From deep within the Hidalgo Mountains, voluminous thermal rivers rise up to the surface above the Tolantongo box canyon. The warm waters cascade down the canyon sides and pour through vents into the grottos and caves.
The canyon walls are dotted with about 40 manmade semicircular pools called chapoteaderos into which are collected the warm waters rushing down the hillside. Water overflows from the upper pools and cascades into the lower pools. All the pools are connected by stairways.
No matter how many pools are built to trap the water, it is never enough. Water finds its way around the pools, over them, under them, into spontaneous rivulets and streams. The sensation is of being surrounded by the roar and rumble of rushing water.
In every sense, this is a totally immersive experience.
Eventually, the water collects in the Tolantongo River where it continues its meandering journey down through the canyon. Thanks to the filtration through rock and mineral, especially limestone, the water is pure and a brilliant aquamarine.
While the Tolantongo Canyon is surrounded by semi-arid high desert, the canyon itself is a lushly forested semi-tropical oasis — thanks to the ample and steamy waters.
If you are thinking, gosh this sounds like it would make a pretty cool place to visit and hang out in the water, you got that right.
Since the 1970s, Gruta Tolantongo has been a desirable destination for Mexican families and travelers alike.
And it has grown accordingly.
Our friends Bill and Susan first started making an annual trip to Gruta Tolantango 30 years ago. It was a pretty primitive but overwhelmingly beautiful experience. They camped out, because there were no hotels. They hauled in food and gear and drove down a steep and slippery dirt road with switchbacks so tight and plentiful you could see your own headlights coming in the opposite direction.
The road is still like that, only now it is paved.
This week Rose and I joined Bill and Susan and seven more friends for an overnight caravan to this tropical paradise, a four-hour drive from San Miguel de Allende.
More than the road has improved over the decades.
There are at least five main hotels with scores of rooms under construction onsite and on the outskirts. Inside the 40-acre attraction, there are also numerous restaurants, tiendas, small eateries and supply shops.
You can still camp out on the shores of the river and everything you’d need is available for rent — or bring your own. There is no wifi or TV service, and that is not such a bad thing.
At the urging of our hosts, we each prepared a little something for the evening’s entertainment — a poem, a personal story, a soliloquy from a musical, a short story … no need for TV or internet.
As with visiting any new city or attraction, there is a learning curve for Tolantongo. For example, it is cash only. No credit cards. There are no reservations for the hotels, either.
There is a lot that is different about this operation.
For one, it is owned by a cooperative ejido made up of 112 indigenous families. Just like a tribe might own a casino in the states, the families all share in the running and operating of the Gruta Tolantongo.
Each member shares in the revenue and works within the complex. John says that jobs are rotated — desk clerk one week, security guard the next, hotel maid, lifeguard, restaurant waiter, endless possibilities.
As a result, service and the charging of fees can be a bit eccentric. Simple rules to follow here: Be patient, check your bill, and don’t go all gringo on good people trying to do a tough job.
Unlike American casinos which are often fronted by a tribe but run by longstanding gambling management outfits, these families built Tolantongo up from the ground with no outside help. To this day, they are beholden to no one, including the government.
Actually, there are two operations here. A second ejido is owned by the La Mesa cooperative and is called La Gloria. If you enter La Gloria from Gruta Tolatongo — and I strongly recommend you do so — there is a 100 peso cash fee once you cross the swinging suspension bridge.
More on La Gloria in a moment.
We left San Miguel around 9:30 a.m and got to Hotel Paraiso Escondido in Gruta Tolantonga around 2 p.m. Each couple got a cottage or a hotel room and within minutes of unpacking, we heard that all rooms were sold out. Our cottage was $900 MXN pesos. Prices can range from $650 to $1800 (for six people) within the four main hotels.
We wasted no time heading over to La Gloria, on the western side of the canyon. It is a steady climb up the concrete stairs on the side of the canyon, jumping in and out of the warm pools.
Eventually, at the top is a cathedral-like alcove, El Corazon de La Gloria, into which a perpetual rainfall drops into the pool. Across the pool is a short climb into an even deeper pool and a small 6-meter deep cave, Poza Profunda.
This open cavern with its steep, arching walls was the most deeply moving experience of the day, for me. A wedge of deep blue sky was the only canopy. Vegetation and vines, and lichens, all nurtured by the steady drizzle, hung from the walls.
The trek down the canyon went slower as everyone found their own favorite thermal pools and simply relaxed until it was time to hunt for a warmer chapoteadero.
Back at our hotel, everyone brought out snacks and wine but the draw of the water was irresistible. We were soon exploring the extensive array of chapoteaderos on the hotel’s hillside. These offer a stunning view of the river below and the Hidalgo mountains across the way.
The next morning we all suited up again and this time we headed for Gruta Tolantongo’s most famous offerings — the grotto and tunnel.
These are side by side, on the opposite canyon wall from La Gloria.
The grotto is huge and can probably hold 60 people comfortably. The ceiling is 10 meters high at at its center a torrent of pummeling thermal water pours in. Two minutes under it and you’ve got a full body massage, no charge.
The grotto is dressed in stalagmites and stalactites and several deep side tunnels. (Tip: Bring a waterproof flashlight if you want to explore the offshoots. Also, a waterproof packet for your cellphone, for pictures. And finally, the water is turbulent and will pick your pockets clean.)
Right next to the grotto is the steam-room tunnel. It requires some gymnastics to reach the back of the 15-meter deep room and once there, it is sauna hot and mighty claustrophobic. But, hey.
Some photos of our crew enjoying a selection of pools and waterfalls on the La Gloria side. (Click on individual images to see full size):
We were headed home by early afternoon. Honestly, you could spend a few days or more here and not spend a day doing the same things twice. We never even made it into the river, which is the centerpiece, with its many dammed sections that slow the current and create gloriously warm pools.
Bill and Susan have never tired of returning here, even as Tolantongo grew by leaps and bounds. The changes haven’t always pleased them, but their spirits always leave refreshed. This is still sacred ground.
More photos from the La Gloria side of Tolotongo Canyon. (Click on individual images to expand):
At the top of La Gloria was a gorgeous pool, guarded by steep, towering cliffs and graced with perpetual rainfall. These images are from that pool, called El Corazon De La Gloria:
Day 2, we explored the grotto and tunnel of Grutas Tolantongo. There pictures are of that side and the lower river:
Some of the thermal pools adjacent to Hotel Paraiso Escondido, where we stayed. In one photo you can see that new pool construction is underway! (Click on individual images to expand.):
Some views of the lower Tolantongo River with its many dams which slow the flow of the river and retain the thermal warmth. Visitors can camp beside the river and there are hotels with spectacular views of the turquoise water. (Click to expand any image):
Finally, a collection of images from around the hotel and nearby cacti and flora:
Detailed directions to the river from San Miguel de Allende: