Saturday, July 27, 2013

Climbing Cerro Garcia, Lake Chapala's highest peak

Cerro Garcia, looking southeast from the new bypass road above Jocotopec. The town lies on the extreme western end of the lake. Last Tuesday, I accompanied three other hiking friends on an ascent of the peak of Cerro Garcia. The experience was physically intense, but beautiful, so I decided to take a break from my Chiapas series to give you a look at the highest peak along the shores of Lake Chapala. The mountain is much taller than the other ridges and peaks visible from the North Shore of the lake, where most expats live. Its visibility makes it a landmark and an occasional topic of conversation when the summit is wreathed with clouds or its slopes are pocked with brushfires. Mexicans have a quirky sense of humor and it shows in the name they picked for this extinct volcano. In Spanish, Cerro Garcia it means Garcia Hill, but I am here to tell you that this is a full-grown mountain and no mistake about it. According to the Mexican National Institute of Geographical Statistics, the peak of Garcia hits 2750 m (9022.31 ft). The lake itself is at 1524 m (5000 ft), so the summit is 1226 m (4022.31 ft) above the water. We took a route up one of the ridges that rises near the South Shore town of San Luis Soyatlán, just visible in the left-center of the photo. If you look at the top of the mountain, you can see it has a false summit before you reach the real one on the right. More on that, later.

We set off up a farm road lined with old dry-stone walls. The thick summer foliage spilled over the walls and into the road. Above, from rear to front, are Gary, Frank, and Jim B. We left Jim B's high-clearance SUV at a small dairy farm when the road became too rugged and rocky for anything but horses or human feet. Lacking the former, we set off on the latter. Among the four of us, only Jim B had ever climbed to the peak of Cerro Garcia. At this rainy time of year, undergrowth almost literally explodes out of the ground, obscuring and even obliterating well-known trails. A GPS tracking device is very useful in finding and following indistinct trails. Jim B casually remarked that he had left his, which contained the Cerro Garcia trail route, hanging on the wall at home. I silently prayed to the god of the mountain that Jim's memory of the trail was better than his memory for bringing the GPS.

The Cuphea, also known as the Cigar Plant. The trail was lined with an astonishing variety of beautiful flowers, all the way to the summit. The one above has a very unusual appearance, with a long cylindrical body and tiny red flowers on the end, looking for all the world like the lit tip of a cigar. This flower is one of 260 species of the genus Cuphea. The plant grows in temperate to tropical regions. Aside from being raised as ornamentals, oil from the Cuphea is used for the same purposes as coconut and palm oil. Farmers in temperate regions are being encouraged to grow them for biodiesel fuel, thus reducing destructive logging. Not being a flower expert myself, I depend upon my friend Ron Parsons who is an expert on Mexican flora. Ron always comes through for me, even when I give him ridiculously short deadlines. All the flowers I show in this posting were identified for me by him. To view his excellent website, click here.

Lacking a better name, my hiking friends call this a Zulu Shield Bug. They are generally about 5 cm (2 in) long and most are as colorful as the one you see here. We named it for its  resemblance to the markings on a Zulu warrior's shield. The colorful back actually comprises a pair of wings. Although ferocious-looking, the insect is completely harmless and very docile. With sufficient prodding, it will spread its wings and noisily buzz off to a nearby branch. If there are any bug scientists out there who can identify this little guy, please let me know in the Comments section below.

After following a jungly trail, we stopped for a breather at an overlook. Here, you get your first good look at my three companions. Gary, the tall guy on the left, is from New York, and recently moved down full-time. A very friendly and generous guy, he lives here with Marina, the delightful Mexican girl-friend he met shortly after he arrived. Jim B, in the background, came from Texas equipped with a deep drawl, a fishing rod, and a bicycle. He has lived full-time in Ajijic with his wife for a bit longer than Carole and I.  Jim has a soul-deep love of Mexico and has become my regular companion on expeditions to find old haciendas. Frank, on the right, is another newcomer to the area. He got here by way of Montana, Utah, and then Phoenix, AZ. He and his wife Jan are giving the area a "test-run" of several months to see if they might want to make it full-time. They rented a place in the condo complex next door to me and found out from one of my blog fans here that I regularly hike. Frank is a very strong hiker and has completed 1,400+ miles on the Appalachian Trail. He seems to be enjoying Mexico immensely.

