Visiting Tolantongo in Mexico’s Central Highlands

Photo of James Smart
7 April 2020

In the dry highlands north of Mexico City, a warm river rises. It’s naturally heated by volcanic activity and feeds a series of pools that spill down from the surrounding cliffs like rice terraces, each one a bubbling little pocket of warmth. Welcome to Las Grutas Tolantongo.

For a bathing experience like no other, head to Tolantongo. Here, you can gaze out across the surrounding land as the mineral-rich water fizzles around you, before deciding which of the 40-odd hot springs to check out next.

Enjoy the view of the Mezquital Valley from the naturally warm pools | | © Culture Trip

These turquoise infinity pools are around a three-hour drive north of Mexico City, in Hidalgo state. And they’re not the only thing attracting visitors to the area. Tolantongo is a box canyon, its steep walls rising 1,640 feet (500 metres) in places. There are several hotels here, plus spaces to camp, grottos to explore and a waterfall in a cavern. You can build up a sweat by hiking and zip-lining, before soothing those tired muscles in the clear, warm waters of Tolantongo.

The secrets of Tolantongo

Tolantongo is in the Mezquital Valley, in Mexico’s Central Highlands. The Mezquital Valley has a long history of settlement, and was the heartland of the Toltec people before becoming part of the Aztec empire. And Tolantongo’s warm waters were famous even then: in Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) this was “Tonaltonko”, the “place where it flows warm”.

After the Spanish invasion, it became a backwater for centuries, but the construction of Las Grutas Tolantongo (including those bubbling pools) encouraged visitors, and now Tolantongo is a popular place for Mexicans on a weekend break; come midweek if you want a quiet time.

The area is run by a local cooperative, with more than 100 local families working together to operate the various watery pursuits, three hotels, plus bars, restaurants, a shop and a campsite. Spa treatments are also available.

The pools and the grottos

The mineral pools are one of the most popular features of Tolantongo. Formed by the damming of the Tolantongo River, their water is a brilliant blue from carbon deposits. Carved steps lead between the pools, and water gushes over the edges down the hillside. Trees line some of them, offering shade, and you can choose between immersing yourself fully and dipping your feet in as you gaze at the ridges and forested hills around.

An alternative is to explore the resort’s grottos. One is a natural cavern, with stalactites and stalagmites, from which the main river flows. Just above it is a narrower tunnel-like space that’s sprayed and misted with water from the river, and has a small spot in which to swim. In both, the sound of cascading water can be hypnotic. There’s another bathing spot called La Gloria, with three natural pools and some impressive waterfalls.

The river and beyond

The grottos can feel like a steam room – for a cooler experience, you can take a dip in the river itself, which flows past rocks and trees along the canyon floor. If it’s action you’re after, there’s a zip line, a suspension bridge and hiking trails. The canyon itself offers a fascinating mixed ecosystem, thanks to the shifts in altitude and the warming and irrigating effects of the river; cacti, pines, magueys (used to make the beer-like pulque) and yucca can all be found.

How to visit Las Grutas Tolantongo

It’s just over three hours’ drive from Mexico City, or two hours from Hidalgo City, to the resort. You can also get a bus from Hidalgo City. Accommodation can’t be booked in advance, and the hotel recommends arriving by 9am to ensure a room. The general access ticket (currently 150 pesos (US$6.15) per person) covers all attractions apart from the zip line.

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