Next stop on our mini-tour of Mexico – Tolantongo! Head to the mountains in Hidalgo to enjoy this little known piece of heaven hidden at the bottom of a canyon. “Tourists” aren’t usually aware that this place exists. When my husband was a kid the only road down was a one lane dirt road. When my in-laws were kids, it was a donkey trail (No, I’m not kidding. They rode donkeys down the canyon.) Fortunately, it has been widened to a 2 lane road, about half of it paved. The steep, narrow decent provides views of the canyon with its cactus, pine trees, sage brush, banana and papaya trees, and occasional wild flowers. It is weird and wonderful to see the mix of desert and tropical plants in a mountain setting. Mother Nature created this place for the purpose of relaxing and renewing the soul.
Tolantongo is known for three things: its large cave, river, and potacitas.
1 THE RIVER
The cave-fed river is shallow and lazily slow; making it perfect for relaxing, floating, and playing. The minerals in the water make the river pale turquoise. It’s waist deep for an adult. People camp by the river so you will always smell some delicious morsel cooking over the fire. It makes my mouth water and I wish I could join that family for lunch. I stay in the hotels in the park so I just pop into the restaurant or snack bar for my meals. There’s not a lot of shade by the river and the sun can be quite intense, so wear and re-apply sunscreen often.
2 THE CAVES
A cold waterfall comes down the mountain and falls over the entrance to the large cave. Once inside though, it has warm waterfalls rushing into it through the ceiling to form a shallow lake. The large mouth of the cave lets in enough sunlight to illuminate the whole area. Off to the right is a smaller cave.. The water gets a little deeper and the current coming out runs fast, but there’s a rope to hold onto until you get past the current and then the water is only about knee deep. It is completely dark in the small cave, so bring a headlamp or use your cellphone flashlight. You can sit and relax, float, play in the warm waterfalls, and explore the cave. People spend hours in there. Inside the cave alien looking stalactites hover over your head in a world gone grey. Sit and enjoy the view of the multicolored world outside. The walk up to the cave takes you past lush vegetation; colorful flowers and flowering trees and other smaller waterfalls. You can hear the soothing sound of water from any place in the park.
Next to the large cave is a much smaller cave. There’s no light and it has really warm, almost hot, water and it gets pretty steamy in this cave. I don’t like to stay in there very long. It takes about 5 minutes to walk to the back of the cave. Be careful in there, it’s slippery and uneven, but worth the effort.
NOTE ABOUT KIDS – OMG the kids were having a blast in the cave and the river. They can bring floating toys into the river, but not the cave. Like I said, the water is not deep so they feel like they have a lot of independence, but they still need to be supervised. Even though the water runs down the mountain from the cave to the river, it’s blocked off with a net so no one can be swept downstream. Very safe. Some of the really little kids didn’t like having to go under the cold waterfall to get into the cave. I think it scared them just a little. But once inside they loved it.
NOTE FOR THE ELDERLY – The approximately 20-minute walk from the hotel to the base of the cave can be strenuous. Then you have to climb stairs and keep walking up the path to the mouth of the cave. There’s a 4-wheeler that pulls a little trailer that you can pay to ride up to the point of the stairs. My father-in-law swore he’d never ride it again. It seemed fast to him and was very bumpy. He almost fell out and that scared him.
My favorite things in Tolantongo are the potacitas, or “little pools”. There are a lot of minerals in the water that hardened to form 42 little pools in the side of the mountain, great for relaxing and enjoying the scenery. The water runs from one pool to another. . Visit them all and you will get a different view of the valley with each one. The potacitas overlook the valley and are surrounded by tropical plants and the large lush trees provide ample shade for many of the pools. A landslide years ago wiped out many of the naturally formed pools. The park built concrete pools into the mountain and the minerals have hardened and smoothed on these pools making them look like they’ve been there forever.
My favorite pools are a short hike down the mountain. It’s not as crowded and usually very quiet down there. They are like infinity pools. I relax at the edge, look out over the valley, listen to the birds or watch the occasional gecko scramble away, and feel like I’m in my own little world. I also love to float on my back and stare at the blue sky and clouds meandering by. At the zipline go straight down. The path follows the stream down the mountain to the pools.
