Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mazamitla Part 3: The Double-Waterfalls of Sierra del Tigre

Two huge waterfalls tumble vertically from a mountain plateau to a box canyon far below.  I  found these waterfalls with great difficulty, and it took four separate expeditions over the course of more than a year to reach the base of the box canyon. The photo above was taken from a narrow overlook at the end of a muddy trail from the top of the opposite side of the box canyon. My Canadian "snow-bird" friend Gerry Green originally told me about the falls a couple of years ago. Gerry was an avid dirt-biker until his wife finally persuaded him to give it up. He has explored many of the back country roads in these mountains and publishes a blog called "Barebones Adventure". Click here to see it. I was intrigued by his casual mention of some big falls back in the mountains. Then he produced a hand-drawn map showing a remote and twisting dirt road through the heart of the Sierra del Tigre with a little symbol indicating a waterfall marked beside a hairpin curve. I was hooked. The dirt road originates in the little town of Contla, which sits astride Mexico Highway 110, southwest of Mazamitla. For a Google map showing the location of Contla, click here.

A long narrow valley, studded with emerald-green sugar-cane fields twists through the Sierra del Tigre mountains. One of my fellow hikers took this photo near the hairpin turn on our 3rd attempt to reach the falls. You are looking back down the valley in the direction of Contla. The skies were heavily overcast during the 3rd expedition, and the drizzling rain made the trail from the overlook down to the base of the falls muddy and hazardous, one of the reasons we didn't attempt to go down that trip. The other reason? I was the only one in our large party who had actually made the hike down, and I was nursing a hell of a bad cold. I could probably lead people down, but I wasn't sure I could make it back up myself. From the photo above, you can see the rugged nature of the Sierra del Tigre, composed of range after range of steep, heavily wooded ridges. The farm road from Contla to the trailhead is only paved for a short distance, and crosses a rushing stream at several places. In the rainy season, deep puddles accumulate in low places that can stall a shallow-draft vehicle. When the weather is dry, even a high-draft, all-wheel drive vehicle can have a difficult time making it. This is not a route for the faint of heart, or those with ordinary street vehicles. Photo by Chuck Boyd

A few quick photos from the overlook, before we gave up on the 3rd expedition's attempt. In the photo above, the overlook ends in a vertical drop in front of me that plunges over 70 m (230 ft) feet to the rocks below. What appears to be a clump of  green bushes to my left are actually the tops of some very tall trees growing in the base of the box canyon.  On our very first expedition, we didn't even get this far. Using Gerry's map as a guide, I printed out an overlapping succession of Google satellite photos showing what appeared to be the correct route. A Google map only shows detail down to a certain level, not sufficient to pick up road conditions. My friend Bob, a retired veterinarian from Colorado, got within a couple of kilometers of the trailhead near the hairpin turn before his car bottomed-out on one of the many large rocks protruding from the farm road. Since it was a hot day, and several of our party on that trip were were non-hikers, we cancelled that attempt. However, we were happy enough that we had scouted out the right road for a future venture. On the way back through Contla I also noticed, for the first time, the ruins of the Hacienda de San José de Contla, which we visited during expedition #3. In Part 2 of this series, you can see the Hacienda and read about its colorful history. Photo by Chuck Boyd

Telephoto shot of the head of the left waterfall from the overlook. From this angle, the cascade appears to shoot out of a cave in the cliff. This illusion was created by the water cutting a narrow slot down into the cliff before it drops precipitously to the bottom. Of our 4 expeditions, only the 2nd and 4th managed to get down into the canyon, and only the 4th, and last (so far) got all the way down to the base of the waterfalls. On our 2nd trip, Gerry Green came along as one of our drivers. He confirmed we were on the right road, and led us to the overlook, but we couldn't immediately find a trail leading down from there. After driving up and down the mountain roads for a while looking for an access point, we finally encountered a young Mexican cowboy on horseback.

