Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Tapalpa Waterfall Expedition, Part 1

Tapalpa, Magic Pueblo in the mountains. Above, you see some of the wonderful old architecture of the town. Since pine forests are close, wood is plentiful for overhanging balconies, columns, and carved window frames and doors.  Always up for an adventure, I immediately volunteered when I got an email from my Canadian friend Gerry about an overnight expedition to explore some of the canyons with large waterfalls around Tapalpa. Eleven of us traveled there in 3 vehicles, which is why I call it an "expedition." The municipality (roughly analogous to a US county) of Tapalpa contains about 16,000 people and is located on a large plateau about 90 kilometers (56 mi.) southwest of Guadalajara. That's about a 2 hour drive. In 2002, Tapalpa achieved Mexico's coveted Magic Pueblo status and thoroughly deserves it. The Tapalpa plateau is reached by taking the #54 cuota (toll road) due south from Guadalajara past the dry lake beds to the Tapalpa exit, then climbing up a winding and extremely scenic two-lane blacktop road. After many hairpin turns on the way up a huge escarpment, you reach the rolling pine-forested ranch country that tops the 1950 meter (6300+ ft.) plateau. The escarpment is so high and precipitous that hang-gliders regularly take off near the point where you finally reach the plateau. For a Google map of the area, click here.

Tepalpa's Jardin Principal

Tapalpa's Jardin Principal, the "jewel in the crown." The foreground structure is part of long row of tiny restaurants that stretches a considerable distance off to the left out of the frame. Each restaurant can seat perhaps 4-5 people at its counter. Although the restaurants are closed in the scene above, they open up to a lively business later in the evening. Directly in front of the restaurants, Calle Matamoros runs the length of the Jardin (pronounced har-deen). Behind the restaurant is a statue of Don Cipriano Gonzalez Jimenez (1899-1990) a long-lived priest who not only built a new church when the old one, seen in the background, was threatened by earthquake damage, but also founded a local seminary and a college. The new church, which we will see in a moment, is just to the left, out of the frame.

The bell tower of the "Old Church," known as the Parrochia San Antonio de Padua. The first Franciscan friars, Fray Martin de Jesús and Fray Juan de Pedilla arrived in 1531. In 1650, the Franciscans completed their neo-classical style church and dedicated it to San Antonio de Padua Although lovely on the exterior, it stood virtually empty of decoration or funishings on the inside when we visited. The old bell is still suspended from a huge old wooden beam by an ancient chain. Tapalpa's known history goes back well before the arrival of the Spanish. In the centuries before Cortez, the area was inhabited by Otomi Indians, whose náhuatl name for their home was Tlapalpan, which means "land of colors." The Otomi were conquered by the Aztecs in the 7th Century AD, as that society of warriors passed through on their great trek to their ultimate home in Valley of Mexico. In the late 15th Century, just a few decades before the Spanish arrived, the Tapalpa area was within the territory of the Lord of Tzaollan, who appointed a man called Cuantoma as governor. At that time, the Tarascan Empire of present-day Michoacan attempted to seize the valuable salt deposits in the dry lakes we passed on our way to the Tapalpa escarpment. Seeking to resist, Cuantoma allied himself with the Teco Kingdom which occupied the area of present-day Colima. The Tecos brought up a large army and defeated the Tarascans in the famous Salt War. However, the Tecos then turned on Cuantoma and his people and subjugated them in turn. As they say, "be careful of what you wish for..."

Old pals. There was nothing special about this rather dusty looking character and his scrawny dog, except for their very obvious affection for each other. As the man bent over to ruffle his ears, the little dog happily leaped and danced in play. Cuantoma, the leader of the Tapalpa people, never seemed to learn about trusting strangers. When the Spanish conquistador Alonso de Avalos marched through the area in 1523, he convinced Cuantoma that the Spanish would liberate the Tapalpans from the Tecos. The Spanish did indeed conquer the people of that Colima kingdom, but Tapalpa wound up not independent, but part of Nueva España (New Spain). "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!"

The new Parrochia, built by Don Cipriano. This church is separated from the Old church by a small plaza. In fact, the Jardin Principal was built as a series of step-stone plazas separated by broad staircases down the side of a hill to Calle Matamoros, that runs along the side of the Jardin. The new church appears to be of the Italianate style popular in the later 19th Century. At the lower left are the small restaurants seen in picture #2.

