Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Road To Tolantongo part 2

The next morning, after a light, in-room breakfast, we packed a small bag for the walk to the caves. There are paths at several levels, but they all converge at two set of steps up to the base of the headwall. Our path started to the left of the buses parking, and to the left of a large, 2-storey building containing the Visitors' Baños. The trail is well maintained and pleasant. About halfway, there is a large and interesting tree.

The bizarre shapes of this contorted tree may give rise to lurid thoughts in fertile minds. Keep your head down and your mind clean when walking by the tree. Near the base of the stairs to the caves are a gift shop (open when we were there), a cocina económica (open on weekends), and a guard. The stairs lead under a small, lush tropical garden growing on tufa rock. The tufa is evidence of limestone charged waters that once flowed over the slope, but is now dry.

I first read of Las Grutas de Tolantongo in the Association for Mexican Cave Studies Newsletter back in the late 80s. Mexican and US cavers attempted to traverse the cave in an upward direction, but were thwarted by the heavy water flow as well as the enervating heat. Later, attempts to traverse the system, from the sinking stream at La Gloria, a canyon upstream of the headwall, were successful I think the price paid was dire, with at least one person losing their life, but I am not at all sure about this. Dr. George Veni, a Texas caver and hydrologist did a study of the caves but his report has never been published. In an email to me, he wrote that the thermal waters originate at some distance, where they sink along the limb of a syncline, to a depth of 2.2 kilometers.

The head of the canyon resembles a movie setting. There are numerous falls of water, large and small, dropping over the cliff faces and falling as lacy curtains in front of the two cave entrances. A rougher set of steps goes up on the left to the smaller entrance of the steaming thermal cave called "El Túnel".

The rules of the resort require that all persons entering the cave be in bathing suits, and sober. Other than those rules, anything goes. You can take your little kid in with you.
I'd already changed into swimming trunks back at the room, and in front of the caves put on wading shoes. I also had a water resistent headlamp, but except for the Túnel, it wasn't really needed. If you wear glasses, it's best to remove them.

I have been in hundreds of caves over the years, both "show" caves, develped for the public, and "wild", undeveloped caves. I'd never seen any like these. At the top of the rough steps, I grasped a handrope and got a cold and invigorating shower from the curtain of water falling over the entrance. Immediately upon stepping into the rocky bottomed stream, I could feel the warm flow of water. The Túnel is a tube about 2 meters in diameter, with the walls heavily decorated by small dripstone and flowstone speleothems. Here and there, substantial spouts of very warm water jet out of the ceiling where it meets the walls.

Once in again, I advanced about 100 feet to the edge of a deep pool. A small family was sitting on the edge. I asked how deep it was and the man made a gesture up to his chest.
Hmmm... a rope loop tied through an stalactite eyelet was an aid to crossing. Although El Túnel is said to penetrate the canyon wall for 100 meters, I decided that age had taken its toll and that I'd seen enough.

After another refreshing shower, I girded up for a visit to the main, lower Gruta. There, the near full force río rushes down some 2 meters into a narrow canyon cleft. Down in the cleft, a whirlpool traps swirling inflatable buoyancy devices, balls and the like, a good warning to visitors to stay out!

The actual entrance to the lower Gruta, while a bit foreboding, is really not difficult. Mamás e hijos were lolling on the semi-submerged sandbags just inside. I crossed the current, grasping the provided hand rope, and had no problems. I was in the cavern, about crotch to waist deep in warm water, awed by the thunder of the central waterfall gushing from the ceiling. It was at least 4 times the force of the smaller spouts seen in El Túnel. The floor is mostly coarse gravel where it is clear of rockfall and sandbags. (I suspect that the ejido has bulldozed the floor level, and possibly "improved" the cavern, but I can't be certain.)

The interior of the Gruta entrance cavern is almost all within the "twilight zone" of sunlight,, dimly lit toward the back, but no artificial illumination was needed at the time. (mid-morning) I would say that after the sun goes over the peñon, a light would be a good idea. A light is definitely needed to enter el Túnel for more than a few yards.

After enjoying a gentler hot water spout on the right hand wall, I found a semi-detached handline leading to a side passage on the right from which cooler waters flowed. This is probably the conduit for water sinking in La Gloria Canyon. (The one that turns the río mud brown and delivers half-cooked livestock pot au feu in the rainy season.;-)
I had no exploraratory urges to cause me to go up that passage.

Then, after exploring the back wall of the main cavern, with another, excellent hot water back massager, I turned my attention too the main cascade. I'm not sure if I recall correctly, but that cascade may be the one first attempted by cavers in an upward, "through trip" recon. At any rate, when some Mexican jóvenes got under the cascade, I gained heart, and joined them. The force of the water is a knee doubler; powerful and memorable experience.

I exited the cavern, dressed, and we walked back to the hotel.
Later, we descended those 138 steps again, to have lunch at la cocina económica near the swimming pools.
Supper was again eaten on our balcony, listening to and watching the río.

Las Grutas de Tolantongo are in my top ranked Mexican Natural Places to see. The fact that a comfortable hotel, and other visitor oriented amenities are there doesn't detract from it one bit for me. Campgrounds are designated (but barely developed) and you can even rent modern camping tents and other gear from the store at the base of the steps. (I don't think anyone will need at sleeping bag there, at least not from March through October.)