The right-hand waterfall also cut a slot in the canyon wall and was even higher than the left one. The young cowboy identified himself as Raul, the owner of the land around the box canyon. He told us he had heard us from across the canyon, thrashing about while we looked for a trail. He had jumped on his horse to come see what was up. When he understood what we were about, he immediately agreed to guide us down into his canyon. My long-time blog readers may recall that it was another farmer, also named Raul, that guided us to the big waterfalls of the Barranca Yerba Buena and later invited us to his Corn Harvest Fiesta. We thought it hilarious that two farmers, many miles apart, would both guide us to local waterfalls and both be named Raul. I was also interested that this young farmer--Raul #2--who lived so far back in Mexico's remote mountain country, spoke perfect English. It turned out that his family lives in the US and he was the designated one to come down to keep an eye on the family farm. Raul took us down to the top of two house-sized boulders close the base of the canyon. Since it was late in the day on that trip, and we were already covered head-to-foot in mud from the slippery trail, we did not go further down. We all left happy, including Raul seemed glad that we had come to break up the monotony of his lonesome back-country life.

We reach the base of the canyon, at last! On our 4th and most recent expedition, I was again the only one with previous experience in the canyon. Nine of us crowded into my friend Mike's Chevy Suburban. We stayed overnight in Mazamitla, where we enjoyed the amenities of that Magic Pueblo. From Mazamitla it is about an hour's drive to Contla, and another 45 minutes up the farm road to the trailhead. Once again, we thrashed around, trying to follow a faint trail to the bottom. Thick, nearly impenetrable underbrush had grown up everywhere since we were last here. We seemed destined for another thwarted attempt to reach the bottom. I was beginning to think there was a jinx going on here, either on the canyon, or on me. When we retraced our steps to the overlook, we encountered one of the women hikers who had wisely declined to engage in what we euphemistically call "bushwhacking".  She told us that, while poking around a little, she had stumbled on a new trail. It turned out to be more direct than the one we had descended with Raul. It was quite steep, but clear of brush. Finally, we reached a large, clear pool at the bottom. Success!   Ian Baker photo

Jumbles of rocks in the stream create numerous small waterfalls. The boulder in upper right of the photo is as big is my Toyota. I soon found other, much bigger rocks. After resting for a bit, I unpacked my camera and began to explore the bottom of the canyon. Whatever jinx might still be lurking, I was determined not to miss any photographic opportunities this time. I set off and began climbing over, under, and around the huge boulders littering the area. I was so intent, I neglected to mention to the others where I was going.

Right-hand waterfall, from the side. The waterfall looks smaller here than it really is, because you can't see the upper stages from here, or the final drop at the bottom. As I moved around among the boulders, I glanced up occasionally, wondering when the last large rock fall had occurred, and whether I would be under the next.

Right-hand waterfall from the front. Here you see the upper 2/3 of the falls. The water has become a heavy mist by the bottom of the photo, a product of its long drop.

A curtain of water. The water created a misty curtain that screened the cliff behind it. It was little more than a fine spray at this point.

The final destination. The misty spray coated the black basaltic rocks at the bottom of the right-hand falls. The abundance of this airborne water encouraged ferns, moss and other water-loving plants all around the area.

Left and right-hand falls from below. Because of the difficult camera angles, and the many obstacles on the canyon bottom, this was a difficult shot to achieve. You can clearly see the water-cut slot from which the falls on the left drop. I was surprised to learn from Raul during expedition #2 that these two falls come from two entirely unconnected streams.

The sheer walls of the box canyon extended away into the distance. I considered a hike down the canyon to see if another way out could be found, but the day was getting late and all the obstacles would make the going very slow. It's always good to leave something for next time.

More house-sized boulders blocked my approach to the left-hand falls. The bottom of the left falls can be seen in the upper right of the photo. While in some cases, I could jump from one boulder to another, at other times I had to crawl between them, or clamber over. I was beginning to wonder why I didn't see or hear any of my hiking companions.

Large wasp nest in the canyon. We were not the only creatures inhabiting the area. This nest was about 1 m. (3 ft) tall. The wasps looked ferocious, but were not aggressive. I suppose I could have stuck a stick in their nest to see if I could get a rise from them, but I'm not really that much of a lunatic. Photo by Chuck Boyd

A tree grows out of the sheer side of the cliff. I am always amazed by the tenacity of life. Wherever there is the faintest possibility of life, you will find it, even in inhospitable places like the vertical side of this stony cliff face.

