Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tepalo Canyon to the Indigenous Ceremonial Grounds

Tepalo Falls after a heavy rain. During a recent hike, my friend Chuck (the handsome guy on the left) and I paused at the base of the largest of several waterfalls in Tepalo Canyon. It only contains water during the summer or early fall of each year. The rest of the year its dry rock face is used by adventurous expats and Mexicans to practice their rappelling skills. Tepalo Canyon is one of a large number of arroyos that cut deeply into the Sierra El Tecuan, a long east-to-west ridge that overlooks the North Shore of Lake Chapala.  For a look at this mountain range, click on this Google map. (The map incorrectly labels it "Sierra de San Juan Cosalá). The highest point on this ridge is Cerro Chupinaya, topping out at just under 8,000 ft, a popular hike for those in good physical condition.

Gearing up at the trailhead. From left to right are Larry, Steve, Ridge, Lynn, Jim B, and Louise. Larry's dog Levi stands in front, impatient to hit the trail. These are all experienced and well-equipped hikers. All but one wear a broad-brimmed hat to ward off the intense sun. Everyone carries a hiking stick to help with balance on the steep, rocky trails. Some choose expensive, collapsible models with moulded hand-grips. Others just use old broom-sticks with rubber tips on the ends. Lug-soled hiking shoes or boots are also essential equipment. An increasing number of hikers are using a "camel-back" pack containing a water bladder with a tube that extends over the shoulder. Wearing one of these, a hiker can easily take a sip of water even while in motion, thus eliminating the need to remove a pack and dig out a water bottle. My camel-back can contain up to 3 liters, but I only put in that much for a long hike.

The first of the Tepalo Canyon's falls pours over an old dam. The dam may have created a water reservoir for the pueblo of Ajijic in some bygone time. The trail passes the falls only about 100 yards from the trailhead. Over the years, rocks and sediment have filled up the space behind the dam so that the ground is now level with its top.

Due to recent rains, we needed to cross the stream many times as we ascended the canyon. Fortunately, none of the crossings were more than a few inches deep. Most could be traversed with a little careful boulder-hopping. I had no fears of wet feet because my boots are lined with water-resistant Gortex.

A young Huichol girl stands on a ledge at the Hidden Canyon falls. Hidden Canyon is a short box canyon that branches off the main arroyo and ends at a nearly vertical waterfall. This is the second large falls encountered along the Tepalo trail. Huicholes are a very ancient tribe that has tenaciously clung to its culture, language and traditions. Their homeland lies in the rugged mountains and canyons where Jalisco, Nayarit and Zacatecas States meet. A small population Huicholes lives in the area of Lake Chapala and sells their beautiful handicrafts at street markets. They call themselves Wixárika and speak a language of the Uto-Aztecan family. The girl above was one of a group of Huichol teenagers that we encountered on our hike.

The kids began to climb the nearly vertical and very slippery rock face of the falls. I was quite astonished at their agility. Most experienced hikers would be reluctant to climb this face even when it is bone dry.

Up they went, soaked to the skin. Notice the girl at the top. She is dressed in a full, ankle-length skirt and is shod in sandals! That water has to be cold.

The climbers turn and gesture in triumph as a friend photographs their progress. Of course, getting down from a climb is always more problematic that going up. That's when most people get hurt. Fortunately, they all made it down without incident.

Our party of hikers moves toward the base of the main falls. Although the climb here at first seems daunting, there are a series of natural steps in the rock face that make the ascent relatively easy. The route circles around to the right side of the falls and moves up through a series of switchbacks.

The main falls are joined by a second cascade from a separate canyon. Two arroyos meet at the head of the Tepalo Canyon's main falls. While the stream coming down from this one has less force than the one pouring over the main channel, you can see that the rock faces are wet all the way across. This indicates that during or after a heavy rain, a lot more water drops over these ledges than you see now. The relative trickle you see above is the result of several dry days.

Jim B, Levi, and Larry take a breather on top of the main falls. Behind them, the circle with three dots indicate that this is part of an ejido. Such land is held in common by local people who are members of the ejido organization and cannot be sold to outsiders except with the consent of the organization.. Ejidos were created after the 1910 Revolution as a mechanism for returning land to campesinos and indigenous people which had been usurped by hacienda owners in previous centuries. The tradition of owning land in common harks back to pre-hispanic times.

Matty and I enjoy a moment together at the head of the main falls. Matty is Chuck's dog. She adores hiking and hikers and is so affectionate that I call her "The Bandit of Love". During a hike, Matty will move from one person to another, pleading with her large, soft eyes for pets and hugs. The main falls drop steeply over the cliff just a few feet in front of me.

