Sunday, February 24, 2013

Four Recent Hotel Stays

We recently traveled to Grutas de Tolantongo, Hidalgo, stopping first for a night in the Pueblo Mágico of Tlalpujahua, Michoacán.

I didn't do a lot of research on the lodging options in Tlalpu, but assumed (correctly) that if we showed up on a Wednesday in the low season, we'd get a room.

I had my eye on the Hotel Jardin, mostly because of its very central location and its nice website. The Hotel Jardin is located less than one block uphill from the plaza, or "Jardin". It's attractive in many ways, not least of which is the warm greeting we got from the recepcionista, Marita. She even went so far as to walk back the 6 or 8 blocks to our van, in order to guide us through the one way streets to the hotel.

A sweet little hotel
We wanted a spacious room, with two camas matrimoniales. The rack rate is $600 pesos, but when I requested a low season discount, Marita graciously dropped it to $550.

Like Tlapu itself, nearly everything requires a climb. The town itself is located at an altitude of 8,400 feet above sea level. I felt the effects of the thin air, both walking uphill to the hotel, then climbing two sets of stairs to our room on the "primer piso".

Upper stairs to the terrace
The room, which faced the interior hall, was spacious, simple but attractive; the beds comfortable, the bedding and especially the soft blanket were very nice. But there was a definite lack of closet space. One tiny closette in the dresser was all we had.

Partial view of our double room

The bathroom was clean and functional although simple. Hot water arrived quickly and reasonably forcefully.

There is a rooftop terraza with a partial view of the town center. Guests can opt to have breakfast up there, at $40 pesos per person. We ate elsewhere, to our regret, and perhaps should have had breakfast at the hotel. Brenda, the night shift recepcionista, asked us, but we declined.

The significant downside of the hotel is that its secured parking area is off site, almost a mile away, at the Cabañas Esperanza. Parking required that a staff or family member ferry us to and from the parking area. Although there was a wait of up to 30 minutes, we took it as an opportunity to get to know a few members of the family. Other guests might be less patient.

Comfort: ****

Cleanliness: ****

Price: Sencilla= $350, Doble=$600

Service: **** Outstanding

Pluses: Service, central location, comfort, QUIET

Minuses: Many stairs; tiny closet, parking at a remote lot

In Ixmiquilpan, 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.)

There's a nice lobby, where the free wifi works best, although I could capture it in the room.

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. The beds had cement bases and were a little high off the floor, but no real problem. Our double room rate of $400 p included a missable Continental breakfast in the adjacent restaurant, "Le Salamandra".



Cleanliness: ****

Price: $400 a double. Promotional rates available Sunday through Thursday.

Service: good

Pluses: bright and well maintained, sufficient electric outlets. Short walk to plaza.
Minuses: sewer smell in shower, but it was stopupable.

Tolantongo; Paraiso Escondido, Cabaña #5

As I have already written in my posts about our visit to Grutas de Tolantongo, we didn't have a lot of choices of rooms when we arrived at noon on a Friday. The first two habitaciones we were shown were close to the Recepcíon, along busy pathways, and least attractive of all, faced the paths and not the canyon. Those rooms, doubles, went for $600 pesos. I asked about cabañas, and there were at least a pair still available. Although these are really intended for up to 5 persons, we decided on the basis of the excellent front porch and view of the pozas close by to rent it, at $800 pesos per night. We were offered the option of Cabaña # 6 next door, but as it had just been cleaned thanked our receptionist and moved into #5. It could be that we might have done better with #6.

Pozas viewed from cabaña area

Cabaña # 5 was very spacious, on two levels, with 2 camas matrimoniales on the upper level and a sofa bed on the lower. The ceiling was high and there were windows on both sides. There was sufficient space left over on the lower level to install a small lounge area, or a kitchenette, but it was empty.

The overall maintenance was poor; there was a burned out bulb in the lamp over the bed, no hangers in the reasonably spacious closet, no bulb in one of the porch lamps, but the most serious flaw was the really fetid gas coming up the drains in the bathroom. We were able to mitigate that last by putting the supplied plunger over the shower stall drain, but there was still some gas rising from the sink.

The bed would have been comfortable, but the sheets had the texture of fine sandpaper.
In regard to the shower, the warmer water (spring sourced) from the single valve was slow in coming but tolerably warm after 3 or 4 minutes of waiting. This was not a big problem.

In addition to the above defects, the whole interior was shabby and in need of paint and renovation. But we stayed because it was what was available (there were probably other habitaciones available at the lower, Río section, but we wanted this specific location close to las pozas, so we settled in to enjoy the positive aspects.

