Sunday, August 21, 2016

Calixtlahuaca Part 1: Temple of the Wind God

Statue of Ehecatl, the Wind God, located in Calixtlahuaca's museum. Ehecatl is always portrayed wearing this odd beak-like attachment to his face. After leaving Valle de Bravo, it was less than an hour's drive to the site of Calixtlahuaca. The ancient site was once called Matlazinco by the Matlazinca tribe, whose capital it was before the Aztecs conquered the region in 1474 AD. The Aztecs' language was Nahuatl, and Calixtlahuaca means "house in the prairie". The town, which still carries the Aztec name, is today a small community located just off Highway 55, about 10 km (6.2 mi) north of the center of the city of Toluca, in the State of Mexico. Part of the pre-hispanic site is on flat ground,  surrounded by the town's modern buildings. However, most of the ancient structures--including the Temple of Ehecatl--are located high up on the lightly-wooded slopes of a small volcano named Cerro Tenismo.  For a Google satellite map, directions, and hours of operation, click here.

Temple of Ehecatl - exterior

Front view of Ehecatl's temple. After visiting an excellent (and free) museum at the base of Cerro Tenismo, we started up the slope to the temple. Part way up, we were met by an attendant who collected $50 pesos ($2.76 USD), which covered admittance to the whole site for both of us. In front of the temple is a flagstone patio, which leads to a grand staircase. The structure behind the staircase is circular, with a spiraling walkway that also leads to the top. On the left side of the staircase you can see a small entrance which allows access to the interior. The entire structure sits on a level platform, the size of a couple of football fields set end to end. The platform was carved from the side of the volcano and leveling it must have been a huge job. This is particularly true since pre-hispanic people lacked metal tools, draft animals, or vehicles to move the earth. The top of the temple provides a grand vista over the surrounding countryside.

The temple, as it was being unearthed in the 1930s. At the bottom of the staircase is a large cube-shaped structure with people on either side. This was the base for the statue of Ehecatl. Two smaller rectangular structures sit below the steps that lead to the grand staircase. It is not clear whether these were altars or possibly used as bases for two more statues. On the right of the photo, you can see the circular, stepped-platforms that make up the rear of the temple.

Cut-away model of the temple from the same angle as the previous photo. Like many other pre-hispanic temples and pyramids, Ehecatl's temple was built in stages. What we see today was the latest of four phases of construction. When modern engineers want to replace a building, they simply demolish it, haul away the debris, and put up something new. In ancient times, the effort, expense, and limited technology would have made this approach virtually impossible. Instead, pre-hispanic architects simply built a new structure over top of the old.

Temples to Ehecatl tended to follow the same general design. Above, you see four different temples from different geographic areas. The view is from directly overhead. The one at Calixtlahuaca is at the top left. The temple at Acozac is below it, and those at Huexotla and Zultepec are top right and bottom right, respectively. While we have not visited these last three yet, we have seen other temples to Ehecatl in distant parts of Mexico. These include the circular pyramids known as the Guachimontones, west of Guadalajara, and the spiral temple at Xochitécatl, north of Puebla.

View from the left rear. Here, you can clearly see the circular platforms and their spiraling walkway. In ancient times, the top level of the temple contained an additional cylindrical structure with a conical roof. However, this was made of perishable materials and did not survive the passage of the centuries. To the best of my knowledge, Ehecatl, whose name in Nahuatl means "wind", was the only pre-hispanic deity for whom circular temples or pyramids were constructed. Virtually all other sacred structures were built in a square or rectangular design with the four corners often aligned with the sacred cardinal points: north, south, east, and west. The wind, however, can come from any and all directions, so Ehecatl's temples were circular to reflect the variability of this natural force.

View of the right side of the temple. A series of small staircases lead up to a narrow entrance to the interior, seen in the center of the photo. There are several similar entrances around the base of the temple and on the spiral walkway, as you can see in the previous photo. Through these, priests could access the interior and conduct rituals kept secret from the mass of people who gathered around the temple during periodic public ceremonies.

Temple Interior

The front entrance on the left side of grand staircase. The bright overhead sun cast the interior into deep shadow, making me cautious as I descended. I didn't want to lose my footing or encounter any unseen critters. Neither occurred, however, and I moved unscathed through a series of dark stone corridors.

