Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Tapalpa Waterfall Expedition, Part 2

El Salto del Nogal (Walnut Falls). Hiking into this magnificent waterfall was one of our prime objectives during our Tapalpa Waterfall Expedition. El Salto drops 105 meters (344 ft.) from the top of the cliff to the large pool at the bottom. It breaks into a small pool set in the cliff a little more than 1/2 way down before tumbling almost vertically to the bottom. This is the highest waterfall I have yet encountered in Mexico and it was spectacular. In Part 1 of this 2-part series, I told of our adventures in Tapalpa itself and our misadventures in trying to reach El Salto de Comala, a series of falls in a deep canyon near Chiquilstlan. The next day we set off for El Salto del Nogal and met with complete success and even more adventures than we had anticipated.

But first, breakfast at the Tapalpa Country Club. We stopped at the hotel which is the centerpiece of this wealthy development outside Tapalpa. The hotel's restaurant has gained some well-deserved fame for its ambiance and view, as well as its  delicious food. Above, you see the central courtyard of the hotel. The wooden columns, flagstone patio, and obligatory fountain gave it a warmly welcoming aspect.

The terrace of the Tapalpa Country Club Hotel is sunny with a spectacular view. A short hallway led from the courtyard out to this sunny terrace. Since we were still a bit chilled from the cold morning air, we basked like lizards. We tried to persuade the restaurant staff to serve us out here but, alas, they declined.

The view from the terrace was breathtaking. The warm, slanting morning sun lit up the countryside. The view stretches across the Tapalpa plateau to a set of lakes and then on to the mountains in the distance. Below are some of the homes of the upper-crust folks who live at (or at least visit periodically) the Country Club.

Gabriel, the velador (watchman) at the El Salto trailhead parking area. When we pulled up, he kindly directed us over to the shadiest parking spot. The trailhead is a bit difficult to find. El Salto is marked on local tourist maps, but the winding dirt roads that lead out of town fork and split with few signs to point toward the correct direction. Fortunately, there were several people in our group who had visited before and we managed to arrive about 20 minutes after we left town. I asked our velador if I might photograph him and, with a simple nod, he graciously agreed. Gabriel was a man of few words.

Gabriel's burro shared the dappled shade with us. While we unloaded gear and suited-up for the hike, the burro looked on with interest. He turned out to be very friendly as, in my experience, burros almost invariably are. Like Gabriel, he too agreed, in a mute sort of way, to pose for a photograph. He also did not object to having his neck stroked and his ears scratched. I asked Gabriel for the name of his long-eared companion. Laconically, he answered "Burro."

Setting off for the canyon. Above, (left to right) Dave an American, Duncan a Canadian, Sven an American by way of Norway, Mike an American, and Gerry, a Canadian. This is typical of the international flavor of the hikers who join together to explore Mexico's back trails.

The canyon containing El Salto is rugged and deep with cliffs rimming the top. The environment at the top and most of the way down is high desert, one of the many ecosystems within the overall Tapalpa plateau. Cactus plants such as Nopal, and Mexican Fencepost are abundant, as well as many other high desert plants. The morning was rapidly warming up; the sky a deep, cloudless blue; the sun intensely bright.

Part way down the trail, a warning. The sign says "El Salto del Nogal. Danger below. Leaving the trail could be mortal. Careful with your life. God bless you. In memory of Juan Federico Urzua Arechicga, 2nd of January of 2000." Apparently, Juan didn't make it back out of the canyon. The canyon walls got steadily steeper and more sheer.

We picked our way carefully down the rocky trail. Above (left to right), Lori, Sally, and Mike. Lori is an American by way of Cambodia. Sally and Mike are also Americans and are married. Lori is carrying a trekking pole in her right hand. Hiking sticks are very important in the kind of rough country we regularly hike, particularly when coming down a steep track like the one above. Unfortunately, while taking photos on this hike, I set down my favorite stick and accidentally left it behind.

Mexican Fencepost cactus grows out of a vertical cliff. I took a telephoto shot of the sheer face of the cliff opposite us on the bluffs across the canyon. Growing out of the cracks and crevices of the cliff are a variety of hardy high desert plants.

The leader of the pack. Gerry Green organized this expedition. A Canadian, he has hiked all over Western Mexico for many years. There is probably no one among the expats in the Lake Chapala area who knows the trails better than Gerry. He authored a book which is somewhat of a local "hikers' bible" called Walks and Trails Around Ajijic. If you are a hiker who lives in the area, or are planning a visit, Gerry's book can be obtained from a variety of local shops or from the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic.

Paxtle drapes the trees as you descend lower into the canyon. Paxtle is related to the "Spanish Moss" found in the deep south of the US. Its technical name is Tillandsia usneoides. It has been used in indigenous ceremonies for centuries. The word Paxtle comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.

Mike readies himself for a photo of the double falls. At this point we had reached the bottom of the canyon. The ecosystem changed dramatically into lush forest. Everything was cool and green and shady.

The double falls dropped into a deep pool. These falls appear just as you near the bottom of the canyon. By mid-December, there had been little rain for a couple of months. In the mountains around Lake Chapala, waterfalls like this have been dry for many weeks, but this is a year-round stream. These falls are about 9 meters (30 ft) high.

The "other Mike" boulder-hops down in the rapids. This is the other Mike, our intrepid driver, seen in Part 1. He has gotten himself out in the middle of the stream to have his picture taken, and is studying the best way to get back in a reasonably dry condition.

Between the double falls and El Salto del Nogal lies a quiet, dreamy stretch of water. The green forest shimmers with beams of yellow light. The quiet water mirrors the forest above.

El Salto del Nogal, seen to scale. When approaching El Salto, you hear the roar long before actually viewing the falls. Then, suddenly, the forest opens and you are faced with this awesome spectacle. Sven took this shot of me clambering over boulders as I crossed the stream in search of better photo angles. This photo provides a sense of the real size of El Salto. (Photo by Sven Nilsen)

El Salto from another angle. The place where the water has carved a pool into the cliff face can be seen a little better in this shot. I was told people have climbed to the upper pool. It looks more than a little risky to me.

Sven tries his luck with a log bridge. Sven, a former gymnast, is one of the more agile of the hikers I know. He is 70. I hope I am in half as good shape when I reach his age.

Bromeliad grows from the side of a cliff. My friend Ron Parsons, an expert on the plants of Western Mexico, came through for me once again by identifying this intrepid plant. Believe it or not it is in the same genus as the paxtle seen earlier. It is also related to the pineapple. Bromeliads in the form of pineapples were introduced to Western Civilization by Christopher Colombus  who found the Carib Indians cultivating them in the West Indies. Within 50 years, bromeliads were growing in places as remote as India.

Duncan heads back up the trail. Duncan is a "snow bird", one of the part-timer Canadians who come down to sunny Mexico for several months each year as a respite from the cold and snowy north. At this point, the day was getting on and we still had several hours' drive back to Ajijic.

A track across a bleak expanse. On the way back to Ajijic, on the #54 cuota, I remembered Gerry telling me about a dirt track across the wide expanse of the wide dry lake that fills most of the space between the Tapalpa Plateau and the mountains (above, dead ahead) which rim the south shore of Lake Chapala. Everyone immediately agreed that we should try it. We finally found the track, heading arrow-straight for miles across the lake bed to a tiny farming village called San Marcos. This photo was taken about 1/2 way across the lake bed. The road, if you could call it that, is only a few inches above the lake bed and disappears when the rainy season comes.

The dry lake bed, looking south. I was reminded of a line from the poem Ozymandius by Percy Bysshe Shelley: "boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away."

Taking a break. We stopped so I could take photos and the others could stretch their legs. The only marks on the "boundless and bare" sand were a few car tracks just off the dirt road. Everything else was perfectly level and even, except for the little ripples left by the evaporating water. During the late winter and spring, fierce winds blow across the level waste, raising huge dust storms that occasionally cause accidents along the cuota. The dust sometimes rises high enough to surmount the high ridges and cascade down the other side to create a haze over Lake Chapala.

Road guard. While passing through the outskirts of San Marcos, we ran head on into a cattle drive. The brahmans are a fairly docile breed and the herd parted, then passed closely on either side of our cars. On the narrow country lane, bounded on both sides with old stone walls, it was like walking against a crowd coming out of a packed football stadium. Finally, confronted by this huge bull, we were forced to come to a dead stop. He stood across the road and ignored us as if we were a line of ants crawling toward him, instead of an eight-passenger Chevy Suburban. I got out and after considerable hooting and otherwise making a fool of myself, finally managed to get him to turn his head toward us so I could get a shot. He considered us disdainfully for a moment before he turned back toward his waiting harem. A timid group, the cows finally edged around him and tiptoed past our vehicles. Slowly then, with great dignity, the bull turned and and ambled past our car, not deigning to give us so much as a glance. Truly a class act!

Getting it to market the old-fashioned way. As we ascended the mountains overlooking San Marcos and the dry lakes, we passed these two women. They were carrying bundles of some unknown product on their burros. This was a scene, like those so often encountered in rural Mexico, that seemed right out of the 16th Century.

Hooray for the home team. Not far behind the women with the burros, we were confronted by this pickup truck, packed with masked young men. Uh oh! Bandits? Guerillas? A drug cartel hit squad? No, just a high-spirited group of young guys coming back to San Marcos from working in the fields around Lake Chapala. The masks were to protect against the clouds of dust kicked up by passing vehicles. They spotted me photographing the burro line and called out cheerfully for a photo. I obliged and they saluted us with raised fists and cries of "¡buenas tardes!" as they passed. This was the last of our series of colorful adventures on the Tapalpa Waterfall Expedition. Not long after, we crossed the ridge and dropped down the hills to Lake Chapala.

This concludes Part 2 of my 2-part series on Tapalpa and the waterfall hike. We had great fun on this trip and I hope you had fun seeing it second hand. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you would like to leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Brilliant, as always. Loved your Shelley quote.

    Maybe you could put in a map for us your comments that the waterfall is south from Chapala, but where?

    Nothing high tech, just a sketch map would be great.

    Your fan in California,
    Marijane Osborn

  2. Hi Jim,

    Does anyone ever hike with his or her dog? I know my retriever would love this particular adventure!

    Dan O'Brien

  3. Hi Jim,

    Your posts really make us want to spend enough time in Ajijic so that we can join you on a hike someday. Beautiful photos - love the animals! ;-)
    Barbara and Tony

  4. Marijane- You didn't leave your email so I'll just respond here. If you check the text under the first picture in Part 1 of the Tapalpa series, you'll find instructions to "click here" for a Google map of the area. This will help you find Tapalpa in relation to Lake Chapala, but I couldn't find anything that would help you find the waterfall. You just have to go with someone who has been there, because the route is confusing and there are few signs. Jim

  5. Hi ~ I just came across your blog. Great! I've been to Merida and am planning to move down there next winter. Really enjoyed your blog on it.

  6. I'm looking for a few people who have retired abroad and would be willing to be interviewed for an article I'm writing for our local "over 50" newspaper. I live in Grand Junction, Colorado and am looking to move to Mexico next winter. Would you or someone you know be willing to do that? Thanks, Lora

  7. Hi, Jim! I love your blogs. My name is Elizabeth Katz. My partner LeeAnn Thompson and I are moving to Ajijic on 1 November 2011 and would love to join you and your friends on hiking and traveling adventures. Our e mail address is


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