About 350 miles east and slightly north from where I live in Ajijic Mexico is a box canyon that has walls as high as 1640 feet. There are two grottos at the canyon’s closed end, out of which flows a volcanically-heated river. Around these two openings, warm waterfalls flow down the steep canyon walls. The Tolantongo River, colored milky blue by mineral salts as it passes through the mountain and flows along the canyon floor, is also the name of the canyon and the tourist complex established there. The warm-water river has a seemingly endless series of small rapids and pools in which to bathe.
The name derives from the Nahuatl tonaltonko. In 1975 when this Eden was promoted by the magazine “Mexico Desconocido” the name was misspelled and that is how it “officially” got the name Tolantongo. Some English sites have translated it as Home Where It Feels Warm and some as Hot Water in Movement. Researching a bit deeper, I have found that the original Nahuatl word tonal is used to refer to the Sun God, and not to the heat of the water at all. Another significance of tonal in Nahuatl is the animal double or companion animal of a person, often now referred to as one’s power animal! All this to say that this place is much more profound than a usual tourist resort. The sense of sacred is palpable.
Inside the largest grotto, about half the size of a tennis court and 33 feet high, and from which emerges the flow of the river, the temperature is notably elevated. The cave’s great ceiling and grand walls are full of female-form stalactites and stalagmites, hundreds of breast and vagina shapes, and many other natural sculptures. One is showered by warm water that sprays out from the walls and ceiling. The water comes through a complex series of canals inside the mountain that heat it from 68 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, though the water outside the grotto and in the river itself is tepid rather than hot. In both grottos, one can listen to the echoes of the waterfalls inside the mountain.
Some as tall as two story buildings, fuzzy cacti without arms called “viejos” (old ones) (Cephalocereus senilis) stand sentinel on the slopes of the canyon. The lush green mountains surrounding the area are covered with spherical shapes and remind me of Artemis (Diana) of Ephesus, the Goddess of a Thousand Breasts.
The high peaks are often shrouded in mist.
There is a book about the area by journalist Enrique Rivas Paniagua, a book whose title is translated as That Which the Wind has Left Us: Leaves of Hidalgan Native Land. (Lo que el Viento nos Dejo: Hojas de Terruño Hidalguense) The poetry of the title conveys perhaps a drop of the stunning poetry of the Tolantongo River and its canyon.
The area has been inhabited by various indigenous peoples in the past including the Otomi, the Mexica, the Toltecs and the Tepehua. Part waterpark, part spa, and part nature preserve, Tolantango is also a co-0p resort with an unusual managerial structure. It owes its existence not to any governmental or corporate entity but to the local people. “The grottos and the resort belong to an association formed by the 112 families that own the ejido, a type of communal property. All workers belong to these ejido families and dress similarly, no matter what their job.[ While certain jobs do pay more, these rotate among members. Each family gets a vote in the affairs of the ejido. The project, launched in the 1970s with neither outside expertise nor government help, still functions without outside resources. A percentage of the resort’s profits are reinvested back into the enterprise. The ejido association, one of the most successful in the country, has preserved the ejido land around the resort in its natural state.”
The tourist brochures advertise the complex of four hotels and many restaurants, the long and thrilling zipline over the canyon (which I experienced firsthand!), hiking, camping, spelunking, and the many man-made semi-circular splashing pools created by damming small warm springs, allowing tourists to bath in warm waters while overlooking the canyon. The thermal hot spring river I soaked in for many hours was truly healing, but for me the main grotto was the sacred experience, the greatest gift, the wonder I shall return to in my mind over and over and over, one of the most breathtaking places in Mexico, perhaps the world. Gracias a la vida!