Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Want to get high on Tequila? Try it this way...

The massive bulk of Volcan de Tequila is purpled by the late afternoon light. The first two times I climbed the peak of this volcano, I failed to bring my camera. On this sparkling, clear, winter day I made sure to pack my new Nikon. Volcan de Tequila, at 2,920 m (9,580 ft) dwarfs the other mountains in the area both in altitude and general bulk. It is no wonder that the people of the ancient Teuchitlán Tradition (300 BC-900 AD) considered it a sacred place. Aside from its impressive size, the volcano spewed forth immense quantities of volcanic glass called obsidian. This material was highly valued by pre-hispanic people because it could be shaped into tools, weapons, jewelry, and other useful objects. Obsidian can be honed to an edge finer than steel surgical instruments. Possession by an ancient society of such extensive deposits would be equivalent to possession of huge oil fields today. Notice the dome in the center of the volcano's caldera (crater). Our intent was to hike to the rim of the caldera, then down inside it to the base of the dome. We weren't going to attempt the last several hundred feet to the top of the dome because that would require ropes and technical climbing gear we didn't bring. To attempt the summit without such protection would be too dangerous. For a Google map showing the location of the volcano and its relation to Guadalajara and Lake Chapala, click here.

Approaching the volcano's caldera

The slopes of the volcano, right up to the caldera rim, are thickly covered by oak forest. My fellow hiker Jim B is seen above, walking along the cobble stone road that leads from the base of the mountain all the way to the caldera rim. The road was built to service the cell phone towers and other communication gear set up to take advantage of the volcano's commanding heights. The valleys surrounding the mountain are extensively planted with blue agave, the plant from which tequila, the Mexican national drink, is produced. The drink got its name from the small town of Tequila which sits on a plateau nestled against the northern flank of the mountain. Only the liquor produced in this area can legally be sold as "tequila." From the outskirts of the town of Tequila, the cobble stone road winds up the mountainside through innumerable turns and switchbacks. It took us nearly an hour to reach the gate where we left the cars. From there, the cobble stone road continues to the cell towers perched on the caldera's rim.

We found these lovely little flowers growing along the trail. They are of the Asteraceae or Compositae family, commonly known as asters. This is a huge family with 1,620 genuses and over 23,000 species. Members of this family can be found almost everywhere except Antarctica and the extreme Arctic. I want to thank Ron Parsons of Wildflowers and Plants of Central Mexico for this identification and his help in identifying the other plants in this posting. Ron always comes through for me, and usually on short notice.

View from the cobble stone road. The fertile valley below is bordered by the mountain ranges of northern Jalisco. The valleys around the volcano were settled by the Spanish early in the colonial period. Many ex-haciendas dot the landscape, some of them dating to the 17th Century when great herds of cattle roamed the area. In the 18th Century, some of the hacendados discovered a market for the tequila that they had been distilling for their personal use. While imported brandy and rum were expensive, tequila was relatively cheap since it could be made from the innumerable blue agave plants which grew wild in the area. Hacendados soon started distilling the liquor on a commercial scale. Well-known tequila brands such as José Cuervo, Sauza, and Orendain are all named after the original owners of 18th Century tequila-producing haciendas.

Gnarled oak trees cover the slopes of the volcano. Their spreading canopies provide welcome shade from the intense sun. Although at 3000 meters the air is cool, the direct sun can warm you up quickly. Unlike the mountains around Lake Chapala--except at the very tops--the slopes of Volcan Tequila are not jungly. In fact, there is very little underbrush between the great oaks, and even less so as you gain altitude. The ground is covered by layers of fallen oak leaves which may suppress the undergrowth. The open and park-like terrain is very pleasant to hike through.