Another form of life. These mushrooms grew lushly among the decaying branches fallen from the tall trees at the bottom of the canyon.

Left-hand falls from a distance. As I boulder-hopped closer, I got this view of the left-hand falls. The sun, which only fully lights this deep canyon for a few hours a day, had already left this waterfall in the shade.

Telephoto of the lip of the left-hand falls. The rock through which the water cut must be hard, because the slot is so narrow.

The full view of the left-hand falls.  I finally got into a position where I could photograph this cascade from top to bottom. At this point, I was concerned that I hadn't seen or heard anyone for quite some time. When I returned to the pool at the bottom of the trail where I had left our group, not a soul was there. I searched around for some sort of note or other indication of where they might have gone. Did they walk on down the canyon, as I had considered? Did they return to the top without me? Were they kidnapped by narcos? I was perplexed and annoyed. If they had left without me, it was a violation of one of our most important hiking protocols: no one gets left behind. Finally, I left a note on a prominent rock and began to climb out. About 1/2 way up, I ran into two of our party who had come looking for me. The rest had returned to the top, assuming I had preceded them. While I was pretty grumpy about it at the time, I later reflected that I was at least as much at fault as anyone else, because I had failed to mention where I was going. In a remote area like this, searching for an injured and possibly unconscious person would be problematic. To carry someone up the steep slippery switchbacks would be very difficult at best. Something to think about for the future.

This completes Part 3 of my Mazamtila series. The Sierra del Tigre is a marvelous area to visit, with something for everyone: a Magic Pueblo, old colonial ruins, and wonderful hiking opportunities. I always enjoy feedback. If you would like to comment, please either leave it in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mazamitla Part 2: The Ex-Hacienda de Contla and the route through the Sierra del Tigre

The arches suggest a ruined cathedral, but this was a sugarmill.  The small town of Contla sits astride Mexican Highway 110 in the foothills of the Sierra del Tigre. I found it, and the ruins, on an expedition to find some huge double waterfalls far back in the mountains. The next posting after this one will tell the story of the series of expeditions we made to explore the waterfalls. The ruins of Hacienda de San José de Contla, and the history behind them, are so evocative that I thought they deserved their own posting. The story of the Hacienda is also the story of Mex 110, an excellent two-lane road stretching through the heart of the Sierra del Tigre. Starting in La Barca, near the eastern end of Lake Chapala, the road passes over steep and heavily wooded ridges and through long narrow valleys toward the southwest. Passing through the mountain resort of Mazamitla, and then through Contla, Mex 110 ends at the city of Colima near the Pacific Coast. For a Google map showing Mex 110 as it passes through the Sierra del Tigre, click here.

Entrance to the hacienda. The ruins look like the skeleton of some immense dinosaur. They stand just off the highway on the west part of town. At least one family has taken up residence in a corner of the remains. For a panoramic view of the ruins, click here. The main activity in Hacienda de San José de Contla's later years was producing sugar. The lush, iridescent green cane still grows for miles all around Contla. The Spanish word hacienda means "place where something is done or made". In spite of its function as a factory, the building seen above is graceful and architecturally appealing. Archways supported by tall columns seem almost lacy in their delicacy. Mex 110, which passes in front of the ruins, follows a route through the Sierra del Tigre important since pre-hispanic times. It connects the uplands of Michoacan, once the heart of the Tarascan Empire (also called the Purépecha) to Colima and the Pacific Coast. The Teco Kingdom was based in the area of modern Colima and trade between the Tarascans and the Tecos passed back and forth along this route. Both areas were home to even earlier cultures, whose names are unknown but whose remains have been found. These early cultures also appear to have communicated and traded.

