Carole and I live in Ajijic, a village on the shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest natural lake. During our travels in Mexico, we have found a startling cultural mix from ancient pre-hispanic to the 21st Century.This is a land of vivid colors and contrasts, a country which provides us with fascinating new perspectives. We hope you enjoy this photographic journal as much as we have enjoyed creating it.
Hikers pick their way through jumbled boulders along the base of the Second Slot. This is the most dramatic slot canyon on the route, with soaring walls on either side. Part 1 of this two-part series covered the approach to La Cañada Canyon, the First Slot, and part of the Middle Canyon. In Part 2, we'll continue through the Middle Canyon to the Second Slot and the Hidden Valley.
La Cañada Canyon is a fairly easy route to hike, although it does involve occasional boulder-scrambling. The grade is almost level and most of the trail is clear and easily walkable. Some stretches do get washed out by flash floods each year, but alternate paths are easily found. Getting lost is unlikely, because the whole route remains within the same canyon and side trails are few. When you have gone as far as you want, you just retrace your steps.
Our hiking group included two of the furry, four-footed variety. From the left are Gary, with Maddy the dog just behind him. Maddy's owner Chuck stands in the back row to the rear of Gary. To the right of Chuck are Jerry, Phil, and John. Luna the dog is in front. To the right of Luna are Jim and Carl. I, of course, am behind the camera lens. The group stands at the entrance of the Second Slot.
This party is fairly typical of the expat hikers in the Lake Chapala area. We were a mixture of Canadians and Americans, ranging in age from the late 60s to late 70s. When this hike occurred in 2015, all of these guys were in good shape and capable of some rugged hikes. Since then, unfortunately, some of them have suffered injuries or illnesses that have forced them to drop out. However, the pool is constantly refreshed by new arrivals from north of the border, as well as local Mexican hikers.
The Middle Canyon
The sheer wall of a cliff rises from the bottom of the Middle Canyon's arroyo. In other parts of the Middle Canyon, the walls are further back from the arroyo (stream bed). In those places, the scree slope climbs gradually up 50 or 100 feet to the base of a wall, which then rises vertically to the top of the cliff.
John takes a break on a natural swing. This vine was quite stout and capable of taking the weight of a full grown man. It was always a popular spot for photographs. When I came through this area some years later, someone had cut the vine. This was disappointing since it had become quite a landmark.
The tangled roots of an amate tree reach down the cliff face in search of water. You can clearly see the different layers of rock that make up this part of the cliff. The wall's lower rock face appears to be basalt. It is probably volcanic in origin since the whole area around Lake Chapala is filled with extinct volcanos. The upper section is sandstone, probably from an ancient seabed.
Gary and Jim follow a faint trail through the rock-strewn arroyo. Parts of the stream bed are full of boulders and fallen trees that have been washed down in storms. It often requires a sharp eye to follow the trail as it twists and turns among all this debris.
The wider part of the Middle Canyon has brush-covered scree slopes topped by high cliffs. The Middle Canyon is heavily wooded, with lots of underbrush. We didn't see any animals, but this is the area where they are most likely to be found.
Salvia, also called sage. This plant is a member of the mint family, which contains at least 1000 species of shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and annual. Salvia likes hot, dry climates. My friend and plant expert Ron Parsons made this identification for me. He has a website called Wildflowers and Plnats of Central Mexico.
Chuck, with Maddy just behind. I have hiked with this pair many times over the last decade or so. Chuck is one of those whose health has gotten in the way of his love of hiking. He bravely soldiered on, even when it became obviously difficult. In recent years, he has had to forgo these adventures. Maddy still loves to hike and is overjoyed when Chuck lets one of his friends bring her along. She is a great pooch and her friendliness earned her the nickname "the Gangster of Love".
Yet another rocky, lichen-covered cliff glows in the morning sun. At this point we were deep in the canyon and the base of the arroyo was still in deep shade. The dramatic cliffs captured our attention and we had to be careful lest we trip while gazing upwards.
The 2nd Slot Canyon
Hikers head into the mouth of the Second Slot. The passage quickly becomes quite narrow. The arroyo's base is filled with large rocks, which are often concealed by heaps of leaves. A good hiking stick to probe the leaves is useful when you are looking for pitfalls that could result in a twisted ankle, or worse.
In the middle of la angostura. Chuck and Maddy bring up the rear as the group passes between the soaring walls of the Second Slot. The Mexicans call slot canyons la angostura (the narrows).
