Saturday, January 12, 2013

Our Annual Waterfall Hike and Corn Fiesta

Hikers approach one of the large falls within Barranca Yerba Buena. Every fall, for the past four years, a group of hikers from Lake Chapala's foreign community travels to a remote canyon south of the Lake for a hike up to a stunningly beautiful waterfall. Then they return for a fiesta hosted by a local Mexican farmer and his wife. My hiking buddy Larry and I "discovered" this canyon back in 2009 and have been leading groups of hikers to see its many waterfalls ever since. I put quotes around the word "discovered" because local Mexicans have been aware of the canyon for hundreds of years, and pre-hispanic indigenous people for thousands of years before that. However, to the best of our knowledge, we were the very first members of the foreign hiking community to find and explore it. In the process we also discovered Raul and his wife Germina. They are treasures every bit as wonderful as the waterfall canyon.

Raul, as we first encountered him in 2009. We were on our fourth excursion to the canyon when we met Raul. At the time, we were approaching from a new direction and were uncertain as to the location of the trailhead. We were crossing the corn field above when we ran into Raul, who was working with his newly sprouted plants. He seemed a bit surprised at the sudden appearance of our motley crew of foreign hikers. With my north-of-the-border mindset, I expected him to be hostile about our uninvited crossing of his land. Raul's reaction was quite the opposite. He speaks only Spanish but one of our hiking group was Mexican and she explained our quest. Immediately, Raul dropped his equipment on the ground and said "Let's go, I'll show you the way." With that, he led us on a four-hour hike into the mountains. Although we were all wearing expensive, lug-soled hiking boots, this tough Mexican farmer in his beat-up cowboy boots left some of us gasping as we attempted to keep up. At the end of our hike, Raul invited us to come back in the fall for a fiesta to celebrate his harvest. A couple of months later, we participated in our "1st Annual Corn Harvest Fiesta at Raul's Farm." In September of 2012, Raul and his wife Germina hosted the 4th Annual Fiesta. I neglected to bring my camera to this last one, so the photos shown later in this posting are of the 3rd Fiesta, held in late September 2011. Each of the fiestas started a hike to the waterfalls followed by a pot-luck feast either at Raul's lean-to shelter next to his field, or his home in the nearby small town of Citala.

A British hiker threads her way through towering sunflower stalks. The hiker above is walking through an area that was originally a rough bulldozer road leading down a steep slope into the mouth of the inner gorge. Since it was originally cut, the road has become deeply eroded and thickly covered with vegetation, including this large stand of wild sunflowers. Forcing your way through this jungle is no easy task, as you can see.

Karen, a Filipina-American, clowns her way across another canyon obstacle. Over the years, a number of hikers new to this trail have reached this spot, looked at the bridge, and refused to go further. However, Karen was pretty daring for a first-timer and crossed it without hesitation. Although the stream below her is fairly shallow, about 3 m (10 ft) downstream is a sizable waterfall. I certainly wouldn't want to be swept over it. Fortunately, the log is quite stable and whoever built the bridge also put up a steel cable. Hanging onto the cable while you edge across makes the passage reasonably safe.

Moving up the canyon requires repeated stream crossings and much boulder-hopping. Most of my fellow hikers carry sticks for just such occasions. Some of these are expensive, telescoping, high-tech models like the one above. I just use the handle I removed from an old mop and put a rubber tip on the end. It seems to work just as well and only cost me 3 pesos (25 cents USD) for the rubber tip. Each to his own. This kind of boulder hopping can be fun, but we generally restrain ourselves. A misstep could easily result in a sprain, a nasty gash, or even a broken ankle due to the slickness of the sharp-edged, water-splashed rocks.

As you move up Barranca Yerba Buena, the waterfalls get progressively larger. The one above is about 8 m (25 ft) high, and drops into a large pool. The people gathered at the top of the waterfall provide a sense of scale to the photo. The water is brown due to agricultural runoff from the plateau above the canyon. The steep canyon walls around the pool contain numerous seep springs. Rubber hoses run down from these to a cement collection tank. From there, the clean spring water runs through a metal pipe all the way down the length of the canyon to Citala, several kilometers away.

Someone placed this sun-bleached cow skull as a trail marker. Because there are few roads into the mountains surrounding Lake Chapala, cattle that wander through and die are left where they fall. They are soon picked clean by scavengers. It's not unusual for hikers to find piles of bones scattered here and there along a trail. When I am leading a party of hikers new to Mexico, I sometimes like to stop and nudge a large bone with the toe of my boot, casually remarking, "isn't this is about the spot where that guy Joe fell behind last year? I don't believe we ever saw him again. I wonder...?" This almost always draws a round of nervous laughter, as people glance at my dead-pan face to see if I'm kidding.

As we near the head of the canyon, the walls close in and the jungle fills the gorge. The trail at this stage is barely a faint track. However, the canyon is so narrow that it's impossible to get lost. Piles of loose scree require close attention to one's footing, however.

Gail crosses another log bridge along the way. The trick is to face downstream, lean into the cable while holding it with both hands, and edge along sideways one step at a time, never crossing one foot over the other.  It's no problem once you get the hang of it, but it can look pretty scary to someone unfamiliar with the technique. Gail moved down from Texas and is one of our regulars. She occasionally joins a small group who like to climb up and rappel down dry waterfalls using ropes and other equipment. I like that my hiking friends are such an adventurous bunch.  