A narrow chimney leads up to daylight. At the end of one corridor, I suddenly stepped into a pool of light created by this vertical chimney. I say "chimney" but allowing smoke to escape was probably not its purpose. More likely, the shaft was for astronomical observations. I have found such chimneys in a number of other temples where Venus, or the moon, or the sun at a particular season could be viewed through the opening at the top. Using these observations, time cycles could be measured and predictions made for when to plant or harvest crops. A structure in the pre-hispanic Zapotec capital of Monte Alban contains a very similar shaft once used by ancient priests to observe Venus' movements.

A steep internal staircase leads up from the bowels of the temple to its top.  After conducting their observations and secret rituals, the religious leaders could proceed up these steps and suddenly emerge high above the waiting crowd. It must have been a dramatic moment, accompanied by thundering drums and the mournful wail of conch shells. The climb up this staircase looked pretty tricky, in that each step is only a few inches deep and the incline is very steep. Since there was a safer way to the top, I decided not to risk it.

Top of Temple 

A stone walkway spirals around the sides of the temple. Portions of it are now blocked, so it was impossible for me to reach the top using this route. Apparently the ancients used it as one route for ascending or descending the temple. A long procession of priests and other high officials, gorgeously adorned with feathered head dresses and jaguar skins, must have been quite a sight as it wound around the temple's circular walls during one of these great ceremonies. On the sides of the wall to the left, you can see several stone projections. In another area of Calixtlahuaca, and at other sites around Mexico, similar projections were used as supports for decorative elements. Beyond the walkway's outer wall, you can see one of several altars that surround the temple.

The flat top of the temple can be reached over this small footbridge. After climbing the grand staircase, I reached this footbridge spanning the spiral walkway. The view from the top encompasses the town and valley and the mountains in the distance. The temple's flat top once contained a cylindrical structure with a conical roof, constructed from perishable materials.

The interior staircase, viewed from the top. The small opening in the lower right is the entrance on the right side of the temple, seen in one of the previous photos. The shallow depth of each step can clearly be seen here. After completing their rituals, the priests would have ascended the staircase and come up within the perishable structure. They would then appear in its doorway to address the crowd below. It is my conjecture that they would have ascended, rather than descended. Based on my rock-climbing experience, it is nearly always easier and safer to ascend a steep, treacherous incline than to climb down it. After emerging at the top, they may have proceeded down the grand staircase, or by way of the spiral walkway, or possibly both at the same time.

Ehecatl and Quetzalcoatl

Full view of Ehecatl, located in the Calixtlahuaca museum. Ehecatl is closely connected to Tlaloc, the Rain God, because strong, spiraling winds often precede a downpour. Ehecatl wears the unusual beak to cut through any obstacle on his way to join Tlaloc. The Wind God is one of the most ancient deities of Mesoamerican cultures and civilizations. The temple dedicated to him at Xochitécatl dates back as far as 800 BC. Over the centuries, Ehecatl became associated with Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, another important and widely revered god. One possible connection between them was the snake symbolism the two deities shared. Among the later Mesoamerican civilizations, the Wind God is referred to as Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs built a circular temple for the double-god in the Sacred Precinct in their capital of Tenochtitlán. According to the Aztec cosmology, the Sacred Precinct was located at the center of the world and only the most important among their plentiful array of gods were assigned space there.

Ehecatl's statue was unearthed near the left side of the grand staircase. His "beak" can be seen at the upper end of the trench above, shaped like the bottom of a clothing iron. The statue had once stood on the cube-shaped platform at the base of the grand staircase. The Aztecs destroyed the Matlazinca's capital in 1510 after a revolt by its inhabitants. The Matlazincas fled to the territory of the Aztec's great rival, the Tarascans, where they settled in the area of what is now modern Morelia. The Aztecs resettled the Matlazincas' former territory with their own people and then rebuilt the city as Calixtlahuaca. In the process, they completed the final phase of the Temple of Ehecatl, and added the statue you see above. A little more than ten years later, the Spanish cast down the statue and destroyed the temple during their Conquest. It was Spanish policy to destroy native religions by destroying their temples. Sometimes they used the rubble to build a churches on the same spot, but in the case of Ehecatl's temple, they simply left it in ruins.

