stretch out forever when you are standing on a mountain outcrop overlooking Ajijic. The view from here is toward the southeast, and Lake Chapala continues for another 30 miles in that direction.

In this post, I decided to focus on the Tepalo Waterfall hike, one of the most popular and heavily traveled trails in the north shore area. It is accessed from Encarnacion Rosas street, which is also called Donato Guerra below the Carretera (main street of Ajijic). You just head uphill from Dona's Donuts, the gathering point for most group hikes in the area. When the street dead ends in a small development at the base of the mountains, look for the trailhead, found on the left before the small bridge crossing the arroyo which leads to the development gate.

My back yard is a vast mountain area easily accessed from home. My house is in the center of the picture above, framed by two palm trees. One mountain trail begins less than 100 yards from my door. The Tepalo trailhead is about 300 yards away. As an avid hiker, this close proximity to a huge wilderness area is ideal for me. Even so, I am also only a short walk away from Ajijic's Plaza, center of cultural activity in the area. I feel very fortunate.

The heavily jungled mountains can be confusing to the uninitiated. It was a while before I figured out the structure of these mountains. This simple example can help. Place your hand flat upon a table. Then, leaving the tips of your fingers on the table, arch the palm of your hand. Your top knuckles form a bumpy ridge, separated by shallow dips between them. These are the peaks of the mountain ridge that runs east to west along the shore, separated by what we call "saddles". Your fingers extend down to the table, similar to the many ridges that run from the peaks down to the flatter land by the lake. Between your fingers are troughs, similar to the arroyos that parallel and separate the ridges. Where the troughs run up to end in the "v" between your fingers are cliffs that are dry most of the year, but gush with waterfalls during the summer and early fall. In the picture above, the highest peak on the upper left is called Chupanaya. At 8000+ feet, this peak is the highest of the peaks that directly front the lake. My house sits near the base of one of the fingers, or ridges, that runs almost directly to Chupanaya.

Cool shady trail winds along the side of one of the finger ridges. There are hundreds of trails in the moutains, and almost none of them are marked. I always advise against hiking alone, particularly if you are new to the area, because it is easy to get lost even for those with experience. There are no dangerous animals, with the exception of the occasional rattlesnake in a remote canyon. It also is extremely rare to have a problem with another human. The danger lies in the remoteness of some areas. If you are injured, and no one knows your location, you could have a serious problem. Trails are often rugged, with steep drops on one or both sides. The Tepalo trail is heavily hiked, and the chance of meeting another hiker is likely, so it may be a good place to start if you are new.

Tepalo trail follows the stream up the arroyo. The trail crosses and re-crosses the stream many times. Most of the year it is dry. In the rainy season, the water can cascade down with a great deal of force, and ropes are sometimes rigged at the crossings. Rain has been light this summer, so the stream crossing seen above is very shallow.

The "v" between the fingers. This shot, taken from a trail winding along the side of one of the finger ridges, shows how the arroyos typically end with a sheer cliff. The jungle at the bottom of most arroyos is extremely dense at any time of year, and is almost impassable during the summer. Nevertheless, some of my hiking friends seem to delight in what we euphemistically call "bushwhacking". This involves forcing your way through this jungle, whacking away at the enroaching vines and sticker bushes with your hiking stick. They especially enjoy it when the bushwhacking involves struggling up steep, trailless hillsides. I have learned to prick up my ears when I hear one of them casually remark that "it may be a little thick up ahead..."

Purple Oxalis adorns the trail side. In the summer and fall, wildflowers explode into color all over the mountains. My wildflower-expert friend, Ron Parsons, helped me identify this flower, as well as the others in this posting. Different species of Oxalis are found almost everywhere but the arctic. Mexico, in particular, has a wide variety. Oxalis is also called the "love plant" for reasons I have not been able to ascertain. It is mentioned in China's Ming Dynasty records in 1421 as a plant whose extracts can be used to locate copper deposits. It is also eaten in some areas, but can be toxic in large quantities. Crystals of calcium oxalate have been used in treating diseases in the past. And, it is very pretty.

Deep green ferns flourish along shady trails. This area of Mexico is a transition zone between high desert and coastal jungle. It is not unusual to find a moisture-loving plant like this fern growing in the shade of a heat-loving cactus.