Interior of the new church. The entire church is built of brick, and the inside walls and columns are unplastered, giving them a warmer feeling than one usually gets in these large buildings. There is little of the ornate decoration found in the churches of earlier centuries. Still, the feeling of open, uncrowded space was pleasing to me. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Tapalpa area figured in the War of Independence and the Revolution. The mother of Revolutionary War hero Emiliano Zapata was born here. Following the Revolution, the Cristero War (1926-1929) broke out between reactionary Catholics and the new Revolutionary government. The Tapalpa area was the scene of some of those struggles, and some local caves are still called the "Cristero Caves" after the fighters who hid in them during that war.

Awaiting the big event. After we arrived and got settled, we ate lunch on the upper balcony of the lovely restaurant in the center of this photo. From our tables, we could view the entire Jardin Principal. The food was excellent and I paid 22 pesos ($1.79 USD) for a large plate of scrambled eggs with bacon and refried beans, very inexpensive even by Mexican standards. Below us, workers were busy setting up hundreds of chairs and constructing a stage. They told us a political gathering was scheduled where local public officials would pat themselves on the back for all the improvements made since the election a year ago. I have organized many rallies in my time and thought a high turnout was unlikely on what promised to be a frosty Tuesday night. To my surprise, every chair was filled with people bundled to their eyebrows against the cold, with many other people standing.

All in good fun. As I wandered about the Jardin, I encountered these three. At first they played skip rope, a game I remembered from my younger days in the US. Then it devolved into an hilarious match of tug-of-war, two against one on the rope. The more I see of Mexico's kids, the more I understand that the world of kids is universal. I believe you could drop an American kid into this scene, and even not knowing the language, she would immediately know how to respond.

A café at the Jardin. This small restaurant occupies a corner facing the Jardin, just across the street from Palacio Municipal (City Hall)l. It was an inviting little place under the sidewalk portales (arches), with a very friendly and attentive waiter. I killed some time sipping café de olla and observing the color and movement all around me. I could easily become a café de olla addict. It is a wonderful hot drink made from water, ground coffee, cinnamon sticks, and piloncillo (brown sugar). Boiled in a clay pot, it is an ideal drink for a lazy afternoon or a frosty morning. I checked the menu and found the prices low, confirming my impression of the area.

Our hotel, Casa de Maty

Casa de Maty directly faces the Jardin Principal across Calle Matamoros. Above, hanging baskets act as light shades above the cobbled entranceway of our hotel, the delightful Casa de Maty. It was once an old hacienda, now remodeled into a gracious and comfortable hotel in the heart of town. We looked at another reasonably priced, but somewhat more rustic place before we stopped at Casa de Maty. With a bit of negotiation, the hotel management saw the wisdom of giving a discount to the 11 gringos who had suddenly appeared, since the hotel was virtually empty at the time. My single room was reduced from 750 pesos ($61 USD) to 600 pesos ($49 USD), a real bargain.

My room looked rustic and cozy on the outside, but was roomy and modern inside. The room was unexpectedly large, with a gigantic king bed, and the most modern bathroom I've encountered in Mexico. Everything worked perfectly, which is a bit unusual for Mexico. One gets used to something being a little off kilter, which usually adds to the charm and humor of the situation. Everyone in our group who had stayed here previously spoke with admiration about the fireplaces. Sure enough, my room had one built into the corner. I was dubious about its efficiency and possible smokiness, but it too worked perfectly. Most of Western Mexico is without any sort of central heating, since the weather is usually quite mild. However, in December at over 6300 feet in the mountains, I anticipated a chilly night in my room. Once I got the fire stoked up, my initial impression of coziness proved accurate. In fact, the fire warmed up the room so much I had to remove the bed comforter that Casa Maty thoughtfully supplies to guests. There is nothing quite like a bright, warm, crackling fire on a cold night. If you have a chance to stay overnight in Tapalpa, I would strongly recommend this hotel. Even had I paid full price, it would have been a good deal.