Workers have extracted most of the dismembered statue and are still digging for broken pieces. In the 1930s, Mexican archaeologist José Garcia Payón began to excavate ancient Calixtlahuaca. In the process, he uncovered and restored Templo Ehecatl and the palace area at the base of Cerro Tenismo. His workers discovered the statue when they saw a lizard run between two rocks. Payón was not present when the discovery occurred, which greatly annoyed him. Between 1988 and 2007, a series of other archaeologists made further discoveries including a temple complex dedicated to Tlaloc, located near the top of the volcano. We'll take a look at the Tlaloc complex and the palace area in later parts of this series.

This small, unidentified statue appears to depict Ehecatl. The figure is seated on a stepped throne and wears the strange beak associated with the Wind God. A writhing snake forms part of his head dress. In addition to snakes, there is another similarity between Ehecatl and Quetzalcoatl. Both are "culture heroes" as well as gods. A culture hero is person of great--and sometimes magical--power who acts as a leader, but is not a god. A familiar example is Hercules in the mythology of the ancient Greeks. In another wrinkle, some archaeologists believe that the culture heroes Ehecatl and Quetzalcoatl, may reflect greatly embellished stories about actual historical figures. Gods? Culture heroes? Actual people? All at the same time? This can be a bit confusing when studying Mesoamerican myths and legends.

This stela, containing a snake emblem, stands in the patio near the base of the grand staircase. While most of the carving on the stela is badly worn, the coiled snake on the left is clearly visible. The coil may represent not only Ehecatl's snake manifestation, but the spiral of the temple itself, thus making the very architecture of the structure a metaphor for a snake. Just as Ehecatl was a very ancient god, so was Quetzalcoatl. Representations of the Feathered Serpent have been associated with the Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC), known as the "Mother of Cultures." Later, the great empire of Teotihuacan (100 BC - 650 AD) revered Quetzalcoatl, as did their successors, the Toltecs (700 AD - 1000 AD). Each of these great civilizations maintained extensive trade networks through which the cult of the Feathered Serpent spread.

This statue of a feathered snake shows a human head emerging from its gaping jaws. The statue, located in the Calixtlahuaca museum, presents an image that is found throughout Mesoamerica, even down into the Maya areas of Yucatan and Central America. Quetzalcoatl is associated with knowledge, culture, civilization, and the use of maiz (corn). The image of a human emerging from a snake's mouth represents the Feathered Serpent's role as the creator of human beings.

Temple Altars

This square altar can be found on the side of the temple that overlooks the town. It is not clear what was sacrificed on altars like this, but it could well have included human beings, particularly in the period of Aztec rule. Quetzalcoatl was said to disapprove of human sacrifice, Ehecatl's position on the matter is unclear. The Aztecs were cultural sponges, somewhat like the Romans, and avidly adopted the culture, and cosmology of the people they conquered. They mixed and matched to create their own culture and cosmology (and, for political purposes, deliberately fabricated a good deal of their official history).

A circular altar, set in a small sunken area adjacent to the temple. According to early Aztec legends, they originated on an island (possibly Mexicaltitan) from which they began a meandering, 200-year migration. Their journey finally ended in the Valley of Mexico where they settled on another island in a broad shallow lake called Texcoco. There, they built their capital, Tenochtitlán  (now Mexico City). During their journey, they came upon the crumbling ruins of Tula, the Toltec capital, and later the abandoned but still overpowering site of Teotihuacan. The magnificent remains of these half-forgotten civilizations had a tremendous impact on these primitive. nomadic people. The Aztecs called Teotihuacan "the place where the gods were born". Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. The Aztecs adopted what they found, almost wholesale, including the worship of Quetzalcoatl.

Another sunken altar, near the edge of the great platform on which the temple stands. When the Aztecs encountered the extensive sculptures of Quetzalcoatl in the ruins of the ancient cities, they saw the similarities with Ehecatl. Over time, the Feathered Serpent came to predominate until Ehecatl lost his separate identity and became simply a facet, or manifestation, of Quetzalcoatl. When they conquered the Matlazinca capital, with its temple to Ehecatl, they simply subsumed him into their broader deity of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl.