The west wall of the Second Slot is composed of conglomerate. There are various types of conglomerates, formed in a number of different ways. This one may have been formed from debris laid down by a glacier. Other types form on the seabed or as alluvial fans extending out from the mouth of arroyos. Conglomerate is made up of small irregular rocks called clasts. These are held together by a natural mortar made up of clay and minerals.
Jerry and Chuck break out snacks during a mid-hike pause. After emerging from the Second Slot, we soon arrived at a flat area often used as a rest stop or a camping area. Stumps and downed trees formed natural seats. Once settled, we dug into the goodies we had brought. These included sandwiches, fruit, and mixes of nuts and dried berries, according to each person's taste.
The Hidden Valley
Jim and Gary follow the leaf-strewn trail into the Hidden Valley. Often the trail disappears under a layer of large oak leaves. Only with a bit of experience can you follow the slight indentation in the leaves that indicates a trail lies underneath.
Vegetation of the Hidden Valley. The trees are scattered in the valley, with very little underbrush. A couple of spiky maguey plants can be seen in the middle distance. Just beyond the farther maguey, the cliff face rises up from the flat ground.
Phil and Jerry on the Hidden Valley's trail. Phil is a part-timer from Canada who spends about half the year in a house he owns in Ajijic. Jerry is a full-timer from the US who is one of the friendliest human beings on the planet. About two weeks after he had first arrived in Ajijic, he knew more people by name that I did.
Hikers navigate fallen trees and boulders. In the left foreground, Carl ducks under a low branch. A few years ago on this trail, another hiker knocked himself cold by running head first into a large log which had fallen across the arroyo. When he came to, someone asked how he could possibly have missed seeing the enormous log. As it turned out, he had been watching his feet to avoid tripping over the many rocks underfoot. Sometimes, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.
The openness of the Hidden Valley gives it a park-like feel. The change is welcome after traveling through the long narrow canyon. A group of hikers tends to spread out in the Hidden Valley, because the openness doesn't require close attention to the trail. The valley continues for some distance, with occasional trail branches heading up the ridges on either side. After an enjoyable stroll through the area, we decided it was time to head back.
Our hiking party passes a corn field as it emerges from the mouth of the canyon. The corn was ripe and ready to harvest. Next to the field, barbed wire is strung along a row of rough-cut tree branches. The fence is typical of the rough and ready Mexican back country.
This wispy vine is Clematis. Although it was hanging down from a branch, it clearly was not part of the tree. There are about 300 species within the genus Clematis, and Ron could not be more specific. While this Clematis is clearly wild, these vines have become very popular as decorative plants. The name comes from the ancient Greek and means "climbing plant".
Traffic jam at the trailhead. When we returned to the trailhead, we discovered that our way out was temporarily blocked by a huge piece of farm machinery. Actually, it would be fair to say that we were blocking it. The farm workers had been trying to move the machinery into the adjacent corn field but our poorly parked cars had stopped them. Being rural Mexicans, they were very laid back and sociable. They probably welcomed the work break while they awaited the return of the cars' owners. We learned our lesson and now always park well off the road when we hike the canyon.
Like the proverbial 800 lb gorilla, we gave this vehicle all the room it needed. I nicknamed it "The Beast" because of the enormous "teeth" projecting from the front end. As it turned out, the teeth are removable, which is what the worker in the photo was doing. We headed home soon after he was finished, with another great hike to remember.
This completes Part 2 of La Cañada Slot Canyons. I hope you have enjoyed this jaunt into the mountains. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments, please remember to also leave your email address so that I can respond.
Torrents of water created the feature that hikers call The Chute. The power of water to carve through solid rock is quite impressive. The photo above shows only a couple of quiet pools remaining from the most recent storm. However, sustained rainfall can create dangerous flash floods through the canyon. We'll look at this formation in more detail a bit further in Part 1.
While looking through my years-long backlog of photos, I discovered that I have never used any of my shots of the spectacular route through La Cañada's slot canyons. I photographed the area on two occasions, once in 2015 and more recently in the summer of 2020. I ended up with so many good photos from these two shoots that I decided it required a two-part series.
The photos of Part 1, taken in 2020, include the approach to the Canyon, the First Slot, The Chute and part of the Middle Canyon. In Part 2, I will show you the rest of the Middle Canyon, the Second Slot, and the Hidden Valley.
Map showing the location of the entrance to La Cañada's Slot Canyons. The hike begins with the Sendero Intepretivo la Angostura (The Narrows Interpretive Trail). The route starts near the small pueblo of La Cañada, at the end of a dirt road. In the map above, the mountains that overlook the North Shore of Lake Chapala are given the general name of Sierra de San Juan Cosalá. However, a more detailed topographical map names the specific ridge through which the canyon cuts as Sierra el Travesano (Crossbar Mountain). For a more detailed Google map, click here.