Shyly curious, a little girl clings to her father's leg. The woman whom we initially encountered was not particularly welcoming. However, after a few moments, a man stepped out. When he understood that we only wanted to photograph the ruins, he quite amiably told us to explore as much as we wanted. His beautiful little daughter attracted almost as many cameras as the ruins. The modern village of Contla has 1752 inhabitants, and sits in a long narrow valley at 1160m (3835 ft) in altitude. The local economy is based on agriculture, largely corn, cattle and sugar cane production. Photo by Chuck Boyd

Pastel paint still outlines the archways, set off against the white plastered walls. As we approached the ruins, I could see lines of columns inside. My photographic instincts switched into high gear. More than trade passed along the route that now traverses Contla. Armies marched this way. In 1165 AD, the Aztecs founded nearby Mazamitla as a military outpost guarding their frontier against their ancient enemies, the Tarascans. In 1481 AD, the Tarascans invaded the area. They passed through what would become Contla on their way to capture the salt beds near Laguna de Sayula, just north of Colima. Salt was an extremely important comodity for food preparation and preservation, and for industrial processes such as textile manufacture. The Tarascan Empire had little salt of its own. The Teco Kingdom controlled the Laguna Sayula and resisted the Tarascan invasion fiercely in what became known as the Salt War. The struggle continued until the Tecos finally drove out the Tarascans in 1510 AD, only a few years before the Spanish arrived. It was just such intramural conflicts as this that made the Spanish "divide and conquer" strategy so successful.

Rain water beads the petals of this frangipani. Lowering skies gave the ruins a somber look but didn't detract from their beauty, which was enhanced by the flowers we encountered just to the left of the ruin entrance. Their formal name, Plumeria rubra, was provided by my flower expert Ron Parsons (see the link to his website on the "Other Sites to Visit" to the right). The rain had prevented our group of hikers from reaching our waterfall goal. Our disappointment gave us extra incentive to spend some time at the Hacienda de San José de Contla. The Spanish conquistadors under Crisobal de Olid and Juan Rodgriguez Villafuerte passed through here in 1522, sent by Hernán Cortéz to explore the area after his conquest of the Aztecs. Over the next several years they conquered the Tecos, who put up a fierce resistance but to no avail. Some years after that, Nuño Beltran de Guzman shattered the Tarascan Empire with a brutality that rivals Heinrich Himmler. The ancient kingdoms and their rivalries disappeared in the holocaust of Spanish oppression and European diseases.

The ruins' tall smokestacks tower over the town of Contla, marking the hacienda from miles around. The smokestacks, framed above by one of the many arches, are the tallest structures in Contla and make the ruins easy to find. After the Conquest, the Spanish imposed the encomienda system on the local indigenous people. Cortéz and later Spanish authorities parceled out the indigenous people to their soldiers as rewards for services to the crown. The conquistadors could demand tribute from local villages in terms of food and other goods and, most importantly, labor. The early haciendas, churches, and great public buildings were built under a system that, in effect, was little more than slavery by another name. In 1537, the Spanish crown permitted the establishment of the town of San Cristobal Mazamitla. At about the same time the indigenous people of the Contla area became part of an encomienda that later became known as the Hacienda de San Jose de Contla.

Remains of ancient rafters droop from walls and pillars. The whole structure is roofless, except for the small part occupied by the family we met. The thick plaster has peeled away from the walls in places, showing the brickwork underneath. The conquistadors and their descendants continued to extort labor and goods from the local people for almost a century before the first legal documents appeared officially recognizing the Hacienda de San José de Contla, which had become an important center of production. In 1643, the Spanish Viceroy Garcia Sarmiento, Count of Salvatierra, signed the papers creating the Hacienda. The next year a man named Alcaraz gained control of it because of his military services to the Crown. By the mid-18th Century, Francisco José Alcaraz y Silva appears in the records as the owner, indicating that the same family was still in control. He was a priest and Commissioner of the Spanish Inquisition, a position of great power. When Francisco died in 1752, another relative named Salvador Alcaraz gained control and expanded the estate to include three neighboring haciendas called Buena Vista, San Lazaro, and Santa Gertrudis. The Hacienda was becoming a power in the area. Documents from 1749 show the Hacienda's owner as the most senior official in the District Church of Zapotlan el Grande. At this time church and state power were still closely intertwined.

