Sunday, September 27, 2009

Climbing the cliffs of San Esteban - Part 2

Large monolith towers over surrounding trees. In Part 1, we walked though beautiful woods and pastures before climbing steeply up to the main ridge of the San Esteban cliffs. Above, you can see one of our goals, a huge rock monolith. Robert (our rock climbing expert) wanted to rappel off the top. The monolith stands over 90 feet high and is about 10-12 feet across at the top. Ironically, we had to climb down the hillside behind the monolith for a couple of hundred yards to reach the top of this structure. This was only one of many monoliths we encountered on the hike.

Christopher waits his turn. Our group was composed of 15 men and women hikers from the US, Canada, and Mexico. While hiking with a large group can be fun, it also entails a lot a waiting. Rock climbing can be a slow, one-at-a-time process. We spent our waiting time chatting and catching up on one another's lives. Christopher never minds hanging out and taking pictures while others go ahead.

Another monolith, with a view of the mountains. One great thing about this hike was that both the foreground and the background were stupendous. Monoliths such as this one rose around the crest of the ridge like ramparts on a castle wall.

Fire raged across the valley. We spotted this smoke on a parallel ridge across a deep gorge. It could have been the result of a careless smoker, but more likely it was due to a local farmer trying to clear some land for planting. Sometimes, in the dry season, these fires get seriously out of control and aircraft have to drop fire suppressant material.

Lynne climbs a chimney. A long, high split in the rock like this is called a chimney. It is not difficult if you are familiar with the right technique, but can be very challenging if you are not. Lynne was not, and struggled mightily as we all encouraged her efforts. The greater the struggle, the greater the triumph when success is achieved. She made it. Rock climbing of this sort can often be harder for women, because they generally have less upper body strength than men.

A view from the top. Mike (L.) and Tom (R.) enjoy the long view to the north of the ridge. The cliffs drop off just in front of them. We originally thought this was the top of the monolith we were seeking to rappel, but soon discovered our goal was further to the east along the ridge.

The great monolith. As you can see, the spaces between the cliffs and monoliths are dense with underbrush and trees. Hopefully these would break a fall. Hopefully.

A scramble to the top of the great monolith. This is the view from behind the same rock structure seen in the last picture. Robert (L.), Tom (R.) and Mike (scrambling) went up to take in the view. The climb was not difficult from the rear, if you were careful. This was probably the maximum number of people you would want to share the view with at one time. The drop in front of Robert is at least 90 feet straight down.

A country lane snakes along the base of the cliffs directly below the monolith's peak. This is the same road, seen in the second picture of Part 1, along which our group initially hiked from the town of San Esteban.

Looking north from the monolith peak. Rolling hills, pastures, and corn fields spread out below, stretching off toward the distant peaks. Jalisco State has a lot of farmland enriched by the volcanic ash deposited over the centuries. The peaks in the distance may actually be in Zacatecas, since the border between the two states dips close to Guadalajara in this area.

The town of San Esteban lay at our feet. Looking over the rocky edge of the monolith, we could see San Esteban almost directly below just to our east. San Esteban stretches out along both sides of a road which follows a ravine. Although it is fairly close to Guadalajara, San Esteban is off the tracks normally beaten by area expats, so the townspeople seemed intrigued by the large group of gringo hikers who suddenly materialized in their midst.

Little brothers. While many of the monoliths we encountered were huge--some the height of a 5-story building--others were smaller. The two above were about the height of tall humans. I don't know the geological origins of these unusual rock structures, but would love to hear from anyone who does.

Small and delicate, yellow flowers blossom in the shadows of rock giants. I have noticed that the higher the altitude, the smaller the flowers. These little yellow beauties managed to eke out a living in the cracks among the rocks under our feet.

A final view from the top. Here you are looking roughly south east. This country is typical of Jalisco: lush, fertile valleys separated by rugged mountain ridges.

Starting down. Descending, while taking less effort than climbing, is often more precarious in the mountains. Since you are facing out, away from the mountain, gravity works against you. It is more difficult to see secure footholds from above than below. Finally, you are already tired from climbing, and are probably thinking about that cold beer to come, so it is easy to lose focus and miss your step. More people get hurt descending than climbing. Some, as you can see above, prefer to do it on their backsides. Above, Craig in the foreground, waits as his wife Halcyon scoots down a tricky section on her behind.

