Mexico Life
Beautiful formations in La Cueva de los Monos. Beautiful formations in La Cueva de los Monos.

The magic circle of western Mexico

Where all five of Mexico's ecosystems converge within a 500-kilometer circle

Thirty-three years ago I took up residence in a pine and oak forest on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city.

My hobby was cave exploring and I quickly discovered there were no caving clubs to be found in Guadalajara. Undaunted, I started my own organization called Zotz, which is Mayan for bat.

Our little group was convinced there were caves lurking everywhere in the state of Jalisco and our technique for finding them was simple. We would pick a pueblito somewhere, go to the plaza and walk up to one of the old-timers inevitably sitting there on a bench, warming himself in the early-morning sun.

“Buenos días,” caballero,” we would say. “Do you happen to know if there are any caves around here?”

Cuevas?” the old man would reply and then, perhaps, a dreamy look would come into his eyes. “There’s a cave on that hillside, right over there. They say there are gold bars buried inside. We looked everywhere for them, but all we found were mountains of guano, from all the bats.”

“Bats and guano?” I’d reply. “Just what we are looking for — how can we get there?” Thus would begin a new adventure. Perhaps we would end up finding a cave worth exploring or, instead, we’d find nothing at all, but quite frequently in the process of looking for that cave we would stumble upon some natural wonder so fascinating that we would totally forget our original plan.

We might find ourselves ascending an endlessly winding road to some magnificent mirador (lookout point) or reach the bottom of mile-deep a canyon, filled with tropical plants and exotic fruit trees. Or we might come to bubbling mud pots, a hissing geyser or find ourselves at the foot of a spectacular waterfall with a crystal-clear pool of water just inviting us to jump in.

All those years ago, I began writing about these “little paradises” in the middle of nowhere, known only to the local people. One week it would be a crater lake, the next a cloud forest left over from Pleistocene times, and the next a swamp filled with stately Montezuma cypresses dripping with Spanish moss.

After 20 years I asked myself, “How is it possible I keep finding new marvels of nature around here, such amazing biodiversity and geodiversity?”

That’s when I sat down with a map and drew a large circle, 500 kilometers in diameter, around Guadalajara. “This is the area I have been exploring,” I said to myself. “What makes it so special?”

Of course, I considered altitude: 4,240 meters above sea level atop the Nevado de Colima and zero at Puerto Vallarta, but a better explanation for all that diversity came when I opened a book entitled Geo-Mexico, by Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton, to a page with a map showing the five ecosystems of Mexico:

  • Arid scrublands or desert (as in the cactus-rich Sonoran Desert);
  • Tropical evergreen forests (for example, the rainforests of Quintana Roo);
  • Tropical deciduous forests (like the thorn forests of Sinaloa);
  • Grasslands (from Ciudad Juárez to Aguascalientes);
  • Temperate forests (the oaks, pines and firs on many of Mexico’s mountains).

Naturally my eye went straight to the city of Guadalajara on this map and, to my surprise, I discovered that within the 500-kilometer circle I had drawn, all five of Mexico’s ecosystems converged. I also noted that a line representing what Rhoda and Burton call the faunistic divide of Mexico (delineating the animals of the north and those of the south) just happens to run right through that same magic circle.

This means that a tapatío (a native of Guadalajara) can head out of town in a different direction on five consecutive days and each time end up in a different environment with its own characteristic climate, flora and fauna.

By way of example, let me mention Las Cuevas, an obscure spot listed in a corner of a topographical map featuring the little town of Ixtlán del Río in the state of Nayarit. Naturally we members of the Zotz Caving Club couldn’t resist packing our tents and driving out to this remote place where, indeed, we did find several dusty shelter caves of no particular interest to us.

The caves, however, were located next to a small dam whose waters were curiously warm. This dam, we soon discovered, was fed by a little creek, which we followed a short distance upstream to its source, a crystal-clear hot spring surrounded by exotic, pineapple-like plants.

“We came for caves and found paradise,” we all agreed, jumping into the steaming pool where we soaked for hours while gazing up at a star-studded sky.

The next day we went to explore a nearby feature taking up most of that topo map: Ceboruco Volcano, whose 2,260-meter-high peak can easily be reached via a cobblestone service road leading to a set of microwave towers.

In stark contrast to the semi-tropical foliage around Las Cuevas, the top of Ceboruco is covered with vast stretches of black lava rubble surrounded by a pine forest. Again and again along the boundary between the woods and the lava, we found picture-perfect grassy meadows filled with wildflowers.

A winding trail leads from the microwave towers to the volcano’s imposing, not-quite-dead crater, where clouds of vapor, reeking of sulfur, rise from still active fumaroles: another paradisiacal — or maybe infernal — scene contrasting dramatically with the steamy, tropical hot pool of Las Cuevas.

So far my wife and I have described some 65 wonderful places we have come across, gathered into two volumes called Outdoors in Western Mexico but these represent only a small fraction of the many sites which await you in the magic circle surrounding Guadalajara.

“One lifetime,” says a friend, long-time explorer Mario Guerrero, “is not long enough to visit all the marvels of nature hidden away in western Mexico.”

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.

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