This completes Part 1 of my series on Calixtlahuaca. In the next part, we'll explore the temple complex devoted to Tlaloc, the Rain God.  I hope you have enjoyed Part 1. If so, please leave any of your thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email them to me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Valle de Bravo: lovely mountain pueblo on a pristine lake

Sunset over the calm waters of Lago de Valle de Bravo. In July of this year, Carole and I took off to explore the mountainous countryside to the west and south of Mexico City. Our ultimate destination was Taxco, a town famous for its silver jewelry. Since the drive was too long for one day, we searched for a suitable stop-over and settled on Valle de Bravo. This lakeside town is one of Mexcio's famous Pueblos Magicos, a status it achieved in 2005. Valle, as the locals call it, was slightly off our route, but its reputation for tranquil beauty appealed to us.  We scheduled our first two nights there, as well as one night during our return trip. To trace our route from Lake Chapala to Valle de Bravo, click here (follow the blue line on the map). We were able to use Mexico's smooth, high-speed cuotas (toll roads) for almost the entire distance. Although I enjoy exploring the back roads of Mexico, a cuota is the best and fastest way to cover a substantial distance by auto. These safe, well-maintained, limited-access highways are lightly traveled in most areas and are superior to many freeways I have driven in the US. For a Google map of Valle de Bravo and its lake, click here.

Plaza de la Independencia

The south side of Plaza de Independencia, looking west. The main plaza is always the place to start exploring a Mexican town. I picked our hotel, La Capilla, in part because of its location only 2.5 blocks from Plaza de la Independencia. In the 16th century, Spain's King Phillip II decreed that every town in Nueva España (today's Mexico) must be centered on a plaza. As a result, like the plaza of virtually every other former colonial pueblo, Valle's is bordered by a church, a government building, and various stores fronted with covered walkways called portales. Many of today's commercial establishments are housed in what were once colonial-era mansions. Some of these structures date to the 17th or 18th centuries and have been beautifully restored. Today, the former mansions contain shops, restaurants and hotels. Mexican communities take great pride in the appearance of their plazas and the central garden of Plaza de la Independencia was undergoing renovation when we visited. Unfortunately this meant it was blocked off. However, the upside was that the streets immediately surrounding the plaza were also blocked off. They became andadores, or walking streets, at least during the renovations. Not having to dodge traffic was a definite plus. For a map of the plaza area, click here.

Late afternoon sun bathes the hills surrounding the lake. I took this shot in the opposite direction from the previous photo (yes, it's the same tree).Valle de Bravo is built on mountain slopes which drop down to the water. This is a great walking town, but you'd better be prepared for some steep climbs as you move around. Good walking shoes are a must. The upright structure in the center of the photo is the back of a mobile shoeshine stand, something found in almost every plaza.

Restaurant Michoacana occupies two floors of a structure on the east side of the plaza. The modestly-priced food at Restaurant Michoacana was traditional Mexican. We took a table next to the railing on the second floor balcony so we could people-watch as we ate our dinner. Many balconies around the plaza contain similar restaurants. In fact, La Michoacana shares this balcony with an ice cream shop.

Parroquia de San Francisco de Assis, viewed from the west side of the plaza, looking north. The Parroquia, (Parish) church occupies the whole north side of the plaza. Normally this street would be full of traffic, but the renovation allows strollers and street merchants to have free rein. Hanging out at the plaza is a major form of entertainment in most Mexican towns. In the relaxed atmosphere, vendors hawk their wares, kids play, dogs frolic, young people flirt, and their elders chat with old friends.

Valle's attractive old churches

Parroquia de San Francisco de Assis bathes in the warm glow of the setting sun. The yellowish-orange glow comes from the rock, called cantera, from which the church is built. Cantera is a volcanic stone quarried exclusively in Mexico and Central America. In fact, the word cantera means "quarry" in Spanish. Relatively light and easily worked, cantera is a popular material for construction as well as for sculpture. The original Franciscan church located here was built in the 17th century. It contained two naves, one for the Spanish and one for the indigenous people. That structure was replaced in the 19th century by the current Neo-Classic-style church. Construction began in 1880 but was not completed until 1994. San Francisco (St. Francis) is the patron saint of the town, which used to be called San Francisco del Valle before it was renamed Valle de Bravo after Nicolás Bravo, hero of both the War of Independence (1810-1821) and of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

Templo Santa Maria Ahuacatlán.  Built in the 17th century, the Templo contains a statue called the Black Christ.  The image is revered because of various miracles associated with it. According to legend, a local hacienda owner became disturbed because so many native people were visiting the chapel attached to his casa grande. To re-direct their devotion away from his personal chapel, he built another chapel some distance away in the small lake-side village of Ahuacatlán. He also donated a statue of Christ from his own chapel. The donated image bore the usual European complexion. Later, during a dispute between the people of Ahuacatlán the neighboring indigenous village of San Gaspar, someone set the Ahuacantlán chapel on fire. One of the few items to survive was the statue, blackened by the fire but otherwise intact. This miraculous occurrence caused the warring villages to settle their differences amicably. The Black Christ was taken from the burnt-out chapel and reverently installed in Templo Santa Maria, where it has remained ever since. Over time, other miracles occurred and the statue's fame spread. Today, the church is known as Santa Maria del Cristo Negro. Unfortunately, the church was locked during the time we visited,  so we never actually saw the statue. Maybe next time?

A brightly-colored parasail drifts over Templo Santa Maria. Valle de Bravo has become a mecca for paragliding and other adventure sports. In addition to paragliding, there are opportunities for zip-lining, rock climbing, hiking, and various water sports. The town draws many tourists for weekend and even day trips, since Mexico City is only 156 km (97 mi) away.

Lago de Valle de Bravo

Thickly wooded hills backed by volcanos overlook the silvery lake.  This little overlook provided a good vantage point for my photo. In the distance, the cone of an extinct volcano rises behind the hills along the far shore. Below the railing is a park, which includes a basketball court, a skateboard area, and a soccer field.

An unusual bronze sculpture decorates the malecon (lakefront). I don't know the name the artist gave to her/his creation, but I dubbed it "The Surfing Angel." He appears to be using a crescent moon for his surfboard. Just another of Mexico's many quirky artworks. In addition to its public art, Valle contains a variety of galleries aimed at the tastes of affluent visitors.

Jogger on the malecon. Behind him are some of the many restaurants that line the lakefront area. Tiers of homes and hotels rise up the hillside behind the restaurants. Behind me, as I took this shot, long ramps lead down to floating restaurants.

Evening view from the malecon. In the center of the photo are several large tour boats that have been converted into floating restaurants. I wanted to try one of them out, but it rained heavily that evening and we opted for a pizza delivery to our hotel room. Be advised that the meal prices on these boats are considerably higher than what you might pay for an equally good meal closer to the plaza.

Parque El Piño

A giant ahuehuete tree forms the center-piece Parque El Piño (Pine Park). The young couple obliged me with smiles when I asked for a photo. This 700 year-old ahuehuete is a member of the cypress family and is sometimes called a Montezuma Cypress or a Bald Cypress. The formal name is Taxodium mucronatum. It was sacred among various pre-hispanic cultures, including the Aztecs, and has been designated the National Tree of Mexico. This area had long been settled by the Matlazinca tribe when the Aztecs arrived in 1474 AD, led by their emperor Axayacatl. He spent the next five years conquering the region and it was the last great expansion of the Aztec Empire before it fell to the Spanish in 1521.

View from the Ahuehuete down the winding staircase of Parque El Piño. The park's vegetation was lovingly groomed and the whole place was immaculate. According to local legend, in 1530 a Franciscan friar named Gregorio Jiménez de la Cuenca founded Valle de Bravo's first Spanish settlement. He conducted the founding ceremony here, in the shade of this ancient Ahuehuete. A flat rock called the Founder's Stone marks the spot of the friar's ceremony. It is embedded in the pavement of one of the landings of this staircase.

Street Scenes

Looking down Calle Independencia to the Parroquia. Hotel Capilla, where we stayed, is located behind me about 1.5 blocks. Our hotel was comfortable and had an excellent, attentive staff and a very helpful manager who spoke flawless English. We were delighted to find an electronic, in-room safe where we could place our valuables when we went out to dinner on our first night. However, the next morning it refused to open! Since nearly all of our money, plus our passports, visas, drivers licenses, and even my camera were locked inside, this was a serious problem. Neither we, nor the hotel staff, could persuade the balky box to open. The hotel manager called his supervisor, who is based in Mexico City. His boss at first refused to authorize the hotel staff to cut through the safe's door. He even tried to place the blame on us for the failure of the safe's electronic mechanism. Eventually, around 4 PM, the big boss relented, although he threatened to charge us for the damage the cutting would cause to the safe. After further delays, the hotel maintenance man, assisted by the cook, managed to saw through the hinges and remove the door. We retrieved our valuables and, in the end, the big boss never followed through on his threat. The safe problem consumed nearly the whole day that we had planned to spend exploring Valle. That's why so many of these photos are afternoon or evening shots. I should say, though, that the on-site manager was extremely apologetic and told us that, in his opinion, we were in no way at fault for the breakdown of the safe.

