Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The hike to Rio Negro's steaming hot waterfall

Billows of steam rise from Rio Negro's remarkable hot waterfall. The scalding hot water comes from springs further up the arroyo. Three of my friends and I visited the falls during a hike into the Bosque de la Primavera (Forest of the Spring). It is the huge public/private park located just west of Guadalajara. The many hot springs in the Bosque are the result of a long history of volcanism.

Map showing Bosque de la Primavera in relation to Guadalajara. The growth of Guadalajara has always been limited by deep canyons to the north and east and the high, mountainous plateau of the Bosque de la Primavera on the west. In the map above, the Bosque is the dark green area to the left of the city, covering an area almost as large as Guadalajara itself. We entered Bosque de la Primavera through La Venta de Astillero, at the northern border of the park. The mountains within the forest are the darkest green and are surrounded by rolling plateaus covered with forests of pine and oak. There is little underbrush on the plateaus, so the forests have an open feel that I find very refreshing. Numerous canyons and arroyos cut through the Bosque's soft volcanic earth. Some of them are formed by water flowing from hot springs. Chief among these is Rio Caliente (Hot River), which is located in the north central part of the park and flows roughly from east to west. Rio Negro is one of Rio Caliente's feeder streams.

My hiking companions, taking a breather. Steve (left) is a "sunbird" from Florida, who comes to Lake Chapala during the summer to escape the brutal heat and humidity of his state. Jim B (center) is a Texan and, like me, a full-timer in Mexico. Richard (right) is another sunbird the fleeing heat, and is also from Texas.

Rio Caliente

Rio Caliente is quite shallow in most places, even during the rainy season. I have hiked along this river numerous times, as well as in other areas of the park. There are trails on both sides of the river, as well as a dirt road that parallels it a short distance away. While there is very little elevation gain, the trails are quite rocky and require you to cross and re-cross the river several times. Good footgear, preferably with lug soles and ankle support, is essential.

Steam rises from the river. It is particularly visible during cooler weather. Rio Caliente, despite the name, is warm rather than hot. The really hot water comes from the feeder streams. In various scenic spots along Rio Caliente, natural pools draw folks looking for a soothing soak. In other places, nature has received a little human help in the form of small, rustic dams.

Nopal cactus, festooned with small, round tunas. Both the flat nopal paddles (leaves) and the tunas (fruit), are highly edible. Nopal, also called the Prickly Pear cactus, grows in many areas of Mexico and has been a staple of the Mexican diet for thousands of years. It is highly nutritious and contains anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Ripe tunas are sweetly delicious. However--as with the paddles--care must be taken to shave off the tiny spines on the cactus' skin. The flat nopal paddles can be roasted, boiled, sauteed, or--my preference--sliced in thin strips and eaten raw. They are tart, crunchy, and quite tasty when served this way in a salad or as an hors d'oeuvre.

The river passes over a series of small, scenic waterfalls. After a long hike, it is a real treat to sit in a shallow pool like this, with the warm water rushing over your shoulders. We came upon this one early in our hike, however, and did not pause to sample its pleasures.

Jim B leads the way on one of the many river crossings. Another essential item, particularly on this route, is one or more hiking poles. They help you keep your balance so you avoid unintentional tumbles into the water. The poles can also be used to test the water's depth and probe rocks to check their stability. Hikers in my area carry poles that range from inexpensive to costly. The store-bought version can run from $15-$60 USD (or more). I prefer the former, which can easily be made from old broom handles tipped with rubber footings. The handles I get for free from the trash and the footings can be obtained from most ferreterías (hardware stores) for the peso equivalent of 35 cents USD. Each to his own.

Rio Negro

Rio Negro flows up from the south to join Rio Caliente. Rio Negro gets its name from the black appearance of the water, a consequence of the dark algae that grows at the bottom. This river is genuinely hot. A warning sign in the area lists the temperature as 80 degrees Celsius (176 Fahrenheit). As you ascend the river, and get closer to the springs, the water temperature increases.

