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


  1. Great post, as usual, Jim. Thanks!

  2. The flora doesn't look much different from what I see here in SC.

  3. Another wonderful post. Thanks! I hate to give out my email (hint, it's first dot last at that large g company's mail thing). Just wondering what your background is. Botanist, archeologist, historian or just a knowledgeable travel loving guy who enjoys all of the above.

    Adding something like Disgus to blogger ( would permit additional discussion without emails; though I understand that might not be something that you want.

  4. Hi Jim and Carole,
    My wife and I love reading your blog from Canada. I had a couple of questions about some items that I saw on your blog. Would you be able to send me an email so I might be able to follow up with you? Thanks so much, Peter.

  5. Dear Jim, I have been a fan of your blog for years. I have a question. I am rather old and need to take it slow. Do you think I could manage either of the Caravan tours you speak of to Costa Rica or Panama? I know Nicaragua is out of the question. Or is there another tour you think I would do better at. Keep up the great work. My email is My name is Eddie. My wife typed this for me.


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