Andador de las Ortigas is one of several pedestrian-only streets near the plaza. It was lined with impromptu restaurants and food carts. A little further on, the andador was crowded with the stalls of a street market where fresh fruits, vegetables, clothing, and minor household goods were sold. I always enjoy wandering through one of these street markets. They people are nearly alway friendly and open to being photographed, even without a purchase.

An old stone stairway leads up a callejon (alley) that connects two parallel streets. This one is called Callejon de la Machinhuepa. We saw several similar callejones as we strolled about town. They were built so that residents could access streets running parallel on different levels. This practice is very common in towns built on slopes and mountainsides.

Potted plants line the railing of a rustic balcony. There is almost nothing in this picture, other than a few plastic pots, that would surprise a 17th Century resident of Valle. Clay roof tiles date back to at least 10,000 BC during the Neolithic (New Stone Age) era. The awning supports, rafters and the door frame and lintel are formed from rough-cut tree trunks and branches. In the upper left corner of the photo, just under the awning, you can see adobe where the plaster has chipped away. Adobe is mud brick made from earth and straw and then dried in the sun. This building material has been used throughout the world beginning at least 8300 BC. Still, with all of its ancient appearance, I would not have been surprised to find someone on the balcony, texting on an iPhone.

Front door of a "branch" office? While walking up one of the narrow, cobblestone streets, we encountered this remarkable door. The establishment was closed, so I was unable to determine the nature of their enterprise. Given their door, I suspected they might be involved in the art business.

Neighborhood kids play a "pick-up" game of soccer on a field overlooking the lake. Soccer, or futbol as they call it, is enormously popular in Mexico as well as the rest of the world. Even the smallest kids can do some pretty fancy footwork.

The old and the new. My photographer's eye was drawn to this rustic single-story building. Adobe walls, tile roof, rough-cut wooden door lintels all clearly indicated an early colonial pedigree. It was not until I got home and downloaded my trip photos that I took a closer look. Propped on the left rear corner of the building is a 21st century satellite dish. Just another of the amazing juxtapositions to be found in Old Mexico.

A mother and her two kids cross a side street. This is a typical street in Valle, paved with stones and bordered by houses and stores rising no more than three stories. The color scheme is uniform: a rust-hued base with white up to the rafters. This uniformity is mandated by the requirements for Pueblo Magico status. This was one of the wider streets. Others barely have room to handle one car.

Another narrow street, with a different Restaurant La Michoacana. The evening sun lights up the sign while the rest of the street falls into shadow. Notice the Volkswagen parked up the street. "Beetles" have been enormously popular in Mexico, ever since the first ones were imported in 1954. In the mid-60s, Volkswagen began to produce them in Mexico and continued to do so until 2003. Considering the Mexican penchant for fixing things instead of discarding them, Beetles will maintain a presence on the streets here for a long time to come.

The  Parroquia looms in the background as windows reflect the last glints of sunset. This street, Calle Pagoza, was filled with restaurants, boutique hotels, and small stores. Valle de Bravo is a very pleasant town to visit and I'd like to return to explore it a bit more some time. However, we had scheduled only two nights and a day, so it soon became time to move on to the next part of our adventure: the pre-hispanic ruins of Calitxlahuaca.

