Saturday, June 15, 2024

Western Mexico is an extraordinary place for camping. But is it safe?

Western Mexico is an extraordinary place for people who love nature and the great outdoors. It just so happens that all five of Mexico’s ecosystems converge in this area.

This means that from Guadalajara you only have to drive a few hours in any direction to visit a pine forest, a lake, a mountain, a deep canyon, a sandy ocean beach or a still smoldering volcano. And in less than a day you can surely reach a desert, a hot spring or a jungle.

With so much biodiversity and geodiversity all around you, the idea of camping overnight naturally occurs, even to people who have never pitched a tent in their lives: “I want to gaze in awe at a star-studded sky and fall asleep to the lullaby of crickets and frogs.”

At that moment, of course, comes the question: is it safe?

That’s when people come to someone like me.

For a total change, camp inside surreal Parangueo Crater, Guanajuato.
For a total change, camp inside surreal Parangueo Crater, Guanajuato.

“John, you’ve been living in western Mexico for 35 years and you’ve camped everywhere from bat caves to active volcanoes, so … is it safe?”

To this I can honestly reply that during 67 years of camping all around the globe, I’ve been “attacked” only twice, and neither of those incidents was in Mexico. The first experience took place in Haiti when a group of patriotic farmers, armed with rifles and pitchforks, “captured” some U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer friends and me at the entrance to a shelter cave out in the bush where we’d spent the night, thinking they had just thwarted the invasion of Haiti by Fidel Castro and his cohorts iIn those days I had a bigger beard).

Attack No. 2 took place in southwest Saudi Arabia, very close to the border of Yemen. I would have sworn that Saudi Arabia was the safest place in the world for camping in the desert but, alas, our tent was spotted by a group of long-bearded religious zealots who surprised my wife and me in the middle of the night shouting, “Show us your marriage certificate!”

Well, nowhere else in the world, I think, would a camping couple just happen to have their marriage certificate on hand — except in Saudi Arabia, of course.

Oh, how disappointed were our accusers: no fornicators to punish that night!

In these cases it was ignorance and mistaken identity rather than willful malice that motivated our attackers. Although such scenarios are within the realm of possibility in Mexico, I personally have never been attacked while camping in this country nor do I have a single acquaintance who’s had such a problem, including many who camp “out in the wild,” as I do.

This campsite in Jalisco’s Primavera Forest offers restrooms, water and police surveillance.
This campsite in Jalisco’s Primavera Forest offers restrooms, water and police surveillance.

That said, there are so many protected places to pitch your tent, such as parks, camping grounds and private property, that safety ceases to be a problem. Let me mention just a few:

Parque Ecologico Huilotán, Jalisco

Only a 45-minute drive north of Guadalajara, this jungle park is filled with mango trees and some of the biggest fig trees I have ever seen. In their shade are large swimming pools of constantly running room-temperature spring water so pure you can drink it.

From your tent you can hike to a 100-meter-tall waterfall and then go back for a dinner of the tastiest pescado dorado (fried tilapia) imaginable — from Huilotán’s own fish farm.

Sierra de Quila Nature Reserve, Jalisco

Looking for something cooler? Pitch your tent at La Ciénega campground in the middle of a truly beautiful forest at altitude 2,146 meters, with 11 waterfalls where you can take a chilly shower … after your return, of course, from hiking to rocky Huehuentón Peak, 2,565 meters high.

The view from El Manto’s spacious campground.
The view from El Manto’s spacious campground.

El Manto Waterpark, Nayarit

Perhaps you’d rather camp near a beautiful waterfall and a gorgeously sculpted river of pure, clear, room temperature spring water.

Fortunately, El Manto not only offers swimming in an attractive, natural setting, but also has cabins to rent and a huge, flat meadow where you can camp next to roofed picnic tables.

Laguna La María, Colima

If you have a yen for a great view, you might want to camp at La María Crater Lake, where you can go boating, swimming or hiking by day and then enjoy a spectacular natural fireworks show at night … if you are lucky.

La María is located just 10 kilometers from Mexico’s restless, flamboyant Volcán de Fuego, the Fire Volcano, and when it puts on a show, you will never forget it!

A short walk at night from La María Lake offers a great view of the Fire Volcano.
A short walk at night from La María Lake offers a great view of the Fire Volcano.

Paricutín Volcano, Angahuan, Michoacán

What’s that? You don’t want to look on a live volcano from afar? You’d rather camp right next to one, where you can actually taste the volcanic ash floating in the breeze? Well, why not camp at world-famous Paricutín Volcano, which popped up out of nowhere in the middle of a farmer’s cornfield back in 1943?

Isla Isabel, Pacific Ocean

All right, if none of the above will satisfy your thirst for adventure, how about camping on Mexico’s answer to the Galapagos Islands, located 150 kilometers northwest of Puerto Vallarta? You’ll be in the company of whales, dolphins and blue-footed boobies, and it’s safe … unless, of course, your boat sinks.

When it comes to camping in Mexico, I think the fly in the ointment is noise. We foreigners have our own definitions of “common sense” and “normal behavior” and can easily fool ourselves into believing the whole world sees (or should see) these things in exactly the same light.

It just isn’t so. When I was a child, I was told to whisper late at night “so you won’t wake up your little brother.”

Campers are welcome at Los Chorros de Tala, Jalisco.
Campers are welcome at Los Chorros de Tala, Jalisco.

That was my family’s custom, but here in Mexico I see a different system in operation: “little brother” has had enough years of sleeping-under-duress training to peacefully slumber through a hurricane (or even worse, a fiesta) and you couldn’t wake him up if you tried.

Whispering at night may be a concept many Mexicans have simply never thought about. So, if you express righteous anger at people who wake you up at a campsite, you are making the wrong move. Imagine instead that those noisy people simply aren’t aware they’re bothering anyone, and take it from there.

Having said all this, I would never go camping without a pair of Howard Leight Max earplugs. These I chose after an extensive study of earplugs and I find they work well if you first wet them and then insert them as instructed, while pulling on your earlobe. With Maxes in place, you too will be able to sleep through a fiesta.

Well, maybe not, if you happen to be lying on hard, cold ground. In my opinion, most adults and kids who say they don’t like camping actually don’t like being deprived of sleep.

Neither do I! That’s why I advise you to invest in a good sleeping pad. “Good” means it should be, as I see it, just as comfortable as your bed, if not more so. Check out the self-inflating pads made by Therm-a-Rest or their competitors. Buy the size and style you like best plus a strip of heavy canvas to put under it. Thorns abound in Mexico! Do this and you may gain a whole new outlook on camping.

There is, of course, much more to be said about camping equipment, but others have said it far better than I. One good source of info on gear, techniques and an appreciation of the great outdoors is Mexico’s Bakpak Magazine, which has been published since 2005 and is distributed free of charge.

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All the old editions can be perused online at their website, but note that everything is in Spanish. If you only read English, check out The Hiking Life, a gold mine of information by my friend Cam Honan, a world-renowned long-distance hiker — and expert in light-weight camping — who has lived in Mexico for many years.

With the proper gear and the proper attitude, you can look forward to many delightful nights under starry skies, serenaded by crickets, frogs, owls and whippoorwills. Just don’t forget that Therm-a-Rest!

The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.

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