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This is a three-part series on the unexpected (for us) cool-ness of Guadalajara, Mexico. We almost didn’t go there and now aren’t we glad we did.

I left Guadalajara seriously considering a move there – honestly. Mexico’s second biggest city is much more navigable than the sprawling giant of Mexico City and brings together all the best that Mexico’s wild west has to offer: stunning nature, agave-based spirits, and  rough-riding cowboys – all in a place known as Mexico’s Silicon Valley. While there were many cool aspects of GDL (to be discussed in this series), the stand-out had to be that there was a colossal canyon accessible right from the northern edge of the urban core. We had quite a day tramping around the Barranca, as they call it,  a little bit of which I’ll share below.

Imagine if you lived in a city the size of Berlin or Boston, complete with the amenities and culture that entails. Then plop that city down right next to a small-scale Grand Canyon. The city of Guadalajara enjoys just such a luxury. Six-hundred meters deep, about a third that of the Grand Canyon, Oblatos was carved by the Rio Grande de Santiago and is more than 16 miles long.

A quick bus ride from the city center brought Noah and I to a nondescript road that ended where the canyon began. At 11:00 a.m., it was already getting warm, and the sun was beating down as we walked by joggers, teenagers, and older people on our way to the canyon floor. Some friends who had traveled there earlier in the week fed us promises of free thermal pools fed by local hot springs after a 2-hour-plus hike through the canyon. We were hooked.

Taking off from downtown at 9:00 a.m. and pulling together some coffee and pastries we rode the 603 line from beginning to end. Scratch that. The 603 doesn’t run the same route anymore, as we learned from the 20th 35 bus driver to come by our stop. Instead we caught a 62 until it met up with the 80 and made it.

Normally, when you arrive at an spectacular natural attraction, there are signs, or a line, or something. Not at the Barranca. We walked to the end of a dead end street where a narrow, unmarked alley led us to the entrance. The only indication that we were going the right way was a sign that read “The best battles are those fought to protect mother earth.”

We were late. As we began the hour-long descent at 10 a.m., families, high-school kids, and morning joggers were already making their way up and out the steep canyon walls. Once at the bottom, we opted for the much longer, less-travelled route to the hot springs over the nearby waterfall. Within minutes, we were the only walkers on the dirt road and, after a while, we began to wonder if we were in the right place. We slowed to look around as a middle-aged Tapatio approached behind us. He was a little heavy but dressed in all red and moving at a pretty remarkable pace.

“Excuse me. do you know if this goes to the aguas termales?

“Could be. You need to go to las Pilitas. I’m going that way. We’ll walk together”

OK. So the plan is made.

We followed Jose (name discovered later) for nearly two hours along dirt roads past big industrial purification plants and along waterfalls that spilled the city’s sewage into the Rio Grande. We were younger but he pretty fast and did. not. stop. Just as we were starting to wonder if we would make it, Jose leaned down and dipped his hand into the water running along the side of the road.

“Feel it. It’s hot.”

It was indeed and proceeded to get hotter as we trekked up a final hill to find a kid (maybe 19) in a police uniform sleeping in a wheelbarrow.

“Jefe!,” Jose yelled, “where are the Pilitas.”

The kid looked up and pointed just a few yards ahead where more officials appeared to bar gathered around some women bathing in the lowest pool.

More than ready to dive in, Noah and I  began peeling off our sweaty clothes and prepared to get into the hottest pool. After disappearing up the hill for a few minutes, Jose returned and got into the pools as well. A few more came along to join but not nearly enough for a Saturday afternoon.*

In a country where every hostel seems to have a cold shower, there’s no adequate way to describe the luxury of these FREE hot springs just a hike away from the city. We lounged around in 4 of the six pools until pruning skin and the promise of a sunset before we could exit the Barranca moved us along.

We said our goodbyes to Jose and began the quicker downhill trek back to the entrance. Jose attempted to have us exit with him (which, he and the other locals attested would be faster) but we had heard about a near-vertical train track at the main exit and had to see it.

We approached the entrance and no train tracks. Continuing further downstream, we’re sure it’s not something we can miss. We make it over dams and to a new suspension bridge still under construction – still no train tracks. With the sun beginning to fall, we begin to make our way up an alternate route.

As easy as it was to saunter down into the canyon fresh in the morning light, it was just as hard to climb out of it with a falling sun after a day of hiking. We make out way up makeshift rock stairs and begin winding our way through a path that (we presume) heads back to the entrance. A couple of Mexican guys blasting 80s American pop from a speaker come up behind us.

“You were in the canyon?” they asked.

“Yep, just came out.”

“Shit! Those goddamn stairs?”

“That’s  right.”

“You’re almost there.”

We walk with them until we emerge at – you guessed it – the railroad tracks. “You going up this way? Trail’s over there.” the Mexican with the speaker asked.

“We’re going up”

He cranks the speakers up to what must have been their maximum volume and we begin climbing the near-vertical tracks with “XXXX” as our soundtrack. We snuck back up the alley and out into the street just as the last light began to fade.