This completes my posting on Valle de Bravo. I hope you've enjoyed visiting this lovely little Magic Pueblo with us. Please leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below, or email them to me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Hiking the Tapalpa Plateau

A trail winds through the pine-forested Tapalpa Plateau.  The Tapalpa Plateau lies about two-hour's drive southwest of Lake Chapala. On its eastern side is a massive escarpment which rises more than 2000 feet above a long, north-south valley. The valley floor is filled with farm fields and a chain of shallow lakes which dry up part of each year. The switchbacks on road up the escarpment provide dramatic views of the valley below. Once on top, you find rolling country filled with lush meadows, sparkling lakes, and deep pine forests. This is gorgeous country! I have previously blogged about adventures in the area, including El Salto Waterfall and Chiquilistlán Gorge. The Tapalpa Plateau is huge and covers an area within a rough triangle between three roads. Highway 54D (the Guadalajara-Colima toll road) forms the eastern side of the triangle. Highway 429 is the southern side, running between Ciudad Guzman and Autlán de Navarro. Highway 80 is on the west, beginning at its intersection with 54D and running down to Autlán de Navarro. For a Google map showing the area, click here.

Setting off

The hike began on a dirt road leading up into the forest. Our party of five included (from right to left) Jim B, his wife Brenda, Chuck, and Chuck's best friend Matty the dog. I was, of course, behind the camera in this shot.

View down from the road as we gained some altitude. A modern-looking tractor was spraying a very well-kept bean field below us.  Mexico is a strange and charming mixture of old and new.  In other places I have seen farmers walking behind 19th century plows pulled by a single horse.

New maguey leaves are wound tightly together in a sharply pointed cone. The hooked barbs along the leaf edge are still lying flat against the surface of the translucent cone. As the leaves mature, they will gradually open up into their adult shape, a long curved trough. Maguey has been a useful plant ever since pre-hispanic times. The Aztec created a special goddess called Mayahuel whose job it was to supervise everything associated with the plant. Fibers stripped from the adult leaves were used to make string, ropes, sandals and cloth. The spine found at the end of each leaf was used as a needle. The heart of the maguey is edible and has been used since ancient times to produce the mildly intoxicating drink called pulque. In modern times, pulque has been eclipsed by beer, but it is still popular in the Mexican countryside. When the Spanish came, they distilled maguey heart's juice into the powerful alcoholic drink called mezcal. A close relative of the maguey, called blue agave, is used to make Mexico's world-famous tequila.

Lush grass carpets a small meadow overlooking a heavily wooded mountainside. At this point, we were hiking along a ridge and the land dropped off steeply into deep arroyos on both sides of the road. Along some stretches of the road, farmers had planted maguey at frequent intervals to form a natural fence.

As we moved deeper into the forest, we began to encounter pine sap collectors. We had turned off the road and onto a forest trail when we encountered this odd-looking arrangement. A brief inspection revealed its purpose. The sap is gathered by carving a trough along the trunk of a living tree. At the bottom of the trough, a container is propped so that the sap flows into it. Pine sap can be used to make sealants, rosin, and cleaning products. In addition, it can also be distilled into turpentine. This particular collection method looked pretty rustic, so I imagine that it is being collected by locals for their own use rather than for large-scale commercial purposes.

Clear water drips out of a moss-covered spring. The stone around the spring appears to be limestone. This would make sense because limestone collects water due to its porosity. The natural world is filled with beautiful little vignettes like this, just waiting to be photographed.

Into the woods

Parts of the forest are filled with epiphytes like the ones growing atop these tree branches. Epiphytes are not parasitic, since they don't live at the expense of their host. The draw their sustenance from the air and rain and merely use their host for physical support. We had turned off the road and onto a trail

Long stretches of the trail are carpeted by thick layers of pine needles. Walking on them felt, quite literally, like stepping onto an expensive carpet. After hiking the rocky trails of the mountains around Lake Chapala, the softness under my feet was a real pleasure.

A small, spiky plant grew up out of the pine needles along the trail. I believe this is some sort of succulent, but I haven't been able to confirm it through my own sources. If anyone knows what this plant is, please leave the i.d. in the Comments section below. Whatever it is called, the little green plant showed up beautifully against the rust-colored pine needles.

This appears to be an Artists Conk mushroom, but my identification is not certain. Also called a "shelf mushroom" from its shape, the formal name is Ganoderma applanatum. They grow on the bark of both living and dead trees. When they occur on living trees, they are parasites. Unlike many other mushrooms, Artists Conk grows year round.

These look a lot like subaeruginosa mushrooms. However, that hallucinogenic species is native to Australia, so I'm not sure. In any case, it is never a good idea to consume any mushroom unless you know exactly what you are eating. Some are deadly poison. Whatever they are, we found them growing all over the forest floor.

