Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Getting high at Lake Chapala: Cerro Chupinaya

My hiking friends Peter (rt) and Alfredo (lt), on the way to the peak of Cerro Chupinaya.  The mountains surrounding Lake Chapala are a hiker’s delight. This is particularly true of those that rise abruptly behind the pueblo of Ajijic on the Lake’s North Shore. The peak of Cerro (Mt.) Chupinaya can be reached by several different trails, all of them challenging but some more difficult than others. However, before tackling the Chupinaya peak, there are a few things you need to know about hiking in this area.

A topographical map shows the rugged mountains overlooking Ajijic. Chupinaya peak is in the upper center of the map on the ridge called Sierra El TecuanAt almost 8,000 feet, Cerro Chupinaya is the highest of several peaks jutting up along the 32.2 km (20 mi) long east-west ridge. The ridge parallels the North Shore of Lake Chapala. Since the altitude at the Lake is 5,000 feet, anyone intending to climb to Chupinaya’s peak is facing a 3,000 foot elevation gain over a horizontal distance of only about 3.2 km (2 mi). In other words, these mountains are steep! 

Cerro Chupinaya and the surrounding ridges are cloaked in green jungle much of the year. The photo above was taken in the early fall, toward the end of the rainy season, when the vegetation is a lovely emerald green but often almost impenetrable. Chupinaya's peak can be seen in the center of the top of the photo. Extending perpendicularly down from the Sierra El Tecuan toward the lake are a series of ridges, kind of like the fingers extending down from the top knuckles on your hand. Between the finger ridges are deep canyons with rock ledges that form waterfalls during the rainy season, but are dry during the rest of the year. One of the most popular hiking routes in the area is the Tepalo Canyon. Its trailhead starts one of the many routes to Cerro Chupinaya.

From atop a narrow finger ridge, you can see the steep cliffs lining the face of Sierra El Tecuan.
For those from the US, Canada, or Europe who are used to well-groomed trail systems dotted with directional signs, it is important to remember that hiking in Mexico is different. In the mountains I have visited, the term “system” doesn't really apply. There is no plan or organization to the trails. Many split and then rejoin, or start out boldly and then peter out in the brush. Some were created by free-grazing livestock. Other trails were blazed by local Mexicans camote diggers, searching for a wild root similar to a yam. The diggers go where they find the roots, which may or may not be where you are intending to end up. Many times, I have followed a long trail only to find that it ends in a series of bathtub-sized camote holes. I am then faced with the prospect of "bushwhacking" my way forward through dense jungle or retracing my steps.

Our Cerro Chupinaya hiking party included a young Mexican guide. From left to right are Peter, Japo, Patricia, Alfredo, Antonia, and Chuck. Japo, our guide for the day, is the son of Antonia's gardener. He was shod only in tennis shoes on the rugged, stony trail, but out-hiked us all. Antonia was hiking to celebrate her 70th birthday. Her health and vigor is similar to that of many of my expat hiking friends, making them delightful, adventurous companions. Although there are a number of well-used hiking trails, almost all lack directional signs. Newcomers, even when they are experienced hikers, should go out with those who already know the way. In the bewildering maze of trails, even hikers with local knowledge can miss a turn. A lone person who gets hurt on a cattle track or camote digger’s trail might have to wait for days to be found. This is the main risk of hiking in these mountains, since there is little or no danger from people or animals. 

The author, catching his breath after a steep stretch of trail. It is important to dress properly and bring the necessary equipment when setting out on a hike. This is particularly so for a long trek like the one to Cerro Chupinaya. The single most important item is footwear, since that is how you get from point A to point B. The rocky stretches of trail are interspersed with slippery, gravel-covered slopes. Hiking boots with ankle support and lug soles are best. A broad-brimmed hat is also a must, since the sun at this altitude and latitude is intense, even on a cool day. A third essential is a hiking stick. Some people carry a pair of expensive, telescoping, trekking poles, but I prefer the handle from an old mop or broom, with rubber footings on each end. In my daypack, I usually carry at least 1 liter (roughly 1 qt) of water, but often 2 or more liters for a long hike like this one. I also carry a poncho, first aid kit, a Swiss army knife, paraffin and matches for an emergency fire,  and a sandwich or other snack. Some hikers prefer long-sleeved shirts and pants, but I usually wear a t-shirt and shorts to avoid overheating. Tank tops or shorts above the knees can be a problem because of sharp stickers and the occasional encounters with bees. Newcomers will certainly want to bring a camera.