From death and decay, life emerges. I was impressed by the tenacity of this fern growing at the end of one of the rotting rafters. Life passes to death and then returns. Perhaps some day this ruin will once again become full of life and energy. When Salvador Alcaraz died, his wife Michaela Gomez Cordero was the executor and heir apparent. In 1779, she married Captain Juan Domingo de Istalarti of the Provincial Militia. There appears to have been some dispute in the family over who should have been the real heir, and Spanish authorities finally declared that José Maria Alcaraz was the owner. He married Mariana Macías Valadez in 1821, just as the Mexican War of Independence ended. Disputes like this were not uncommon in colonial New Spain and 19th Century Mexico. Haciendas were a key locus of political and economic power, much as feudal estates were in Europe of the middle ages, and among the plantations of the pre-Civil War American South.

Large round windows grace the back wall of one of the stately, tall-ceilinged rooms. Once filled with glass, they now are filled only with wild vegetation. Life on the Hacienda moved at a leisurely pace that would seem glacial to modern sensibilities. However, there were occasional moments of great crisis. Throughout the colonial period, and well into the 19th Century, epidemics threatened to wipe out the local population. The inhabitants of the area resorted to ancient shamanistic remedies, coupled with Catholic religious processions. Another kind of crisis occurred during the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821) when local insurgents battled royalist troops at Zapatero, a pass on the road through the mountains about half way between Mazamitla and Contla. The insurgents were led by Francisco Echeverria who triumphed over the Spanish troops but died of his wounds in Mazamitla shortly after the 1812 battle. Once again, the route that today forms Mex 110 played an important role in the struggle for control of passage through the Sierra del Tigre.

Vaulted ceilings covered both the ground and second floor of this portion of the main building. Following War of Independence, common people (indigenous and mestizos) were freed--at least theoretically--from the yolk of the hacienda owners. However, the struggle between the common people and the creoles (people of Spanish origin born in the New World) had existed since long before the beginning of the independence struggle, even though they were united in their desire to oust the royalists. This social tension weakened the insurgency, and probably caused the independence war to go on much longer than it would have otherwise. Basically, the creoles wanted to continue their dominance through the hacienda system. The common people wanted freedom and the social revolution promised by Miguel Hidalgo, a martyred early leader of the insurgency. A local Sierra del Tigre man, Gordiano Guzman, rose as a leader during the Independence War. Born on land controlled by the owners of Hacienda de San José de Contla, Guzman led post-Independence resistance in the Sierra del Tigre against the reimposition of control by the creoles who formed the landed oligarcy.  In a struggle called the "Revolución del Sur" (Revolution of the South) Guzman fought heroically from 1821 until 1831 when he was finally persuaded to sign a peace agreement at the Hacienda de San José de Contla with representatives of Nicolás Bravo, an early President of the new nation of Mexico. Guzman was one of the very few early leaders of the War of Independence to survive the war and its immediate aftermath.

Evangelina and Patricia chat in the great hall of the Hacienda. This photo gives some sense of the size of the room. The two lower windows in the front have been bricked up, but in its glory days they, along with the two windows above, would have flooded the room with light. Evangelina and Patricia are two Mexican hikers who were part of the expedition to the double waterfalls. After the formal end of the Revolución del Sur, the struggle continued informally and morphed in the the broader fight between the Conservatives and the Liberals, called the Reform Wars, that lasted into the 1860s. In 1854, Gordiano Guzman came out of retirement in a bid to reignite the social revolution. However, he was captured and shot by Conservative forces. The present community of Ciudad de Guzman was named after this hero of the common people.

