Wednesday, February 24, 2016

LVII. En el Sendero Extraño y Peligroso a la Cascada Esmeralda

On the Strange and Dangerous Path to the Emerald Waterfall

That's mighty hot water spilling over La Cascada
Photo courtesy of George Frazier
Every Tuesday and Friday a group of mostly gringos—both ex-pats and seasonal visitors to this area—meet at Dona’s Donuts on the carretera, or throughway, that bisects our little town. From there we walk or drive to a trailhead where we begin a 3-6 hour hike. There are usually at least two—often, three—levels to accommodate everyone from tenderfoot to experienced bushwhacker. This past Friday I joined a group of the latter types headed for Bosque de la Primavera, a large, semi-protected, pine and oak forest just past the western outskirts of Guadalajara. Among the trees, cerros and arroyos the area is full of the remains of past volcanic action—huge blocks of pumice, scattered chunks of obsidian, free-standing fossil fumaroles, lava plugs and lots of geothermal activity. We were there for a walk along Rio Caliente—"Hot River", and it lives up to its name—and thence on a hunt up to the source of one of its scalding tributaries not far above—often spoken of but seldom seenLa Cascada Esmeralda.

About the Ride to the Bosque

I met my main hiking buddies, George—an ex-newspaper columnist, -private eye, and -branding entrepreneur from Marin County—and Anthony—yoga instructor and former high school shop teacher from Texas and Florida—at the donut shop a few minutes before our 8AM departure. There was only one car for the ten of us who wanted in on this hike and we were ready to chuck it and wait for a later, lighter-weight local trip until Canadian Peter volunteered his newish SUV for the two hour drive to El Bosque. I traveled with him and three other Canadians all here to escape the brunt of Ontario’s winter. As usual with Canucks the talk at one time or another turned to their unfavorable exchange rate compared to the Yankee dollar…The ride was mostly past sugar cane fields being harvested and trucks way overloaded with same. It was a clear, warm day above the haze from an occasional field being burned to rid the cane of its leaves and bugs.

About Rio Caliente

After paying a nominal entry fee at a kind of Mexican hillbilly toll booth, we found the river flowing clear and mostly shallow over a pebbly bottom, and occasionally bunched into pools above makeshift rocky dams. You could tell by the low banks and youthful vegetation that in the rainy season the river must deepen and spread more widely. We began hiking under a mid-morning sun through a narrow valley with pine and bigleaf oak forests in the hills on either side, hardly any understory. Several times—in order to stay on the path—we had to hop across the stream on convenient rocks. The first time, I put my finger in the water to test how hot it was—“warm,” was what I called out to my companions. When we met a creek tumbling down to our river, steaming hot through a rocky arroyo, the beauty and odd confluence of natural forces made me laugh with happiness at being its witness.

About the Hot, Emerald Stream 

Our destination Friday was the source of a scalding hot tributary of Rio Caliente. This stream’s bed has a bountiful growth of emerald-green algae giving color to its clear water. And it IS hot. A cautionary sign at the trailhead claims the temperature reaches 80º C, more familiarly about 175 Fahrenheit. It wasn’t long before we came to the first crossing, a balancing act on six rocks zigzagging about eight feet to the opposite bank. Maximum depth here appeared to be around knee high. I think we were almost all wondering something along the lines of “What if I fall in? Will I parboil my huevos?” I tested the water with a quick finger poke. “It’s hot. But not too hot.” Meaning, we’ve all put our foot (and quickly withdrawn it) into a full bathtub that wasn’t any hotter than this; we wouldn’t die if we fell in…It’s a testament to our nimbleness that we all made it; possibly our foolhardiness that we even tried…A bit further on and we came to La Cascada Esmeralda—a stunning scene, and a new level of heat and challenge. Steam blowing off this beautiful green-tinted waterfall gave it an eerie and dangerous air. The arroyo had now closed down around the stream. From here on we’d have to climb up its steep walls to gain access to the source that our GPS told us was only a tantalizing 130 meters away.

About Being Stuck

Mis dos amigos (plus Artos, our lanky German friend who always wears a ceramic bear around his neck) wisely decided to bag it at this point. John, intrepid leader, gingerly skirted around the thin edge of the cauldron trying a low approach. The rest—including Lynn, only woman among us, game and fashionable in a black satin and rhinestone visor over Nieman Marcus sunglasses—opted to scramble about fifteen feet up a nearly vertical and overgrown embankment. It wasn't long though before we realized our way forward was irrefutably blocked. And then we saw John below us. He'd run out of room and was hand-over-hand up the vegetation on the sheer wall above an almost-literally-boiling pool of emerald water. John is a stout guy. We saw him grasp and pull out by the roots several small bushes as he scrambled for purchase. Russell, my Canuck seat mate—even more stout—reached down to grab hold of John’s hiking pole. I—smallest of the bunch—backed up Russell…We made it! John—legs scratched and bleeding—fell to the “trail” to catch his breath. I imagined the leg-shaking tension I would have felt in his place…Later, he and I compared notes on an alternate route that will allow us to reach our destination—perhaps next time.

About the Post-Hike Celebration

Not too far from where we left the Bosque on our way home there were an awfully lot of buses and trucks—18, 26, even 32 wheelers—traveling on the loud and air-polluted main road between Guadalajara and the large coastal city of Puerto Vallarta. They could get up to some pretty good speed running past an unbroken line of vividly painted concrete block and metal awninged tiendas, cantinas, repair shops and bodegas. Cafe customers there were close enough to the traffic to really feel the rapid displacement of air and vibration of engines grinding loudly behind their backs. Close enough—we were on the sidewalk, for crissake—to make it difficult to hear, let alone understand, the rapid fire patter of a restaurant owner trying to explain she doesn’t actually serve the food on the appetizing-looking poster displayed on her road-dusty wall, nor does she even have a license to sell cervezas...She solved the former problem by overwhelming us with information about what was on the menu until we ordered whatever (“Carne asada is usually good,” someone muttered). The more important legal issue was worked around in typical Mexican fashion by sending a girl to the little store next door for some liter bottles of Corona, Tecate, etc., and pouring the beer into ceramic mugs…Anthony—bless his heart—is always a soft touch and treated us to a couple of songs from a passing minstrel. We heard the guy's hoarse singing between the noise of passing trucks, but I couldn't keep my eyes off the tennis ball-sized growth on the side of his neck. Salud!

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Tom! Exactly the way I remembered and forgot it! Thanks!