As we ascended the mountain, clouds swept in around us. At this point we had reached about 2134 meters (7000 ft), a gain of 610 meters (2000 ft) in vertical distance above the lake. The cool moistness of the clouds was a welcome relief from the sun. As I rested for a moment, I recalled the annual mid-summer footrace up Chupinaya, which draws participants from around the world. Keep in mind that we completed our roundtrip hike in about 6.5 hours. The winner of the 2011 footrace completed the roundtrip run between the Ajijic Plaza to the peak in 1 hour and 16 minutes. The runners coped with the very same steep, rough trails. It would be easy for a slow moving hiker like me to twist or even break an ankle on the loose rocks and tricky footing. Think of a runner going flat out! It boggles the minds of those of us who regularly hike in these mountains.

 A brilliant purple Morning Glory had just opened its flower when we passed. Morning Glories (Ipomoea tricolor) abound throughout the mountains of Jalisco State. In pre-hispanic times, the Aztecs called the plant tlitliltzin and used the seeds in religious rituals because of their psychotropic properties.  In modern medicine, these Ergoline derivitives have been used to enhance the action of oxytocin, a drug for limiting post partum bleeding. Ergolines can also induce a state of drowsiness and well-being, which is helpful for treating anxiety disorder. However, Morning Glory seeds have sometimes been used as a poison, so caution is advised for those who might be tempted to sample the psychotropic effects.

A fork in the trail was marked by this horse skull, mounted on a tree. While hiking, we often find the scattered bones, or even full skeletons, of large animals like horses and cattle. The indigenous Mexicans allow their animals to graze freely in the mountains and, occasionally, they die. Since there are no roads up here, the animals are left to decompose where they fall, sometimes right across a hiking trail. As you might imagine, this requires a bit of a detour until the corpse decomposes sufficiently. After one hike, I brought a cow skull home, intending to mount it in my computer room. Carole suggested rather firmly that I should "get that filthy thing out of my house!" It now rests among the pots on our patio, periodically gnawed by salt-hungry squirrels.

A striped yellow caterpillar blended in well with its surroundings. If you are just focused on getting from one place to another, you can easily miss fascinating little details like this small, colorful, and almost luminescent caterpillar.  The little creature was about 5 centimeters (2 in) long and, nestled as it was among the leaves, could be easily missed by the unobservant. Some of my hiking friends go in for intense, fast-moving treks, the kind that tend to narrow your focus on the boots of the hiker in front of you. I like a more leisurely pace, with frequent stops to take in the view and to examine the area around me for interesting plants or animals.

The Three Crosses is an important junction on the trail to Chupinaya's peak. At this point we have completed our long path up the back of the north-south finger ridge. The trail here joins the one following along the main ridge of the Sierra El Tecucan, which runs parallel to Lake Chapala. Once we catch our breath, we will turn west along a path atop the ridge where we can see the Lake far below to the south, and a lush valley off to the north. Crosses such as these are found in many places atop the Sierra El Tecuan where trails from below join the main ridge trail. They are shrines to which Mexicans from the local communities hike on special occasions such as the annual fiesta for the Virgin of Guadalupe. Half-burnt candles and religious images--evidence of their rituals--can be found among the rocks at the bases of the crosses. Also present in this photo is Mattie, Chuck's dog. She is a delightful companion, and is always ecstatic to be included on one of these adventures.  (Photo by Alfredo Molina)

An unknown growth on a tree-branch attracted my attention. The air was moist and all sorts of odd things were growing at this cloud-swept altitude. If anyone can put a name to this, I would appreciate hearing from you. We continued on along the ridge, its sides dropping steeply off on either side of us. At this altitude oak trees grow in abundance, giving the area a park-like feeling.

