Mexico's peace and beauty: Roaming the hills around Morelia
by Hans Nienstaedt
Roberto, one of my Mexican neighbors once asked if he could hike with me. He had heard rumors that I roamed the hills around Morelia. I, of course, said: "Yes." It is good to have company when you hike - and safer too!
Then Roberto said: "What weapons do you carry?" When I answered "Absolutely none!" he became worried. What about the people? What about snakes? So I told him of my most dangerous hiking experience. It was west of Jesus del Monte, I came upon three or four campesinos rebuilding a stone wall and sharing a jug of pulque. To all appearances they had been sharing it for some time, and now I was to share with them, please! My dilemma?
How to get out of that one without upsetting my friends. I managed somehow, and also convinced Roberto that he didn't need his pistol!
That must have been about ten years ago, and now many, many hikes later I still maintain that it is absolutely safe to hike the hills around Morelia. Twenty years ago when we only were here as visitors I always hiked alone. No more! The trails are rough; you can fall and hurt yourself! Hike with a partner!!
How to find your way?
There are some major burro trails feeding into Morelia from the surrounding hinterland, trails used by the campesinos to haul in wood, leaf mold, charcoal, ears of corn — anything they can sell in town. Some trails are substantial, many are narrow, seldom used and have a freakish way of suddenly disappearing. So how do you find your way?
How does the saying go? What goes up has to come down — or something like that. The topography around Morelia is very, very helpful; the many hills are landmarks you can't miss. Pick the one you want to climb, pick your way up there on burro or cattle trails. Then from the top pick your return and follow your nose. I admit it; bushwacking often enters into it, but even that need not be too hard. You will find a multitude of cattle trails going more or less in the right direction.
Maps are available from INEGI. Carta Topografica, 1: 50 000, Morelia E14A23, is the one to get. There is an INEGI store on Garcia Leon, coming from Ventura Puente it is on the left hand side down towards Camelinas. The cost of the map is negligible. It covers a large area south and east of Morelia and Las Tetillas de Quinceo (also known as the Teats) to the northwest, Quinceo itself is just beyond the edge of the map to the north. The greatest help from the map is the topography — 20 meter contours — the trails that are shown are only the most commonly used hauling trails.
What to look out for?
The trails are rough with stones of all sizes. Going downhill can be a special challenge. It is easy to slip on small stones and gravel. During the rainy season trails and even the grassy fields become very slippery. So watch your steps! Poison ivy is not too common, but in some ravines with more moisture, it is smart to look out! Snakes? In all our hiking we have seen exactly one rattlesnake and it refused to use its rattle.
Barbed wire fences are becoming more and more common, but can usually be negotiated between, above or below the wires. Motor bikes have become a nuisance over the years — noisy and impolite. We usually avoid hiking on the weekends.
Take a look back down the trail you have come up every so often. Not only to see the view; it may be helpful in case you decide to return the way you came up.
What to wear?
Personally I wear shorts and short.sleeved shirts, but my hiking partners think I'm crazy, and I admit returning with my legs and arms looking like mincemeat. Huisache — a small tree of the mimosa tribe with small globular yellow flowers and awful spines — reaches out to scratch you! Wear sturdy pants and long sleeves, and wear a hat. I wear hiking boots, but my partners do fine in good tennis shoes. And make the water bottle a part of your attire, by March when it gets warm a six hour hike may require almost two liters of water.
This is an easy and short hike on a good trail. Park off the highway to Mil Cumbres about 1.5 km east of the Periferico where a road takes off on the left. The road doubles back and goes up to an old TV antenna and a small nursery and buildings. Between the highway and the buildings are two fences both gated for walkers. Be sure to close them when you are through. The trail to the top starts off to the right behind the buildings after you have past the big open water tank. It is stepped and for old duffers like me it takes about 45 minutes to reach the top at 2320 meters. From above, the morning view of Morelia is magnificent, and late April and May after the first rains there are many spring flowers.
After the first gate on the uphill side of the road there are bright red wild Amaryllis — Sprekelia. They are over a foot tall and the flowers are more than six inches across, the bulbs transplant easily. The Mexicans call it Pata de Gallo or Flor de Mayo. In English, it's the Jacobean Lily. And that reminds me of another spring flower, also an Amaryllis and also called Flor de Mayo. There are many species in Mexico; the one around Morelia is white or pinkish about six inches tall and it is amazing to see it shoot up in the middle of hard packed trails after the first April shower. Just a delicate flower stalk and six petals.
CERRO PUNGUATO, CERRO PRIETO TO BARANCA COMPUERTA.
Get to the top of Punguato and continue NE to the top of Cerro Prieto — the one with the white cross. Onwards almost due north to the small building shown on the map and from there to the small dam to the ENE. The dam is in ruins and there is no water behind it now.
Above the dam to the SSE at a distance of about 1 km is a rocky overview. The view is to the north down over the road to Charo which is about 2 km away. Return south via the baranca, cross the stream after the open plowed field on the east side of the stream and walk west parallel to the highway at about ½ km north of the village of Lazaro Cardenas. You will eventually find where you parked the car.
It was just east of the top of Punguato that we saw the rattlesnake. The baranca below has interesting lava formations and a diverse vegetation. We have found some of the best developed epiphytic bromeliads with large showy flowers there, and at least two species of mistletoes. I have been told that there are more different species of mistletoe in Mexico than any where else in the world. In Barranca Compuerta these small parasites have beautiful colorful flowers, in one species the total plant is 2 to 3 inches and the bright red flower is at least one inch. It flowers sometime in March.
The round trip will take 5 to 6 hours for the old duffers. Duffers needs explaining, I'm the only old duffer, Will and Max, my partners, will out-walk me any day so the time estimates are based on my slower speed.
Cerro de Aparicio ti San Jose de las Torres
Climb the fault south of the GIGANTE store on Camelinas. There is a new road that takes off from Av. Fray Antonio de San Miguel, it is paved with red paving stones (adoquín). Follow the fault east above Lazaro Cardenas, stay on the 2200 meter contour which double back south, east of Cerro el Guajolote then swing east over the saddle and climb Aparicio to 2380 meters. From there you have a great view north all the way to Lago de Cuitzeo, south to Pico Azul and southwest to Cerro La Mascara, Cerro el Venado, Aguila and even Cerro Zirate north of Lago de Pátzcuaro — all of them goals for future hikes.
To the SW you can see the village San José de las Torres the first point on the return to Morelia. Re-cross the saddle and head SW to the village crossing, over a little stream on a rickety bridge, then up the steep hill to the first houses in the village. From there a major hauling trail will take you back to Club Campestre and Plaza las Americas. To get back to Av. Fray Antonio turn right at the entrance to the club's parking lot and wind your way east on the streets until you find your car. It will be about a six hours walk.
You might want to go up to the lake in the village — actually the boys catch fish in that muddy water, but the adobe "factory" is more interesting. It is operated by young men and a bunch skinny small boys — Mexican child labor. The boys are having a ball hauling wheel barrows full of mud to the men forming the adobe bricks. The loads are too heavy for one boy so two at least shove and push and slip around in the mud, they seem to have a great time laughing and yelling. Much better it seems, than if they were down in Morelia begging at a street corner.
Plaza Las Americas to San Jose de las Torres and Return
At Plaza las Americas starting at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Bancomer take the street south along the east side of Club Campestre and continue up the dirt road past the old filters for the Morelia supply of water. There are torture racks at various places along the road for those so inclined. The road is the main trail for the serious runners of Morelia. The last torture rack is by a steep small hill, and there is a white pipe barrier along a sharp drop-off. At about this point where the trail divides, take the upper trail to the left and follow it all the way to the village. Go west to the right around the north end of the lake and follow the path towards Rio Bello. Just before the bridge take the path to the right, it is shown on the map. Eventually you will actually be walking right on top of the aqueduct built almost 100 years ago; it still caries water. This easy hike takes about four hours and walking on the aqueduct is interesting.
Rio Bello over Pico Azul to San Miguel del Monte
To get into more forested areas one must hike south of San José de las Torres and south and west of San Miguel del Monte. The Rio Bello-San Miguel hike takes two cars. Drive to San Miguel and through most of the village, a little before the saw mill on the left on a curve a road takes off down the hill and crosses a stream on a narrow two log bridge. Park one car on the main road, and in the other drive back to Rio Bello. By the first houses, the old road to San Miguel takes off to the right, park there.
Cross the stream and follow the path, where you encounter houses on your left and will come to Rio Chiquita, notice the interesting bridge on your left that leads to nowhere. Follow Rio Chiquita SE, you will be going back and forth over the river several times and eventually (about 2 km) after some steep short up-hills come to a place where the valley divide and where there is a major hill in front of you. The trail continues up the hill, levels off and goes along a barbed wire fence on your right. Finding the path up the hill is the only difficult point on the hike.
Continue until the trail comes to a larger road - the road from San Miguel, go left and continue to Pico Azul. The trail forks, the left goes to the east of the Pico, the right to the west. We usually take the right fork and below the peak we find some lava cliffs and eat our lunch there. Beautiful views to the east down to the deep valley with Buena Vista and Tumbisca, and to the west to San Miguel. You start back the same way you came up. Don't turn on the trail to Rio Bello but continue to San Miguel. The road does divide in spots, but usually merges again, all leading towards the village and you will come to the two log bridge, cross and go up the hill to the car. Estimated time 4 to 5 hours.
We have not hiked to the top of Pico Azul for two or three years and don't know the condition of the fire tower. It used to be manned, but from below it now seems to be deteriorating. The pine forest suffered from forest fires a few years ago, but on the northeast slopes good productive pine forest remains, and there is good natural reproduction where burned pine have been salvaged. An easily identified species is the Michoacán pine with very long shiny needles and a curved cone up to six or seven inches long. There are some fifteen or sixteen other species of pine in the state — four or five of them on Pico Azul, but it takes the experts to identify them. Mexico, with some thirty different species of pine is the genetic center of the genus.
San Miguel del Monte to Agua Escondido and Return
This is another easy hike through forest most of the way. The road to Agua Escondido is shown on the map. It takes off to the right after a right curve just as you come into a sharp left curve. There is a small store above the road on the right just before the road begins. Park the car on the main road. A short distance up the side road you cross a stream with fair flow after rains. The road is open to trucks and easy to follow, don't worry about traffic there isn't any. The road does divide a couple of times and if I remember correctly you take the left fork the first time and the right fork the second.
The village is divided in an upper and lower level, you want the upper level. If you first see the houses below you, you are on the wrong track, go back and continue up the other fork of the road. The right track takes you up a fairly steep hill, there is a sharp left curve and a cornfield in front of you and two houses a bit to the left. Go in and say Buenos Días to the folks. The youngest daughters Esmeralda, four years old, and Elvira, about seven, are my friends (I hope).
The view from the house towards Pico Azul is wonderful. What a place to live! Continue up the road past the one room school where Elvira's uncle is the teacher for all of eight children. If the school is in session, stop in and have a look.
Continue up the road past the cornfield with a barb wire fence on the left, shortly after that the road turns left and a smaller road continues straight down a fairly steep short hill. Take that side road and continue back down to San Miguel. The entire walk is about 4 hours or a little less.
The forest up to my friend's home is mostly hardwood with oaks dominating There are some high quality stands of pine that would be a joy to manage. I have talked to the girls' father, who derives part of his income from the forest, harvesting trees for lumber and tapping the pines of resin which he sells to the resin refinery in Morelia. He understands the value of the forest resource, and he therefore follows the management plans provided by the state foresters. In many areas in the state and in other states that is not the case. The fields up there seem to be fertile and there seems to be higher rainfall; the corn undoubtedly is an additional part of his income.
It is possible to continue up the road beyond the turn back to San Miguel and to cross the saddle NE of Cerro Verde and descend north to the old road to Atécauro and follow that east back to San Miguel. That may require a bit of bush-wacking and may add another hour and a half to the hike.
Santa Maria to El Venado, La Joya, La Mascara and back
From Santa Maria take the road south towards Durazno, when you come to the open fields above Trincheras cross them to the SW corner, follow the road about 200 hundred meters south, go down over the arroyo by the new well and pump station, continue up along the arroyo and go up to the new blue water tank. Follow the road south past a small nursery and down over the saddle to the gravel pit. The trail to the top of El Venado starts through the gravel pit and is fairly easy to follow to the top. One landmark is the crown of a fair size pine a little below the top that can be seen most of the way up.
El Venado actually has two tops, you want the taller one at 2540 meters. Cross over the first one, go down over the saddle and continue up to the second. In the saddle there is an interesting old marker — a stone column about 8 feet tall and three feet in diameter, a couple of plaques mentions Morelia and a date, they are too weathered to read. I have never found anybody who could explain what it marks. I have assumed that it is an old hacienda marker. From the top you see the village of Atécuaro to south and the Cointzio Reservoir to the west, below a little south of east at little less than one kilometer is the site of the old ranch, La Joya, there are no buildings left, but just a few years ago a bougainvillea and a yucca clearly showed it was the site of an old ranch.
From El Venado in the same direction you can see and area of heavy erosion, the trail to the saddle to the south near the top of La Mascara begins along the north edge of the eroded area. To descend go southeast on the ridge dropping about 160 meters, then cut Northeast to La Joya. The road goes right by the site and up through the draw through a couple of cultivated fields. There are a couple of gates: close them if you have to open them to go through. Crossing to the very end of the last field, go through the few feet of brush at the end over the barbed wire fence and a little to the right there is a path that continue up to the saddle.
Rim rocks will be above you on the left as you ascend. In the saddle there is a trail to the north that will take you back to Santa Maria. There is also a trail to the top — another 20 minutes or half an hour. Depending on where you lunch you will have views in all directions. There is a large pine crown on the east down slope you can see from the edge of the plateau, and close to that is a trail that goes north around the mountain. Looking down to the north a small lake come into sight, descend to that go around to the south and from the dam continue down to the north east in the same direction as the stone wall on the left, cross over the dry steam bed and go up over the field then down in the valley and follow the small stream La Higuera back to Santa Maria. The entire hike will probably take between six and seven hours, but it is worth it. After that you will be familiar with the landscape and can start exploring on your own.
La Mascara is one of the few places we see game. There on the plateau on the top we often see coveys of quails, we see then sometimes on El Venado and elsewhere, but they are more common on La Mascara. The number of hares (or are they big rabbits) we have seen can be counted on one hand, and the closest we have been to a buck was last year when we saw a sapling marked where a buck had rubbed its antlers.
Of course there are other trails. Below the road to the San Miguel below Cerro el Gigante is a heavily eroded area that is interesting, above it you can follow a trail on the ridge and get over to La Mascara.
Northwest of Morelia Quinceo and Las Tetillas del Quinceo are obvious goals. To climb Quinceo itself drive to the end of the Collectivo line Café in the town of Quinceo. The trail comes off the road that comes in from the northwest at that point. In April (2002) the trail was marked with white arrows painted on the rocks all the way to the top, it goes in a northwesterly direction around the mountain, the final ascend is from the west. The hike up and back is about six hours. The trick is to find the starting point on the edge of the village, ask the locals! About five hours or a little less up and down.
Actually I find the Teats a more interesting hike. The starting point is the village of Las Flores. You can drive to that, and from there the country is open and it is not hard to find trails leading in the right direction. The Teat with the antennas is open field to the top if you ascend from the north, the Teat to the north is more of a challenge, circle it to the east and climb it where the slope appears less steep. It'll be bush-wacking to the top but there is no huisache with awful spines. On an early May hike this year we found thousands upon thousands of ladybugs on the trunks of the oaks that form the stand on the top, they completely covered the fissures in the bark from the ground to heights of about 4 to 5 meters. Mexican ladybugs apparently do that, but I'm told nobody knows why!
You are on your own from here on, and I hope you will enjoy your hikes. Will Myers, Max Shames and I found our way around hiking alone and have never had problems making it home. You, I'm sure can do the same. After all, I'm 79 years young, Max is 86, and Will's 69.
Perhaps what I have written will help some, but do buy that map!