A great valley spreads out toward the north. I took this shot standing below an electrical tower from which three power lines dropped precipitously down the slope to the next tower far below. In the foreground are the forested lower skirts of the mountain. Just beyond is open range covering a broad plateau. Beyond that, a long ridge descends from left to right. Behind this ridge is the gorge through which the Rio Grande de Santiago runs. The Santiago, one of Mexico's longest rivers, begins on the northern shore of Lake Chapala, cuts around to the north of Guadalajara, and then runs to the west through rugged mountains before finally emptying into the Pacific near San Blas. It's total length is 433 km (269 mi). The area you see above was a pre-hispanic transition zone between the settled and civilized cultures of Central and Southern Mesoamerica, and the wild, nomadic, and definitely uncivilized Chichimec tribes who inhabited the mountains and deserts to the north. Chichimec attacks plagued those early civilizations, just as they plagued the Spanish from the earliest colonial days until well into the 18th Century.

White pine stands regally erect among the oaks. While the oaks predominate near the top of the volcano, I found this white pine standing proudly among them. The white pine (Pinus flexilis) is found widely in the U.S. and in the western Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.

Peeping through the trees, you can see the northern end of the lake called Presa La Vega. The town of Teuchitlán, which borders the lake, is obscured by the branches at the bottom of the photo. The Teuchitlán Tradition gets its name from this town. Nearby are the famous circular pyramids called Los Guachimontones, which were built in a late stage of the Tradition. In addition to its unusual cone-shaped pyramids, the Tradition is marked by the use of Shaft Tombs. These unique tombs are found extensively in this area, as well as in a large arc which includes Colima, southwestern Jalisco, and Nayarit. The Shaft Tombs were dug vertically into the ground as deep as 20 m (60 ft) using only wooden or bone tools. At the bottom, one or more bulb-shaped chambers were cut, extending off from the shaft. Bodies were arranged in the chambers like the spokes of a wheel, with the feet at the center. What we know about the Teuchitlán Tradition and its Shaft Tomb People comes largely from the artifacts left in their tombs as offerings. These include many fine sculptures, including women preparing meals, parents cuddling with a child or pet dog, and people playing musical instruments or dancing in a group. The sculptures provide a deeply touching window into a vanished past.

At the rim of the caldera, we encountered this simple iron cross. We often find such crosses on mountain peaks during our hikes. They are usually shrines to which local people hike as part of religious fiestas. Although this one was unadorned, others are often draped with banners and surrounded by potted flowers and votive candles.

A view from the rim looks across a valley to a lake and another volcanic peak in the distance. Also visible is a layer of smog which has drifted over from Guadalajara, 66.7 km (41 mi) to the east. Such smog can be a problem during the dry season (November - June). Guadalajara is Mexico's second biggest city, with 7 million people. However, smog prevention policies such as mandatory emissions inspections have been implemented and, with increased enforcement, the smog may eventually be brought under control.

Once on the caldera rim, we approached one of its two sets of cell towers. The other set of towers is about 0.8 km (0.5 mi) mile away on the other side of the rim. Both sets are visible from many miles away in the valleys below. The various installations included the one seen above, owned by Telcel. Others included a communication mast put up by the local fire department. Telcel is by far the dominant company in the Mexican cell phone market. It is owned by Carlos Slim, a Lebanese-Mexican who, with a reported net worth of $72 billion (yes, that's with a "b"!), is one of the world's richest men. Visible in the photo are Jim B (left) and Gary (right). The dog in the foreground is Matty, belonging to Chuck, another hiker. Matty is an enthusiastic hiker, loved by all for her sweet disposition.

Inside the caldera

The lava dome, seen from the first set of cell towers. The second set is to the right of the dome, beyond the edge of the photo. The ridge behind the dome is one side of the caldera rim. You are looking down into the mouth of the massive crater. Examining these photos now, I am struck by how small the dome seems. In reality it is a huge block of volcanic rock, impossible to capture all in one photo unless you are a considerable distance away. However, its imposing size is dwarfed by the caldera in which it sits. The dome is what remains of a lava plug which formed in the mouth of an eruption. The soil surrounding the cooled lava wore away over time, leaving this giant monument as a reminder of the volcano's power.

Chuck, owner of Matty, clowns around behind a hollow tree. Chuck is from Arizona and has lived, full-time, in the Lake Chapala area for a number of years. Even before that, he had been a regular visitor to many parts of Mexico. Chuck is an adventurous sort, and is always one of the first volunteers for a proposed expedition. His crusty exterior conceals a warm and generous spirit.