These delicate flowers are of the genus Commelina. The common name for Commelina is "dayflower" and--less commonly--"widow's tears." The dayflower name comes from the short lifespan of the flower. We were apparently lucky to happen by when we did to catch it in its full glory. Commelina are herbs and are eaten as vegetables in Southeast Asia and Africa. The Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, who invented the system for naming species, gave them their names in honor of two Dutch botanists 

On and on, up the ridge we toiled, passing through this sunny grove of scrub oaks. In the background, the bluish ridges of the Sierra del Tigre stretch away into the distance. The mountains lining the South Shore of Lake Chapala, including Cerro Garcia, form the northern limits of the Sierra del Tigre range, which stretches to the Pacific. Cerro Garcia is in no way a technically difficult mountain. There is no rock climbing or need for ropes. The mountain is simply a whole lot of endless up, switchback after switchback, with only a few level stretches to give relief. The higher we got, the thinner the air, so I was panting a good deal even before my legs began to ache. The other three seemed to be doing ok, so I gritted my teeth and pressed on.

As we gained altitude, the views became more expansive. Here, you are looking northeast toward the North Shore. Directly across the lake is the town of Chapala. Eight kilometers (5 mi) west of Chapala is Ajijic, where I live. At this point, Lake Chapala is about 19.3 km (12 mi) wide. Below Garcia, small farm fields checker the landscape. Along the shore in the center-right of the photo is San Luis Soyatlán, a town with a population of about 3,100 people and a history that goes back to pre-hispanic times. The Spanish established a chapel here in 1564, after naming the town for San Luis. The general practice of the early Franciscan friars who evangelized here was to take an indigenous town's name, and precede it with a saint's name. There were three saints named Luis (or Louis, since all three were French). One of them was Louis IX, King of France, but in this case they were referring to St. Louis of Toulouse. In Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the original inhabitants, Soyatlán means "place of the soyates." The soyate fibre was used by pre-hispanic people to create mats and baskets, and the people of the town still make them for personal use and sale. The white structure in the lower right quadrant of the photo is the dairy farm where our car was parked.

Even the "level" stretches have their hazards. Emerging from some woods, we picked our way through a jumble of large boulders. At this point, we are about 1/3 of the way to the summit. The ridge here is not as steep but is only about 27.4 m (30 yards) wide. There is a very steep drop-off on the left, just out of view. We had to make our way carefully through the boulder field because a twisted ankle--or worse--would be extremely inconvenient. I made a mental note to watch my step coming down, because by then I would be very tired and gravity works against you when descending. Notice the low clouds gathering in the upper left.

Hiking in the clouds gives one an eerie feeling. As we pushed on, clouds rolled in, bringing cool, moist air. This was a pleasure, since the day was warm and humid. I always prefer to hike when it's cool, especially when climbing. Loss of visibility is the downside of cloud-hiking. Sometimes, clouds wreath the summit of Cerro Garcia so that it appears to be wearing a Mexican hat. Then, local people will remark that "Señor Garcia is wearing his sombrero today." The trees in the foreground and the ones in back are separated by a ravine many hundreds of feet deep. 

My companions make their way up a steep slope through the thickening fog. Fortunately the terrain was relatively open and free of undergrowth. Wildflowers grew everywhere among the scattered trees. Jim B's trail-tracking capabilities were being stretched to the limit. When I lose track of a trail, I ask myself "if I were a trail, where would I be" and then I go there. It sounds silly, but it nearly always works. People who make trails will usually select the easiest route. Once you develop an eye for that, you can usually find your way. Usually...

This flower is part of the large Rubiaceae family, and is related to coffee plants. The Rubiaceae family is indeed huge, containing 611 genera and 13,000 species. This makes the family the 4th largest by number of genera and the 5th largest by species. These flowers were so perky and visible that they almost cried out for a photograph.

