Friday, February 15, 2013

Two To Tolantongo, Part One

Una Poza Azul, Paraiso Escondido
Tons of water emerge from hidden caverns and mountainside springs, to make a desert canyon in the Estado de Hidalgo into a spectacular oasis.

We'd visited Tolantongo in 2007, and were eager to return to experience the Paraiso Escondido area, with its long vistas and cascading warm springs pozas, tiered upon the hillsides. There are now two Tolantongos: the classic section closer to the Río and La Gruta, and the upper Paraiso Escondido section, nearer to the entrance station and place of pozas.

We left our home in the Pátzcuaro area on Wednesday and headed to Tlalpujahua, Michoacán, about 3 hours away, a Pueblo Mágico at over 8,400 feet a.s.l to stay overnight. It's a small, charming and picturesque town, although the altitude strained my pulmonary capacity. Tlalpujahua photos.

But this report is about a visit to Tolantongo, so we'll move on now, as we did the next morning.

We got on the Arco Norte near 15D and Altlacomulco, finding the various card system and on/off ramps somewhat disorienting, but we muddled through, exiting at Tlalhuelipan after passing Tula. We got through the relatively small urban zone of Tlahuelipan only to encounter the much larger Mixquihuala. Mixquihuala must be one of the cities in the most numerous and diabolical topes. The main highway out has sets of triple topes set at frequent intervals.

Highway from Mixquihuala towards Ixmiquilpan
But we arrived without significant problems to Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, our rest and jumping off place to Tolantongo. There we stayed at the very nice Hotel Posada Centenario. A foul smell in the street that Thorn Tree poster "Alterigor" mentioned was present, but once inside the spacious patio parking (there's also enclosed parking) we noticed no odor. (Later, when we showered, uncovering the shower drain released a bad smell, but it was minimal and tolerable.)

Our room was on the second floor, facing the covered swimming pool. (The pool was too cold for us to swim in.) It was bright, cheerful and reasonably comfortable. Our double room rate of $400 p included a Continental breakfast in the adjacent restaurant, "Le Salamandra". 

Meanwhile, on arriving and settling in, we sought comida. The grilled meat restaurant, with the flaming torches out front, was no longer there. So after a sort walk under the portales, we decided to eat at Restaurante Hierbabuena, in the front of the Hotel Palacio Real.

It was a pretty good comida, soup with elbow macs, chuleta de cerdo a la Mexicana (lots of fresh, if well cooked vegetables in the sauce, frijoles, tortillas and agua fresca, and a minimalist gelatin cube dessert. It was $40 pesos per person.

chuleta de cerdo a la Mexicana
Across from the Hotel Posada Centenario is a handmade tortilla shop also making some of the richest frijol con chile tlacoyos I'd ever seen, and only $5 pesos each. Although they were alluring, I never found time to sample their products. We made up for this deficiency upon our return, but close by the Ixmiquilpan Mercado.

El Rayo, tortillas hechas a mano y tlacoyos.
That night, I was stricken by a hunger for non-Mexican food, so we went out back to the portales on the Plaza. About midway down the portales is a large, popular casual restaurant, Mr. Pizza—El Malecón. We dug into the free carrots botanas, followed by Alitas Búfalo (Great!), and pizza Griega mediana. If that was a medium, I'm glad we hadn't ordered a large.

Pizza Griega Mediana
Headed out next morning after a ho-hum breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
Gente de negocios en Restaurante "Le Salamandra"
I love the high arid area east of Ixmiquilpan and toward Cardonal when the weather is not too hot. This trip was blessed with far more temperate weather than our previous trip in April, 2007.

Inflatable water toys for sale at a small shop in the desert.

Another desert outpost
After another supply stop enroute, we reached the "Edge Of The World", where the road begins its profound descent into the Barranca de Tolantongo. (I am quite sure that I read on the Lonely Planet Thorntree Mexico Branch or perhaps elsewhere that the road down had been paved. Big news: other than a few kilometers of pavement at the beginning, it's still unpaved for the most part. But after a few "ULPS!" and putting my trust in our driver (my wife), we slowly and carefully descended the road, with special caution at the sharp switchback curves.

"The End of Civilization As We Know It."

Warp Space Boundary

We stopped at the entrance station to pay our fees and get directions to Paraiso Escondido.
The general daily admission per person is normally $120 pesos, at Semana Santa it rises to $140; but we were given the INAPAM discount and paid only half. The parking fee is $20 pesos day per vehicle. We were directed to the Paraiso Escondido section, where courteous security personnel directed us to a shady parking spot. (Later we found that we'd parked under a roost of zopilotes, who beshat the hood of our van.)