The most outstanding feature was the spacious porch, with heavy wooden chairs and a low table where we could enjoy the foods we'd brought, with a very pleasant view of the semi tropical vegetation and the beautiful pozas not far below us.

Breakfast on the porch


Comfort: **

Cleanliness: **

Price: $800 pesos. More economical options are available, but as in all cases, one must arrive early, mid-week, to get one. No reservations are taken.

Service: ***

Pluses: Very spacious. Nice porch for relaxing, good view, short walk to the pozas. Not far to the parking area.
Minuses: Run down, shabby, poorly maintained. Expensive considering these defects.

Hotel Real D' Mendoza, Zinapécuaro, Michoacán

After a fruitless halt in dusty Maravatío, we drove on to Zinapécuaro. From what we saw, it's an attractive town, whose centerpiece is the beautifully landscaped water park, Reino de Atzimba. But we didn't visit that until the following week.

I had in mind the hotel Hacienda Monarca, but just about 1/4 mile before we reached it, I saw a sign for the Hotel Real D'Mendoza, located on a side street, Calle Camelinas at Calle Dahlia, two blocks from the arterial Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas.

I was immediately taken by the attractive exterior and once inside the reception/lobby area, it was like being in someone's large home. (It is.) Even better, to the rear is a large, enclosed and secured parking garage. A ramp is available for persons in a wheelchair to access the primer piso.
There are 22 rooms, some of which are interior but have balconies facing the quiet street.

Garden view rooms

Our room: small but pretty
Several options are available in rooms, sencillas, dobles and king size. We chose a king size, on the terrace level one flight up. It was very small, but pleasantly cozy. Cost was $380 pesos.

The only negative note was that the TV stand hanging on the wall had sharp projecting corners.  (We escaped injury.) We draped a bath towel over as a visual warning. The room had artistic decor, but the coolest thing was that when the lights went out at night, stars glowed on the ceiling. It was utterly charming. The bathroom was small but very functional. Above all, it was very clean and odorless.

In the morning, there was free coffee and packaged cookies available at the reception desk. Oh, I almost forgot about wifi. (The Hotel Jardin has it, too.)

There is a sequel to this story. When we got home, I found that I'd left my iPod Touch wall charger and sync cable in the hotel room.

I contacted David Moulton, who lives in Zinapécuaro, to request that he call the hotel to see if they had my missing gadget.

Not only did they have it, but David is a brother-in-law of the owner!

Doña Cuevas and I returned to Zinapécuaro the following Thursday to meet David and his wife Tere. David gave us passes to Atzimba and took us on a walking tour of the beautifully landscaped grounds. We didn't return to the  Hotel Real D' Mendoza that time, but would definitely recommend it.


Comfort: ***

Cleanliness: *****

Price: $380 pesos for a king bedroom. Larger rooms are available for a little more.

Service: ***** Outstanding

Pluses: Family atmosphere, quiet, enclosed parking inside the hotel, wifi, free coffee and cookies; garden with kids' playground set.
Minus: Watch out for the tv set!

Note: we learned that the Hotel Hacienda Monarca was the billet for a good size troop of Federales, and has been so for at least a couple of years.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Two To Tolantongo, Part Two

On the evening before our departure, we walked along the upper canyon trail to the head of Tolantongo Canyon. This is the spectacular source of the Río Tolantongo. There are actually several sources; the warm river, thundering out of La Gruta, a small stream emerging from el Túnel, a natural sauna; cool cascades falling lacily over the escarpment, and the springs at the adjoining park, La Gloria. La Gloria is owned by a neighboring ejido and has a its own features. We have not yet visited there.

Upper trail to head of Tolantongo Canyon
I was surprised by the amount of development that had been done in the five years since we'd last been there.

New service structures near head of canyon
But the main, natural attractions have not been significantly altered.

La Gruta straight ahead. Túnel up stairs to left

La Gruta holds many bathers. There's a powerful, warm waterfall inside to the left.
After our evening walk, we went to dinner at Restaurante Las Palomas.

Sra. Cuevas had Alambres Tolantongo
I had Camarones Empanizados
I'd had some doubts about eating seafood that far inland, but the shrimp (and the alambres) were excellent  Later I learned that the Ejidal Society has its own aquaculture facility!

We slept one last night in the park, and in the morning ate the last of the food in the ice chest, packed, and were headed up the road towards Ixmiquilpan by 9:15

We stopped for some quick photos while en route.

