Saturday, April 28, 2007

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

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