I chose to move to Mexico rather than go travelling because I wanted to experience a country intimately; I really wanted to know its people, explore its places, and discover its secrets. And so nothing gives me greater pleasure than the opportunity to head a little off the beaten track and go somewhere that’s not in the guide books. Being a girl from a small English seaside town, I’ve had difficulty adapting to life in a big inland city, and I jump at the chance for a trip into the wilds – bikini and hot springs sounded perfect. As the saying goes: be careful what you wish for. I wanted an adventure in the wilds and I sure got one.
I had heard of Tolantongo and seen some photos from people who had been. “You have to go,” people told me, “it’s incredible,” they said. “You might want to take a raincoat,” however, they did not.
The state of Hidalgo lies in central eastern Mexico and boasts strikingly rugged terrain. It touches on the south of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range and is home to five major canyons, one of which is called Tolantongo. Located in the Mezquital Valley, the resort of Tolantongo (and the river – you guessed it – also called Tolantongo) is 17km from the town of Ixmiquilpan. The approach is breathtaking: a number of transport changes are required with the mode of wheels becoming smaller each time. The resort is fairly remote – just as it should be when you’re on the hunt for a really good adventure/nightmare.
We arrived at the site to be wowed by the picture perfect vista. There are a number of pools staggered down the cliff face, with the most wonderful sight of the canyon with its walls up to 500 metres high. The water comes directly from within the mountains, making it lovely and warm. However, there is one rule and guards to enforce it: no alimentos – no food or drink. Well this poses something of a problem for group of eighty twenty-somethings: first of all, it’s a rule, which generally doesn’t go down too well in Mexico. Secondly, if there is one rule, it’s that you just don’t relax in Mexico without a chela – a cold beer – in hand. So after a little while we moved off from the pools down to the river on the canyon floor – with chelas aplenty. The river was beautifully warm too, and by wedging yourself up against a big rock you could have yourself a cracking homemade jacuzzi. So far, so good.
After some delicious Mexican grub (chilaquiles, alambre, quesadillas) we moved off again to explore the area of the canyon called La Gloria. Here there were a series of grutas (caves) and cascadas (waterfalls) to explore. The water inside the caves is hot, but the water plunging from the waterfalls is cold, which make for a really fun dash-and-stop course of proceedings. As you venture deeper into the caves they become harder to navigate, and in the final ones you are in pitch black (apart from a couple of guides flashing torches), scrambling along in single file clinging on to a rope attached to the inner wall, sometimes heaving yourself up to climb over an obstacle and at others letting go to slide down a smooth rock, plummeting down to where your feet can find the bottom again. It was SO MUCH FUN. Unfortunately, due to not having a waterproof camera and hands being otherwise occupied I don’t have any photos of the caves, but it was like the best imaginable kind of free and natural water park.
After more delicious Mexican grub (and a couple more chelas) it was time to move on to the place where we were to camp overnight, a “fifteen minute bus ride away”. Fifteen minutes turned into an hour and a half, and as we arrived at a little shack in the middle of the Mexican highlands, we were informed that a bridge had been closed and we’d been diverted on an elaborate detour. It was about 9pm at this point. Here we were to wait for local pick-up trucks driven by classic Mexican rancheros to take us down to the river-side camp. Ok, no biggie. We’re in Mexico, so we knocked back some tequila-laced coffee while we waited, naturally. After a couple of hours the pick-up trucks began to arrive and people piled on with all their stuff. Then they stopped coming, no more pick-up trucks. I was not on a pick-up truck. Ok, potentially a biggie. The round trip down to the campsite and back again was about an hour and a half, so we were advised that we may as well start walking and set off into the black of night.
Of course, I take the luck of the Irish with me wherever I go, and the moment we started walking coincided perfectly with the moment it started to rain. This might not seem so extraordinary, but let me just say that hiking and wet weather were never, to my knowledge, on the agenda. I was not the only person who found myself laughably ill-equipped, and of course I felt slightly better that there were a number of people even worse prepared than I was, slipping and sliding around in their sandals whilst juggling their bags, desperate to stay upright as we wove our way down the mountainside. “What wild animals hang out in the Mexican highlands?” I wondered, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person thinking it.
Eventually, the camp appeared in sight. Marching down a dark and treacherous path toward a few twinkling lights in the distance, I felt like Bilbo Baggins, only it wasn’t some odious mythical creature we were in pursuit of but a cluster of tents amidst a raucous pool party. The fifteen minute bus ride had turned into a five hour ordeal, but by 2am we had made it, and nobody was more ready for the pachanga than we were. I will spare you the details of the party, but when I went to bed at 8.30am the music was still playing and a few jolly revellers remained in the pool. A good party, some might say. The rain had continued all night, so what had been a damp site when we arrived was now a mud pool. Absolutely everything in the tent was completely soaked through, so the best option was to go straight for breakfast and nurse our impending hangovers with huevos rancheros, pan dulce and steaming cafecito. No dry towel, no dry clothes, just sitting out in the elements getting colder and wetter. Well if you can’t get dry and warm, you may as well stay wet and warm, so we headed back into a hot pool where we able to shelter from the rain in a toasty cave for the rest of the day until it was time to return home.
Ah, the return home. If the buses couldn’t get to down to the site in the rain, how were we going to get back up now that the whole place was flooded? Staying by the side of the river on the canyon floor may have seemed like a good idea at some point, but when the tail end of Tropical Storm Trudy hits and there’s a lot of water gushing down the mountain, at the bottom is not really where you want to be. Like poor little spiders washed down the plughole, there was no way we could get back up again. Now I’m not normally one to advocate Mexico’s culture of corruption, but there may be instances when, given no other option, a little bribe can work in your favour. This was one of those instances, so we paid our way to cross a forbidden area over the river (by this point I had ditched my shoes) and a short walk away we were able to get on a minibus to take us up another way to a bus collection point.
Unfortunately, there was no camp fire nor 10am yoga (as the itinerary had suggested), but a tropical storm and a midnight tour of the highlands of Hidalgo thrown in for free. I couldn’t help but laugh as I plucked my suncream out of my smelly sodden bag. It should have been the worst weekend ever, but as worst weekends go it was a pretty good one. Everyone knows the best kind of adventures are spontaneous ones, and I can confirm there’s nothing that can’t be made more bearable by a good measure of tequila.