In some places, backsides just won't do. We needed to get down some pretty steep rock faces, so Robert broke out his rappelling gear and gave some quick lessons to the uninitiated, which included Halcyon above. The art of rappelling is not hard to learn, but is somewhat counter-intuitive. It requires you to trust your gear and lean back into space, an act someone new to the game may find a little unnerving at first.

Caroline rappels down a slot as Christopher and others "spot" for her below. Without the proper gear, and care in using it, one could easily twist or break an ankle. Such an injury would be very problematic in this terrain with a long way yet to go down.

Down the ridge and through the slot. Caroline (L.) and Halcyon (R.) carefully picked their way over the loose rocks and through a slot separating two huge boulders. Caroline clutches her camera to keep it from banging against the rocks. One of the dangers I have found in a place like this is the temptation to get caught up in all the great photo opportunities. By not paying enough to my footing, I've taken a few spills this way. Fortunately, other than some minor cuts and bruises, I've been lucky.

Awaiting us were lush green meadows, abounding with lovely wildflowers. Although a little nerve-racking at times, the climb down was accomplished fairly quickly. The group made a bee-line to the nearest tienda in San Esteban for the traditional post-hike beer. I don't drink alcohol, and neither does my friend Bob, but both of us drink O'Douls a non-alcoholic beer. I stepped up to ask if the tienda carried the brand, while Bob pooh-poohed the notion. To the amazement of both of us, the proprietress promptly produced two ice cold cans! In Mexico, you just never know what you'll find.

This concludes Part 2 of my two-part series on Climbing the Cliffs of San Esteban. I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to forward a link to my blog to friends and family. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in the Comments section below or email me directly at If you use the Comment section to ask a question, please make sure you include your email address so I can answer you.

Hasta luego! Jim

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Climbing the cliffs of San Esteban - Part 1

Rugged cliffs and monoliths rim the hills overlooking San Esteban. This posting is Part 1 of a 2 part series on our hike into the cliffs of San Esteban. Several weeks ago, some of the more experienced hikers from both the Tuesday and Friday hiking groups teamed up to try our hands at the rugged cliffs above San Esteban. The little town lies a few miles to the north of Guadalajara. Robert, our rock climbing expert, brought his ropes and equipment in hopes of finding interesting climbs and rappels. San Esteban lies in a valley at the base of a hill which rises almost vertically about 1000 feet just behind the town. The top 500 feet or so of the hill is honeycombed with boulders, monoliths, and sheer rock faces.

Setting off through gorgeous farm country. About 15 of us piled into several vehicles and set off on this adventure. Larry, shown above, is a stalwart of the Tuesday group. Our route out of San Esteban took us along this dirt road, running along the base of the cliffs. Notice the fence posts. Mexican farmers don't waste money on expensive store-bought posts when a dead tree limb can suffice.

Mexican "fence post" cactus reminds us that we are in semi-desert. Although the country around us was lush with grass, corn or and other plants, large "fence post" cactus was also present. The cactus gains its name because it is sometimes planted in lieu of fences. Given its fearsome spines, it would be a good deterrent to straying livestock.

Large bee at work pollinating. This fellow was about the size of a large marble and completely ignored me as I moved in to photograph him at work. I am not sure what the flower is. Any enlightenment that can be offered would be appreciated

Dam resting quietly with a new kid. A female goat with young kids is called a dam in English. Females without kids are called does or nannies. In Spanish, a goat is called a cabra and a kid is a cabrito. We have found goats everywhere we have visited in Western Mexico. Goats arrived in Mexico with the Spanish. The hardy breed needs little maintenance, eats plants that will kill sheep or cattle, and produces hides, hair, meat and milk.Special restaurants called birreria serve cabrito, a delicacy here. It's pretty good.

Morning glories adorn a rustic fence post along our way. I have found Morning Glories everywhere I have hiked in Western Mexico. There are more than 1000 species, many of which are native to the Americas. They are found in temperate and tropical regions. What is typical of the Morning Glory is the trumpet shaped flower which opens in the morning--hence the name. The flower lasts only a day, but the plant is a prolific producer of flowers.

Cliffs of San Esteban. Periodically, through the trees, we caught sight of the rugged cliffs lining the ridge as we walked along the farm road. They formed an impressive rampart through which we had to find our way.

Finally, an opening. Robert, who had climbed here before, acted as our guide. After a mile or so, he found a faint trail through the thick underbrush and we turned up hill. Although the distance to the top of the ridge was not great, the way was steep. However, after 2 years of hiking and climbing in this area's rugged 5000-8000 foot mountains, I felt confident of my stamina.