Rubiaceae is the family name of this flower. Within the family there are 611 genera and 13,500 species. Useful products of the many Rubiaceae species include coffee, quinine, and various plant dyes. Some, like these, are just pretty mountain flowers that brighten up a hike in the woods.

Salvia is sometimes called sage. Some varieties of this plant are medicinal, with antiseptic and antibiotic properties. There is a French legend that four thieves were captured ransacking the homes of those who had died of the plague. People were desperate to ward off the plague and the robbers obviously had not been infected by close proximity with the dead. The authorities offered to spare the thieves if they gave up the secret of their immunity. The culprits claimed that they marinated sage in vinegar and rubbed the result all over their bodies. It was not recorded whether this worked for anyone else.

Mountain piety

Two images of the Virgin of Zapopan, nestle under a small rock shelter. We only noticed them because a string with colorful banners was draped nearby. The Virgin of Zapopan is venerated in Jalisco and throughout Mexico. Zapopan was originally a separate pueblo to the west of Guadalajara but has been swallowed up in the metropolitan area. In the 16th century, Antonio de Segovia was the Franciscan friar assigned to the area. He presented an image of the Virgin to the indigenous people of the pueblo. The legend of the Virgin's statue began when the Franciscan took it along when he met with local people who were revolting against the Spanish during the Mixton Rebellion of 1541. According to the story, the indigenous warriors saw luminous rays emanating from the statue and decided to surrender. Over more than 200 years, a number of other incidents relating to the statue were reported. In 1653, Bishop Don Juan Ruiz Colmenero of Guadalajara declared the statue to be "miraculous". He set December 18 as the Feast Day for the Virgin of Zapopan. Her fiesta has become a huge event drawing more than 1 million people to the annual parade when she is taken from Guadalajara's Cathedral to the Basilica of Zapopan.

Another trail-side shrine at a crossroad deep in the mountains. A flat board has been placed on a pile of rocks to form a simple altar. A rough wooden cross stands behind the altar and is decorated with multi-colored ribbons. The country people of Jalisco are very religious and we have found similar shrines and crosses at many trail intersections in the areas where we hike.

Another view of the shrine. A much larger cross, draped with cloth was propped against the same tree. In the distance, Chuck and Matty walk down one of the forks of the intersection. The banners hung of the altar are similar to those found at many other Mexican fiestas.

Ranches & Farms

As we walked along a dirt road, the local rancher showed up to look us over. He is wearing typical ranch gear, including cowboy boots, leather chaps, and a broad-brimmed hat. He was cordial enough, but I think he couldn't quite figure out what we were up to.

A carefully attended bean field. The field was not large, but it showed considerable care and was set up for irrigation. Beans are one of the staples, along with maiz, squash, and chile, of the Mexican diet.

A small herd of cattle relaxed in a meadow across from the bean field. These appear to be Herefords, raised for beef. The breed originated in Herefordshire in England during the 18th century. The breed has spread across most of the world because the cattle are hardy and can stand radically different climates.

The Tipping Rock and the Return

Jim B's moment of triumph. Our goal for this hike was to reach this rock formation, a local landmark. Never one to shrink from an interesting rock climb, Jim scrambled up to see if the rock would really tip for him. It did. After getting my shot, I picked my way to join him. We had learned the route for our hike from our friend John Pint. He writes a column for the Guadalajara Reporter, a weekly English-language newspaper widely read among expats in Jalisco. 

"Crazy Gringos!" A young horseman and his dog both stared up at us while we cavorted on the rock. The horseman struggled to keep a straight face as he climbed on this horse. He and a fellow horsemen had been working just below the rock formation. They soon rode away, no doubt to avoid any disaster should we tip the rock off its supporting boulder.

Best friends forever. Chuck and Matty adore each other. Actually, Matty is quite liberal with her affections. When the two of them show up at a hiking rendezvous, Matty will make her way around the entire group, greeting each person individually.

On the return trail. We retraced our steps to our car, heading down a long slope toward a lush valley. The hike had not been overly strenuous, but the scenery was gorgeous atop the Tapalpa Plateau. It definitely rates a return trip some day.

This completes my posting on our Tapalpa Plateau hike. I hope you have enjoyed the journey as much as we did. If you would like to leave a comment or ask a question, please do so by using the Comments section below or emailing me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim