Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mazamitla Part 3: The Double-Waterfalls of Sierra del Tigre

Two huge waterfalls tumble vertically from a mountain plateau to a box canyon far below.  I  found these waterfalls with great difficulty, and it took four separate expeditions over the course of more than a year to reach the base of the box canyon. The photo above was taken from a narrow overlook at the end of a muddy trail from the top of the opposite side of the box canyon. My Canadian "snow-bird" friend Gerry Green originally told me about the falls a couple of years ago. Gerry was an avid dirt-biker until his wife finally persuaded him to give it up. He has explored many of the back country roads in these mountains and publishes a blog called "Barebones Adventure". Click here to see it. I was intrigued by his casual mention of some big falls back in the mountains. Then he produced a hand-drawn map showing a remote and twisting dirt road through the heart of the Sierra del Tigre with a little symbol indicating a waterfall marked beside a hairpin curve. I was hooked. The dirt road originates in the little town of Contla, which sits astride Mexico Highway 110, southwest of Mazamitla. For a Google map showing the location of Contla, click here.

A long narrow valley, studded with emerald-green sugar-cane fields twists through the Sierra del Tigre mountains. One of my fellow hikers took this photo near the hairpin turn on our 3rd attempt to reach the falls. You are looking back down the valley in the direction of Contla. The skies were heavily overcast during the 3rd expedition, and the drizzling rain made the trail from the overlook down to the base of the falls muddy and hazardous, one of the reasons we didn't attempt to go down that trip. The other reason? I was the only one in our large party who had actually made the hike down, and I was nursing a hell of a bad cold. I could probably lead people down, but I wasn't sure I could make it back up myself. From the photo above, you can see the rugged nature of the Sierra del Tigre, composed of range after range of steep, heavily wooded ridges. The farm road from Contla to the trailhead is only paved for a short distance, and crosses a rushing stream at several places. In the rainy season, deep puddles accumulate in low places that can stall a shallow-draft vehicle. When the weather is dry, even a high-draft, all-wheel drive vehicle can have a difficult time making it. This is not a route for the faint of heart, or those with ordinary street vehicles. Photo by Chuck Boyd

A few quick photos from the overlook, before we gave up on the 3rd expedition's attempt. In the photo above, the overlook ends in a vertical drop in front of me that plunges over 70 m (230 ft) feet to the rocks below. What appears to be a clump of  green bushes to my left are actually the tops of some very tall trees growing in the base of the box canyon.  On our very first expedition, we didn't even get this far. Using Gerry's map as a guide, I printed out an overlapping succession of Google satellite photos showing what appeared to be the correct route. A Google map only shows detail down to a certain level, not sufficient to pick up road conditions. My friend Bob, a retired veterinarian from Colorado, got within a couple of kilometers of the trailhead near the hairpin turn before his car bottomed-out on one of the many large rocks protruding from the farm road. Since it was a hot day, and several of our party on that trip were were non-hikers, we cancelled that attempt. However, we were happy enough that we had scouted out the right road for a future venture. On the way back through Contla I also noticed, for the first time, the ruins of the Hacienda de San José de Contla, which we visited during expedition #3. In Part 2 of this series, you can see the Hacienda and read about its colorful history. Photo by Chuck Boyd

Telephoto shot of the head of the left waterfall from the overlook. From this angle, the cascade appears to shoot out of a cave in the cliff. This illusion was created by the water cutting a narrow slot down into the cliff before it drops precipitously to the bottom. Of our 4 expeditions, only the 2nd and 4th managed to get down into the canyon, and only the 4th, and last (so far) got all the way down to the base of the waterfalls. On our 2nd trip, Gerry Green came along as one of our drivers. He confirmed we were on the right road, and led us to the overlook, but we couldn't immediately find a trail leading down from there. After driving up and down the mountain roads for a while looking for an access point, we finally encountered a young Mexican cowboy on horseback.

The right-hand waterfall also cut a slot in the canyon wall and was even higher than the left one. The young cowboy identified himself as Raul, the owner of the land around the box canyon. He told us he had heard us from across the canyon, thrashing about while we looked for a trail. He had jumped on his horse to come see what was up. When he understood what we were about, he immediately agreed to guide us down into his canyon. My long-time blog readers may recall that it was another farmer, also named Raul, that guided us to the big waterfalls of the Barranca Yerba Buena and later invited us to his Corn Harvest Fiesta. We thought it hilarious that two farmers, many miles apart, would both guide us to local waterfalls and both be named Raul. I was also interested that this young farmer--Raul #2--who lived so far back in Mexico's remote mountain country, spoke perfect English. It turned out that his family lives in the US and he was the designated one to come down to keep an eye on the family farm. Raul took us down to the top of two house-sized boulders close the base of the canyon. Since it was late in the day on that trip, and we were already covered head-to-foot in mud from the slippery trail, we did not go further down. We all left happy, including Raul seemed glad that we had come to break up the monotony of his lonesome back-country life.