Peter and Antonia push through the damp brush as clouds silently swirl about them. The clouds, ghost-like, moved eerily around us. They were not only a silent presence, but also seemed to muffle the sounds we made. We found ourselves speaking in low tones, almost whispers.

Vivid orange and green lichens adorned a rock face along the trail. Lichens are an odd form of life. They are actually a composite organism, part fungus and part photosythentic algae. Lichens can live almost anywhere, including arctic tundra, scorching deserts, rocky coasts and even toxic slag heaps. In addition to those extreme environments, they can also be found in rain forests and temperate woodlands like those along the Sierra El Tecuan. In addition to rock faces, they grow on the surface of exposed soils and sometimes on roofs. Scientists at the Mars Simulation Laboratory found that lichens survive, grow and adapt even in that extreme environment. This has led some to speculate that if we find life on Mars, it will be in lichen form.

Moving further along the ridge, I found several bright patches of Rubiacaea.  The Rubiacaea family of plants includes coffee, quinine, and West Indian jasmine, among others. The family is the fourth largest of flowering plants, and contains 611 genera and 13,000 species.

A Black Headed Vulture sits on a dead tree limb while surveying its realm. The large bird was a considerable distance away, so I had to use the extreme setting on my telephoto. However, the vulture accommodated me by remaining absolutely still until I completed my shot. Black Headed vultures, (Coragyps atratus) are also known as Black Vultures, Carrion Crows, and Jim Crow. They almost exclusively eat carrion and are therefore a member of nature's cleanup squad. Vultures, hawks, and other raptors glide and swoop in the thermals that rise along the cliffs fringing the Sierra El Tecuan.  With their keen eyes and exquisite sense of smell, they can locate dead animals at a great distance.

In a small hidden cove, we found a shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Trails from both sides of the mountain converge here, and the area was well-kept, almost immaculate. The shrine consisted of a huge rock outcropping with a small cave in its face. On top of the rock, out of sight in the photo, was a small cross with a Mexican flag on top. The decorations you can see on the face of the rock to the left of the cave opening are in the red, white and green colors of the flag. Alfredo knelt for a short prayer while Japo stood by, clutching several small nopal cactus paddles we would later share during lunch.

Inside the cave, behind a protective metal gate, stands an image of the Virgin. The image was surrounded by candles and other small offerings. The shrine and the entire appearance of the site was imbued with the deep sense of reverence with which Mexicans hold the Virgen de Guadalupe. She is a religious figure dating back to 1531, only 10 years after the Conquest. Although the Catholic Church at first resisted recognizing her as a genuine apparition, the dark-skinned Virgin became the patron of the poor and the indigenous people. She became a a powerful political symbol when her image was used on the flag of the first insurgents against colonial Spain at the very moment the revolt exploded in 1810. Her presence at the head of Miguel Hidalgo's insurgent army ensured widespread support among poor people rising up against hundreds of years of Spanish oppression. The image of the Virgen de Guadalupe also appeared at the head of later armies, including during the Revolution of 1910. Virtually every time I have seen her image displayed, it is accompanied by a Mexican flag, or is draped with its colors.

Just in front of the shrine was neatly-kept campsite. We usually find remote sites like this to be strewn with plastic bags, empty soda pop bottles and other detritus. This one was neat and clean, almost as if it had been swept. A log seat was propped up between two trees and behind it swung a hammock. These sleeping devices are a New World invention. Anthropologists think the Maya of Central America originally invented the hammock 1000 years ago. They were first noticed by Columbus and his men while visiting the Taino people of the Bahamas. Hammocks were adopted and adapted by the Spanish and English navies in the 16th Century, and were still used by the US Navy as late as the Vietnam War.

Patricia shaves the spines off the paddle of a nopal cactus. She borrowed the Swiss Army knife I mentioned earlier, a tool with many unexpected uses. Patricia brought along a pair of cotton gloves to handle the paddle while she prepared it. The nopal cactus plant (Opuntia ficus-indica) is armed with a set of extremely sharp spines that will leave a painful puncture wound on the unwary. The plant grows in the wild over most of Mexico, but is also cultivated by at least 10,000 farmers. It is found in the desert, but also thrives in moderate zones like the area near Chupinaya's peak. Nopal is nutritious, and full of Vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, and manganese. It reduces cholesterol and is useful in diabetes management. Mexican cooks prepare nopal boiled, sauteed, fried, or roasted. It can also be eaten raw in salads or, as I prefer it, fresh off the cactus. The texture of raw nopal is crisp and the taste slightly tart, and, fresh with a dip, it would be great.

