Thursday, December 18, 2014

The lush meadows and dramatic vistas of the Windy Point Trail

The blue ridges of the Sierra del Tigre stretch off toward the south west. Several years ago, Carole and I and some others visited a dramatic mirador (viewpoint) on top of a plateau on the South Shore of Lake Chapala. When viewed from across the Lake, the tops of the mountains that overlook the South Shore at first appear to form a sharp east-to-west line. However, several miles of the mountains between the pueblo of Tuxcueca and Cerro Garcia are topped by a broad, rolling plateau. A very steep escarpment runs along the south side of this plateau. The cliffs lining the escarpment drop 1000+ feet to the floor of a long valley that parallels the southern slopes of the South Lake's mountains. Several deep ravines run northwards into the face of the escarpment. The ravines are separated by points of land that end in rocky miradors. These provide stunning views of the valley below and of the Sierra del Tigre stretching off toward the coast. Windy Point is one of these miradores. We had found it through an article in the Guadalajara Reporter written by John Pint, a knowledgeable expat whose writings have inspired a number of my hiking adventures. The Windy Point mirador got its name from the strong afternoon updrafts caused by warm air rising up the steep cliffs. Various species of raptors enjoy riding these air currents, including hawks and turkey vultures. Our first visit in May 2009 was to photograph them. Ever since that visit, I had speculated that a path might follow along the cliffs. I hoped that such a path would provide further broad vistas. Over the following years, I shared my speculations with various fellow hikers, but somehow we didn't get around to doing anything about it. Finally, in late November of 2014, three of my regular hiking companions finally said "enough talk, let's go see!" To locate the Windy Point area on a Google map, click here.

Windy Point Mirador

At the trailhead, we strapped on our gear, picked up our hiking sticks, and posed for a photo. Jerry is on the right, Gary is in the middle and I stand on the left. As Chuck took this photo, his dog Matty sat at my feet, quivering and whining her eagerness to get going. The view here is directly to the west. Cerro Garcia's 9000 foot peak looms in the distance. The escarpment's cliffs drop off less than 50 yards to the left of the photo. To get to the trailhead, we took Highway 15, which runs along the South Shore of the Lake, to a small pueblo located just west of Tuxcueca. A rough farm road switch-backs up the mountainside and across the plateau. After passing through a farm gate, we drove across a meadow and parked only a few minutes walk from Windy Point. Anyone who visits this area should do it in a high clearance vehicle because much of the farm road is pretty rocky and rutted.

Chuck takes a photo at the edge of the precipice. He is facing directly south, with Cerro Garcia to the west in the background. Visitors should be cautious about the footing here because there are no protective rails or barriers. The drop is far enough that you would have some time to think about the errors of your ways before reaching the bottom.

Looking south over the valley toward the pueblo of Citala and the Barranca Yerba Buena. The Barranca (canyon) can be seen in the upper left of the photo. Upon seeing Barranca Yerba Buena for the first time in 2009, I was immediately intrigued and persuaded Larry, another hiking friend, to help me find a way into the canyon. We found some trailheads and later, with more hikers, returned for a series of expeditions into the Barranca. During these adventures, we discovered two huge waterfalls in the deep gorge. Each waterfall drops almost vertically for more than 150 feet into deep pools. The pools are surrounded by sheer canyon walls several hundred feet high. To the best of my knowledge we were the first expat hikers to ever explore this canyon, although local Mexicans, and indigenous people before them, were certainly familiar with the place.

The Barranca cuts through a plateau covered with small farms, then enters a deep gorge. The outer canyon is perhaps 100 feet deep for most of its length, but when it hits the bluffs, the walls rise three or four times that high. In the deep gorge, the base of the canyon is no more than 30 yards wide, with cliffs on either side that rise several hundred feet. Below the two big falls, water rushes down the canyon with considerable force. On the way to the canyon's mouth at Citala, this year-round stream cascades over many smaller falls. In 2009, while on one of our early explorations of the gorge, we met local farmer named Raul. He obligingly guided us to the top of the upper falls. After the hike, Raul invited us to come back in a few weeks for a Corn Harvest Fiesta. This fiesta has become a yearly event. In October of 2014, 28 expats hiked the Barranca and celebrated our Sixth Annual Corn Harvest Fiesta with Raul and his family.

View to the south west, looking toward Tapalpa. The valley floor is a checkered with small farms and dotted with little pueblos like Atotonilco in the center of the photo. The valley continues all the way to the dry lakes that run north and south in the great valley leading from Guadalajara to Colima.

Atotonilco nestles right at the foot of the escarpment. It is a quiet, out-of-the-way little village, filled with friendly, unassuming farm families. They don't make much money, but they seem happy. This whole valley used to be controlled by Hacienda de Citala and Hacienda San Juan de Gracia two estates that had dominated the area since at least the 18th Century. When these haciendas were broken up after the Revolution, the lands were distributed to families whose ancestors had worked those fields for hundreds of years, often earning little more than a pittance. When the hacendados (hacienda owners) lost the lands, they abandoned their sumptuous cases grandes (great houses) and other outbuildings. These buildings then became the centers of the pueblos that grew up around them. In many of these communities, the local church was once the chapel attached to the casa grande of a defunct hacienda.