Now for the Practical stuff.
When you arrive at the gate you have to pay upfront for each day you stay in the park. You pay 140 pesos per person/per day. Keep those tickets. You must show them when you leave the park or they will make you pay for an extra day.
There’s an upper and lower part to the park. The lower part is down by the river and the upper part is by the potacitas. There are hotels and restaurants in both areas. All the hotels and restaurants charge the same. All the restaurants have the same menu. There are snack bars located throughout the park, as well. The hotels charge 600-650 (depending on if it has a balcony or not) pesos per day for a 2 person room, 4 person (2 bed) rooms are 800-850, and 6 person (3 bed) rooms are 1100-1150 pesos. EVERYTHING IS PAID IN CASH. Let me repeat that. CASH ONLY. No place in the park accepts credit cards. Not at the gate, not for food, and not for the hotel. Come with cash because the closest ATM is in town an hour away. And THEY DO NOT ACCEPT RESERVATIONS. Yes, it’s possible that you could show up and they don’t have any rooms available. You just take your chances. Show up early in the morning and don’t go on the weekend. Weekends are crowded and noisy
Bring and wear water shoes. You will be walking on rocks in the caves and the river. You will be miserable if you don’t wear water shoes. I do not recommend flip flops. They could come off with the current and be washed downstream. I always wear my Tevas. They are comfortable and supportive for walking up the mountain to the cave, they stay on my feet, they are thick enough that I don’t feel the rocks, and they keep my feet cool. My husband used a slip-on water shoe. They don’t have any support and by the end of the day his feet were killing him from all the walking.
Wear WATERPROOF sunscreen at all times. The sun is intense at this altitude and the days are long. You will probably be out in the water until sunset. Even if you are in the shade the sun will reflect off the water and burn you. Some people also wear bug spray.
Bring a waterproof case for your phone or camera. The views are stunning and you will see plants, waterfalls and cave landscapes that you can’t see back at home. Capture those memories. Because I’m in the water all day and I don’t want to miss out on a photo op, I put my phone (camera) in a waterproof case. I also use the flashlight on my phone in the dark part of the cave. You might think that you can be careful enough to not get the phone wet or drop it in the water, but you would be wrong. You can’t even get into the cave without going under the waterfall and getting soaked, not wet, soaked. It is also easy to slip on the rocks in the water. Better safe than sorry.
If you are staying more than one day, I recommend bringing at least 2 swimming suits. It’s a bit humid at Tolantongo and my suits never seem to dry very fast. I hate putting on a wet suit so I usually bring more than one.
As I mentioned, there are 2, 4, and 6 person rooms. They are not fancy. This is not a resort. The rooms do not have A/C, a fridge, a coffee maker, or safe. They do provide a fan, towels, (not washcloths), toilet paper and hand soap. The shower uses the water from the mountain that is naturally heated. As a result there is no temperature control, no “hot” shower. Just a warm shower. There’s a pool with a slide at the hotels in the upper part of the park.
People, mostly locals, also camp at Tolantongo. If you want to camp you can bring your own tent, tables and chairs, or you can rent them at the park. There are showers, bathrooms, and changing rooms throughout the park. You can put your tent anywhere you want. Set up down by the river, on the concrete, in the woods, really anywhere. The bathrooms do not have toilet paper so bring your own. I always put TP and hand sanitizer in the bag I carry around all day.
The zip line was a fun activity at the park. It’s located in the upper part of the park. It had 4 stops. It was so much fun soaring over the tree tops, potacitas, and river. Absolutely beautiful views that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s one of the smaller zip lines I’ve been on, not scary at all. For me it was more relaxing than “high adventure”.
Do not go to Tolantongo on the weekends. Because it’s mostly locals that visit the park, it’s packed on the weekends. People are camping everywhere, families are crammed into the potacitas, and packed into the cave. It’s loud and not very relaxing. Come Monday – Thursday and you will have a much more pleasant experience. I’ve been to Tolantongo in October, January and May. It was warm during all my visits, although in January it was a lot cooler. It was a little chilly for husband when he got out of the pools in the evening. I preferred October.
This place is unique and a must see if you are wanting to see the “real” Mexico. I’ve never been any place like it.