The northeastern “finger” of the strangely shaped state of Jalisco has characteristics all its own. It’s called Los Altos because the altitude is typically over 1,800 meters (1.12 miles) above sea level. The ecosystem there is rather unique: mostly flat grassland, but just about the time you’re ready to pronounce it “boring,” you discover that this prairie land is cut by the deep and dramatically beautiful 150-kilometer-long Río Verde Canyon, dotted with majestic waterfalls and numerous hot springs.
If you haven’t visited Los Altos, you ought to. Besides canyon sites like Rancho el Venado and La Leonera, you’ll find extensive archaeological ruins at Teocaltitán and some 800 recently discovered petroglyphs at Presa de la Luz. As for food, highlanders pride themselves on their tasty carnitas; and to wash down the meat, you can take your pick of locally produced tequilas which some say are Mexico’s best, thanks to the red, iron-rich soil of the grasslands.
To reach the highlands from Guadalajara or Chapala, you have to take highway 80 northeast, which will give you a chance to visit fascinating Parque Ecológico Puente de Calderón.
Here you will find remains of the ancient Camino Real that ran east out of Guadalajara crossing a massive seventeenth-century bridge over the Calderón River. In 1811 this bridge was the site of an important battle for Mexican Independence. Father Miguel Hidalgo had only recently launched the rebellion against Spain and now at the Puente de Calderón he would face an army of 6,000 royalists. However, the history books tell us that Hidalgo had as many as 100,000 fellow rebels with him: how could he possibly lose?
Well, lose he did, but before getting into that, it’s important to understand why Hidalgo and many others wanted independence. Whereas some countries like Britain and France treated their far-off colonists relatively well, Spain had set up a bizarre system of class discrimination backed by rigid laws. Spaniards born in Spain were at the top of the pyramid and Indigenous people – many of them enslaved – were at the bottom. In between were meztizos (a mixture of the two) and criollos, children of Spaniards who were born not in Spain, but in the new world. Spain’s harsh laws for Mexico stipulated, for example, that only Spaniards born in Spain could carry arms, ride a horse or become a lawyer or college teacher. Most people in Mexico were confined to “vile occupations” and were obliged by law to dress in white shirts and trousers, straw hats and sandals. On top of this, anyone not born in Spain was obliged to pay a “head tax” simply for being an Indian, meztizo or criollo.
So, it is easy to see how Hidalgo had accumulated an “army” of between eighty and 100,000 bodies. He had, after all, declared war on the gachupines (contemptuous term for Spaniards) in his grito on September 16 and had issued a decree abolishing slavery and the head tax on December 6. Now, on January 16, 1811, he had promised, according to Diana Serra Cary of Historynet.com, that the following day he would “breakfast in Guadalajara, dine at the Bridge of Calderón and sup in Mexico City!’
Although he had 95 cannons, most of Hidalgo’s so-called troops were armed with nothing more than lances, wooden swords, farm tools and slings which Hidalgo himself had taught them how to make and use.
The next day, the rebels, under the command of Ignacio Allende, were massed on the south side of the river and the royalists, led by General Felix Calleja, on the north. Curiously, in “Western Mexico, a Traveler’s Treasure,” writer Tony Burton says that the very opposite orientation is shown on the plan of the battleground depicted in hundreds of textbooks and museums around the country, where the north arrow points directly south, despite the fact that “a copy of the corrected map was supplied to the Guadalajara museum (by Tony Burton) as long ago as 1988.”
The battle had been raging for six hours when artillery fire (some say a grenade) hit one of the independence fighters’ammunition wagons, which blew up in a tremendous explosion, which setting the dry brush in the area on fire. The blast and blazes spooked the untrained rebel army and they ran for their lives, with the Spaniards right behind them, of course. As it says in an inscription on the bridge, “The father of the country, Don Miguel Hidalgo… ran into bad luck at this spot on January 17, 1811.”
Bad luck indeed. Allende took Hidalgo prisoner and tried to head for the United States, hoping for help from President James Madison, but both rebel leaders were caught by the royalists en route, executed and beheaded. The whole story is well told (in Spanish) on a DVD called “La Historia del Puente de Calderon, La batalla y Sus Secretos,” available at Sandi Bookstore.
You can mull over these fleeting, fascinating moments of history as you explore the Calderón Bridge Ecopark, which covers 140,000 square meters and features roofed picnic tables, grills, toilets, snack bar, a giant artificial waterfall, an adrenaline-raising hanging bridge, five ziplines totalling 711 meters in length, a small lake with boats and several kilometers of footpaths. If walking around the place heats you up, you can cool off simply by standing in the spray of two giant water jets in the river, commemorating Mexico’s Bicentennial. Best of all, the entrance fee is only ten pesos per car and on weekdays you will practically have the whole place to yourself. It’s open every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Finally, think about this: Considering that it cost millions of pesos to build and furnish this ecopark, it just might be the world’s biggest monument to a victory by the enemy. Talk about open-mindedness – Viva México!
If you decide not to picnic at the park, just drive 10.5 kilometers northeast on “libre” Highway 80 to Carnitas El Alteño to sample the Highland’s most famous food. This restaurant, however, is often jammed with people, so you may want to drive 1.7 kilometers further up the road to La Casa Steak (at the turnoff to Acatic), which features both pork and beef carnitas. This restaurant is beautiful, cool and so uncrowded you may find, as I did, four waitresses attending your every need. And, yes, the food is great!
How to get there
Head east out of Guadalajara on Highway 90D toward Zapotlanejo, Lagos de Moreno and Mexico City. Follow the signs leading you into Zapotlanejo. The carretera now turns into Highway 80, the “libre” road to Tepatitlán and San Juan de los Lagos. Drive north out of Zapotlanejo for about eight kilometers to the park. If you’re using Google Maps, just ask to go to “Bicentenario Puente de Calderón Park.” Driving time from the east end of Guadalajara: about half an hour.