Tepalo's first large natural waterfall cascades down into the narrow canyon. There is another waterfall shortly after the trailhead, but it is formed by a small man-made dam. To find the 30 foot falls above, you have to take a short detour trail down into the canyon, because the main trail has started to rise up the hillside. Because the canyon is so narrow and deep here, it is almost always in shade, which means that shade and moisture loving plants abound.

And you think Mexicans have big families? This flower belongs to the Rubiaceae, which has 660 genera and more than 11,000 species, making it one of the largest of plant families. The family can be found throughout the world, from jungles to deserts. Members of this family produce coffee, quinine and other medicines, and dyes.

Snails abound in the mountains during the rainy season. Strolling along the trail to the Tepalo waterfall, I noticed an empty snail shell, and stopped to examine it. Having taken a moment to focus on the details of my immediate environment, I began to find snails everywhere. Mostly they seemed to be creeping along woody stems and branches as this one is. The shell is about 3 inches long. This experience caused me to pause more often and just look. It is amazing how much you can miss if you only focus on the next few rocky steps in front of you. Of course, you also don't want to fall off a cliff while gawking.

Young Mexican beauty contemplates one of Tepalo's many falls. We encountered this girl along the trail, along with several of her giggling friends. She may be about 14 years old. Like most pretty girls anywhere, she seemed to enjoy being photographed.

Tepalo's Upper Falls. I usually avoid posed photographs, but I asked fellow hiker Patricia to sit on the rock so there would be some sense of scale. The flow of water is moderate this year. I have seen these falls when they were covered by a silver sheet of water.

The waterhole at at the top of Tepalo falls serves many purposes. Animals drink from it, and plants along its edge draw upon its moisture. These two Mexican boys appeared while we were resting from our climb up the side of the falls. The older boy on the left is gathering water from the springs, while his younger brother keeps an eye on their horse in the background. They told me the water was for their milpa, or small corn field, located on the mountainside above. These mountains are all ejido land, controlled by the government and held in trust for the use of the common people. They are free to use the land to pasture their animals, grow corn or agave in small plots, gather firewood or to dig for camote roots (similar to sweet potatoes). Many of the trails in the mountains originated from these purposes, particularly from the camote diggers. Some trails probably long predate the Spanish.

Love in the pond. Upon closely inspecting the waterhole, I discovered a rather odd looking frog. It turned out to be two frogs mating. They completely ignored me, even when I got fairly close with my camera. Love conquers all.

Lantana produces a tiny, waxy-looking flower. Lantana is a genus of tropical flowers with about 150 species. Mainly it grows in the Americas and Africa. The flower clusters, like the one above, are called umbels and the individual flowers are called florets. Lantana's leaves are poisonous, but birds seem to like its seeds. The wood of the Lantana is very tough and durable and is used in wickerwork and other handicrafts.

Rod enjoys the view from a saddle above Tepalo's Upper Falls. Rod emailed me out of the blue while he was living in Tanzania in East Africa. He was planning to move to the Lake Chapala area and was intrigued by my hiking posts which he had discovered while surfing the web. I told him about our Tuesday hiking group, and one day there he was. Rod originally hails from Great Britain, but has lived all over the world. The saddle where he is standing is a broad, relatively flat area just behind the first knuckle up from the fingertip of the ridge leading up from my house. It forms a crossroads for trails leading off in a number of directions. The way to get to it from Tepalo is to hike to the end of the canyon above the Upper Falls, then switchback up the ridge to the saddle. The ridge he is viewing in the background is another finger leading up to the main east-west ridge.

Patricia, our edible wild foods expert. Patricia is a Mexican dentist who regularly hikes with us. Although diminutive, she is quite tough and keep ups with the men, even outpacing some of them. She has told me several times to always notify her when the special (usually very rugged) hikes come up. I found that she knows a lot about wild foods in the area and delights in finding tasty examples like the one she is holding, which she found on the saddle above the falls.

Christopher and wannabe friends. Christopher is a fellow hiker from the US who lives permanently in the Lake Chapala area. He is also a skilled artist who paints beautiful pictures. Christopher is a particularly interesting character, even in a community full of interesting characters. While he was enjoying his lunch on the saddle, a pair of horses showed up, apparently left to graze by their owner. They shied away from the rest of us, but seemed particularly attracted to Christopher.

Christopher and the pan-handling horse. The large brown horse kept sidling closer, even though Christopher studiously tried to ignore him as he munched on his fresh fruit.