An arched passage has been bricked up by the adobe behind the peeling plaster. 19th Century Mexico was full of wars, insurrections, foreign invasions and general chaos until the final victory of Benito Juarez over the French-imposed "Emperor" Maximilian. Installed by French Emperor Napoleon III, Maximilian used French troops and turncoat Mexicans from the Conservative Party in his unsuccessful attempt to subdue Juarez, Mexico's democratically-elected president. French forces invaded the Sierra del Tigre and burned the archives at Mazamitla. Many creole hacienda owners supported Maximilian because he represented stability and protection of their privileges. Others supported Juarez because he advocated stripping the Catholic Church of the wealth and special powers it had accumulated since the earliest colonial times. These creoles turned greedy eyes toward that soon-to-be-dispossessed wealth. I have been unable to determine where the owners of Hacienda de San José de Contla stood. Many creoles changed sides as the political and military winds shifted, so the Ochoa family, owners of the Hacienda at this time, could have been on either side at one time or another. In order to protect their wealth and privileges in the chaos of the 19th Century, many hacienda owners banded together and formed private armies called Guardias Blancas (White Guards). While banditry was unquestionably a problem in the rural areas, the Guardias Blancas were also used as death squads to suppress any attempt by rural people to organize.

At Hacienda de San José de Contla, the past looks out onto the future. A series of empty windows frame emerald sugar cane fields and the blue Sierra Tigre mountains beyond. While the old hacienda ruins stand in empty solitude, the ripening cane outside will sometime soon be harvested and might even end up on your kitchen table. The reforms of Benito Juarez were followed by the 34-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. In the latter half of the 19th Century, the Ochoa family sold their interest in the Hacienda de San José de Contla to an American named Livingston. Under Diaz, hacienda owners regained and increased their power, and he also encouraged foreigners like Livingston to invest in Mexico. Many hacienda owners used the "company store" system to impose a form a debt-slavery on the hacienda workers, and others illegally seized indigenous communal lands to expand their domains. All this was enforced by the formal power of the Diaz government, and informally by the Guardias Blancas. Finally, in 1910, the pot boiled over and the Mexican Revolution tore through the countryside. Rural people, known as agraristas, rose up and joined the Revolutionary armies. Pancho Villa's forces were active in the Sierra del Tigre area. The agraristas' aims of land reform were supported, off and on, by the various Revolutionary governments. Although I have not been able to determine the exact circumstances of the demise of Hacienda de San José de Contla, the fact that it stands today as a hollow shell of its former glory testifies to a bad end. Most probably, it was broken up and the land distributed to local agraristas, with the buildings and machinery of the Hacienda looted and allowed to fall into ruin.

This concludes Part 2 of my 3-part Mazmamitla series. Part 3 will show the gorgeous double waterfalls deep in the mountains to the north of Contla and detail the 4 attempts it took to finally reach the bottom of this elusive waterfall's canyon. I always appreciate feedback and if you'd like to leave a comment, please do so 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 may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mazamitla Part 1: Magic Pueblo in the mountains

Detail of Mazamitla's Parroquia de San Cristóbal. This church is one of the most architecturally unusual of any I have encountered in Mexico.  Many writers have groped for a way to describe Parroquia de San Cristobal. "Oriental", "Swiss chalet", and "Norwegian" are a few of the terms often used. Above, level after level of white balconies grace the rear of the church steeples, each accented by beautiful woodwork. The photos in this and two postings to follow are the result of multiple visits to one of Mexico's loveliest and most visited Pueblos Magicos. Some of those visits were to simply enjoy Mazamitla itself. Other visits used the little mountain town as a base for exploring colonial hacienda ruins and gorgeous waterfalls set in the rugged backcountry to the south of Lake Chapala called the Sierra del Tigre. This series is therefore a composite. In Part 1, I will focus on Mazamitla itself, giving you a sense of why the town achieved the much coveted title of Pueblo Magico in 2005. For a list of the present 36 Pueblos Magicos, click here. More may have been added by the time you read this.

Parroquia San Cristóbal

Front view of Parroquia de San Cristóbal showing its "gingerbread" steeples.  The original, rather humble, adobe church was rebuilt in 1957 into the lovely building you see above overlooking the town plaza. The small city of Mazamitla sits high in the mountains south of Lake Chapala, about 1.5 hours drive from my home in Ajijic. The best way to reach it is to travel west from Ajijic along the Lake through Jocotopec, then turn left on Mexico Highway 15 which runs along the south side of the Lake. After about an hour's drive from Ajijic, you will reach Tuxcueca. Turn right at the main intersection and follow the newly repaved road as it winds up into the Sierra del Tigre Mountains, providing gorgeous panoramic views along the way. About half an hour after turning at Tuxcueca, you will reach Mazamitla, where the road intersects Mexico Highway 110, also called the Colima-Sahuayo Highway. For a map of Mazamitla, click here.

