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Archives: Volume 4 - February 2003
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The Magic of Majahua
by Mark Berrisford

I have been asked to write a short article pertaining to the natural history and other points of note, in a region of subtropical woodland north east of the village of Majahua. I intend to pick and choose from the plethora of wonders available and write of just those things that have caught my interest.

I once read that Mexico is the 14th most bio-diverse nation on the planet. This means that only 13 countries out of over 300 in the world have a wider variety of plants and animals within their territory. Add to this fact that Mexico’s cultural heritage is so wonderfully rich, its landscapes so diverse, and you have an enchanting place that never fails to fascinate. At whatever angle or scale you look at the natural environment there is much to be found. The area lies just to the north of Troncones and set inland from the fishing village of Mahajua. It is an area of land including the “Mountain of Mahajua” which is popular for tours and walks. When approaching the area the hilltop skyline looks like a single temple building standing atop an Aztec pyramid. I had often wondered if this is an old pyramid site, due to the strange shape of the hill. However, to date I believe the shape relates to the rich weathering history of the limestone massif as opposed to the work of ancient peoples

The whole area has a base geology of limestone interwoven in places by volcanic deposits. On the lower footslopes small weathered limestone boulders transported from the rock outcrops higher on the slopes dot the woodlands. The faces of the limestone boulders and outcrops have been weathered into elegant shapes by chemical and mechanical weathering processes. Rillenkaren are seen in profusion on the rock surfaces. These are vertical ridges and grooves etched into the limestone by predominantly solutional weathering processes. Ranging from a few millimeters to several centimeters in width they give the limestone faces a corrugated look.

The limestone outcrops have been formed in the past when huge numbers of tiny sea creatures, living in the tropical seas, died and laid down their skeletons forming calcareous ooze. This ooze then becomes compacted as it is buried and is transformed into limestone. Knowing this an afternoons walk in the woods becomes a walk through the life history of the old Oceans. Within the limestone layers pockets of volcanic materials are found. These are generally volcanic ash deposits that have settled out on the tropical sea floors when the limestone deposits were forming millions of years ago. Further limestone deposits are then formed on top and the ash deposits are preserved within the whole. These deposits are interesting as they hint to some of the macroscale geological processes that we are surrounded by here on the West Coast of Mexico. Basically the Pacific Ocean is split into a variety of tectonic plates. Some of these adjacent to the Mexican Pacific coast are moving westward and collide into the Mexican continental plate (the mainland) . In the past, as is seen today, the plates rammed into the main landmass pushing up the various limestone sequences. The colliding oceanic plate also subducts or sinks beneath the main landmass. As the plate sinks the temperatures get hotter and the rock mass melts. The less dense molten rocks can rise to the surface forming various volcanic features. That is why even today we have hotsprings and other associated geothermal activity, earthquakes and even the possibility of new volcanic activity here on the coast. The recent earthquake centered around Colima (7.6 Richter Scale) is a poignant reminder of this. Fossilized shells can also be seen in certain areas of the limestone, another reminder of the history of the area.

There is within the limestone sequence a large and expansive cave system. Near the top of the limestone massif is a large Cavern. The locals call it “La Cueva de la Diablo”. Despite its name it is rather enchanting. An impressive opening leads down to a large chamber whose walls and floor are adorned with a variety of speleotherms (cave geomorphological forms). A whole suite of features can be seen; stalactites, stalagmites, rimpools, flowstone sequences, beehive formations and helictites. One large stalagmite rises resplendently from the center of the cave floor. At certain times of the year this white monolith is spectacularly lit by a beam of sunlight from the outside. The large entrance to the cave has meant that the suites of features are now open to the influences of the external atmosphere. This has lead to some beautiful covering of green algae that make some stalactites shine like green velvet or weathered copper.

Basically the variety of wonderful features have been formed by deposition of calcium carbonate and other minerals from mineral rich water moving into and through the cave environment in the past. Stalactites hang from the ceiling and stalagmites grow up from the floor (might goes up!). There are several amazing pure white flowstone features in the cave. The surface of the flowstone has the crinkled appearance of the surface of the human brain. When lit the calcite crystals glint like a thousand diamonds.

The human history of occupancy and use of the cave system would seem to be large. Just walking in gives one the hushed feeling of ancient presence. Near the base of the cave several pictographs have been carved into the rock. As of yet the carvings have not been dated using relative age dating techniques. However, it is known that an Empire of the Purepecha people flourished from 1100A.D to 1530 A.D. just to the north and inland of this area. The Spanish named them the Tarascan people. The Aztecs named the Tarascan’s homelands Michuaque -place of the fishes-the modern day state of Michuacan. It is highly likely that the communities on this part of the coast had extensive contact with or were part of this Empire culture. So at present an exact anthropology of the local groups is not known. What is known from the carvings is that the caves have been important for pre-Hispanic indigenous cultural groups. An interesting fact is that just to the north along the coast a river forms an important navigable link to the interior highlands. This would have helped in making the area a more suitable region for coastal communities to dwell, close to trade routes with the interior. Standing in the cavern looking up at its vast expanse of roof one can imagine that any local tribe’s person would have been struck by a feeling of awe at such a large enclosed space. From the feeling I get standing within the cave the site may have been an important place for spiritual/religious ceremonies. Spirits aside the only present day occupants are a colony of bats of several different species and a pair of Owls.

A huge variety of flora and fauna exists in the area around the cave. I will just mention some of my favorites. My favorite tree in the area is the Bocote. This is a relatively slow growing broad-leafed sub-tropical hardwood species. It is the tree that gives amazing displays of white flowers, with five petals, in the canopies, for about three months a year, between November to February. The wood is used extensively in the local hardwood lumber industry. This usage rises from its durable nature and its wonderfully dark grained interior wood. Many great tree species can be seen up close at canopy level, with spectacular views from a zip line that runs through this woodland area. The bird life is diverse ranging from humming birds (various species) up to the Magnificent frigate birds (Fregata magnificens) that glide effortlessly in the coastal skies. My favorite is an archaic beast the West Mexican Chachalaca (Ortalis poliocephala). Belonging to the group Cracids these are large primitive, neotropical gamebirds with longish necks and broad tails. When disturbed they make a gruff throaty rhythmic chattering of repeated gluc, gluc, gluc sounds rising in tone. You will know it when you hear one! Many terrestrial animals abound, my particular favorites are the range of Tarantula species found in the area. They can often be seen close to the trails. Add to these select animals a complete list of species in the area including the wild cats: Jagarundies, Ocelots and Margays and you have a fascinating area with a great diversity of wildlife.

Jaguar Tours, a local tour company of repute based in Troncones, runs several tours in the area. Some of their tree platforms provide some of the most spectacular views of coastal Guerrero to be found. I have often spent enchanting afternoons wandering around the woodlands here. All in all a fine romp.

Mark Berrisford is a surfer and former professor at University of London. He is currently enjoying landscaping his garden on the coast of Mexico.

References: S.Howell and S.Webb 1995: A guide to the birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. Ignacio Bernal 1968:The Mexican National Museum of anthropology.

February 2003

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