For a bit, the clouds lifted and we could see Cerro Viejo across the lake. Here, you are looking northwest toward San Juan Cosalá. It is another dual-named, North Shore town and is about 8 km (5 mi) west of Ajijic. Above, you can see a long east-west ridge rising directly over the North Shore. Looming up behind that ridge is the dark bulk of Cerro Viejo, partially covered by clouds. Cerro Viejo, at 2960 m (9711 ft), is the tallest mountain in the general area of Lake Chapala. Most of the time it is not visible to those living on the North Shore because it is masked by the lakeside ridge. I have yet to climb Viejo, but I'll probably get around to it. Garcia, on the other hand, I see every day. The fact that I had not yet climbed it nagged at me for years.

The view directly to the east, down the South Shore toward Michoacan State. While the South Shore has its high mountains and ridges, their bases are generally a fair distance from the shore. There is thus much more arable land on this side of the lake than on the North Shore. As you can see in the green area on the lower right of the photo, the tops of some ridges spread out into broad plateaus containing fields and pastures. Continuing further south (to the right) the plateaus drop off precipitously down into the valley just to the south of the ridge. Even at this altitude, the far end of the lake is very difficult to see because Lake Chapala is 80.5 km (50 mi) long.

The clouds close in again, blocking the great vistas. Things cleared up on our return trip down the mountain, but for almost the entire time at the higher altitudes, we were "socked-in" Still, there was plenty to see a close range. Just beyond the tree above is a big drop-off into a ravine between ridges.

Frank takes a break, while leaning on my "loner" stick. Not knowing what to expect, he had arrived in Ajijic somewhat ill-equipped for serious hiking. He managed to find some hiking shoes in his rental unit, but that was about all. I lent him a spare stick and a bellypack to carry water and a snack. I always urge newcomers to these mountains to bring a stick for balance and support. Almost all of the experienced local hikers here use one, or even two. The steep rocky trails, often covered with loose soil and gravel, can be very difficult to negotiate without a third point of balance. One hiker memorably described one of these sections as akin to traversing slick glass covered with ball bearings. Frank is a quiet, steady, no b.s. kind of guy, with a good sense of humor. When he noticed I was tiring during our climb, he hung back a bit to keep an eye on me. Those sorts of things are important in the back country.

This burned out tree stump was one among many signs of a big, recent fire. Although the area has much new growth, we repeatedly found half burned trees and maguey plants, as well as patches of scorched earth. Several months ago, fires raged over a huge section of Cerro Garcia. These often occur during the hot dry season of Aril through mid-June. In preparation for planting, local farmers burn their fields to get rid of crop debris and insects, or to open up scrub land for cultivation. Sometimes these "controlled" burns get out of hand. Mexico has little in the way of resources to devote to these fires, so they are often just allowed to burn out. We had little fear of fire, since the rainy season had arrived many weeks ago and the cool, moist air around us would not be conducive to a wild fire. However, I would not have wanted to be hiking here when this fire roared through.

Tigridia multiflora-iridaceae is commonly known as the Tiger Flower, or Peacock Flower. I have only seen them at high altitude, once on a trek to the summit of Cerro Chupinaya, and once on this hike up Cerro Garcia. Both times, I found them strikingly attractive. Probably their insect pollinators agree. There are 35 species of Tigridia multiflora that grow from Mexico to Chile. The roots are edible and were eaten by the Aztecs, who called the flower oceloxochitl (Jaguar flower).

At last, the summit! Or is it? A long pull up an especially steep slope ended at this cross set in a grove of trees. The clouds obscured anything beyond a few meters. Not much of a view, but we had arrived! I was about done-in at that point and my only thought was to sit down, gulp down some water and gobble my sandwich. I was relieved to see that the others looked fairly bushed too. Summits in these mountains are often topped with crosses like this. They are set up for religious pilgrimages held at fiesta times. It gives the idea of penance a whole new meaning. After I had caught my breath, I casually surveyed my surroundings. Suddenly, I noticed that the fog had lifted a bit, and the ground seemed to rise to the west. Surely not! I mentioned my discovery and Frank and Gary also took notice. We turned to Jim B and inquired if we were truly on the summit. "No," he said casually, "it's a little bit further on."  Stunned, we looked at each other. "How much further?" we asked, a bit tentatively. "Oh, about another hour, I guess," said Jim B, "and another 400 feet higher." At that moment, I remembered one of my father's old sayings about "beating yourself over the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop." 