Hikers descend a steep natural staircase. Natural steps like these can be found in many places along the trail. They are always welcome, because it makes the going much easier. However, it is still necessary to move with caution and probe the area ahead with your stick. Sometimes rocks that look cemented into place can be a bit tipsy.

Roots from an amate tree cling to the sheer cliff face. I am always impressed by the capacity of these trees to mould themselves to whatever rock surfaces are available as they send roots down looking for water. Amate ("ah-mah-tay") bark was used by the Aztecs to make paper.

Nearing the head of a box canyon, we first hear and then see the high falls. This cascade is actually the first of two high falls at the end of the canyon. While we have seen the falls beyond this one from their top, we have never been able to find a route leading to their base.

The falls drop almost vertically into a large pool in a box canyon. The stone walls of the canyon rise at a nearly 90 degree angle. The waterfall is probably about 30 m (100 ft) high, and the rock walls rise even higher than that. The mist in the canyon's base supports a variety of ferns, mosses and other damp-climate plants on the surrounding walls.

Up close, the roar of the water almost drowns any effort at conversation. Those of us who hike regularly in the mountains overlooking the North Shore of Lake Chapala are not used to finding year-round cascades such as these. The streams in the North Shore canyons usually flow only during July through September, after the summer rains have filled the mountain aquifers. The rest of the year those canyons are bone-dry. The South Shore stream shown above runs year-round because it flows out of a reservoir in a valley higher in the mountains. On a hot day, after sweating our way over boulders and other obstacles, it feels wonderful to stand in the cool drifting mist below a roaring cascade like this.

Karen strikes a pose at the box canyon pool. She and her sister and several of the wives of businessmen visiting Guadalajara decided to join the hike when they heard about it through one of our regulars. Karen drove them to the trailhead in a low-slung van. Her daring on the hike was matched by her daring on the rocky farm road leading to the trailhead. Unfortunately, her van was not built for such a road and she tore open the oil pan underneath. She made it back down to the paved highway, but the car had to be towed from there. As they say, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

A couple of hikers negotiate another tricky spot. There is another natural set of steps here, but climbers must stay as close to the wall on the left as possible. To the right, the canyon drops off steeply to the stream bed below.

The hardest part of the hike is negotiating the steep climb back up the bulldozer road. When you come out the mouth of the inner gorge, you are usually already a bit tired. Now you must trudge up a path leading to the plateau overlooking the outer canyon. There are no tricky parts to this, but it always seems like an endless upward trudge. The icing on the cake is that you usually reach this section in the afternoon when the high, hot sun leaves little shade. Fortunately, this steep section is not as long as it sometimes seems. Step by step on the way up, I always remind myself of the cold drinks that await us, once we reach the cars on top of the plateau.

Citala nestles close to the base of a mountain overlooking a broad valley full of small farms. The stream in the bottom of our canyon flows right through the middle of this small, rustic village. Citala lies in a heavily wooded area, and you could easily miss it from the highway if you didn't know it was there. When I took the photo above, I was standing at the edge of the plateau looking out over an unharvested section of Raul's field. I sometimes kid him that he has a "million dollar view" from his fields, but it's true. At the edge of his property, Raul built shelter with rock walls on three sides and open on the forth. The overhead beams made of large, rough-trimmed tree branches are roofed with red clay tiles. Surrounding the shelter is a low, dry-stone wall. The effect is very picturesque and it made a great spot for our Fiesta.

Hungry hikers relax by the stone wall surrounding Raul's rustic shelter. Raul and Germina supplied huge pots full of freshly-picked corn on the cob, some boiled and some roasted. Germina also made a delicious dish made of candied calabasa (squash). We, in turn, brought roasted chickens, salads, desserts, and many other goodies. As a special treat for Raul, the hikers chipped in for a bottle of  Centenario, his favorite tequila.  Germina was presented with a lovely bouquet of flowers.

Our host and hostess pose with a special t-shirt. Someone thought to bring a new, white t-shirt and a marking pen. We all lined up to sign our names and leave appreciative comments. Mexico has wonderful landscapes, great pyramids, and stunning colonial art and architecture. However, the very best part of this country are people like these simple, generous, fun-loving farmers who seem as delighted to have us as friends as we are with them.

This completes my posting on the Corn Harvest Fiesta. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, will feel free to leave a comment in the Comments section below or to 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. So happy to "meet" the people you hike with, especially Raul and Germina.


  2. I really appreciate the information given in your posts and would like to make contact to get more info about moving to mexico. You can email me at

  3. just stumbled onto your blog - am enjoying learning about the Ajijic area thru your blog!
    I plan on visiting the area in October - hopefully I can join in on some hikes with you when I arrive - would love to get ideas of things to do in the area.


  4. Hola Jim. It is Sally who hasn't hiked in 2 yrs. I can walk and would love to do this---but if it is difficult climbing--like straight up I don't know.
    How long does it take climbing wise.
    Let me know if you think I can fake/do it.
    Sally Thanks Jim


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