Mike "kicks back" with a stiff drink after a long day of driving. The hotel has a very nice lounge area that opens directly onto the lush central patio. Like the rest of the hotel, it is beautifully decorated with carved wood furniture and artwork and graced with live poinsettas. Mike, who is from Alabama, is one of our veteran hikers. He was also one of the drivers, wheeling his 8 passenger Chevy Suburban with aplomb around mountain curves and through ancient and narrow pueblo streets. Although all that driving had to be exhausting, he says he loves it, so he became the perfect chauffeur. He was also the negotiator who, with his somewhat fractured Spanish, cheerily persuaded the management to reduce our rates.

Las Piedrotas

Las Piedrotas are huge rocks strewn about in piles on a grassy prairie. Located about 4 kilometers (2.45 miles) outside of Tapalpa on the road to Chiquilistlan, some of the rocks are as big as houses. After getting settled into Casa Maty and lunching at the balcony restaurant on the plaza, we headed out for the waterfalls of Chiquilistlan gorge, our first day's hike. Since Las Piedrotas are on the way, we decided to stop and roam around a bit. Aside from simply enjoying the rocks' elephantine presence, visitors can sometimes ride the zip lines you can see suspended at the top of the photo. Some of my fellow hikers stand at the center left of the photo, enabling a sense of relative size.

Rocky path leads up between the huge stones. There are various theories about the origin of these piles of immense boulders. Were aliens possibly responsible? Perhaps they were some sort of local Stonehenge? More likely, they are the remains of a huge volcanic eruption. All other traces of the volcano have been worn away through the millenia. I don't know, I kind of enjoy the aliens theory myself...

Triangulating the Valley of Enigmas. Las Piedrotas are located on  a broad grassy area fringed by pine forests known as the Valley of Enigmas. It would be a gorgeous location even without the big rocks. The boulders lean against each other in a way that creates tunnels and caves of all shapes. As I walked through this tunnel, I noticed that the exit formed a rough triangle of blackness outlining the warm winter colors of the Valley of Enigmas.

Chiquilistlan adventures

More unusual rocks on the way to Chiquilistlan. These huge cliffs, pitted with caves, popped in and out of our view as we bumped along the dusty mountain roads toward Chiquilistlan. The photo above also shows the rugged and heavily-forested mountain that cut across the Tapalpa plateau. Although our map indicated a relatively straight road between Tapalpa and Chiquilistlan, it turned out to be serpentine with numerous switchbacks. It was also mostly dirt, with a deep layer of dust on top, and many bumps and potholes. The afternoon began to wane on as we crawled along. It was beautiful, but slow.

Adobe housefront in Chiquilistlan. We passed through Chiquilistlan and got within 2 kilometers of our trailhead when, suddenly, the brakes on Mike's Chevy Suburban began to seize up. We were stymied. A brief roadside inspection, aided by a friendly Mexican who happened by, convinced us that we had to turn back to Chiquilistlan and look for a mechanic. A quick look at our watches showed us that we had lost our opportunity to visit the first set of waterfalls we had come to see. It was just too late in the day. Even if we could find a mechanic, and he could quickly fix the problem, the time lost would preclude the hike if we didn't want to negotiate the return trip in pitch blackness. Most assuredly, we didn't. For a look at what we missed, click here. The adobe structure above is the front of the home and workshop of the young mechanic we finally located in Chiquilistlan. The structure looked as if it hadn't seen any changes since the Revolution 100 years ago, or maybe the War of Independence 100 years before that!

Despite his rustic accomodations, our mechanic was competent and efficient. He quickly dismantled Mike's brake system and, after a considerable period of tinkering, put it together so that it worked perfectly from then on. When he finished, he didn't seem to know quite what to ask for a fee. When Mike finally offered him 100 pesos ($8 USD), he seemed quite happy.

Creative disorganization. The mechanic's workshop reminded me of my old desk at work. I knew where everything was, even if no one else had a clue. While the work proceeded, I decided to treat this experience as just another aspect of our adventure. Taking out my camera I began to poke around.

A picture of regal majesty. This magnificent rooster strutted about, inspecting his kingdom. The rear area of the workshop was a warren of passageways that revealed that the mechanic was also a farmer of sorts. No doubt many farmers in this area have multiple occupations. The rootser was the proud ruler of a considerable harem, which he shepherded about with impatient squawks and pecks. When he observed me observing him, he quickly shooed them through a fence into an adjoining field and  and stood guard like Horatio at the bridge.