Gary and Frank, digesting the news that we are not actually at the summit. Frank said later "when I heard that, my heart sank." Gary, above left, is smiling gamely, but looks pretty tired. However, all of us were determined to make it all the way, having come so far. Gary is a very upbeat person, and his reaction to Mexico strikes me as similar to that of a kid let loose in a candy shop. Every new experience is a thrill. To top it off, he managed to find a girlfriend almost immediately after arriving. Marina is smart, energetic, and fun-loving, and her personality seems to fit Gary's perfectly. 

Looking back down one of the final hills up to the summit. The area is almost park-like, with widely-spaced trees and almost no underbrush. The ground is covered with flowers, ferns and tufts of grass. Through a break in the clouds, beams of sunlight streamed down to the forest floor. Even though I was short of breath and my legs were burning, I couldn't resist a photo of this delicately beautiful scene. 

Very near the top, we passed through a grove of trees covered with green fur. At least that's what it looked like as we approached. The "fur" turned out to be thousands of ferns growing on every surface and crevice of each tree. The yellow sunlight passing through the green fern leaves made each tree seem to glow. The moisture from the constant swirl of clouds at this altitude provides a perfect environment for ferns and similar plants.

Frank, Jim B and I relax at the summit, for real this time. Again there was a cross, if a bit smaller.  It was propped up among the boulders and festooned with blue and white crepe. The colors are indicative of a particular religious fiesta. I am smiling, but the only thing keeping me upright is the big boulder behind me. Beyond the boulder is nothing but empty space and swirling clouds. On a clear day, we could probably see the outskirts of Guadalajara, far to the north. A few yards away, a square metal shed for relay tower stands on a slight rise. The shed is probably located a couple of feet higher, but this place is a much more attractive spot from which to enjoy our summit experience.

Jim B communes with the weather gods. The constant swirl of clouds around the summit was impressive. However, we could hear rumbles in the distance and high, exposed places are not recommended during a thunderstorm. I reminded my friends that the pre-hispanic god of rain was Tlaloc. He had several helpers, kind of like Santa's elves, called Tlaloque. They kept the rain in large clay pots and the sound of thunder resulted when they broke the pots to release the rain. The far-off rumbles indicated that the Tlaloque might be preparing a gully-washer for us, so we decided to get off the mountain.

Shortly before we left, we discovered this solar panel hidden among the boulders. It was only a few feet from the cross and we speculated about a possible connection between them. Jim B suggested that someone had decided to light up the cross so it could be seen from afar. In fact, we had passed a couple of abandoned auto batteries along the trail a few hundred yards back, and there seemed to be some possibility that these had been intended for storage of the electricity generated by the solar panel. The idea seemed a bit far-fetched to me, but then it wouldn't be the first of such odd arrangements I have encountered in Mexico.

Well, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, "th-th-th-that's all folks! The hike down was every bit as scenic as the one coming up, and the further we descended, the fewer the clouds to block the view. By the time we got back to Jim B's car at the dairy farm, my legs were about shot. Without the ibuprofen that Gary supplied me half way down, it would have been a very painful experience. We all made it, though. Over dinner in San Luis Soyatlán, Jim B remarked that now, every time we looked across the lake at Cerro Garcia, each of us could say "I climbed that!"

This completes my posting on Climbing Cerro Garcia. I hope you found our adventures and tribulations entertaining. If you would like to comment or ask a question, either 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. Send photos of insects to

    for identification.

    Nice photos of bug and flowers and trees but I gotta ask: where were the birds?!

  2. Hi Jim,
    Nice to see Garcia in the Summer

  3. awesome. my calves hurt from just reading the climb journal...!
    Gayle in Portland OR

  4. Jim,
    I no longer have my Hotmail account. I'd like to continue receiving your blog.
    Edward Gonzales
    email address:

  5. Jim,
    My wife and I are coming in late Feb and hope to hike with the group if possible. Do you still meet at Dona's and is the group open to visitors?
    Rick Irwin

  6. I am planning to climb up Cerro de García (Montaña de Tzepatil in original indian language), but I wonder if there is a route from the south (Teocuitatlán de Corona). Please let me know if there is a group of hikers who would like to climb up Tzepatil mountain.

  7. i love to explore different things that's why searching on mountains check the Top 10 highest mountains in the world - funklist


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