More Photos of Tolantongo and Ixquimilpan Here

Slide Show

The Road To Tolantongo, part 1

We left Tolantongo on Wednesday morning under darkening skies. We did NOT want it to rain until we topped out of the canyon. The restaurant was not open, and it was too early for the cocina económica, so we got some food from the resort store and ate a typical Mexican breakfast. FUD ham on Bimbo Croissant and part of a Pepsi. We'd managed to get in one, last leg-stretching walk down the 138 steps to the cocina económica and back up.
We were packed, and driving cautiously in first at 10 mph, up the unpaved switchback road by 9:25. It seemed easier than the descent two days before. It had been a sensational and memorable three days.

We'd left Pátzcuaro on Sunday, stopped in Morelia at Costco and Mega, then crossed town and got on the Autopista a México, D.F. Tolls were high. At Atlacomulco, México, we missed our turn off, but got directions from a carnitas man to get on the right track.

From Atlacomulco, we wound upwards into higher country, past places with odd names, like Pathé and Dangú, and descended to highway 57 near Polotitlán. There we stopped for a lunch at Barbacoa Navarette. (Ok; nothing special, but we tried our first tacos de montalayo). Montalayo might be decribed as "Mexican Haggis, with a kick." For a visceral experience, you should try a few small tacos of this rich dish if you ever have an opportunity.

The road took us eastward, through increasing arid terrain, until after passing Huichapan, we arrived in Ixmiquilpan. This is a city of around 62,000 with an impressive central plaza, an interesting and extensive mercado, and our hotel for the night (carefully selected from Web research), the Plaza Isabel. It is small, attractive and comfortable, behind the Palacio Municipal, and just $270 MXP a night for two, with one bed.

The road to Tolantongo is a bit difficult to find if you use the few signs in centro Ixmiquilpan. It might be better to just backtrack out of town to the highway, and go from there. Our route, once found, was on the Libramiento a Cardonal, which was in mostly poor condition except for the many and excellent topes. Eventually, we got out on the highway striking eastward.

It took about an hour and a half to two hours. The first part is notable for a convenience store or tienda every 30 meters, usually marked by a pair of topes. But finally these gave out, and we cruised across the sere desert. The few houses were often made of gray concrete blocks, thatched ramadas, and many with pulque signs out front. However, none seemed to be open.

Past Cardonal, we curved around the base of a prominent peak and soon came to the end of the pavement. Signs welcomed us to the Tolantongo area and advised us to negotiate the next section of road in low gear. It wasn't really hair raising, yet at the tighter switchbacks, I noticed my palms were sweating. After 30 minutes of slow descent and several photo stops, we came to the imposing Tolantongo entrance station, a massive construction of stone and block, like a toll booth. There we paid our entrance fees ($80 MXP each) and daily parking ($20), and continued downwards. Surprisingly, we were not yet at the hotel. (This is really good planning to separate the entrance station from the central reception area.) Five minutes and more switchbacks later, we pulled in to the parking lot.
We got some keys from the reception desk clerk (in a cowboy hat) and looked over two rooms. We decided it would be worth it to pay extra, a total of $600 MXP a night for two double beds, and in an upper level room with a balcony.

The rooms we saw tend to be coolly dim, of concrete slab construction painted in aqua colors and one wall of large fieldstone. The balcony was modest and quite usable, with a good view of the river and swimming pools (about 150 feet below us) and was semi hidden from our neighbors by the plantings and the curve of the building. Lighting was adequate but not abundant. There is a large ledge between the lavatory and the bedroom, where we put our things, as well as on chairs and the floor. There were NO places to hang clothes.
The bathroom was large, and separated into lavatory/door, toilet/sliding shower door, curved shower room/small window. There was only one faucet in the shower and in the sink. The water is cooled thermal water, at a reasonably warm but not hot temperature, and satisfactory.

We rested in the room for a few hours to escape the afternoon heat. After 5:00p.m., we went down to the river and the pools for a dip. I wasn't fond of the sediment-laden, milk-warm waters of the river, so I went to the pools. There is a deep pool of smaller area and a much larger pool divided into chest deep and knee deep sections. A pipe conducts hot water overhead and gives you a back and shoulder massage.

The shower and changing rooms near the swimming pools are old, and super funky. The floor of the Men's has limestone deposits on the floor. The water runs out of a pipe in the ceiling, directly on your head, and then down a floor drain.
The newer shower house, near the bottom of the steps, is much nicer. It's near the lowest tier of hotel rooms, sometimes confusingly referred to as "cabañas". I'm not sure as to what the differences are from regular hotel rooms.

We put off visiting the caves until Tuesday morning. The open hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. After Susan swam in the río and I soaked in the pools, we went up to the restaurant for dinner, not far from our room. It is a long, airy dining room, with screened windows, overlooking the canyon. It was surprisingly free of that "Mexicano" clutter that decorates so many restaurants. It reminded me of an old fashioned, U.S. National Park lodge dining room.

Service was swift and the menu was reasonably varied, the prices fair. It was not gourmet dining, but it was good.
There was a full bar, and although we did not order any mixed drinks, the bartender appeared too be highly competent, deft at his craft, and generous in pouring.
We slept with the window and balcony door open for ventilation, and slept to the irregular pulsing of the river below.

To be continued