The rest of our Volcan Tequila crew poses with the lava plug in the background. From left to right are Jim B, Kathy, Peter, Gary, and Ralph. Jim is one of the leaders of the large, informal  group of hikers who participate in adventures like this one. Earlier this year, he led a group that marched for two days through the swamps of the remote and roadless Petén jungle of Guatemala in order to visit a archeological dig called El Mirador. Kathy and Peter also participated. More recently, Jim led a group on a climb of Nevado de Colima. At 4282 m (14,050 ft) it is Jalisco's highest peak. Keep in mind that none of the people you see above is under 60 years old, and some of them are well on the far side of that.

We encountered these large thistles growing in groups at various places near the rim. With its thorns and bright flowers, it is really quite dramatic. The Cirsium thistle is part of a genus with 60 species. It is also called a Plume thistle, for obvious reasons.

From the cell towers, we circled around the rim toward the lava dome. The dome can be seen through the trees on the upper  left. From the lip of the rim, the dry stone wall seen above extends far down into the caldera. We saw no cattle in the area, so the purpose of the wall was unclear. Consider this: whoever built it moved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of large stones by hand while working at an altitude in excess of 3000 m (9000+ ft). Local folks are certainly hardy.

Suitably enough, this is called the "Tequila" flower. Salvia gesneriiflora is found in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains at elevations between 7,500-10,000 ft. In the wild, it can grow up to 25 ft high.

A view of the lava dome, seen from the side. As you can see, it is extremely steep on all sides, and some faces are almost vertical. Just to the right of the dome, you can see a small black bump of rock. The notch between the dome and the black bump was our goal.

The summit of the dome, seen through my telephoto zoom. My Nikon has a 42X zoom, and I needed all of it to get this shot. The top is wooded, except for a jumble of large boulders. It is not clear to me what might have caused this massive rock fracture. Usually something like this boulder pile is found at the base of a cliff, rather than at its top.

Our path now took us inside the lip of the caldera. To the left was a very steep slope down into the mouth of the caldera. The route here was more like the suggestion of a trail than something clear and distinct. I moved cautiously and examined the ground for evidence of human passage.

Looking up toward the lip of the caldera, the ground was covered by thick tufts of bunch grass. Rather than standing up straight, the grass was bowed over, as if a flood of water had poured down the slope. The rise of this slope is just as precipitous as the fall down into the caldera on the other side of the trail.

A volcanic monolith rose in our path, requiring some rock-scrambling to surmount it. Here, we rested and hungrily consumed some of the snacks we brought. I tend to favor a mixture of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, along with some Ritz crackers. Sometimes I'll add a chocolate bar for extra energy. Along with a couple of liters of water, that generally tides me over until our traditional post-hike feast at a local restaurant.

Our goal comes into sight. The "small black bump of rock" I mentioned previously turned out to be not so small after all. The black rock is about 30+ m (100 ft) high, but it is a tiny speck compared to the lava dome, which looms on the upper left of the photo. Our route traversed the base of the black rock beginning at the lower right of the photo. This was followed by a rock scramble up into the slot where the black rock and the dome meet. In my next posting, I'll show our party climbing around in this area, and also our return, which was accomplished by a different route.

This completes Part 1 of my two-part series on our climb of Volcan Tequila. I hope you have enjoyed joining us on our adventure. I always appreciate feedback and questions. If you have any, please leave them in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If no one else has preceded you, it may say "no  comments." Just click on that and it will open the Comments window.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Very interesting post and nice photography.

  2. I was particularly struck by the stone wall inside the caldera--trying to imagine its purpose, the people who built it. And I hadn't expected the oaks--reminds me a bit of Oklahoma, without the elevation of course. Did you see any wildlife? I figure you will clue your readers into trip time, elevation gain, trail length etc. in the next post. Quite a sturdy party you all have got. Thanks for the great pics and good story, Jim


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