Detail of the Parroquia's steeple and clock tower. The name Mazamitla comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It means "the place where arrows to hunt the deer are made." The pine-forested mountains surrounding Mazamitla would have provided both numerous deer and unlimited supplies of wood for arrows. Since those times the forests have provided materials for buildings such as the Parroquia. The doors, windows, balconies with their innumerable spindles, and the wooden corbels supporting the roof overhangs all show the liberal use of wood with a most pleasing effect. The municipality (equivalent to county) has slightly less than 12,000 inhabitants. They engage in farming, logging, commerce and a considerable amount of tourist related activities. At 2200 meters (7217 ft.) in altitude, the average year-round temperatures range from 25.7C (78F) to 7.1C (44F). This cool, dry climate makes Mazamitla a magnet for Mexicans from Guadalajara in the summer months. Many well-to-do Guadalajareños have built cabins and vacation homes in the area around the town.

The rear of the church displays unusual rounded corners with more wooden balconies. The church structure is larger than it appears, taking up most of the block on which it is situated. Speaking of churches, there is an old Mazamtila custom relating to marriage. A young man seeking a bride must first approach the father of the girl for permission and bring him presents of cigarettes and liquor. If the father refuses, the couple can elope, but they must show repentance by appearing later, wearing black and carrying a cross to the church.

Rear of the church assumes the appearance of a ship's prow. The long narrow deck, bounded by the railing with the steeple "masts" in the back create the appearance of a ship, somehow beached 2200 feet above Lake Chapala, the nearest large body of water. Hopefully Mazamitla will bury their power and telephone lines under the streets, as some Pueblos Magicos have been doing. All that wire makes for difficult photography.

La Posada Alpina

Busy scene on Calle Portal Reforma, the location of Posada Alpina. Our hotel, the Posada Alpina faces the Parroquia across the main plaza. Many of the second floors of the buildings around the plaza contain restaurants with wonderful views of the plaza below. Posada Alpina is a beautifully decorated little place that, unfortunately, has no website or email address. However, they make up for that with a great location and simple, comfortable rooms at a very low price. I got a single room for the equivalent of about $25 (USD). The hotel also has off-street parking, a very important consideration in a town with narrow, crowded streets and limited parking. Guadalajareños come mostly on the weekends so, during the week, your chances of getting a room simply by showing up are excellent. When a van-load of us showed up unannounced on a Tuesday afternoon, we were the only guests, and had our pick of the rooms. For information about Posada Alpina and other hotels and cabins in the area, click here.

Posada Alpina is full of delightful little architectural details. A stone arch-way leads to a stairway to the second floor. Notice the painted tiles set on the riser under each step.

View of plaza from the Posada Alpina's second-story bar. After our arrival we split up to explore the town. Finally, tired and in need of liquid refreshment, we assembled on this balcony to enjoy how the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun illuminated the ever-changing scene in the plaza below.

The hotel has two internal courtyards, each ringed by balconies. Like the church, the hotel used wood liberally for decorative touches on doors, windows, and balconies. In the courtyard below, the hotel has an outdoor dining area to supplement its indoor restaurant.

A fountain and flagstone patio decorated the second courtyard. I would advise getting a room in this area because it is further back from the sometimes-noisy plaza. Notice the plants and blooming flowers everywhere. This picture was taken in February! (Photo by Chuck Boyd)

An unusual planter containing more blooms. This interesting piece of artwork is made of welded copper. I recently saw more of this artist's work at a Chapala restaurant on the Lake. Two things you can always count on in Mexico are the year-round blooms of wildly colorful flowers, and wonderful art everywhere.

La Plaza Principal

La Plaza Principal separates the Parroquia and the Posada Alpina. In the center of the plaza is the kiosco. While one finds a kiosco in virtually every Mexican plaza, they are all different and reflect the history and characteristics of the local area. This one is another example of the creative use of wood. Each time I have visited Mazamitla, I have found the plaza area immaculate, except for the times when there were improvements underway.

