06 Oct Hidalgo: Thermal Rivers and Caves of Tolantongo
As long as I’ve been in Mexico, I’ve been hearing about Tolantongo. This proverbial oasis in the desert is a beacon for tourists, national and expat alike, to pretend for a weekend that they aren’t landlocked in a desert and melt into the thermal waters of this lush box canyon.
I’d turned down many invitations before I actually made it to Tolantongo, not because I didn’t want to go, but the timing wasn’t right – other trips or plans always seemed to come up. One thing I heard consistently from my expat friends was to make sure to go on weekdays while school was in session. Since it’s a popular vacation spot for locals as well as out-of-towners, they advised me to avoid summer break and school vacations (of which there are 111 days annually!)
When Sean and I did head over to Tolantongo it was in our usual lackadaisical fashion. We loaded up La Poderosa with firewood, camping gear, and an ice chest of goodies. It was August and fresh figs, dragon fruit and lychees were being sold roadside, all grown locally. I’m a fruit fanatic and we stocked up (even though I’d essentially be the only one eating them. Ha!)
With this lack of planning, we failed to notice that our trip fell on the last days of summer vacation.
I guess no planning can be synonymous with poor planning. Luckily we’re spontaneous and after a few days at an absolutely jam packed Tolantongo, we headed out to Real de Monte and Mineral Chico (an AMAZING place, but that’s for another article …)
So, let me tell you a little bit about Tolantongo.
The name Tolantongo comes from a misspelling of Tonaltonko, a Nahuatl word meaning “home where it feels warm”. This romantic sounding name fits the site well – the spectacular, lush box canyon 500 meters high (1640 feet), filled with thermal waters hiding in the middle of a semi-desertic region of central Mexico. Rock formations carved by erosion show sedimentary layers in the canyon walls. Often, the highest points of the canyon are foggy and populated by cacti, among many other species. This arid area is home to a surprisingly rich biodiversity – yucca, mesquite, maguey, and various types of cacti; raccoons, roadrunners, skunks, coatis and doves. Besides all of that magic, many indigenous people call this region home, such as the Mexica, Otomi, Tepehua and Toltecs.
The grounds now have a resort (ewww, I know) but if you drive past it, to the absolute bottom of the canyon there are campgrounds next to the thermal river. All the waters of this canyon are heated by lava flows below the surface. Warm waterfalls adorn the cliffs and a cave full of stalactites offers and additional hot waterfall for massaging your neck and shoulders as you stand beneath it. This cave, about 10 meters high (32 feet) is also home to fruit bats. You can hear the echoes of the water moving inside the mountain and reverberating in the cave. Outside, you find rimstone pools, shallow inlets where the rushing water from the falls passes.
The river Tolantongo is tepid – warm enough for a dip on a cool day – but not hot, as its volcanically-heated 20 degree Celsius water mixes with cooler water in the caves and mountain hideaways. The river is a sea-foam green color from the minerals and salts it picks up traversing through the mountains. Favorite pastimes of the area include hiking, rappelling and spelunking.
I should start by saying we are awfully American in our love of being alone. Pristine nature, silence and privacy are some of our favorite finds while traveling. When we arrived, Tolantongo was packed. The resort was full and even at the lowest level, next to the river, there were too many tents to count. While American culture values privacy and quiet, Mexican culture values community. In this setting, that means that tent pegs actually touch and there is literally not 2 inches of space between tents. Vacationers blast pop music, cook and hang out practically on top of one another.
Suffice to say that when we arrived we didn’t like what we saw. We realized the dates and the mistake we had made, but thought we’d still find some corner in which to tuck ourselves away.
The guard was thoroughly baffled by the concept that we would want to be alone, approaching our camp multiple times to explain that all the other campers were over that way and that we should join them. He gently suggested that it was weird we would not want to be in the middle of the action. But, all in all he was kind, gave us maps and probably blamed it on the fact we are odd-ball foreigners.
We didn’t last long. It’s nearly impossible to get naked and smoke joints with so many people around. Ultimately, we decided that the canyon itself was of more interest and we went exploring, hiking and seeking out interesting flora and fauna to document. We made friends with one of the entrance guards who explained that there was a relatively un-visited forest nearby that would probably be right up our alley – and wow, that was the recommendation of a lifetime!
Our takeaway is the following: Tolantongo is gorgeous, if you visit on a Tuesday during the academic year. Otherwise, give it a pass. We will definitely return when we know there won’t be any tourism and try again, but the experience we had was downright claustrophobic …not exactly my idea of getting out into nature.