El Río de la Pasión forms part of the border between the states of Jalisco and Michoacán, rising from high in the hills of Mazamitla, Jalisco, and flowing due north to the little town of Tizapán, where it pours into Lake Chapala.
This Jalisco town has not been known for much since it was a 19th-century port of call where you could board tours of Mexico’s biggest lake. The riverboats may have been gone by the time I passed through the town in the late 20th century, but I still stumbled upon El Río de la Pasión, and its very name, I felt, was just intriguing enough to warrant a look-see.
And that is how I came upon my first Montezuma Cypress, Mexico’s national tree, popularly known as ahuehuete (old man of the water). El Rio de la Pasión was full of them, so many that their interconnected branches form a kind of roof shrouding the river in semidarkness. It offers a cool, shady place to escape the heat on a sultry summer day.
I came back later to follow the river along its course and there discovered that the ahuehuetes upstream are festooned with Spanish moss, or heno, which is not a parasite but simply uses the tree as a support to hang from. Like tree orchids, this amazing bromeliad lives on nothing but the water and dirt particles floating in the air. In fact, it is one of the most famous of the “air plants.”
When I mentioned my fascination with Spanish moss to the locals, they told me that what I was admiring was nada.
“Wait till you see how much heno there is in the trees at the bend in the river, up where they found all those mammoth bones,” I was told.
“Indeed, and the people who know all about them live further upriver in the town of San José De Gracia — you know, the place that’s famous for its Orchid Festival.”
Well to make a long story short, I visited that truly beautiful bend in the river and also saw with my own eyes mammoth bones that were sticking out of the ground. Unfortunately, the route was so rough, I would only recommend it to the most hardcore of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts. That trip was thanks to people from San José De Gracia, Michoacán who, I discovered, do indeed hold an Expo Orquídea every year during the first week of February.
More pertinent to visiting El Río de la Pasión, people at the town’s presidencia told me about a recreational center located right above that fascinating river and — most importantly — very easy to reach from San José via a nicely paved road.
The center is called Ecoturismo Río de la Pasión, and it turned out to be a fascinating place with cabins, plenty of room for camping and “Mexico’s only interstate zip lines,” which take you from Michoacán to Jalisco and back again. On top of all that, it has a great museum displaying figurines and pots found in the area, along with examples of those famous mammoth bones.
“And from here,” they told me, “you can hike along a trail that will take you down to the Passion River and back. It’s only 2 kilometers long, and, don’t worry, you can’t get lost — no hay pierde.
“No hay pierde?” I repeated. “I’ve heard that before!”
Now, ready for anything, several friends and I started hiking down a most curious “path.” It was smooth and hard and wide enough for two cars to pass each other, but it was completely natural. What we were walking on was tepetate, a volcanic rock that is somewhat hard but easy to chisel. It was tepetate that the ancient inhabitants of Mexico looked for when they wanted to make big pits for fermenting the sweet juice of the roasted agave.
We followed this luxury trail down 650 meters to the valley floor, where it instantly changed into a normal narrow footpath that took us through thick, luxuriant foliage filled with wildflowers to the riverside.
At last, we had found an easy way to enjoy the charms of the Passion River. This spot is truly heaven for Spanish moss lovers — the trees were simply dripping with it!
After taking lots of photos, we continued along the trail, stopping here and again to try figuring out where the trail had gone, glancing nervously at the sun approaching the end of its journey across the sky.
“¡No hay pierde!” we all shouted, forging ahead and following our noses. And sure enough, after passing a picturesque little lake, we came to the trail heading back up to the Ecoturismo Center.
The entire loop turned out to be exactly 2 kilometers long, and the walk took about 90 minutes with lots of stops for photos.
By the way, the difference in elevation between the ecocenter and the valley floor is 89 meters. This is the sort of tour the whole family can enjoy — and not to be missed by those who love Spanish moss. Don’t forget the bug repellent, though!
If you have four-wheel-drive and a passion for adventure, you could start out in Tizapán and follow the river all the way to the ecocenter. Otherwise, just ask Google Maps to take you from wherever you are to “Ecoturismo Río de la Pasión,” which is also the name of their Facebook page, where you can book a cabin if you’d like to spend the night there. Driving time from Guadalajara to Ecoturismo is about three hours, but only 90 minutes or so from the north shore of Lake Chapala.
In these days of Covid-19, the center is still open to the public, but reports from San José de Gracia say that the Orchid Expo might be canceled.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for 31 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.