There are a number of feeder streams along the course of Río Caliente, but none quite like the Black River. And when it comes to adrenaline-raising excitement, as far as I’m concerned, the hike to the source of the Black River ranks among the ten scariest things I’ve done in years.
I call this stream the Black River because of the very dark algae growing on the riverbed. I came upon it ten years ago and followed it upstream to a dramatic waterfall the park rangers call La Cascada Esmeralda, which at times is so enveloped in steam that you can barely see, much less photograph it. About 130 meters southeast of the waterfall, my friend Chuy Moreno and I arrived at the spot where the river springs to life. Here, water bubbles, squirts and gushes out of small caves in the rock at a temperature of 70 degrees Centigrade (158 F).
The other day I was invited by biologist Rodrigo Orozco to join him on a “family stroll” at Río Caliente.
“Do I need water shoes?” I asked, remembering that on most Mexican hikes even remotely near a river, everyone seems to end up slogging through the water.
“Oh no,” replied Rodrigo. “We’ll be hopping from rock to rock.”
So, of course, I brought along my water shoes anyhow, and I’m mighty glad I did.
Rodrigo’s family excursion started out from the big Río Caliente parking lot as a caminata alongside and frequently inside the hot river, with plenty of jumping from rock to rock and occasional splashes into the drink. After following one very short feeder stream back to its origin, we headed for the next one: The Black River.
There’s a path along the entire length of this river, although in the rainy season it can get so overgrown you feel like you’re inside a tunnel of weeds. Eventually the path comes to an end right at the riverside. Here is the first place you have to cross the river hopping from rock to rock. At this junction, the algae is bright green and the water so hot you wouldn’t want to stick your finger in it, much less your torso.
The path continues on the other side and leads you to the Emerald Cascade, shrouded in ever-shifting clouds of wispy vapor. This waterfall actually does display a greenish glow when the sun is on it.
For some, this may be the ideal spot for having a snack and heading back. If, however, you feel the need for a little more adventure, you may decide to continue on to the source of the stream. Be warned, though, that jumping from and hanging onto rocks above a scalding river is dangerous! It would seem logical to wear a helmet and to have very good water shoes with soles that don’t slip. Also, don’t try this if there’s any chance of rain: you wouldn’t want to be caught in that narrow arroyo during a flash flood.
As mentioned above, the distance from the Cascada Esmeralda to the source of the river is only 130 meters. You start out having to climb up and then down a nearly vertical, tree-covered slope about three meters high. A rope can make this a whole lot safer because on the way down you’ll find yourself dangling directly above the steaming river. Fortunately, there’s a good place to tie the rope right at the very top of the narrow ridge.
You have to cross the river, rock to rock, four times and in several places creep along a vertical rocky bank right above the “hot soup.” Eventually, you arrive at a big, spooky-looking, semi-circular alcove of sorts with a pool in the center fed by a very thin waterfall flowing down a very high wall and water boiling out of openings on all sides.
It’s a bizarre spectacle. If there are rivers in Hades, they must surely look a lot like this.
From here, there is no place to go but back. But I assure you the Rio “Caliente” will appear cool and comfortable in comparison to where you have just been. If you have the energy, you might want to look for a geocache I have hidden just above the Black River. It’s called Jalisco Caliente, located at N20.67638 W103.57833, and it contains a register you can sign, to prove you were among the crazy fools who visited this surreal place.
Instead of returning to your car via Río Caliente, you can now cross that river at N20.67722 W103.57996 and hike uphill only 60 meters to a dirt road heading straight for the parking lot. You’ll find the entire route on Wikiloc.com under Black River Loop.
How to get there
From Guadalajara’s western Periférico, drive 12.7 kilometers along Highway 15 toward Nogales, passing the town of La Venta. Turn left at a sign marked La Primavera, checking your odometer as you leave the highway. Drive forward three streets and turn right on Ignacio Allende. When it ends, turn left and drive south 1.2 kilometers, measured from the highway, to a bridge over a small stream. Here you will have to pay 25 pesos per car. Drive straight on, until, at about four kilometers you come to a fork. Bear right and keep going until you arrive at a dirt “parking area” where you’ll be asked for ten pesos per person. Park here, walk down to the river and follow it south. When the river bends west you’ll come to the spot where the Black River enters it. Here (N20.67692 W103.58002), you’ll find a path following the river upstream. After about four minutes you reach the spot where there’s no place to go but across the river. Jump from rock to rock and keep going upstream. Next you will come to the Cascada Esmeralda (N20.67525 W103.57696) and the high slope. After three more river crossings you’ll arrive at the source of the Black River. Congratulations!
Total driving time from Periférico to the parking spot: 32 minutes. The first part of the hike takes about two hours depending on how long you dally walking along Río Caliente. The return (practically straight north) only takes about 35 minutes.