A timid character. About half way up, the terrain leveled out into a plateau where cattle grazed. Our trail took us through the middle of the herd. This timid calf was very anxious about finding us between him and his mother. As soon as he could, he rushed over to her. He was quite handsome, I thought, with his large, beautiful, dark eyes and tawny hide. Since he weighed 2-3 times more than any of us, was armed with small but potentially effective horns, he could have been dangerous. But he was very young and frightened and so not very menacing.
Brahman cattle like this one originated in India and were brought to Mexico because they adjust well to the heat and are highly disease resistant.

A not-so-timid character. The bull of the herd was not amused. He watched us with a distinctly disapproving expression. Our strange appearance and accoutrements probably baffled him enough to prevent any menacing moves. Although this photo makes it appear I was close enough to tickle him under the chin, it is actually a telephoto shot. Contrary to some opinions, I am not that stupid.

Another critter, a bit smaller this time. My friend Tom is a regular Tuesday hiker and retired dermatologist. He found this little fellow on one of our rest breaks. I wanted to ask him a dermatologist question: do frogs give warts, or is it just toads? The frog is quite small, as you can see from the hairs on Tom's arm. If there are any amphibian experts out there, I would appreciate a name for this critter. (Photo by C. Jordan English).

And now, a giant. We were amazed by the size of some of the Oak leaves on the ground. As you can see, this one is several times the size of my boot. Oak forests lined the tops of the ridges overlooking San Esteban, as they do the mountain ridges overlooking Ajijic where I live. (Photo by C. Jordan English)

A rugged, rocky landscape. At this point we had entered the realm of the rocks. Strange and beautiful formations rose up all around us. I like rocks. This attraction has always puzzled Carole. Part of it is my interest in geology. However, I think mostly I just enjoy the lines and shapes and the pleasure of clambering up some formation to see what is on top.

Blue beauties among the rocks. These almost irredescent blue blossoms nicely set off the gray-brown of the rocks. They seemed to flourish near the crest of the ridge. Another flower needing a name.

More interesting formations emerged as we got higher. Tom (L.) and Bob (R.) clambered up to this slot in a rock face, looking for a trail. Bob is a retired veterinarian and former cowboy who has an endless stock of hilarious stories about his adventures in both professions.

Not yet ready for glory. This Morning Glory had not yet opened for business, as the sun had just reached its hiding place among the rocks.

A vast landscape opens before us. At this point we had reached a saddle in the ridge, and were beginning to move toward the giant monoliths higher up. Looking northeast, distant mountain ranges loom in the background. Asked to describe Mexico, an early conquistador simply crumpled up a piece of paper and tossed it on the table. Much of Mexico is covered by mountain ranges, separated by valleys, large and small. This rugged landscape resulted in native cultures and languages developing separately from one another. Mexico still has over 60 distinct languages among its indigenous people.

Taking a break before taking on the monoliths. We stopped to rest in this saddle near the top of the ridge. The area was a jumble of boulders of various dimensions, but it afforded us blessed shade from the hot mid-day sun.

This completes Part 1 of "Climbing the cliffs of San Esteban". In Part 2, we move through a weird world of boulders and monoliths. Rock climbing and rappelling are on the agenda, and for some among us it would be the first time. I will post Part 2 in about a week. Stay tuned!

I hope you have enjoyed this first part. Feel free to pass along the link to this blog to friends and family. If you'd like to leave a comment, you can do so either by emailing me at, or by putting it in the comments section below. If you leave a question in the comments section, please make sure you include your email address so I can reply.

Hasta luego! Jim

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ajijic's Annual Charro Parade

Charros originated in Jalisco State. Every year, during the 9-days of the Fiestas de Independencia, charros from Ajijic and throughout Jalisco State and elsewhere in Mexico participate in an event in Ajijic that is beyond colorful. It begins with a special Mass for charros at the Parrochia church near the Plaza. Scores of beautifully groomed and saddled charro horses fill the Parrochia courtyard, waiting for their masters. After the service, the charros mount up and parade through the streets of Ajijic, ending at the Lienzo, or charro ring, for rodeo-style events. The whole event has the feeling of the 19th or even the 18th Century

Making ready, a pretty girl requires a little help with her outfit. Following the service, there was a flurry of activity as final adjustments were made in costumes, saddles and equipment were checked and re-checked, and photographers like myself scurried about trying to capture as much as possible.