Tigridia multiflora-Iridaceae. This was another of the unusual flowers I found growing wild by the trail. Tigridia multiflora-Iridaceae is found from Mexico to Chile in moist climates. The Aztecs, who ate the roots, called it the Jaguar Flower. At this point we were well above 7500 feet. The number and kinds of flowers we were encountering was astonishing. For someone used to the seasons of the northern US, Canada, or northern Europe, Lake Chapala's seasons can seem a bit odd. We get our spring in the fall (Sept-Oct) and our summer in the spring (April-June). Our fall comes during winter (Nov-March), and winter, as it is experienced north-of-the-border, doesn't exist here at all. June, July, and August are known simply as "the rainy season," although it generally only rains at night. So, during this September hike we were in full spring, flowers were blooming profusely, and the higher we moved the greater their number.

A spike of Calliandra buds prepares to bloom. The buds at the bottom are just beginning to open on this spikey branch, which reached a height of at least 2 meters (6 ft.). Some Calliandria can reach a height of 12 meters (36 ft.). The plant grows in the wild but is also cultivated. Farmers use it for roughage for their animals, as mulch, and as shade for other plants such as coffee. Calliandra is also grown for decorative uses.

Calliandra in full bloom looks like some sort of alien creature from the Planet Zorkon. Encountering this scene around a turn in the trail, I froze in astonishment. If it had started crawling toward me, I wouldn't have been unduly surprised. Calliandra likes moist environments like this one, but it can also deal with as much as seven months of dry season. It likes slightly acidic volcanic soils, so it does well in the volcanic mountains surrounding Lake Chapala.

This ferocious-looking creature is actually quite gentle and harmless. My hiking friends call it the "Zulu Shield Bug" for lack of a better name. I have never been able to determine its scientific name, so if any entomologists can help me out, please leave a comment below. The Zulu Shield Bug is fairly large, about 10.2 centimeters (4 in.) from tail to antenna tip. The colorful "shield" on the back is actually a set of wings. Pick one up and it will peacefully explore its way around the palm of your hand before spreading its wings and buzzing noisily away. 

Chuck takes a breather at the peak of Cerro Chupinaya, while Mattie enjoys the view. The final push from the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine to the peak is only about 400 meters (1/4 mi), but it is definitely the toughest stretch of the whole hike. The climb is very steep and the ground is loose. Two steps forward will yield to one step back. At nearly 8,000 feet, the air is much thinner than at the mile-high lake where we started. At the very top we found a wrought-iron cross mounted in a pile of stones. Thick grass and low shrubs surrounded the otherwise bare knob. The view was outstanding, even on a cloudy day. Far below, behind Chuck and the cross, the North Shore's narrow strip of populated land stretches along Lake Chapala. 

This completes my posting on Cerro Chupinaya. I hope you have enjoyed it! I always welcome comments and questions, so if you'd like to leave one, please use 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. Researching for a possible hike to the Volcan de Colima on our next trip to Ajijic, I came across your blog; I really am enjoying it. I would appreciate any information you might provide about any organizations in the area that plan the types of hikes and excursions described in your blog with the hope of taking part on our upcoming trip to this Summer. My email is

  2. Re: Speaking to Rotary Club of Ajijic - Tuesday 1-2 pm? Hi Jim, might you be interested in sharing some of the fascinating experiences you and Carole have had with our 35 or so meeting attendees? We meet at lunch at the Hotel Real de Chapala Tuesday from 1:00 until 2:00. We have audio video equipment as well. I expect your presentation content would be based on your experiences and could be around 15-20 minutes. Lunch is on us! Terry MacDonald,

  3. Hey Jim,

    We're looking forward to the next hike, and the corn festival!



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