The Plateau

Jerry prepares to explore the plateau in hopes of finding a trail. Jerry and his wife Lori have been periodically visiting the Lake Chapala area over the last few years. Jerry retired from a small landscaping business and he and Lori now own a home in Hawaii. He is an extraordinarily friendly guy. My wife and I like to joke that Jerry met and befriended more people in Ajijic within a few days of first arriving than we had gotten to know over several years. Lori, as a young woman, narrowly escaped from the killing fields of her native Cambodia. In spite of that dark beginning, she is a bright and cheerful woman. She is also a wonderful cook who loves throwing dinner parties.

The gently rolling plateau is not a difficult hike and has very little elevation gain or loss. Grassy meadows are separated by swathes of thick brush. The trick in getting around lies in thinking like a cow. Each grassy area is connected by a path through the brambles created by the cattle that graze these meadows. Sometimes the paths are faint, but you can find your way through the maze by paying close attention. Spiny acacia brush abounds, as well as nopal cactus seen above. Sticking to open areas and cow paths is the only way to avoid getting scratched up. I recommend long pants and ankle-lenghth boots in this country.

Cempasuchil is the Nahuatl word for wild marigolds. Nahuatl is the language spoken by the Aztecs and still spoken today by many of Mexico's indigenous people. A large number of words and place names in modern Mexican Spanish are of Nahuatl origin. After the fall rains, the little yellow flowers flourished, giving the meadows a yellowish tinge. Cempasuchil is used during the Day of the Dead fiesta at the beginning of November. The flower was one of the symbols of death for the pre-hispanic people.

What NOT to bump into while hiking. The spines on this nopal cactus are 2-3 inches long and needle sharp. However, the flesh of the nopal "paddles" is very nutritious and quite tasty. It is, of course, necessary to carefully shave off the spines. Once that is done, the paddles can be roasted whole, or cut up into strips to be boiled or sauteed. I like to eat the freshly cut strips raw. They are crisp and juicy with a slightly tart taste. Used with a dip, they can be delicious. Nopal cactus grows throughout most of Mexico. It is one of a large variety of natural foods available at little or no cost to those willing to harvest and prepare them.

A large cloud bank engulfs Cerro Garcia. The clouds came in quickly and soon most of the mountain was shrouded. Even as we were exploring the plateau, another group of our hiking friends was climbing to the summit of Garcia. We hoped that they had thought to bring rain ponchos because it looked like it might get wet up there. Getting soaked at 9000 feet would not be fun and hypothermia is always a danger in those conditions. A couple of years ago, I hiked Cerro Garcia during a white-out like this. However, that was in summer. We later learned that everyone returned from the summit safely.

A small herd of brahman cattle dozes in a sunny meadow. Brahmans are generally placid and unaggressive. They were developed by crossing several different breeds of cattle from India and Pakistan. They made their way into Mexico probably by way of the United States and Brazil, both of whom were developing brahman herds in the early to mid-20th Century. The breed is favored because of its ability to stand heat, its resistance to insects, and a long reproductive life span which exceeds that of other kinds of cattle.

Other types of cattle shared the plateau area. This little calf seemed utterly fascinated by us. He followed us for a considerable distance and kept edging closer. Finally he began dancing around us in ever narrowing circles. I had never seen anything like it. Cattle, and particularly calves, are usually very shy and move away from hikers when approached. Finally, Gary stopped and got into a staring contest with the calf. Eventually the little fellow lost interest and moved back to his mom, who had been mooing anxiously in the distance.

Salvia, or sage, grew in moist, shady areas of the plateau. We encountered various flowering plants along our route. Due to the unusually late rains, wildflowers of many types abounded. Generally, the rainy season runs from mid-June to late October, but it has lasted into December this year.

We found this beautifully marked fellow hopping through the grass. The grasshopper was about 4 inches long from the tip of his feelers to his tail. He was relatively easy to catch, so I placed him on this flat rock for a photo. He remained still long enough for the shot but then sprang away into the brush.

There were also many varieties of the spiky maguey plant. Tequila is made from the blue agave, one species of maguey. The pre-hispanic people made many uses of this plant. In addition to pulque, a mildly alcoholic beverage, they used the fibre to make sandals, clothes, and rope. The sharp spines at the end of the leaves provided needles for sewing.

Chuck and Gary emerge from one of the many cow paths through the thick brush.  By this point, we had decided that there was no easy route to the east of Windy Point. The brush had gotten thicker and thicker and we encountered one barbed wire fence after another. We reversed course to try our luck in the more open country along the western edge of the cliffs.

This was our first glimpse of Matty's Point, with Cerro Garcia in the background. After thrashing through some brush, we came to the edge of a steep drop-off. In front of us, a deep ravine extended back into the cliff face. Directly across the ravine we saw this point of land. Below it were sheer cliffs. If we could get to the end of the point, we might find another great mirador. First, however, we had to find a way around the ravine. Crossing it was out of the question. To find out how we finally got to the mirador I later named Matty's point, you'll have to wait a week for the second part of this hiking story.

This completes the first of two parts of my series on the Windy Point Trail. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, please leave your thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. I hope you all have some hikes planned for early February when I'll be there again. I remember you telling me about the first time you spied the Barranca, and the story of its exploration. I'm looking forward to participating in next years corn harvest festival there, and meeting Raul and his family. This hike sounds like a good time, but I'll have to wait and read about the finale. Thanks, Jim.

  2. Do you know anything about the lichens on the rocks and trees? I'm thinking some may be used for dyes.


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