A sad reminder. Small, laminated photos of this young man were tacked on trees and stumps all along the way. The Spanish wording translates as follows: "A son is an Angel that God has sent us in order for us to understand life and also to remember that sometimes there were angels. I love you a lot son, Papa." The young man named Angel recently committed suicide.

Ridge and Jim B move along a lush jungly trail. Because we expected the rain to have accelerated the growth of underbrush, we all came armed with clippers, hand-saws, and machetes. Although the trail is fairly clear at this point, much of the rest was heavily overgrown, sometimes to the point of near impassibility. 

An orange ribbon marks the way. There are almost no written signs or trail directions anywhere in these mountains. The only exception is the Tepalo trail from the trailhead up to the main falls. Even those signs are very recent. As a consequence, expat hikers use colored ribbons like the one above to informally mark important trail intersections. Without them, it would often be difficult for hikers to find their way, even for those experienced in these mountains.

Low clouds roll over the high ridges, heading in our direction. We fully expected to get drenched somewhere along the hike. Fortunately, we never got more than a few sprinkles. Hiking in the clouds is a pleasantly cool and moist experience, although what you gain in comfort you lose in visibility.

Ridge slashes his way through thick brush. Sometimes even well-traveled trails will completely disappear under the rapidly growing foliage. Consequently, most of the "regulars" carry a pair of garden shears in their packs during this season. These won't be sufficient for trails blocked by fallen trees, but they work very well against the vines, creepers, and small branches that tangle your feet or knock your hat off.

An old blue blouse serves as a scarecrow in a milpa filled with new stalks of maíz. Members of the ejido are allowed to clear and plant crops on the common land. Often, as in this case, the small plot of land is deep in the mountains and accessible only by foot or horseback. Use of the land is permitted as long as the ejido member continues to work it. If he leaves it fallow more than two years, it reverts to the commons and then becomes available to others. Milpas are generally small, and cultivated by hand or, occasionally, with a horse-drawn plow. I sometimes encounter people planting their maíz (corn) by opening a series of small holes in the soil with a coa (digging stick) and dropping in a few kernels of maiz in each. This ancient method dates back to Neolithic times--as much as 8000 years ago! Milpas are sometimes sown with maízfrijol (beans), and calabasa (squash), all at the same time. The maíz stalk provides a support for the frijol vine, while the frijol returns nitrogen to the soil that is needed by the maíz. The calabasa is planted between the rows and its leaves serve to keep the weeds down. This mode of planting is also very ancient. Once the crops are harvested, horses or cattle may be turned loose in the field to graze on the stubble and fertilize the soil with their droppings. These methods may be low-tech, but they are also very low in cost and provide food and a small income to many poor families.

Finally free of the tangled vegetation, we moved out onto a broad grassy plateau. Billowy clouds flow across the Sierra El Tecuan in the distance. This plateau has been used for religious ceremonies for many years by a coalition of local indigenous tribes. For a few days every August, hundreds of families will camp up here to celebrate their traditions. For a Google satellite view of this place, click here. If you zoom out, you can see its location in relation to Ajijic.

View from the Ceremonial Grounds' plateau. You are looking southwest across Lake Chapala, which is about 12 miles wide at this point. The settled area in the center is the western outskirts of Ajijic. Out of view to the right is the town of Jocotopec, at the western tip of the Lake. Jocotopec is another of the many ancient pueblos dotting the lakeshore. Most of these pre-date the arrival of the Spanish by many centuries.

A hand-carved hole in a stone formation in the camping area of the Ceremonial Grounds. The hole was filled with rainwater when we visited. It is not clear to me what its function might be. Some possibilities include fire pit or small watering trough.

Clouds continued to pour down the arroyos toward us as we watched. In the foreground is an open-sided structure that is used as a cook-house during the annual event. Inside is a sign in Spanish that welcomes visitors but warns against disrespecting the traditions that are observed here. 

Levi takes it easy beside the framework of a temescal. A temescal is a sweat lodge used to purify the body and soul during the ceremonies. Reed mats called petates are placed over the framework to enclose the heat. The rocks in the center are heated in a separate fire and then brought inside the temescal where they are sprinkled with cold water to produce clouds of steam. The heat not only causes intense perspiration, but can bring about an hallucinatory state. 

Sierra El Tecuan, looking west.  A trail extends along the top of the ridge almost the entire 20 miles between Chapala to the east and Jocotopec in the west. The ridge itself ranges between 7500 and 8000 feet along its length. Many additional trails follow the various arroyos up toward the main ridge, or climb up the "finger" ridges that lead up to each of the peaks seen above. Some of these trails have been in use since human beings first arrived in this area.

This completes my posting on the hike between the Tepalo Canyon and the Indigenous Ceremonial Grounds. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, that you will leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below. Alternatively, you can email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

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