If you want to try this trail, I strongly advise hiking with someone who is already familiar with it. For one thing, you may have difficulty finding the trailhead. Road signs in Mexico, assuming they even exist, are often misleading. In addition, it is never advisable to hike alone in these mountains. While you are unlikely to encounter dangerous people or animals, an injury or fall is always a possibility as is getting lost. In some areas, you might have to wait days for someone to come by. To find a hiker with knowledge of La Cañada's Slot Canyons, contact the Ajijic Hiking Group.
Dirt road leading from La Cañada to the beginning of the Sendero Interpretivo. You head south from the pueblo for a couple of miles toward where the canyon cuts through the mountain range. The road from La Cañada is rough and a high clearance vehicle is advisable.
The beautiful countryside passes between lush fields. In the early fall, when this was taken, the corn stands tall and ripe. On a road like this, it would not be unusual to encounter mounted cowboys out looking for stray cattle or a man on foot, leading a burro loaded with firewood. William Faulkner once wrote "the past is never dead. It's not even past." This is especially true in rural Mexico.
The Sendero Interpretivo beginsat a rustic gate where the road takes an abrupt right turn. My fellow hiker and very good friend Anthony stands beside the sign. Like many rural gates, this one is composed of a few roughly cut tree branches held together by barbed wire and anchored to the stump on the left. Trail etiquette dictates that you should leave gates how you find them. In this case, the gate was closed when we arrived and we restored it to that condition after I got my photo and passed through.
A well-worn trail leads through scrub forest toward the entrance of the canyon. Fortunately, the trail was clear because the brush on either side is thick and would be difficult to fight your way through. When that becomes necessary, we call it "bushwhacking", an accurate description of a rather unpleasant method of off-trail travel. It usually results in cuts and bruises and can be exhausting if attempted for more than a short distance.
The Sendero Interpretivo passes through a lovely meadow just before reaching the canyon's mouth. Close by is a level spot that has regularly been used as a rustic campsite by those who want to explore the far reaches of the canyon. Be advised that there are no restroom facilities and no safe water source, so camping would indeed be rustic.
You next encounter a large field of piled-up boulders which must be navigated. The rocks, some quite large, were pushed by raging waters through the canyon until they piled up just outside of the First Slot. As I passed through, I noticed this teepee of boulders and speculated that it would be an ideal spot for the den of a fox or coyote.
The mouth of the First Slot. Partially blocking your way are heaps of boulders. Just beyond, you can see the west side wall of the slot canyon. The entrance is only a few yards wide, while the walls on either side rise almost vertically to one hundred feet or more.
The First Slot and the Chute
A massive rock overhangs the path as you enter the First Slot. While the scene beyond is very picturesque, it is well to remember that the boulders at your feet tumbled off the cliff above you. A few of them are the size of a Volkswagen. Such rock falls generally occur during the rainy season, but they can--and do--happen at any time.
A message from the ancient past. At first glance, the design looks quite modern. However, a nearby sign reveals that the rock was carved during the pre-hispanic period, possibly as early as the Teotihuacán Empire (100-650 AD). The design represents the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west. The place where the four lines cross represents the center of the cosmos.
The cardinal directions are sacred and each has its own color, god, and associated mythology. The design could be considered a map of the universe and pre-hispanic people revered it for thousands of years. In fact, the ancient urban planners of the mighty city of Teotihuacánlaid it out in just such a quadrant.
At the end of the First Slot you find the mouth of The Chute. From the top of the rock wall on the left to the bottom of the trough is at least twenty feet. The wall on the right has been cut with steps which did not exist when I first hiked this canyon. They were carved into the rock to create a safe way to bypass The Chute during times of high water.
Anthony climbs the steps of the rock wall. When they are dry, the steps provide a reasonably safe way up and down the wall. However, there is a small spring near the top that sometimes leaves the steps wet and slippery. You can see some of the dampness to the right and just below Anthony's left foot.
The Middle Canyon
View from the top of the rock Anthony was climbing. The arroyo has been scoured right down to the bedrock by torrents of water. This is the beginning of the Middle Canyon. From here, the canyon widens out and is filled with trees and other vegetation in some spots.
The cliffs take on a reddish glow in the morning sunshine. The cliffs can rise well over a hundred feet and are topped by trees and brush. The vertical drop reaches only part way to the bottom of the arroyo. At the base of the walls, there is a sloping debris field that extends to the bottom of the arroyo. Often there is an area on either side of the creeks that is relatively broad, flat, and full of trees and brush.