We reach the base of the canyon, at last! On our 4th and most recent expedition, I was again the only one with previous experience in the canyon. Nine of us crowded into my friend Mike's Chevy Suburban. We stayed overnight in Mazamitla, where we enjoyed the amenities of that Magic Pueblo. From Mazamitla it is about an hour's drive to Contla, and another 45 minutes up the farm road to the trailhead. Once again, we thrashed around, trying to follow a faint trail to the bottom. Thick, nearly impenetrable underbrush had grown up everywhere since we were last here. We seemed destined for another thwarted attempt to reach the bottom. I was beginning to think there was a jinx going on here, either on the canyon, or on me. When we retraced our steps to the overlook, we encountered one of the women hikers who had wisely declined to engage in what we euphemistically call "bushwhacking".  She told us that, while poking around a little, she had stumbled on a new trail. It turned out to be more direct than the one we had descended with Raul. It was quite steep, but clear of brush. Finally, we reached a large, clear pool at the bottom. Success!   Ian Baker photo

Jumbles of rocks in the stream create numerous small waterfalls. The boulder in upper right of the photo is as big is my Toyota. I soon found other, much bigger rocks. After resting for a bit, I unpacked my camera and began to explore the bottom of the canyon. Whatever jinx might still be lurking, I was determined not to miss any photographic opportunities this time. I set off and began climbing over, under, and around the huge boulders littering the area. I was so intent, I neglected to mention to the others where I was going.

Right-hand waterfall, from the side. The waterfall looks smaller here than it really is, because you can't see the upper stages from here, or the final drop at the bottom. As I moved around among the boulders, I glanced up occasionally, wondering when the last large rock fall had occurred, and whether I would be under the next.

Right-hand waterfall from the front. Here you see the upper 2/3 of the falls. The water has become a heavy mist by the bottom of the photo, a product of its long drop.

A curtain of water. The water created a misty curtain that screened the cliff behind it. It was little more than a fine spray at this point.

The final destination. The misty spray coated the black basaltic rocks at the bottom of the right-hand falls. The abundance of this airborne water encouraged ferns, moss and other water-loving plants all around the area.

Left and right-hand falls from below. Because of the difficult camera angles, and the many obstacles on the canyon bottom, this was a difficult shot to achieve. You can clearly see the water-cut slot from which the falls on the left drop. I was surprised to learn from Raul during expedition #2 that these two falls come from two entirely unconnected streams.

The sheer walls of the box canyon extended away into the distance. I considered a hike down the canyon to see if another way out could be found, but the day was getting late and all the obstacles would make the going very slow. It's always good to leave something for next time.

More house-sized boulders blocked my approach to the left-hand falls. The bottom of the left falls can be seen in the upper right of the photo. While in some cases, I could jump from one boulder to another, at other times I had to crawl between them, or clamber over. I was beginning to wonder why I didn't see or hear any of my hiking companions.

Large wasp nest in the canyon. We were not the only creatures inhabiting the area. This nest was about 1 m. (3 ft) tall. The wasps looked ferocious, but were not aggressive. I suppose I could have stuck a stick in their nest to see if I could get a rise from them, but I'm not really that much of a lunatic. Photo by Chuck Boyd

A tree grows out of the sheer side of the cliff. I am always amazed by the tenacity of life. Wherever there is the faintest possibility of life, you will find it, even in inhospitable places like the vertical side of this stony cliff face.

Another form of life. These mushrooms grew lushly among the decaying branches fallen from the tall trees at the bottom of the canyon.

Left-hand falls from a distance. As I boulder-hopped closer, I got this view of the left-hand falls. The sun, which only fully lights this deep canyon for a few hours a day, had already left this waterfall in the shade.

Telephoto of the lip of the left-hand falls. The rock through which the water cut must be hard, because the slot is so narrow.

The full view of the left-hand falls.  I finally got into a position where I could photograph this cascade from top to bottom. At this point, I was concerned that I hadn't seen or heard anyone for quite some time. When I returned to the pool at the bottom of the trail where I had left our group, not a soul was there. I searched around for some sort of note or other indication of where they might have gone. Did they walk on down the canyon, as I had considered? Did they return to the top without me? Were they kidnapped by narcos? I was perplexed and annoyed. If they had left without me, it was a violation of one of our most important hiking protocols: no one gets left behind. Finally, I left a note on a prominent rock and began to climb out. About 1/2 way up, I ran into two of our party who had come looking for me. The rest had returned to the top, assuming I had preceded them. While I was pretty grumpy about it at the time, I later reflected that I was at least as much at fault as anyone else, because I had failed to mention where I was going. In a remote area like this, searching for an injured and possibly unconscious person would be problematic. To carry someone up the steep slippery switchbacks would be very difficult at best. Something to think about for the future.

This completes Part 3 of my Mazamtila series. The Sierra del Tigre is a marvelous area to visit, with something for everyone: a Magic Pueblo, old colonial ruins, and wonderful hiking opportunities. I always enjoy feedback. If you would like to comment, please either leave it in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. What an adventure! Nice. Please be sure to mention where you're going, you photo hound you. (Golly - I can see myself doing the same thing!)

  2. Dear Jim ,

    You have done an excellent job on this article.

    Do you have any other information on Contla & the ownership ?

    Chain of title since the Spaniards sold it ?

    Hasta Pronto,


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