Further upstream, I gingerly make my way across the river. Richard's photo caught me in mid-stride. A spot like this is where hiking poles are of critical importance. Falling in at this point could cause significant burns and we were not close to any medical help. In the photo above, my feet are on the last two large rocks in the water. I was a little nervous about how wobbly they were. Above me, Jim B keeps a close eye on my progress. My broomstick pole is several inches longer than the store-bought models and the reach it gives me is an advantage in situations like this. Thankfully, everyone made it across without incident.

Jim B pushes his way through dense forest toward a huge plume of steam. We have reached the hot waterfall! The Rio Negro arroyo gradually narrows and, at this point, the canyon walls are only about 15m (45 ft) apart. Just a short distance ahead, they close in even further. In the Bosque, only the deep, well-watered arroyos contain the sort of jungle typical of Lake Chapala's mountains.

Rio Negro's hot falls rush through a narrow rock slot. Above, Jim B relaxes while Steve tries to get a decent photo. However, the steam billowing around us made photography challenging. Unfortunately, Steve's camera malfunctioned and he came away with no pictures of the adventure. Notice how dramatically the rays of sunlight cut down through the steam. If you are patient and position yourself correctly (and your camera doesn't crap out), the hot falls can yield some very nice photos.

Bromeliads coated the branches of trees overhanging the falls. Bromeliads (Bromeliacea) are common in this part of Mexico. The species shown above are epiphytes, which are non-parasitic organisms that grow on other organisms but draw their nourishment from the air, rainwater, or from debris that collects around them. Bromeliads are able to thrive in amazingly diverse environments. These range from sea level to 4200 meters (13,780 ft) and from cloud forests to deserts.

The Return Hike

Steve explores the mouth of Rio Negro, where it meets Rio Caliente. The larger river flows in at the center-right of the photo. Its greenish-brown color contrasts with the black hue of Rio Negro, seen in the foreground.

Algae at the bottom of Rio Negro. The algae in the shallows is not black, but sort of a greenish yellow. This photo reminded me a bit of a Jackson Pollack painting.

Steve takes in the view, while I study a possible river crossing. Here, you can get a sense of the rocky nature of the river trail. It had been a gorgeous day, warm but not too hot, with gentle breezes.

The camping and picnic areas of the Bosque are popular with the locals. However, for some reason, we rarely encounter Mexicans further into the Bosque's wilderness, other than farmers or cowboys.This mob of kids was accompanied by several adults. Since most of the kids were wearing identical t-shirts, it was probably an outing by a school or other kind of organization. Kids being kids, some were full of antics while others looked on shyly. The adults encouraged everyone to gather in for our photos. The scene above captures the typical warm friendliness of the Mexican people. I am always amazed at how wonderfully Americans are treated here, despite the awful way that Mexicans are treated by the US government and--in all too many cases--by people in the US.

After the hike, my faithful Toyota RAV4 ferried us to lunch in the nearby town of Tala. Years ago, after a similar hike, we asked someone at Tala's plaza where to find a good restaurant. They directed us to La Huerta de Vega (The Orchard of the Vega Family). Behind the wall is a large open-air space, shaded by an arbor of vines. Metal tables and plastic chairs stand on a dirt floor. The atmosphere is very rustic, but the food is good, plentiful, and remarkably inexpensive. There was even a musician who played guitar and sang for tips.

Kickin' back and swappin' lies. Sometimes this seems like the best part of a hike. We were pleasantly tired but full of memories of a spectacular day. Tales (some of them even true!) of our previous hikes and other adventures in Mexico were shared around the table. Life is good!

This completes my posting on the hot waterfall of Rio Negro. I hope you have enjoyed coming along on the trek. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or reply directly by email. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Towering Waterfall and Lush Meadows of Cañon Leonera

Water cascades down the vertical walls of Cañon Leonera. In the summer of 2017 (I'm behind, I admit it...) I was among several carloads of expat hikers who drove two hours from the Lake Chapala area to visit this remote canyon. The gorge is hidden in the highlands area of Jalisco known as Los Altos, near the pueblo of Acatic. We make the long drive to the canyon at least once a year because of its many dramatic vistas and other fascinating attractions. If you'd like to see some of the canyon's features that I don't show here, you can visit my earlier posting entitled Hiking Leonera Canyon.

Cañon Leonera Overlook

The overlook provides a dramatic view of the canyon. This vista point is located next to the parking lot near the canyon's east rim. Below the wall where the hikers are standing, the terrain drops off precipitously. The road from Lake Chapala to Acatic is excellent, most of it on high speed cuotas (toll roads). However, the road from Acatic to the overlook is rough cobblestone which turns to dirt for the last several miles. There are almost no directional signs at the various forks in the road. If you are not fluent in Spanish, and would rather not wander around aimlessly on decrepit backcountry roads, I would strongly advise going with someone who knows the way. To connect with the Ajijic Hiking Group, click here.

Looking north, up the canyon. The country looks a bit like the Southwest US, with forested mesas and steep, reddish cliffs which drop down to rushing rivers. I took these photos in the late summer. At that time of year, everything is lush and green and the streams and waterfalls are full. My previous posting was from a winter visit, when the landscape is brown and there is little water, except in the river itself.

Looking south, the canyon sharply narrows between vertical cliffs. I have wanted to explore this dramatic and mysterious section since I first saw it from a distance. However, on a previous visit, we had a long talk with the owner of the evento  (recreation/party) site at the very bottom of the canyon. When we asked about a route in the southern direction, he shook his head. "Not a good idea. There are people down there who don't want you to see what they are doing." He would not elaborate, but we got the message loud and clear. I have never been afraid to visit Mexico's beautiful back country but, if the locals give you a warning like this, it would be foolish to ignore it. The evento owner saw no problems with the northern route and even guided us part of the way.

The Rim Waterfall

The waterfall drops vertically from an arroyo atop the canyon's east rim. This spectacular waterfall is dry most of the year, but it does run during the rainy season of the late summer and early fall. A long cobblestone road leads from the overlook to the river and, for a while, it closely hugs the wall of the canyon. Then, suddenly, the road makes a hairpin turn and begins a series of switchbacks down to the bottom. At that first switchback, a rough farmroad continues along the canyon wall for a couple more kilometers. About half way to its end, the farmroad loops into a side canyon and passes within 50 meters of the waterfall. At the bottom of the photo, you can see a heavy screen of trees between the road and the falls. When they are dry, you could easily miss them. However, in the late summer and early fall, their unmistakeable roar irresistibly draws you up a boulder strewn path to a rocky cul-de-sac.

The top half of the waterfall. It is very tall, and I was unable to get far enough back to capture it with one shot. The water splashed down the vertical side of the cul-de-sac. Swirling mists moistened the moss and ferns growing up to form deep green borders along each side of the cascading water.

A large pool fills the center of the cul-de-sac. Into it, the falling water crashed with a rythmic roar. The pool was drained by a stream that led back to the road and then down to the river far below. A cool mist coated everything, creating a circle of treacherously slick rocks around the pool. We all stepped carefully to avoid an inadvertent plunge into the water.

Red cliffs peep through thick foliage. We returned from the waterfull to the cobblestone road and then wound our way down the many switchbacks to the canyon's bottom. The view above is from a lookout part way down. The rim of the gorge is not one continuous line, but is composed of a series of bluffs and mesas, some standing alone.

Rock Ruins at the Canyon's bottom

Ruins of a rock shelter. At the bottom of the canyon, you can park your car near the recreation area and follow a trail that leads north along the river. In an old, disused, mango orchard, we found a number of rough, rock structures. It was not clear whether they had originally formed the foundations of rustic houses, or perhaps had been animal pens.

A rock wall extends down the slope toward the river. I have come across many similar walls, while hiking in remote back country areas. They are essentially just piles of stacked up rocks, without mortar, and some of them are quite old. Most of these old walls don't look sturdy enough to disuade a determined cow or horse, so they may be ancient property boundaries. Building such a wall would, no doubt, take a lot of work. However, the materials are all free and immediately available, unlike those necessary for a wire or wood fence.

Rio Verde

Rio Verde foams with whitewater. The heavy rains that had preceded our visit had also swelled the river and filled it with whitecaps. Rio Verde (Green River) flows through the Los Altos region, bisecting it from the northeast to the southwest. It eventually empties into the Rio Santiago, near Guadalajara. Los Altos is a high, semi-arid plateau, cut with deep canyons and gorges, the most important of which contains Rio Verde.

Rio Verde, looking north. The river gets its name from its normal color. The runoff from the rains has given it a café au lait hue. The calm water in the photo above is actually a shallow overflow area that is not normally covered with water. The raging river is behind the screen of trees at the center left, running along the base of the steep slope.

Meadows and Cliffs

In a lush, deciduous forest, a lone pitayo cactus reaches skywardPitayo (Organ Pipe Cactus) is sometimes called the "Mexican fence post" because farmers plant it along the edge of their fields to keep cattle from raiding their crops. This cactus produces a luscious fruit called pitaya, which is harvested in the wild and sold in street markets. The area around Guadalajara is an ecological transition zone where the wet coastal area meets the high desert. Consequently, you find plant species from both environments, often closely mixed together.

The mid-day sun lights up a lush, emerald-green meadow. The knee-high grass was full of birds and small insects. Although we saw evidence of cattle, they had not grazed here recently, or the meadow would have been much more closely cropped. In the distance, but much closer now, the red-walled cliffs of the stand guard over the canyon.

A butterfly poses for my photo. Butterflies are often difficult to photograph because they tend to flit around unexpectedly. This one posed delicately on a green leaf for just long enough. I was not certain, at first, whether this little critter was actually a butterfly or perhaps was a moth. Both are part of the classification Lepidoptera. However their antennae are different: moths have feathery feelers, while those of butterflies are long and thin with a bulb on the end. In addition, moths feed at night, while butterflies like the sunlight. Since we were, at the time, bathed in bright sunshine and the feelers looked right, I concluded that this was a butterfly.

Jamie takes a breather in the meadow to enjoy the view.  Jamie is a full-time resident of the Lake Chapala area and has become very active in the Ajijic Hiking Group. She was one of the passengers in my car, so we hiked together.

A mid-range telephoto shot of one of the mesas reveals its precipitous cliff face. There is a sub-set of expat hikers who specialize in rock climbing. I have occasionally accompanied them on their adventures, but technical climbing doesn't hold much appeal for me. The proper preparation and placement of equipment usually take a lot of time. I recognize the need for safety, but I just don't have the patience. Apparently, age doesn't affect their climbing performance. Several of the climbers are in their 70s and at least one is in his 80s.

An extreme telephoto shot of another cliff reveals a cave. At first glance, there appears to be a ledge leading to the dark cavity, but closer inspection suggests that it would not be a safe route. My best guess is that the cave is very shallow and was probably created when a boulder fell out.

Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, decorated our trail. No matter what the season, something is always blooming in our area of Mexico. Even in the parched, brown days of April and May--the hot season--various wildflowers seem to thrive. In the rainy season of summer and early fall, there is a riotous display. The center of distribution for Tithonia is Mexico, but some species grow in the Southwest US and others thrive in Central America.

A small waterfall pours out of a spring in an arroyo along our path. Jamie and I rejoined the rest of our hiking group near the trailhead. Rather than driving, most of them had walked down the cobblestone road to the floor of the canyon. It is a long trek, but all downhill and comfortable in the coolness of the morning. However,  Jamie and I had decided to drive down and park near the beginning of the river trail. I had remembered, all too clearly, my previous experience of hiking back up that long, shadeless road in the hot afternoon sun. As that prospect dawned upon my fellow hikers, several of them persuaded me to carry them up to the top. As for the rest, what can I say? Some hikers are born masochists.

This completes my posting on Cañon Leonera. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions 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