The Climber's Cliff is vertical straight to the arroyo's bottom. It is covered in some sections by bright yellow lichens. Although I have never encountered rock climbers here, they have left evidence of their presence in various places, which is how the wall got its name.
Carabiners attached to pitons can be seen partly up the Climber's Cliff. Rock climbing equipment like this is used for safety purposes. Pitons are metal spikes that are driven into rock cracks or seams. They provide firm support to which other safety equipment can be attached.
Carabiners are large aluminum clips that can be attached to the pitons and are used to support safety ropes or as a place to temporarily hang equipment. The two carabiners above are connected by a nylon strap, also part of the safety equipment. I used my telephoto zoom to get this shot, since the pitons and carabiners were located about half way up the cliff's face.
A nest of wild bees or wasps perches in a nook high up the cliff. A Jewish hiker on an earlier excursion said the nest reminded him of the menorah (sacred candleabrum) used during Hanukkah and the name stuck. I have encountered very few aggressive bees or wasps during my thirteen years of hiking in Mexico.
However, I have twice had unpleasant run-ins with africanized bees. They are extremely hostile and can occasionally be deadly to people or animals. Mass stings have even killed full-grown horses. The best strategy is to depart the area immediately. However, you should avoid swinging your arms at the bees because it only infuriates them.
A fallen tree has sprouted branches which have continued to grow upward toward the light. We found this tree trunk collapsed across the Middle Canyon trail. It had been in that position for quite a while, given the size of the vertical branches that have grown up since its original fall.
Brilliant yellow lichens decorate the rough surface of a canyon wall. Lichens are truly amazing. They are not plants, but composite organisms made up of algae or cyanobacteria living among fungi species. They have no roots to absorb water or nutrients, but get their nourishment through photosynthesis.
Lichens are extremely hardy and have been found everywhere from the arctic to the deep desert. They even grow inside solid rock between the grains. Lichens are among the oldest living organisms and their slow growth rate allows them to be used to date long-past events.
Amate trees can often be found growing down the sides of cliffs. Amates are a member of the Ficus family. The roots mold themselves to the cliff face as they extend down toward the water at the bottom of the arroyo. The Aztecs and other pre-hispanic people used the bark of the amate tree to make the paper on which they painted complex hieroglyphs. Tragically, most of the great pre-hispanic libraries filled with amate paper documents were burned by Spanish evangelists who considered them instructions for devil worship.
This completes Part 1 of my two-part series on the Slot Canyons of La Cañada. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. However, if you choose to leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.
Statue of Nuestra Señora del Rosario. This sumptuously dressed statue is one of several displayed in the museum dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, located just behind her Basilica. However, this is not the statue that draws millions of pilgrims to Talpa. That one can be seen in my previous posting on the Basilica. I encourage anyone who visits Talpa de Allende to drop into this fascinating museum.
In this posting, I show only a few the many artifacts displayed here. The exhibits include some of the history of Talpa, particularly as it relates to Nuestra Señora, the Basilica, the pilgrimage, and Catholic liturgical traditions dating back centuries. To find the museum on a Google map, click here.
Items associated with the altar area
Gowns used to decorate the Basilica's statue of Nuestra Señora del Rosario. Attendants dress her in different gowns according to the annual seasonal fiestas. According to the Bible, Mary was the wife of a humble carpenter from a small town in a backwater area of the Roman Empire. Over the centuries, Catholic tradition has transformed her into royalty, wearing sumptuous gowns and a crown.
A monstrance is used to display objects of piety. Objects are displayed in a container at the center of the monstrance. These items might include the consecrated host during the Eucharist ceremony or the relics of a saint. The Latin word for monstrance is "ostensorium". Both words are derived from the verb "to show".
Bookstand, probably used to hold a Bible. There was no sign to indicate the material used to create this lovely little bookstand, but I doubt it would have been openly displayed if it were made of gold, or even gold plated.
Beautifully crafted flower vase displaying the image of Nuestra Señora del Rosario. Catholic altars often contain floral displays. The horse heads framing the mouth and the designs on the body of the vase show great artistry.
Our Lady of the Rosary, this time with with cherubs holding a banner. Statues, paintings and other images were important in the era before widespread literacy. This was true of pre-hispanic religious images as well as those of European Christianity. Over the millennia, pre-hispanic civilizations often conquered one another. The losers were often required to build temples devoted to the statues or other images of the winners' favorite gods. Thus the pre-hispanic pantheon grew ever-larger over time.