The Paraiso Hotel had only 3 rooms available, $600 pesos, when we arrived at noon on Friday. They were nice enough inside, but their view was toward the paths alongside, not to the canyon. I asked about cabañas, and they had a couple available, next to each other but not abutting, at $800p. We liked the location of the cabaña they showed us, above a trail, outward looking, quite private, so we took it. It was tall ceilinged, two level, old and shabby inside and the bathroom stunk of sewer gas badly enough to seep into and befoul the room. Sra. Cuevas solved most of that by putting a plunger over the shower drain.

The lighting was poor, the bulb for the bedside lamp was burned out; no hangers at all in the closet, but we talked to the man at recepcíon and he got us a bulb and two hangers. The shower itself was fine, given a couple of minutes for the warmer water to arrive.

The beds were passable but the lower sheets were like fine sandpaper. But we put up with it and stayed 3 nights, because of the space, privacy, view and ample porch. All the furniture was on the porch. Heavy, "lodge" style furniture, including a low table suited for putting our food.

Café y pan dulce at 7:21 a.m.
Next time, though, we'll try to arrive earlier and have more choice.  The good parts were that we were not too far from our van, and less than 100 feet below were plenty of tepid to warm water pozas in which we could indulge our idyllic, aqueous, back-to-Eden-like desires.

Newer pozas, below our cabaña
We used the porch of the cabaña as our lounging and snacking area. We had an ice chest along and a large bag of snacks, including half a leftover pizza. But we also ate both in the Cocina Económica near to us in Paraiso Escondido as well as the Restaurante “Las Palomas”, closer to the river. Las Palomas reminds me of a small, U.S. National Park restaurant, back in the ‘50s. The food is reasonably priced and most of what we ate was good. The exception were some very dry and overcooked pork chops. Yet they tasted good. Maybe it was all the fresh air. There’s a full service bar and the highly competent bartender can mix your favorite drink.

Good bartender in Restaurante "Las Palomas"
Mine was the Vampiro, sweet, sour, salty and picante.

Service is unpretentious but good.

The menu runs heavily to carnes, but at our last dinner, I had some very good camarones empanizados. There’s another Cocina Económica closer to La Gruta, but we did not eat there.

Sundays are barbacoa days, and if you like this traditionally prepared dish, I recommend it highly. Serving starts at about 7:30-8:00 a.m. at the Cocinas Económicas, and continues until supplies run out. The consomé de barbacoa, a rich distillate of juices of borrego, enriched with vegetables, and garbanzos, is unmissable.

A Farewell To Lambs
Uncovering the hoyo de barbacoa on the morning after

There is also a string of even more economical puestos down below, near the jumping off place for the Tirolesa. It’s a very old time Mexican scene. There we only ate some elotes.

These are the warm pools which are the big draw at Paraiso Escondido. I won’t try to describe them in any detail, as words would fail. You could spend all day, giving each 5 or 10 minutes, and probably not cover than all. The supersaturated waters and the semi-tropical climate have deposited minerals on every exposed surface of the stone and concrete constructions. The area below Recepcíon are newer and less encrusted. Those in the downstream direction, behind a gate on the trail, signed “Las Pozitas” are heavily mineralized. It’s like a speleo water fantasy, except above ground, in daylight. I half expected to see Raquel Welch in a leopard skin bikini, clambering in and out of the pozas.

Las Pozas
Water spouts, cascades, falls and pools everywhere. The overflows from the pozas join and speed down a stone flume, then exit at a large cascade on the canyon wall. My favorite pozas are those with warmer water, about hip to waist deep, and a canyon rim location. All are a pleasurable experience.

Las Pozas
The metaphorical icing on the cake is the large swimming pool and adjacent diving pool, just below that Cocina Económica. Water depth in the former is from .90 to 1.8 meters, the second, diving pool, is 3 meters deep. The view upward from the pool is of the towering crags, but the view in the other direction is of  a construction 2 storeys high, which partially blocks the view of the canyon. Hopefully, it will be attractive when completed.

A large pool awaits swimmers and waders
After a few hours of clambering in and out of pools and pozas, soothed by the warm waters, you will have no problem sliding between your sandpaper sheets and snoozing.

To be continued: Part Two: A morning in Ixmiquilpan

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