Everything You Need to Know About Tolantongo, Mexico

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Follow a winding road 1000 metres down into a steep valley surrounded by lush vegetation. See the turquoise blue river, steam pouring off her surface as she snakes through the valley floor. Soak yourself in a deliciously warm thermal pool, all to yourself, hanging over the edge of the cliffside while you stare off into the mountain valley. Let the warm waters pound on your back like a massage as they cascade down the mountain. And if you dare, climb into the very heart of the mountain through a black tunnel, torrid water pounding down from every crevice inside her, the hot blood of the mountain.  Steam billows so thick you feel it in your lungs. Watch your step along the smooth rocks as you walk along them from ankle deep to neck deep water. At the end of the tunnel, in the mountains heart, sit and breath her in, feel her heat wrap you in a blanket. It’s impossible to tear yourself away; it’s like being back in the womb, the sounds, the comfort, the warmth, the peace you feel. But you must. The rest of the mountain is calling you. Dare to run through the blast of icy cascades pounding from the mountain top, the very mouth of the mountain.  Pass through the frigid wall and reach the inside of the cavernous mouth, a warm reprieve, waste deep, with tiny smooth round tastebuds, pebbles on the floor, to massage your feet. Stare in awe at the stalactites, the strange smoothened figures on the walls and cavern ceiling, like grotesque teeth from thousands of years of dripping that warm, mineral rich water. And in the centre, a battering blast of hot water beckons you, dares you to try to withstand the power as the tongue of the mountain pounds on your back and pushes you down into the warm depths. Steamy breath gushes from her mouth out into the valley in clouds.

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The mountain is alive, and she welcomes you.

Welcome to a place that will change you. Heal you. Free you.

Welcome to paradise

Welcome to Tolantongo.

Now that you realize this is a magic place, a place you cannot miss, let me help you get here 🙂

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How to get there:

You have several options, all depending on your budget. From most expensive to least:

Drive: Car rentals in Mexico are really expensive (like around $140 CAD a day with insurance!), as you need to get full insurance (I’ve heard too many horror stories about this stuff in Mexico!), so if funds are tight and you’re going this route, make sure you have four other friends to pack the car with and split the cost with!

Taxi: A lot of people stop in Ixmiquilpan as the closest town to the park, and from here you could bargain with a taxi. Splitting the cost with a couple of friends would likely make it a bit cheaper than a car rental since with the car rental, you’ll be paying for it while it just sits at the park ( because trust me, you’re going to want to spend more than just one or two days here!).

Shuttle: There is a scheduled shuttle services from the town of Ixmiquilpan. The schedule is posted on the parks website: http://www.grutastolantongo.com.mx/en/shuttle-service.html

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Monday -Thursday the shuttle runs at 11:00am, 13:30, 15:30 and 18:00, and Friday -Sunday hourly departures from 10:00am – 18:00. The returns times are posted to the website as well. The shuttle departs from La Grand Plaza – the transportation hub in the city where all the collectivos depart from on Lazaro Cardenas. Enter the compound, turn right and go all the way to the end. The Tolantongo bus is a mid size bus, not a collectivo, so if you are bringing your backpacks or suitcase it’s not a huge deal – I wish we had known this, as we opted to leave most of our gear back in the hotel in the city for a few days, and leaving my bags always gives me severe separation anxiety! You’ll know you’re on the right bus because it’s a total tourist bus full of images of the park! The cost is 50 pesos per person and you just pay at the end of your ride when you’re getting off. The ride is about 1 hour and the last 15 minutes are not for the faint of heart, especially if it’s raining! The road carves down the mountain in steep switch backs that are clinging to the cliff side of a precipitous valley. Most of it is paved, except for the last third which is dirt- and when it’s raining, and your speeding down in a shuttle van (wondering if the tires are as thread bare as the last collectivo you took), all you can do is close your eyes and pray!

Tour: You can take an organized tour from several nearby cities (including Mexico City). They will take care of all of the details for you, including transportation.