Consequently, it was not a tremendous leap for the native people to accept the religious beliefs, images, and symbols brought by their Spanish conquerors. What was different was the requirement that the old gods and their associated rituals be totally abandoned in favor of the new Christian ones. The destruction by the Spanish of the images and temples of pre-hispanic deities sometimes led to large scale revolts and the martyrdom of the evangelizing friars.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron of Mexico and its poor and indigenous people. The spikes extending out from her body represent the rays of her halo. One of the reasons why the Virgin of Guadalupe became so powerful a figure for the recently conquered people of Mexico is that much of her image carries both Catholic and pre-hispanic religious meanings.
In fact, the Virgin of Guadalupe was originally encountered in the ruins of a temple devoted to Aztec earth goddess Tonantzin. This resulted in a century-long controversy among colonial evangelists as to the true nature of the apparition. Some felt that the reverence shown by the native people was simply a covert way to continue honoring the old gods.
An early 20th century statue of San Juan Nepomuceno, carved from cedar. Also called St. John of Nepomuk, he is the patron saint of Bohemia (the Czech Republic). Born in 1345, he was martyred in 1393 by King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia for reasons that are a matter of historical dispute. Some accounts hold that it was a political killing related to a schism that was convulsing the Church at the time. John of Nepomuk supported one side but the King backed the other.
Other accounts say John was the confessor to the Queen, whom the King suspected of having an affair. When John refused to violate the sanctity of her confession to reveal the name of the lover, the King was infuriated. According to both accounts, San Juan Nepomuceno was martyred by drowning after the King ordered him thrown from a bridge over the Vitava River. Some historians contend that the political reason may have been only a cover for retaliation by the king when the lover's name was withheld. Whatever the truth, it's a great story.
The statues above are of two of the three Magi said to have visited Jesus shortly after his birth. The term Magi means "wise men" and, assuming the truth of the story, they were probably Zoroastrian priests from Persia. Such priests were famed as experts in astronomy and astrology. It would not be out of character for them to follow an unusual star.
The tradition of gift-giving at Christmas originated in pagan winter solstice customs from Northern Europe. After Christianity was established, the rationale for gift-giving was re-directed to the presents brought by the Magi. These included gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold has obvious value, but the other two are less well known in the modern world. Frankincense was a gum resin used for perfume, incense, and religious rites. Myrrh was a tree sap that had many important medicinal properties. All three were widely traded throughout the ancient world.
Indigenous marriage ritual? I puzzled over this little vignette, which was not accompanied by an explanatory sign. Finally, I decided it must relate to marriage rituals. The man and woman hold hands and exchange tender looks. With their other hands, they each hold one end of a cloth sash. This probably represents the marriage bond. Between them, a man leans heavily against the sash, apparently trying to break their grip on it. This suggests a phrase in the Christian marriage ceremony: "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder."
This surplice and cassock are among a variety of vestments displayed. The undergarment known as a cassock is the long, lacy vestment seen above. The surplice is the white tunic worn over it. The garment to their right, embroidered with a cross, is called a chasuble.
Embroidered chasuble and stole. This outer garment would be worn over a long, gown called an alb. The stole is the long, narrow piece of embroidered cloth draped over the shoulders.
"Thank you" cards to Nuestra Señora del Rosario
Card left by a pilgrim. One display contained many hand-painted cards, some of which carried messages of thanks describing a miraculous intercession by Nuestra Señora del Rosario. The card above was left by a man named Alberto Verdias in 1955. While traveling over a rough road, he had been thrown from the back of a truck. He believed that the fall would have been fatal under ordinary circumstances
In the moment of his tumble from the truck, Sr. Verdia had desperately grasped a small image of Nuestra Señora. When he recovered his senses, he was surprised to find the image still clutched in his hand. After he fully recovered, Sr. Verdias created the card above as a gesture of his thanks and brought it on a pilgrimage to the Basilica.
An unsigned card shows a man miraculously surviving an assassination attempt. The panels tell the story of a man walking along a street, followed by another man armed with a pistol. The first man is shot and left lying in the street. Blood streams off his back as his assailant flees the scene.
In the top left panel, the injured man has miraculously recovered. Kneeling before the image of Nuestra Señora, he holds a lit candle as an offering of thanks. Who are these men and why did one attempt to kill the other? All that is left unstated. The miraculous recovery was the only important matter to the pilgrim who left the card.
This completes Part 3 of my Talpa de Allende series. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE include your email address so that I may respond.