Chasing Waterfalls & Urban Exploring Part 2: Vanlife North & Central Mexico

Grutas Tolantongo Canyon

We awoke early in the morning, found some pastries and coffee at the ONLY café open in Cholula at 9:00 am (what?! – this seems to be typical in Mexico) and waved goodbye to the friendly old man who runs the funky little parking lot. We were off in search of adventure at Grutas Tolantongo, which we expected to be the best waterfall on our journey yet.

The pleasant drive to Tolantongo was made even better by the gigantic watermelon-lime fruit cup that we bought right through the van window while at a stoplight. The watermelon was perfectly ripe and delicious – best ‘drive-thru’ experience ever! As we got closer to the canyon, we noticed that every roadside tienda (store) was selling aquatic shoes. If the number of aquatic shoes for sale were any indication, Tolantongo was a little more popular than we realized. Upon arrival at the entrance gate, several tour buses were parked for the day and there were groups of people lined up at the information kiosk. We tend to like visiting quiet, natural parks and I was starting to worry about what awaited us in the canyon below.

We were winding our way down the switchback road into the canyon when I caught a glimpse of a bright blue river rushing along the canyon floor. I’ve only seen water so blue once before in western Canada and at that moment, I no longer cared how many people might be visiting Tolantongo; I already loved it. It turns out that Grutas Tolantongo is actually a sprawling natural water resort managed by a cooperative of local families. The resort includes 3 hotels as well as several stores and restaurants. This probably would have been worth knowing ahead of time but we were just winging it based on some waterfall photos, brief iOverlander descriptions and a GPS coordinate.

Rio Birds eye_Fotor

Grutas Parking_Fotor

We chose the nicest section of dirt parking lot available as our ‘campsite’ for a couple of nights. It was nothing special but it was quiet, away from other cars and had a decent view of the canyon wall on the opposite side. We arrived in the late afternoon and it was hot so we quickly ditched our clothes, put on our bathing suits and headed for the blue river, which was even more beautiful close-up. Apparently the water is coloured blue by mineral salts and naturally heated as it passes through the mountains… it was so lovely we could have stayed in all day. And actually, we did stay in it for the remainder of the afternoon.

Gruta Rio_Fotor

Nat Selfie in Rio_Fotor

The next day it was time to explore. We visited the hot waterfall that feeds the blue river, which was definitely the highlight for us. It’s one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen and sitting under the hot spray was unreal. There were a lot of other people visiting the waterfall too but it wasn’t overcrowded – thank god we weren’t there on a weekend.

Waterfall Slow Shutter_Fotor_Fotor2

Nat Selfie Waterfall_Fotor

Waterfall detail spray_Fotor_2

We also hiked through the huge resort area in search of the hot ‘pozas’ (pools). We thought we had found them and were pretty underwhelmed – so much so that we didn’t even take a picture. Then, while doing a little research for this post, I found the picture* below of the pozas (*from Wikipedia). Definitely not the same pools we had found… damn, not sure how we missed these!

M Walter & Cacti_Fotor

Grutas Pools_Fotor

By the end of the second day, we both agreed that two days at Tolantongo was enough. The waterfall and river were absolutely stunning but the parking lot was pretty dusty/dirty and we were ready to spend a little time in a real campground. We woke up and left at 6:00 am on the third day to avoid having to pay another day’s entrance fee and stopped at the precipice of the canyon to cook some breakfast before making tracks toward San Miguel de Allende.

Roadtrek Grutas_Fotor

San Miguel de Allende

We spent a few days in San Miguel de Allende with our friend Ainsley last year so this was our second visit to the city. San Miguel is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan towns in Mexico. It’s located in the northern central highlands and developed during the silver mining boom in nearby cities of Guanajuato and Zacatecas. With its amazing colonial architecture, beautiful streetscapes and perfect climate, it has attracted a huge number of expats (mostly retirees) and tourists over the last half century. When you visit the historic centre, there are more gringos than you can shake a stick at and you’re as likely to hear English spoken, as you are to hear Spanish. The influence of foreign investment is obvious in the restaurants, stores and residential communities but somehow San Miguel doesn’t feel overwhelmed. It still has a very genuine, proud Mexican identity and on the weekends national tourists flood the city creating a different vibe all together.

Mirador SanM_Fotor

We arrived at the San Miguel RV Park & Tennis Club mid afternoon after an easy drive from Tolantongo. The little RV Park is sandwiched between 4 tennis courts, which are mostly occupied by overly competitive expats swearing and making excuses over every missed ball. Some campers find this annoying – we found it pretty amusing. As we had done a lot of sightseeing last year, we kept a slower pace this time, mostly wandering the streets in search of the many culinary delights you can find in San Miguel: tacos, ice cream cones, spicy fruit cup (yes, it’s a thing), cookies, pastries and lattes, lattes, lattes. We were in the city over a weekend and got to witness the historic square at full capacity with expats, national and international tourists and locals all vying for a bench in the shade. We also watched several Mexican wedding parties doing photo shoots in the square – what an ideal location for a wedding.

SanM Trailer Park_Fotor


Coffees Lavanda_Fotor

Collage_Fotor San M

Wedding SanM_Fotor

Fruit Cup SanM_Fotor

Colourful Streetscape_Fotor

We had planned to stay 1 night and ended up staying 4 because this town is so easy just to ‘be’ in and because we met some great travellers to hang out with at the RV Park. On our last morning, we ate one final breakfast at our favourite place – Café Lavanda – and reluctantly headed back out on the road.

Camping & Travel Tips:

  • You can bring your dog to Grutas Tolantongo but they’re not allowed in the water.
  • Grutas Tolantongo was busy on Tuesday & Wednesday when we visited but not overrun – it was a good time to visit.  I’m pretty sure that this place is a zoo on the weekend.
  • If you bring a tent to Grutas Tolantongo, you can pitch it right along side the blue river… a better option that sleeping in a van in the parking lot!
  • At 350 p per night (~$25 CDN), the San Miguel RV Park is expensive for Mexico but in our opinion, well worth it. It’s central with hook-ups, clean bathrooms, hot showers and nice landscaping.

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