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Okay – you’ve made it here – what now?

Entrance fees: A guy will board the bus at the entrance gate and collect the daily entrance fee from all passengers which is 140 pesos per person. The shuttle can then stop at any of the five entrances – but the MAIN entrance is at the end of the road where La Gruta hotel is located down by the river.  The other popular entrance is #3 which is where Paraiso Escondido hotel is located and the iconic thermal pools. Just ask the driver to let you off at Paraidso if that’s where you’d like to start your time in Tolantongo.

KEEP IN MIND: if you are going to stay the night (which you are because you’d be crazy not to) you do need to purchase a day pass for the following day as well when you pay for your hotel – if you are planning to leave very early in the morning I do believe you can work out some kind of deal with them and not have to pay for the next day; otherwise you do need to purchase a full day pass for the following day. That was the only major downside to taking the 11am shuttle, arriving at noon, and then, after getting checked in etc. and getting your bearings, hardly having any time to do anything before things shut down. The place is HUGE  – we spent our first afternoon just wandering around trying to figure out where things were.

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Accommodations:

Don’t just do a day trip here, trust me. You NEED to spend a couple of days in this paradise! None of the hotels here will take bookings – which is why we showed up during the week, and in off season, just to be sure we could get a room. I can’t imagine how busy and insane this place gets in high season or on weekends! During these times you may struggle to get a room, but there were plenty of rooms available when we arrived. I was worried about taking the 11am shuttle and arriving so late in the day, but we had nothing to worry about on a Tuesday. We grabbed a room for one night at La Gruta, and figured we could check out the other hotels if we wanted to stay longer (which obviously we did!).

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La Gruta: Cheapest option at about 600 pesos per night for a non balcony room – however you still get a balcony of sorts, just not a private enclosed one. We were on the second floor and had a nice view of the river below us from our ‘not’ balcony. The down side was that our room smelt horrible – it was unbearable. Luckily I had some copal wood in my bag and we bought a lighter for 5 pesos at the shop to try and ward off the pungent stench of urinal pucks, but it was unconquerable. We had a double bed and no hot water – not because there wasn’t any available at that time, it just wasn’t even an option (only one tap in the shower!).

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Look – a troll under a bridge…!

Paraiso Escondido: This hotel is at the third entrance where the thermal pools are – about 2km from the river. We paid 700 pesos for a balcony room with a king size bed,  no stank, and almost hot water. The views had potential and could be great depending on what room they give you – if you can speak Spanish, request a room with a great view- but you’ll likely end up having to paying more. Our view at La Gruta was 100 times better, but not worth the stink! Paraiso was well worth the 100 extra pesos.

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Camping: Such a brilliant option! I would definitely do this next time. Why? because you get to camp right next to the roaring warm river and be lulled to sleep by it’s beautiful song each night and wake up to it each morning- paradise! You can of course bring all your own gear or you can rent gear from the park (tents as low at 100 pesos a night for a four person!). Do bring your own sleeping bag/mat/pillow. You can also rent tables and chairs and grills if you need!

There are two other hotels, however they are not up and running during off season – you can see all the hotels and pricing on their website.

I highly recommend staying at least one night down by the river, either camping or at La Gruta (demand a non stank room or bring lots of incense!) and then another night or two or three up at Paraiso Escondido so you can really experience both areas! 

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Food:

Each of the two main hotels has a larger main restaurant to go with it that was usually open (except one morning that left us scrambling to find food!). La Gruta has Las Palomas and El Paraiso has Paraiso – they are virtually the exact same restaurant, only Paraiso is a bit more expensive (for example enchiladas at Las Palmas were 50 pesos, and 60 pesos at Paraiso. They also each have a small shop where you can buy all kinds of treats like cookies, chips, milk, pop and your water etc. as well as a little restaurant that serves mostly drinks and tortas – very basic fair. The food at the park isn’t amazing, but it’s alright at the main restaurants. Prices were actually pretty affordable as well considering what they could have charged people since there are no other options! I wouldn’t shy away from bringing a few things from home or a larger city centre to supplement what you can eat there. It’s quite cool at night in the winter months (like we needed an extra blanket cold!) so things don’t spoil!