Proud charro sits easily on his mount, waiting for the parade to start. Some of the charro outfits were exquisite, like the one on this rider. Horse, saddle, and clothing can add up to quite an expense. Being a charro is a way of life, an identity. The term charro comes from Spain, meaning a native of the province of Salamanca. Probably the first charros came from there and settled in the Jalisco area. Jalisco also originated mariachi music and tequila.

Beautifully braided main. The young girl on this horse told us that she and her mother worked hard on this special effect for the parade.

Young senorita waits patiently on her colt. Young children participate in the activities in a variety of ways. Kids learn to ride at a very young age. This senorita looks very serious here, but just wait!

The charro has become a symbol of Mexico known around the world. Charro events tend to be very patriotic, and Mexican flags were at the parade in abundance. Independencia, the 199th anniversary of the beginning of the War for Independence from Spain, is celebrated on September 15-16, only a couple of days after the Charro Parade.

Two pretty members of the Escaramuza Charra. For a long time, male charros objected to the idea of women participating in charro events. However, women finally broke through with teams of female riders doing highly skilled choreographic routines. All this is done while riding side-saddle. The two women above are part of a team that won the National Championship for Escaramuza Charra. Even though the women I saw were quite young and slender, they were without a doubt true athletes. And they have beautiful, winning smiles.

What would a Mexican parade be without the local brass band? These guys were proud to be in the parade, and what they may have lacked in skill, they made up for in volume.

The senorita in purple again, but this time with a smile! Once the parade started, the little girl beamed in every direction. I thought she might strain her neck as she mugged for the cameras.

A suicidal canine. I spotted this small dog trotting around between the legs of the assembled horses. Some of the horses were moving, and some even dancing to the band music. I couldn't believe the dog could survive all those hooves clashing against the cobblestones. But he ducked and weaved, and appeared to be having a great time with his game.

Escaramuza Charras lead off the parade. As National Champions, the Charras took the position of honor in the lead. The parade wound from the Parrochia down Hidalgo street, past my old house, to Seis Esquinas and back along Ocampo street to the Lienzo.

Asociacion de Charros de Ajijic was not far behind the Charras. This is the local organization of charros. The charro banner is made of rawhide, painted with the emblem of Ajijic's charros.

This fellow had a great time at the parade. Here he gives a ride on his burro to a little girl, possibly a relative. At other times I saw him giving rides to Fiesta Princesses and other pretty girls. The burro was apparently a real asset (pun intended). The burro looked bored by the whole thing, but then it's pretty hard to impress a burro (unless you have a piece of celery).

And the band played on... The band kept up a steady beat, led by these two beefy drummers. Band members seemed to be having a good time. Many of the charros have taught their mounts to dance to the music, quite a sight to see.

The real thing. I was impressed by this trio, who seemed to have just ridden in from a 19th Century hacienda. They were older than most of the charros in the parade and looked very commanding in posture and dress and manner of riding.

A lucky young charro. Each of the three Princesas Fiestas Patrias rode on the lap of a handsome young charro. The charro maintained a serious mien, but I suspected he was enjoying every minute of it.

A cold cerveza, just the thing for a hot day. This pair stopped off at a tienda along the way to buy a couple of ice-cold cervezas. In typical fashion of cowboys everywhere, they never bothered to dismount, but did their business from the saddle and rejoined the parade. The one on the right seemed to be especially jolly.

The Lienzo, scene of charro exploits to come. A lienzo is a rodeo ring shaped like an old-fashioned keyhole--a round hole with a rectangular slot below. The events generally begin at the bottom of the slot and proceed to the ring. The bulls or horses brought out for the events exit through the red doors near the entrance to the ring. Just to the left of the red doors is a narrow walk-way that extends around the inside of the ring. Charros and spectators line the barrier wall separating the ring from the walk way. Occasionally a bull or horse will jump the barrier and run the length of the walkway, much to the delight of the spectators in the stands above. Occupants of the walkway come popping out of the slot like popcorn out of a popper as the angry beast thunders by. For a look at what happens at the Lienzo during a Charreada, click here.

This completes my posting on the Annual Charro Parade. I hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to pass on the link to this blog to friends and family. If you'd like to leave a comment, either do it in the comments section below, or directly by email. If you use the comments section to ask a question, be sure to leave your email address so I can reply.

Hasta luego! Jim