Saturday, February 9, 2008

Roughing it Easy in Tolantongo

While Linda was teaching a group of 12 artists from the USA, I decided to join an Audubon Society outing to Tolantongo, in the state of Hidalgo. I had never heard of the place, but a two day trip with hiking and hot springs with a congenial group seemed just the ticket for me.

No driving trip in Mexico begins or ends simply. One does not merely drive in to a gas station, fill up, check the tires and oil and go on one's way. Something always happens, or something always strikes one (at least me) as interesting and unique. This trip - about 150 miles and 4 hours - began when we met at Bruce and Mary's Carruther's home to begin the three car caravan. After driving for an hour or two, we stopped at a gas station (all gas stations in Mexico are Pemex, are owned by the government, and have identical prices) for a pit stop.

This gas station included a movie theater, video games, a pizza parlor, various food options and a chapel. Considering the way people drive in Mexico, the chapel is probably a great idea.

The "exquisite" hot dogs did not appeal to me; nor did the Chula Chups, one of the popular Mexican candies.

I noticed a station worker cleaning the windshield of a car (not one of ours). I've never seen anything quite like this.

Our first view of Tolantongo was from a dirt road, as we descended a series of steep switchbacks. I learned that Tolantongo was on private "Ejido" land, which is land that was deeded to peasants after the Mexican revolution in 1912 (?). Probably only a few hundred people live on this beautiful high desert land, and until they figured out that tourists would actually pay to visit, they probably eked out a bare living.

Our arrival at the small inn was uneventful. The rooms were simple and spartan, but the views from the deck were stupendous. Room prices were modest (see sign) - about $60 per double room.

We could see the blue, blue river and the pools that led down to the river. What I didn't realize at the time was that all the water - the river and the pools - were the result of thermal springs. The river flowed hot!

After dropping our bags in the room, we prepared for the first day's hike. We were told we would be walking through water, and should wear running shoes or something that could get wet. I wore my new Keene's, as yet unproven! The path was more or less paved most of the ways. There were lots of steps. In the near distance, we saw water cascading down cliff faces. The place was deserted, except for a few workers and half a dozen other tourists. None appeared to be looking for an outdoor experience - rather a water park.

Somewhat bizarre, there was a pile of sandals on the ground near the entrace to the grottos. There were certainly not enough people around to claim the shoes. Presumably they were artifacts of some ancient civilization who had used the hot springs!

We spent several hours climbing (mostly on stone stairways) from hot pool to hot pool Some had waterfalls cascading down. Some were just simple hot water pools. A large grotto had a tunnel to another cave where a man with a flashlight provided illumination (cheaper than using electricity?). We endulged ourselves until most of us looked like prunes. Sorry that there aren't too many photos - either I was enjoying myself too much or I didn't want to risk taking the camera in the water.

After a divine experience in the pools, we regrouped for a cocktail party. Participants had brought wine and various treats. After an hour of appetizers, few of us had an appetite for dinner. However, staunch explorers that we were, most of us went down to the restaurant to stimulate the local economy. This was comparatively difficult, as the most expensive dish was 40 pesos, about $3.75. I took a look into the kitchen and stole some photos...let's just say it looked as if electricity had just been discovered.

I hope that everyone else slept as well as I did that night. The drive, the hike, the hot springs, the wine and the dinner conspired to put me into a deep sleep. The bed and pillow were the hardest I had ever experienced (I may never ask for a firm mattress again).

In the morning, I realized that the room had no hot water. Perhaps they thought "Why provide hot water to the guests? They have hot springs all over. Let's just put in a shower and make them think there is hot water!" Fooled me!

In any case, we awoke and shared a wonderful breakfast, courtesy of the Audubon Society. Our hosts had even brought toasters and smoked salmon! Time for a siesta again? No, time for a hike downstream today. So we took off, backpacks in hand (well, on backs, actually). At the beginning of our hike, we walked along a path parallel to the river. At one point, I looked down at the river, and saw this interesting sight - a junk car! How unique to this otherwise pristine, lovely nature preserve. There are some things that the Mexicans haven't gotten yet!

We continued on the walk and saw some interesting and beautiful sights, including these banana tree flowers. I have never seen anything quite like this. The colors are from nature - not Kodachrome or Photoshop.

Later (see other photos), we crossed the river on a small footbridge. It was pretty dicey, but everyone made it, except for one person (unnamed) who thought discretion was the better part of valor and did not attempt the crossing.


John W said...

I would have liked to go on this trip, Carlos. What a great place. But I was otherwise occupied...

Hollito said...

Tolantongo is a great place - however, in rainy weather I maybe would avoid to go there because of the dirt street that runs down into the valley...your first driving fault could be your last...

Another great place to visit are the grutas de cacahuamilpa, 30mins away from Taxco. No thermal springs, but reaaly huuuuuge cave.