We usually had hot cakes and enchiladas for breakfast, quesadillas and more enchiladas for dinner – they were the cheapest thing on the menu! Online shows quite a few places to eat, but keep in mind that most of these are closed in the off season or at least during the week – they perhaps open more over the weekend, but when we were there, we didn’t have much to choose from, other than the main joints at the hotels.

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I didn’t get any photos inside the tunel or gruta, it was too wet – plus, it’s something you need to see with your own eyes!

What to bring:

  • Swim suit
  • Water shoes – this is optional, but we ended up wearing our lightweight sneakers in to the tunel because it was highly recommended to have shoes and I’m glad we did- you definitely can NOT wear flip flops – you’ll lose them and or break your neck. So if you have access to water shoes, definitely bring them
  • Sunscreen (biodegradable if you’re going in the water please!)
  • Warm clothes for the evening – you’re in the mountains!
  • A really big, warm towel! – we were there in January and the temperatures were quite cool once you left the warmth of the delicious water! I saw a couple of people wearing house coats and deeply envied them! The hotel provides towels, but I didn’t want to use my clean shower towel out at the pools as well. So I brought my tiny travel towel and my big knit scarf (and I still froze!)
  • Snacks
  • Cash
  • Camera – waterproof stuff – like a life proof case on your phone or a go pro- this is a water world after all!

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What else?

The park is huge – there are two main areas you’ll want to explore and spend entire days in. One is up at Paraiso hotel. They have a swimming pool with waterslide (sadly only active on weekends), and all the stunning thermal pools – those picturesque ones you see when you google ‘Tolantongo’. It’s more than easy to spend an entire day wandering to all the different pools to find your favourite one! They also have a neat little man made cave area, where you can walk down to the bridge, and enter the cave, walk underneath the mountain through a tunnel and come out by the bridge. Beautiful!

The second area is the main entrance, down by the river. I would save two days for this area as it has the tunnel, the cave and the river, as well as it’s own swimming pool with a huge jump platform (3.7 metres!). It’s easy to while a way a day at the river, soaking in the warm waters, having an entire section all to yourself, relaxing riverside by the camp area, and soaking up some sun. The main attractions for me however were the tunnel and the cave, described at the start of this post. These are really truly special places, unlike any other in the world I’ve ever seen. You feel power here, magic. It was really hard to leave these spots, and I recommend visiting them during the least busy times. The tunnel isn’t too huge (though quite deep) and it’s an unbelievably special place to find yourself all alone in to mediate and enjoy the peace. The cave is much larger but can also get full of people, so visit these places early in the day, and go during the week so the place isn’t crowded! There is a third section, on the opposite side of the river, accessed from a bridge near the river – this section however requires another 100 pesos per day access fee, so it’s up to you if you want to dish out the cash. We wandered over on a quiet afternoon and checked it out before we were stopped by a staff and advised we had to pay. We decided to leave that area out, but if you have the funds – why not check it out!

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There is also a really beautiful sumidero (walking path) between the main entrance where La Gruta is, and Paraiso Escondido – ask around and you’ll be pointed in the right direction. That’s how we got between the two main sections, it’s about 2km and is really stunning, and far better than walking along some road or taking the shuttles. They do have shuttles you can take between the two areas every couple of hours for a fee  – but the walking path is just so beautiful- don’t miss it! Towards the end you will pass through a little construction as they are creating a whole other section of thermal baths and hotels – and do be advised, there is some major uphill walking (or downhill, depending which way your’e going)! We walked this path every day for the four days we were here and absolutely loved it – the scenery will take your breath away! 

Be prepared to fall head over hells in love with this place. It was hands down our favourite place in all of Mexico!

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