Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Getting high on Tequila (Part 2)

A massive stone dome rises in the caldera of Volcan Tequila. This is a lava plug, the remains of the lava which congealed in the tube of the volcano. The surrounding material eventually eroded away, leaving a huge vertical monument to remind us of the volcano's ancient fury. What you see above is only about the top 1/3 of the plug. In the last posting (Part 1) we hiked up to the caldera rim, and then down inside it to the base of the plug. This posting will give you a feel for our climb around the base of the plug, and our return by a different, more difficult route than the one we used on our ascent.

Gary (left) and Jim B (right) pick their way carefully along a cliff face. It is a good idea to watch your step while hiking, but it is especially true up here where volcanic rock is rough and often jagged. It is at such times that a hiking stick is vital for testing the stability of rocks and acting as a third point of balance.

The face of the lava plug is very sheer. This telephoto shot only captures the top few feet of the face. The drop extends below it for several hundred vertical feet. The top and parts of the sides of the plug are covered with trees and other vegetation, in spite of the fact that there is very little soil. Life finds a way.

Kathy watches while one of the other hikers ascends a rock face. Kathy is one of the strongest hikers I know. Despite her petite size, she has tremendous stamina and can hold her own with any of the male hikers. She was part of a recent expedition by some of my hiking friends into the roadless jungles of northern Guatemala. It was a two-day slog (each way) through ankle-deep mud and extensive swamps. For 10 hours at a stretch, they followed the mule train that carries supplies to the remote archaeological dig at El Mirador.

Jim B tries his luck with a rock promontory adjacent to the lava plug. It was a tall jumble of broken boulders with trees growing out of the cracks. Getting around the trees was almost as much of a challenge as climbing up the boulders themselves. Jim B is within a few months of my age (66) and is in top shape. When he is not hiking steep mountain trails twice a week, he bicycles long distance. During his off-time, he goes to the gym. He organised the Guatemala trip.

Clambering the last few feet to the top, Jim grips the trunk of a dead tree. The climb didn't require technical gear or ropes, but was still risky. A fall, a twisted ankle, or a deep gash from a sharp rock would have created a real problem in terms of getting him down the mountain to our parked cars.

He made it! Jim triumphantly poses at the crest of the promontory. Now all he has to do is get back down again. This is no small task, because a climb down is always trickier than one going up. Most people who get hurt do so coming down.

Jim at the peak, a different perspective. Here you can get a sense of scale. From where I took this photo, the promontory is probably 40-50 feet high. However, it drops off at least 100 vertical feet to the right.

The return hike

Peter (left) and Kathy gingerly pick their way down from the base of the plug. After Jim B's safe return, we decided it was time to head back. We would be returning to our cars by way of the 2nd set of communication towers. They are located on the far side of the caldera rim from the towers seen in Part 1, and are separated from them by the yawning mouth of the volcano.

View of the back side of the lava plug. This side is every bit as rugged and vertical as the front side, although the drop from crest to base is not quite so far.

Kathy, Gary, and Jim B traverse the steep, grassy slope inside the caldera's rim.  In most places along here, the trail was less than a foot wide, and sometimes the drifts of oak leaves make it very indistinct. To the left, the slope continues steeply down hundreds of feet into the throat of the caldera.

Kathy and Ralph (left) approach the bottom of a cliff as Gary and Jim B begin their descent. The rough rock provided many hand and footholds, making it safer to climb down than if it was smooth. Still, losing your balance on a spot like this could be like sliding down a cheese grater.

Clumps of these Cirsium thistles grow all over the rim of the volcano. They are large, about the size of a baseball, and their flowers glowed a brilliant red in the sunshine.

Running out of trail, we spread out over the hillside, each picking our own way. This was one of the more difficult spots. Although there was little danger, it was physically more strenuous than the rock climbing. We fought our way up the steep slope through loose rocks and deep, slippery piles of oak leaves. Sometimes it was two steps forward and one back. At 9000+ feet, I found myself quickly tiring.

A view up the slope we were climbing. Up and up we climbed, with the crest never seeming to get any closer. The air was thin and I was panting heavily and needed to stop frequently to catch my breath. I did notice that Peter and Gary seemed happy to stop whenever I paused.

Peter, at the top of the ridge. He is from the Netherlands. Peter is physically tough and wiry, but he looked as bushed as I felt when we finally got to the rim of the caldera.

View of the first set of communication towers from across the caldera. The second set of towers is outside the frame of the photo to the left. The mountains of northern Jalisco and Nayarit loom in the background. The rim of the caldera curves around in the shape of a giant "U". The open side was created when the volcano exploded out toward the southeast tens of thousands of years ago.

Gary catches his breath on the rim of the caldera before the last push to the towers. He is a big, friendly, bear of a guy. Originally (and unmistakably) from New York, he spent the last part of his working life as a quality control manager at a large bakery company. After moving to Mexico about a year ago, he met his Mexican girlfriend Marina and they moved in together. Gary seems as happy as a bear that has found a big jar of honey.

The view out the open side of the "U" on the caldera's southeast side. The sheer wall to the right is the front of the lava plug, The wooded slope to the left is the rim of the caldera. An uneven checkerboard of cultivated fields spreads out across the valley far below. Most of the green fields you see are rows of agave cultivated by the tequila industry.

View from the valley southeast of the volcano, looking back up at the lava plug. The late afternoon shadows gather in the folds of the mountain as golden light slants across fertile fields. The position from which I took this photo looks almost directly back at the place where I stood to take the previous shot. We had stopped by the highway on our way home so I could get some final shots of the whole mountain. This is a beautiful area, well worth the two hours it took to reach it.

This completes Part 2 of my two-part series on our hike inside caldera of the Volcan Tequila. I hope you enjoyed it and got a good sense of the mountain and the area around it. I always welcome feedback and questions. If you have any, please leave them in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If no one else has commented yet, it may say "No Comments". Just click on that and the Comments page will open.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Really interesting! I love the thistles and the view of the farmlands especially.

  2. Jim, you always do such an amazing job of both commentary and photographs of hikes and adventures. It is a pleasure to read and re-visit these blogs. Many thanks for your complimentary paragraph on my hiking abilities. I look forward to joining you again in the fall on many more of these.



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