Maguey in bloom
Iglesia de San Isidro Labrador
Mission Ixmiquilpan:
We needed to get to an ATM, get the van washed, have my shoes shined, check email, and have some lunch/late breakfast.

We successfully arrived in Ixmi along a crowded market street, located a parking lot and informal carwash next to Posada Centenario. We got over 2 hours' parking, car wash and rest room use for $50 pesos through our skillful negotiation, charm and general good will.

I went to a cyber cafe, but was unable to send email, so I gave up on that. The ATM part was successful, and the shoe shine, under the portales, was an amazingly low $12 pesos. (It's $20 now in Pátzcuaro.) I gave the guy $15 pesos.

We wanted to see the Mercado Municipal, very conveniently close by. First we stopped at an herbs and hats seller, where we bought an unusual type of orégano. A big sardine can's worth was $25 pesos. A small can, $10.

Orégano, Ixmiquilpan Type
Pepitas, chiles chipotles, orégano
Just beyond the herb seller were two young women cooking antojitos on a comal. This was irresistible. And we hadn't even gotten into the mercado yet. 

We were first struck by a pile of the local version of pambazos. Usually, these filled bread rolls are dipped in a thin chile salsa and fried, but these are not.

Ixmi Pambazos
We were drawn more towards eating smaller items, preferably without lettuce. There were tlacoyos de frijoles ready to eat. Our first choice.

There were also attractive, but lettuce bearing sopes, de huevo and other variants. What are the green shreds? Chicken?

Sopes Ixmi
One of the women started patting out masa and putting a small handful of crumbled chicharrón on it; flattening it and cooking it on the comal. We couldn't resist these, and they were better than the slightly dry tlacoyos. We were told that they were pupusas, which I've associated more with Central America.

Forming a pupusa de chicharrón
L-R: Flautas, sopes de huevo, pupusas
We had snacked well but lightly, so we headed into the mercado to find solid fare.

After entering by medicinal dried herbs fresh herbs for tea, frying chicharrón, bicycles and shoes, we found Desayunos Lily's.

Solid breakfast fare served at Lily's
There are no menus, of course. The regulars, who pack the counter stools, know what's available. The cooks will tell you what's available. We decided on chilaquiles verde con huevo for me and a tamal de carne for the Señora.

In a moment appeared a bowl of the soupiest, slurping good chilaquiles, dressed with chopped radishes, onions and cilantro. It wasn't as picante as they warned.

Chilaquiles verde, Ixmi Mercado. The roll was too much to eat.
Several types of atoles are available. I chose avena, a very rich whole milk drink, thickened slightly with oats.

Desayunos Lily's is open from 7:00 a.m. to 1 p.m. Seating is limited at the counter, but there's a shared seating area across the aisle.

Food: ****
Service: Fast counter service ****
Price: -$  Bargain!
Hygiene: **** Appears spotless.

As we wandered deeper into the mercado, we suddenly popped out into a sort of food court flanked by fondas. There was a vocalist with portable amp serenading the diners. The offerings appeared much more extensive than those at Lily's, running more toward moles and caldos and comida than to breakfast. Alas, we'd reached our limit, and have to save these for another trip. I recall from ny previous visit to the Mercado Municipal that there's quite a lot more to it than we saw on this visit. Where's the slabs of carnitas de res? The barbacoa? We just didn't have time nor capacity to cover it all.

We have to make another trip. Besides food, there are other attractions in the area.

Getting There and Back

Our route home retraced our earlier route: Ixmiquilpan to Huichapan, Huichapan to Carretera Federal 57, near San Juan del Río, then onto Carretera 55 towards Atlacomulco, then west on the Mexico City to Guadalajara cuota. We found this faster (far fewer urbanized areas and dreaded topes) and cheaper than the supposedly shorter route using Arco Norte. We did get onto Arco Norte just after Acambay, for which we were charged $22 pesos for about a kilometer of tollway. If we'd known, it can be avoided. We stopped for the night in Zinapécuaro, at the pleasant and charming economic Hotel Posada Real D' Mendoza, Calle Dahlia at Calle Camelinas. $380 for a king bed in a small room for two. Inside parking, cookies and coffee included.

Hotel Real D' Mendoza, Zinapécuaro, Michoacán

The Google Map route, using Arco Norte is below. Grutas de Tolantongo is about 35 or 40 miles northeast of Ixmi, beyond Cardonal. Note that the G Map also routes you through Morelia Centro, a poor idea if there ever was one. This route also gets two urban areas in Hidalgo, with plentiful topes thrown in.

View Larger Map

Here's the modified route we took to Zinapécuaro and home.

View Larger Map

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