Christopher and his new best friend. The horse edged closer until his nose was practically hanging over Christopher's shoulder. At this point, Christopher finally gave in and shared some of his fruit. I have seen dogs run this sort of a scam, but never a horse!

"I wonder if that's really all he has...?" Christopher shooed the horse away when the fruit was gone, but the huge animal seemed somewhat unconvinced. Carole and I love living in an area where we are close to animals like this. They are a never-ending source of amusement.

Giant Mesquite Bug is the common name for this colorful critter. Its scientific name is Thasus neocaliforicus. Although it looks a bit fearsome, it is harmless. Lacking a name at the time we encountered it, we noted the colorful markings and shape of its back and dubbed it the Zulu Shield bug.

Another beautiful blossom by the trail. My friend Joel Gomez, a trained horticulturist, tells me this is another species of Oxalis.

View from the saddle, toward the southwest. The small city of Jocotopec is concealed behind the ridge on the right side of the picture at the western-most tip of the lake. In view below my lookout point are the western outskirts of Ajijic.

Ajijic's Parrochia church through the trees near the end of the trail. The Parrochia was built in the 18th Century, and serves as a cultural hub in the Mexican community. What appears to be gray sky above the town is actually the surface of the lake, which is only about 3 blocks south of the Parrochia.

This completes my posting on the Tepalo trail, in Ajijic's (and my) back yard. Show up any Tuesday morning at 9 AM at Dona's Donuts, and you can come hike with us! I hope you have enjoyed this post. Please feel free to share the link with friends. If you'd like to make a comment, you can do so in the comments section below or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section, be sure to leave your email address so I can answer it.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Jim,

    Great photos as always.

    When did you hike this trail; we went up last month and the waterfalls were dry as a bone.


  2. My husband has coffee every morning at Donna's Donuts and he keeps telling me about the group that hikes up the hill - he says "why don't you join them? And I reply -- I don't know who they are, maybe it's a club, some special group. Now I have no excuse -- I definitely want to do this.

  3. A typically wonderful and informative post. You are such a good photographer I may just forget about taking my camera and direct friends who ask what it's like here to your blog! Gorgeous.


  4. Thanks, Ruth and Kevin for your nice comments! Carol, every Tuesday morning at 9 AM at Dona's. Email me at for details.

    Saludos, Jim

  5. We recently purchased a home in Riberas - a few of our friends & family were shocked that we would move to Mexico. I've sent them your blog to discover why we moved here. Thanks for the beautiful pictures and stories. Thanks also to Sid Grosvenor for advising I visit this blog. We are thrilled to live here and looking forward to seeing for ourselves all the wonderful things you've blogged about. GREAT job

  6. what is your personal email address?
    Please contact me at:

    There are a number of cultural related things I would like to discuss with you off-line.
    Really enjoy your blogs --full of useful information, excellent photos.

  7. Jim, are you still hiking the trail to the waterfall in Ajijic? Is the Tuesday group still active? If so, my wife and I would like to join you this Tuesday 9/14/2010

    Mike & Deb Lander

  8. Hi, Jim,

    I will be in Ajijic on Tues, Feb. 22, 2011 and wonder whether you will be doing a hike that day. If so, how long a hike is it and how strenuous. It looks gorgeous and I would love to go, although I am in Ajijic only a few days for a conference. Tues is my only free day and I also want to go to Tonala. I thought I would at least find out if there is a hike and I can then decide.

    Love your blog. I just came upon it accidentally.

    Ellen Kramer

  9. I love all your photos. Thanks for sharing ~ L

  10. Could you tell me if the Tuesday group still meets, and if so can a visitor join for a hike? My son is visiting from Canada and would like to go on a hike, only here next week.

    Thanks, Keith Coates

  11. Wonderful inspiring photography! I plan on being in Ajijic for 2 mos. beginning Jan. 16, 2012. Would it be possible to join your group for one of those Tues. morning hikes? How strenuous and how long is the hike?


  12. Are you still running these hikes?

  13. Does anyone have a contact for Patricia the woman knowledgable about wild foods?

  14. Sorry Brad, I believe she moved to the US, but I don't have any further info.


  15. Is this hiking group still active - this is an amazing blog and I am in awe of the photography. We are going to be moving into the area next weekend (June 17th 2017) and would love to meet up with these wonderful hikers.


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