A calabasa ripens in the sun. I found a number of vegetables around the back area, including this calabasa (squash). There was also pile of smaller green calabasas, framed by a set of spurs and a bridle. Nearby was a piece of canvas, part of feed sack, covered by multi-colored partially shucked corn. In another corner was a 55 gallon drum, full to the brim with stale tortillas. If I included all the wonderful photos I took at the mechanic's shop, I would have room for nothing else. It was literally a cornucopia of photographic opportunities.

"So, get on with it!" Other inhabitants of the yard include a variety of mutts. This one was very skittish at his first encounter with nearly a dozen decidedly strange-looking gringos. He may not have seen anything like this invasion in his life. He finally figured out that all we wanted to do was give him a friendly pet. At this he promptly plopped down, showed his tummy and asked for a rub. We were happy to oblige and he became our best friend while we remained.

This sticker has made a long journey. Someone among our group, aware of my union background, pointed out the Union Yes sticker on the back of this pickup parked in the mechanic's shop. The pickup carried expired Washington State license plates. Looking closely at the Union Yes sticker,  I could just make out the insignia of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA). A number of years ago, I organized community support for a difficult strike waged by LIUNA, and made many friends among them in the process. Now, suddenly, thousands of miles away in a remote Mexican town, and many years later, here was a reminder. A small world indeed.

Caught in the act. After inspecting the workshop area, I decided to go in search of a soft drink. While wandering back from a local tienda (shop) with my coke, I spotted two young boys who looked around furtively, and then hopped a fence into an orchard filled with lemon trees. The boy shown above would jump up and grab a lemon and quickly pitch it to his compañero below. Not long ago, I tried some of this variety of lemons and found them astonishingly sweet and succulent. I could see why they hankered for the treat. They didn't take many, just 3 or 4, then turned to hop the fence again. At that moment, they spotted me taking their picture. Laughing impishly, this Mexican Huck Finn and his friend quickly trotted away with their prizes.

Fabrica Papel

Fabrica Papel, remains of a 19th Century British enterprise. Above, the ruins of Fabrica Papel (Paper Factory), built by a British company in 1840. This was the first paper mill built in all of Latin America, and the 160-year-old ruins were complex and mysterious. We had first noticed them on our way to Chiquilistlan. I extracted a promise from the group that we would stop for photographs on the way back. The ruins were so enticing that it wasn't that a hard sell.

An aqueduct leads down from a large water source somewhere above. Since electricity wasn't developed as a usable power source until the late 19th Century, this factory was no doubt powered by water, hence the aqueduct. Even after steam power was introduced, water was still the vital element. I was fascinated by the tall, elegant arches.

A window into the past. I always find old windows photographically appealing. They are especially evocative when they stand empty and windswept in an old ruin like this, staring out like the eye sockets of an ancient skull. I like the way the architect has used the ruddy brick in the arched window, setting off the blue-green rock of the wall around it. Much as I wanted, I could not find a way to actually enter the ruin. The only path up to it was heavily blocked by new barbed wire, with a warning against trespassers posted nearby. Whoever had put these up was serious, and I had to content myself with photos from afar. After visiting the ruin, we returned to Tapalpa for the evening to rest up and prepare for our big hike the next day. Like the first day, our next would be full of unexpected adventures, including a visit to the highest waterfall I have yet seen in Mexico.

This completes Part 1 of my two-part series about our adventures during the Tapalpa Waterfall Expedition. I always enjoy hearing from people, so if you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. We all benefit from your keen artistic eye and way with words. I love the way you caught the boy with his sheepish smile as well as the workshop. - Gerry

  2. Hi Jim,

    We are going to be in Ajijic from Feb. 21 to 28th. Diane Ward sent us your blog to our delight. We love hiking! (and seeing beautiful cities and villages, too.) What are the top hikes in day trip distance from Ajijic? How can we get to them — we don't want to rent a car, but are very willing to hire guides/drivers or whatever we need to do.

    We will keep catching up on your posts with map in hand.

    Diana and Nate, Olympia, Washington

  3. Hi Jim, my name is sonia Gonzalez and i am the daughter of Emilio BEAZ, my dad is from chiquilistlan jalisco. And that union sticker on that truck was given by my dad to him. We are members of the laborer union local 89.

  4. Thanks for all your lovely photos - my dad was from Tapalpa, but I've never been there. Maybe someday...


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