Thursday, June 20, 2024

In Mexico, hiking isn’t just climbing — it’s senderismo

Senderos de México is an organization that catalogs, maintains and signposts trails (senderos) In Mexico. More than that, it promotes a concept called senderismo, which I find quite impossible to translate into English.

To many, the word senderismo evokes the joy, the elation and the mystique of wandering in the great outdoors. It’s often translated into “hiking” in English, but this word strikes me as ponderously practical, somehow embodying more of the exertion and perspiration of senderismo than the exhilaration.

I see the word “hiking” as down to earth, while senderismo is a word that seems to float in the air like a fleecy cloud.

Not long ago, Senderos de México (Trails of Mexico) gave a presentation on “the experience of trail walking,” featuring two speakers. One was Matteo Volpi, a long-distance hiker and creator of the Volpi backpack, the only ultralight knapsack made in Mexico. The other speaker was Jesús “Chuy” Moreno, a nature photographer who teaches hands-on natural science courses in the woods. I thought these two were perfect choices for speakers, as each helps us focus on a different aspect of senderismo.

ladybugs at Sierra de Quila Nature Reserve in Jalisco, Mexico
You’re not likely to see this in the city: a convention of ladybugs gathered at the Huehuentón Lookout in the Sierra de Quila Nature Reserve.

Volpi spoke about his experience hiking along the 4,000-kilometer-long Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches across the United States from its border with Mexico all the way to Canada.

Long-distance hiking emphasizes the sport aspect of senderismo. The hiker learns to travel light and to travel far, all the while enjoying the panoramic vistas of mountains forests and deserts, never losing sight of the aesthetic side of the experience.

Chuy Moreno reminds us of another aspect of senderismo. Hiking along a trail takes us out of the city and into the realm of nature. Here we encounter insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, flowers, trees, fungi and rocks, each of which has more than a story to tell because each is really an entire universe inviting us to step inside. Have you ever tried hiking with a botanist? Beware! You may spend all day without getting more than 10 meters from the trailhead!

Yet another aspect of senderismo is encountering the unexpected. Getting up off the couch and onto a trail leading who knows where will most certainly leave you with plenty of anecdotes to tell around the campfire. I asked Susan Street, a member of the hiking group that founded Senderos de México, if she could give me an example of an excursion that turned up a few surprises.

Walking through the Primavera Forest near Guadalajara
Long-distance hiker Matteo Volpi makes his way through the deep canyons of the Primavera Forest, located directly west of Guadalajara.

She proceeded to tell me the story of “that hike where we were all thrown into jail in the Sierra Huichola.” This mountain range spreads over Jalisco, Nayarit and Zacatecas.

Street had a plan to walk to the village of Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, where the language, customs and clothing of the Wixárika people have been preserved. She and her hiker friends first flew to San Andrés Cohamiata, a small town located in Mezquitic, Jalisco.

“Here,” she told me, “we met our ever-smiling guide, whose name I won’t mention lest I offend indigenous customs. He wore his traditional clothing, including huaraches [traditional sandals], and carried all his gear in a morral [a traditional woven bag] throughout all the days and nights we were hiking and camping.

“Well, we walked and walked, passing small shrines called ririki, which were dedicated to minor deities but looked a bit like dollhouses, with entrances about a meter high and all filled with offerings such as ojos de dios [God’s eye weavings], deer horns, feathers and candles.”

Summer in the Woods nature class in Jalisco, Mexico
Jesús “Chuy” Moreno teaches children about science and nature in an interactive way — by hiking through the woods.

At last, the hikers arrived at Santa Catarina, where they expected to be welcomed and given shelter. At this point, they were no longer with their guide, who had gone on ahead to meet with the local tatohuani (governor).

“So when we reached the plaza of Santa Catarina, we just plunked down our mochilas [backpacks] and were relaxing and taking pictures of some children there when who walks up to us but the tatohuani himself, who, for some reason, had not seen our guide at all,” she said. “After interrogating us, the governor declared that we had no authorization to be there and that he was putting us under arrest — and he also confiscated the camera he had seen one of us use.”

One member of the hiking group remarked that it was the best jail a prisoner could ever have dreamed of “as it had a roof of beautiful stars and no walls whatsoever.”

“Eventually,” said Street, “our guide appeared, and a lot of talking took place, during which we got to know the local people. In the end — after making us pay a fine — they declared that we were no longer under arrest, and they put us up for the night as originally planned.”

San Miguelito hoverfly
Part of the joy of senderismo is the little surprises like this visit from the harmless San Miguelito, a hoverfly that often lands on fingers.

Whether you are attracted to senderismo because it throws you into the arms of the unexpected or because it brings you into contact with nature, or because it challenges you physically, as a senderista, you are surely ever on the lookout for new sites where you can go trekking.

Senderos de México is dedicated to showing you where those places are and how to get there.

You can look for trails on their website, Senderos de México  or their Facebook page. On top of that, the organization has just announced the imminent publication of guides, in both Spanish and English, to trails around Lake Chapala. In the future, they say, they hope to include hiking sites all over Mexico.

If you happen to be a nature enthusiast living in the vicinity of Guadalajara or Puerto Vallarta, you can also find close to 100 places to hike and camp in my three volumes, entitled Outdoors in Western Mexico. If you are located in another part of the country, you can find plenty of nearby places to hike at or Alltrails.

Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico
A transcendent view of Lake Chapala awaits you at the upper end of the El Chante hike described in the new Senderos de México Trail Guide.

Pick out a trail and discover what senderismo is all about!

The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, since 1985. His most recent book is Outdoors in Western Mexico, Volume Three. More of his writing can be found on his blog.


hiking trail guide by Senderos de Mexico
If you want to hike in Jalisco, Senderos de México’s new Trail Guide features 26 hikes starting from the shores of Lake Chapala.


Primarvera Forest, Jalisco, Mexico
A great way to get started learning about nature or to get to know an unfamiliar place is by following an interpretive trail like this one in the Primavera Forest.


Pino blanco pinecone
“Now this is what I call a pine cone!” The Pino blanco tree (Pinus devoniana) can be found everywhere from Sinaloa to Chiapas.



Senderos de Mexico website
Senderos de México is dedicated to showing people where to hike in Mexico. Right now, they have mostly documented Jalisco’s trails.
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