Like the spokes of a wheel. The roof is supported by rafters arranged like a wheel's spokes, or perhaps a sunburst.

The Jardin, or garden, was beautifully tended. Mexicans take great pride in their plazas, and someone is usually sweeping, clipping, painting or providing some other form of upkeep. All this pride and effort is a good thing, given the amount and variety of use that the typical plaza sustains,

On either side of the Jardin were broad flagstone areas with fountains. More two story wood and adobe buildings surrounded this north side of the plaza, with more beautiful wooden balconies on top and wrought-iron benches on the bottom.

Tonatuih, the Aztec sun god, glares out from a plaza sculpture. The sculptor recreated the famous face of the so-called "Aztec calendar" in bronze relief and set it into the flagstone of Plaza Principal. The calendar forms concentric rings, which correspond with Aztec ideas about the nature of time and the universe. The sun god was associated with human sacrifice and the original "calendar" may have been a sacrificial altar. Extending down from Tonatuih's mouth like a tongue is a blade. Aztecs believed that the sun needed blood in order remain strong, and that they were living in the 5th creation of the universe. Arranged around the face are 4 boxes with symbols indicating that the 4 previous creations were destroyed by wind, fire, water, and a jaguar. The circular sculpture is 4 meters (12 ft) across. The original stone calendar is located in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City and weighs 25 tons.

On the south side of the Jardin, an unusual fountain. The fountain, which was not operating when I took this photo, spouts water from the hole once filled by the beam which moved the old mill stone. The stone may come from the colonial era. The dedication attached to the fountain was for Luis Barragan Morfin, an "architect and universal man who captures the essence of this land and converts it into art." Mexicans have good reason to be proud of their many skilled architects and artists. Luis Barragan (1902-1988) grew up in Mazamitla and was an expert horseman and great lover of the local landscape. This heavily influenced his work. Other influences included a visit to the Alhambra, a product of the Moorish occupation of Spain and one of the most perfect buildings in the world, and his friendship with French landscape artist Ferdinand Bac.

Scenes from Mazamitla Streets

Transportation of the four-legged persuasion. I hope I never get too used to my sudden encounters with Mexican cowboys and their beautiful horses on the streets of small towns in Mexico. When we turned a corner, we came face to face with these two. I barely had time to get my camera up before they went cantering by. Horsemanship and the traditions surrounding it are very important here.

A typical commercial street in Mazamitla. The buildings are low, usually not more than 2 stories. They have rust-red tiles on the roof and white plaster walls. Intricately carved wooden doors and windows are common. Planters are interspersed between the old-style street lights.  Workers were busy laying this flagstone street, and it may soon become pedestrian-only, a blessing and relief from auto congestion in these narrow streets.

Calle Portal Reforma, just south of the Plaza Principal. A hotel with long wooden balconies occupies the second and third floors, while various small shops line the bottom level. The sign for Restaurant Bar "El Chupy" offers breakfasts and lunches a la carte with Rico Menudo on Sundays. Menudo is a traditional Sunday morning dish and legend has it that it can cure a hangover. The dish is a sort of soup or stew made from tripe (beef stomach) along with lime, chili peppers, onions and other ingredients. It is often made communally, with the 7-hour preparation time as much a social occasion as the eating. For a recipe, click here.

Wrought iron provides an elegant touch to this white-painted adobe building. The sign on the left proclaims "Arte y Cultura" inside, while the right-hand sign offers "Billar" (billiards).

Mexicans love flowers. The apartment above is built over a small tienda (store). The array of flower pots provides not only color but a certain degree of privacy for the porch. I have noticed that even the shabbiest shack in the tinest village is likely to have a coffee can in the window containing some sort of colorful flower. The upturned corners of the roofs in Mazamitla give the town a slightly Asian feel.

This concludes Part 1 of my Mazamitla series. In the next posting, I will take you to see the ruins of the colonial-era Hacienda de Contla southwest of Mazamitla and will outline some of the dramatic history of the Sierra del Tigre. I always appreciate comments. If you'd like to leave one, you can either do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim