Our stint in Mexico City was better than I could have ever imagined. We spent 5 days exploring and definitely got our fill of the big city. At this point, Lindsey had taken off to visit some family back in Florida, so I was on my own for the first time on our trip. It was late January, and since leaving the states in mid-November, we hadn’t had more than a few hours of being separated, so some time apart was slightly overdue. Don’t get me wrong, traveling with a partner is great and we have done well together (for the most part), but I also love being solo and had been looking forward to some time to travel by myself. I had 12 days to drive from Mexico City to Belize where I had planned to meet back up with Lindsey along with her brother and his family. My first destination turned out to be one of the most incredible places I had ever seen.
Grutas Tolantongo, Hidalgo
My original plan was to head east through the state of Pueblo and then out to Veracruz, but luckily, I had a conversation with our Mexico City host, David, before I left. He told me of this place about 4 hours north of CDMX in the state of Hidalgo called Grutas Tolantongo that had waterfalls and hot springs. As you can imagine, the second I heard waterfalls and hot springs my original plan was toast and I set course north into Hidalgo, and boy am I glad I did.
The drive into the mountains was an adventure in and of itself. The day started out hot and sunny, but as I got further up in elevation I began to see the sky turn. In a matter of 5 minutes, the day went from clear blue skies to fog so thick I couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of the truck. Mind you this was the first bit of driving I was doing on my own, and here I was, deep in the heart of Mexico, high in the mountains, miles from any populated area, with no cell service, unable to see the road in front of me, and charging forward following the line on the downloaded map I had got set up before I left the Wifi in CDMX. Oddly enough, it was exactly what I was looking forward to. My sick and twisted sense of adventure was grinning from ear to ear.
I crawled my way through the thick clouds for about an hour. When the storm had finally passed, the dismal fog began, at last, to open up before my eyes, and there I saw to my surprise. I found myself on a narrow, winding road on a cliffside seemingly a mile high. While I was in the fog, I was so focused on the tiny bit I could see in front of me, I didn’t realize how high I was ascending. When I finally got down into the canyon I reached the entrance to Grutas Tolantongo. The place is a large compound comprised of a handful of buildings clinging to the mountainside filled with hotel rooms, a couple restaurants, and a few shops. At the base of the canyon there is a half mile stretch of land reserved for camping that runs alongside the river. The river is a creamy turquoise color and runs down from the hot springs that flow out of the mountainside a bit upstream. So not only do you get to camp next to this beautifully colored river, it’s also made up of fresh hot spring water, which cools to about 90 degrees by the time it flows downstream.
When I was told about this spot, I was warned of how popular it is with the locals and how busy it can get. The campground area alone can hold at least a thousand. Fortunately for me, it was mid-week so I avoided the weekend crowd. Not only that, the thick fog seemed to create a nice force field around the park that kept people out. There were maybe 5 other groups camping out, and only a handful of cars parked near the hotel rooms, so the place was dead. I found myself a nice spot next to the river, set up camp, and immediately headed up to the waterfall.
The place completely blew my mind. It was the most magnificent waterfall I have ever seen. The water didn’t come from your standard river spewing over a cliff, it came from mountain springs flowing out of the cracks and crevasses in the cliffside. On top of that, it was hot water so it created this gorgeous steaming cascade that flowed down through green dangling moss with your occasional red flower blooming from the mountainside. At the base of the falls, the water fell in front of a large opening that lead back under the falls into a deep cave. As you passed under the falls and into this cave, you were greeted with steamy gusts of warm air coming from the many additional water spouts gushing from the walls of the cave. Covering the cavern ceiling and walls were stalactites and slimy looking rock formations that looked like the inside of Carlsbad Caverns NP. The main cavern had one large waterfall coming from the ceiling in the center of the room, along with 3 or 4 other smaller spouts along the walls, all hot spring water that was about 98 degrees. There were also a couple smaller caverns you could swim back into from the main room, each with their own water spouts dumping hot water from the ceiling and walls.
Beyond the main Gruta under the falls, there was also a tunnel you could explore off to the side. Stairs built into the mountain lead you under more waterfalls and into this tunnel that was about 7 ft. in diameter. It was pitch black dark so you had to go slow and give your eyes some time to adjust to the darkness. Water was finding its way through any small hole or crack in the tunnel and trickling down from the ceiling and walls everywhere. The tunnel went straight back into the mountain about 150 ft., and about half way back you drop into a nice pool about 5 ft. deep. I sat back in there for a half hour or so taking it all in and letting my eyes adjust. After a while I could see more of my surroundings and I was in complete awe.
I can only imagine what the place is like when its crowded, but I basically had the cavern and tunnel to myself. All I kept thinking about was how hard it is going to be to top this place, but the bar is set. This is the coolest place I have ever seen, and I can’t wait to find the place that blows my mind just the same. As much as I didn’t ever want to leave, I only had so much time to make it to Belize, so I soaked up my time here and then hit the road towards the state of Veracruz.
El Tajin, Veracruz
It was a long drive from Tolantongo to my first stop in Veracruz, took me about 6 hours. I hadn’t checked out any ruins thus far, so I decided on making my first stop the ancient Mayan city of El Tajin, Veracruz’s largest site. I got to entrance of the site just before the sun went down and decided to spend the night in the parking lot. This was the first, and only, time on our trip so far where I felt a little uncomfortable. I was on my own the night before, but this time I was not in an established camping area so I didn’t have the comfort of security. On top of that, it had been overcast and rainy that day, so the atmosphere at the base of the ancient Mayan city was a bit eerie to say the least. That, mixed with random noises from the wind and rain, ensured my night sleep wasn’t so great.
I made it through the night and was up early the next morning to check out the ruins. The weather was still overcast and wet, so once again got to explore a spot without any other visitors. There wasn’t a sole in site, not even a single worker. That being the case, I couldn’t help but go behind the ropes a bit and experience the ruins a bit more that what was allowed. It was a huge site, with about 25-30 buildings that had been excavated and restored, the most impressive being one pyramid that was fully intact and about 100’+ tall. After I got my fill of the ruins, which didn’t take too long, I decided it was time to get back to the beach and began heading east towards the Gulf of Mexico.
The Emerald Coast, Veracruz
The Emerald Coast is a 10+ mile stretch of coastline in Veracruz with beautiful beaches and places to stay, or so I thought. I mean, maybe it was the name that made me picture a beautiful coastline with nice resorts, restaurants, beaches and whatnot. Turns out, not so impressive. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t terrible or anything, it just didn’t really live up to the name. It consists of one stretch of highway along which you find a handful of hotels and RV parks. Most of the hotels, or “resorts”, were old and rundown, some not even open any more. It seemed to be more centered around RV parks than anything, which of course worked for me.
I found a great little spot called La Estrella Popular that was recently built, and once again, had the whole place to myself. For 100 pesos per night, or ~$5 U.S., I got access to wifi, hot showers, a pool, and a great little beach access with space to relax. The beach was nice, although not the white sand that I had pictured. There is darker sand along much of the coast of Veracruz due to all the volcanic activity in the area. While it wasn’t exactly what I pictured, it turned out to be a wonderful place for me to be alone for a couple days. I did some writing, got back into my exercises, did some reading, and even called some folks I hadn’t spoken with for a while. Even though there’s been a lot of time to just chill on the trip thus far, it felt like the first time I truly was able to relax with my thoughts and just be. I ended up hanging out for a couple days and really getting as much as I could out of my alone time. From there, my next stop was back into the mountains, this time to experience a bit of the Mexican coffee culture.
Xico & Coatepec, Veracruz
I discovered these small mountain towns through our Lonely Planet guidebook. The two neighboring villages are famous for producing some of Mexico’s best gourmet coffee. The beans are grown in the mountain forests that surround the towns, which sit in the foothills of Pico de Orizaba, the 3rd tallest mountain in all North America, and the largest volcano. Now I have never been a coffee drinker, but something about sitting at the base of a massive volcano and sipping gourmet, fresh roasted, high quality coffee seemed right up my alley.
My first stop was the village of Xico, which is the smaller of the two. Xico’s town was not so much focused around coffee shops. They were more of the farmers that harvested the beans and sold them to the roasters that had their shops in the village of Coatepec. I explored a bit and found that they had some nice waterfalls you could hike to just outside of town, so I found a place where I could stay in the truck overnight and headed for the falls. It was a great little hike to the falls; the trails lead through mountains that were covered in coffee bean trees, which I had never seen before. There were two falls, one big one that was 200 ft. or so, and a smaller one that had a nice little pool you could swim in at its base. Fun fact for anyone who knows 80’s movies, the big one was actually the waterfall in the movie Romancing The Stone.
I spent the next morning walking the streets of Coatepec. The smell of fresh roasted coffee filled the air throughout the village. In the center of town there was a great little plaza with a French looking gazebo that housed a small café serving coffee and pastries. In the few blocks that surrounded the main plaza there must have been 30 coffee shops. Some were very simple with just a couple tables and chairs, others had their roasting operation in the back of the shop. Some had small entrance ways that didn’t look like much, but inside they opened into beautifully decorated open-air gardens where you could enjoy your coffee while reading the morning paper. Although a bit touristy, the village had a great vibe and the people were extremely friendly. After my experience here, I can say I am a fan of quality gourmet coffee. I have since drank some instant coffee, and I still think its gross. A bit like red wine, or good whiskey, the differences are subtle, but my pallet has now expanded to the coffee world.
Lake Catemaco, Veracruz
After my time taking in the coffee culture, I went to the city of Veracruz to check it out. It was a Monday, so not an ideal day to experience a new city, and to add to that, it was still overcast and windy. I spent only a couple hours walking around and decided the city wasn’t for me at that point in time. Maybe I can give it another shot some other time, but this time it wasn’t in the cards. I will say that I would have loved to have made a stop at the aquarium, where for 450 pesos (~$25), they let you suit up and feed the sharks from a plexiglass shark cage, submerged in the main shark tank. Only in Mexico.
Instead of hanging in the city, I made my way to a lake at the south end of the state of Veracruz called Catemaco. The town of Catemaco is small and sits on the northeast corner of the lake. The lake itself was quite large, I would say it is about half the size of Lake Tahoe if you are familiar with that. I had read about a small nature reserve on the lake and wanted to see what it was all about. Thus far on the trip I had spent a decent amount of time at the beach, exploring larger cities, and hiking in the mountains, but I had yet to spend some time in the jungle with nature.
There was a privately-owned campground inside of the reserve appropriately called “La Jungla”, so I decided to make it my home for a couple nights. The road to get there was perfect. There was an old, almost overgrown sign at the entrance that directed you back through a driveway that was so overtaken by the jungle plants that surrounded it, it was barely large enough for a golf cart. Poppins, being the beast that she is, had no problem busting through the thick vegetation. The road twisted and turned through the thick jungle and eventually came to a clearing at the edge of the lake. The place had seen better days, but it was exactly what I was looking for. Extremely secluded, surrounded by nature, and at the edge of the lake. You could tell that this place was a different world maybe 30 years prior. There was a big pool built into the ground with what used to be man-made fountains flowing into it and then down to the lake. There was even a big waterslide, probably 100 ft. long that lead down to the lake. Now, these were so beaten and weathered from the years, they looked like the ruins of the original Jurassic Park that you see in the Jurassic Park sequels.
Camping out at the lake provided me the opportunity to use my inflatable kayak again. There were a few small islands just offshore so I went out to explore them. The first one I stopped at was the biggest of the three and had a bit of hill to it, so I park my kayak on a stone and went for a little hike. There were some cows roaming the island, which was weird since it was a small uninhabited island and all, but with cows come cow pies, and with cow pies come magic mushrooms (fun fact if you were not aware…). This wasn’t something I had sought out or anything, but as I was hiking I stumbled across one of these cow pies covered in these mushrooms and I remembered that’s where they came from. I had an internal battle for about 15 minutes deciding if I should choose this adventure or not, but after much deliberation I ended up chickening out (sorry Bobo…). Being solo and so isolated with no contact to the outside world is usually the ideal time to take one of those magical adventures of the psyche, but I didn’t even know how or where to get medical attention if something had gone wrong, so I chose to pass.
After I decided not to have a psychedelic adventure on a random island in the middle of nowhere Mexico, I hopped back in my kayak and paddled over to island #2, the smallest of the three. I had been forewarned about not stepping foot on this particular island because there were a family of aggressive monkeys that lived on it. Apparently, they were Macaque monkeys originally from Thailand and had been released on this island by someone about 10 years earlier, most likely to be showcased as a tourist attraction. Since then, they had flourished and became very protective over their territory. I was doing my best to keep my distance, but when I was trying to get a photo of a couple of them playing, I unknowingly drifted under a tree branch. Suddenly, I heard some rustling and turned to see one of them barreling towards me. It seemed he didn’t like my face and I quickly learned that island was an evil place. He had a red face like a baboon and aggressive looking fangs that I wanted nothing to do with. I freaked out and paddled as fast as I could away from the tree, almost dropping my camera in the water. I could only imagine if I had to tell the story of how I got mauled by and angry monkey in my inflatable kayak! Really dodged a bullet on that one.
I was a little shaken up after my almost incident with the baboon, but I shook it off and paddled over to the third island to see what that one had to offer. Much to my surprise, this island was home to a group of spider monkeys. I was later told that these monkeys were indigenous to the land, unlike the Thai species that inhabited island #2. They weren’t aggressive, but they certainly were curiously little guys. I saw at least 10 of them and I must have made a connection with one because he was determined to get as close as to me as possible to me, and he wouldn’t leave my side. I named him Jerry. The island had about 500 ft. of shoreline that I paddled around, and as I circled it, Jerry was there every step of the way. At points he would disappear into the thick vegetation, but sure enough, a little way down he would come swinging out of the woods and be right up beside me again. Seemed like he wanted to jump in my boat and make Poppins his new home. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about making it happen. I mean, a pet spider monkey has been every man’s dream at one point or another, right? After did two laps around the island with Jerry I had a tough time finally paddling away. Maybe someday…
Back at the camp, there was one other traveler that was staying while I was there, his name was Tudor and he was from the Czech Republic. He had already been at La Jungla for a month and was traveling Mexico via bicycle. I was amazed by the amount of stuff that he had since his only means of travel was a bike, and he was lugging these things everywhere he went. Beside his camping gear, he had a bunch of painting equipment and was working on these colorful Mandala’s that he had planned to make into a calendar. Beyond that, he had been making and collecting different musical instruments along his travels. There was a hand-carved flute he had got in Chiapas, a mushroom shaped steel drum called a Steel Tongue Drum he had got in Oaxaca, a set of xylo-like drums that he built from the Bamboo trees at La Jungle, and a Didgeridoo he had been carving from a piece of wood he found in Yucatan. At night we would have fires and jam out with his mix of eclectic instruments. There is something to be said about making music with a stranger from another culture using completely foreign instruments. Music has no language barriers. We all can speak it and we all can understand it, no matter where it comes from, and no matter if you think you are “musically talented” or not. I loved getting in touch with this primitive feeling, and I can only imagine what it would have been like if I had only said yes to the psychedelic adventure I had come across on that island earlier…
Villahermosa, Tabasco & Huay Pix, Quintana Roo
I spent as much time as I could at La Jungla and could have easily stayed a while longer, but I had to be on my way since I was meeting back up with Lindsey in Belize in a couple days. I had 12 more hours of drive time plus a border crossing to make it to Belize City, and I had 2 days to get it done. From what I had read, there wasn’t all that much that I wanted to see or do on the route from Catemaco to Belize, so I was ok with some heavy travel days and putting some hours behind the wheel.
I made one quick stop in the city of Villahermosa, which is the state of Tabasco’s largest city. To be honest the city didn’t offer much of interest to me, except for an outdoor museum that was in a large park. It was 40 pesos to enter, or $2 U.S., and that got you entrance to the museum as well as a small zoo in the park. I am not one for zoo’s, but this one was kind of cool since it featured only animals that were native to southern Mexico. I’m also not big on museums, but this one was outside the norm. There was one path and one direction to meander through, and it lead you through a nice walk in the park. Every few hundred feet you come upon an ancient Mayan artifact that had been recovered from a nearby Mayan site. There were all sorts of exotic birds flying around along with some little coati, which are small racoon like animals but with long, skinny striped tails. I still believe most museums are quite boring, but it was nice walking around in the park, a good change from your standard museum.
I drove as far as I could that evening and ended up pulling into a small town for the night. Seemed safe enough so I found some street parking near at park on the river and got a good night’s sleep. The next day was my final day of solo travel before I would cross into Belize and meet back up with Linds. I ended up stopping just north of the border and found an amazing campground in the small town of Huay Pix. The tiny town sits on a gorgeous freshwater lake that is an incredible aquamarine blue color. The water was a perfectly refreshing 72 degrees or so, and once again, there was barely anyone around. It was unbelievable tranquil and serene, the perfect place for me to spend my last night alone, reflecting on my past couple weeks and be alone with my thoughts.
It was great to meet back up with Lindsey in Belize and have my travel partner back. It certainly is a wonderful thing to be able to share these amazing travel experiences with the person you love. That said, it’s also a wonderful thing to have some time to be solo and experience the world of traveling on your own. When you’re solo, you tend to come across adventures that you sometimes won’t if you always have the comfort of another. That comfort is great, but it can sometimes hinder you from being outward and opening yourself to new people or experiences. Whether it’s your comfort zone, or you don’t like it at all, it’s good to sometimes be forced into situations. Sometimes those situations turn out to be your favorite memories, sometimes they open your mind or change the way you see things, and sometimes they can even change your life.
WOW, what a great Adventure!!! I’m glad you guys are able to do all this traveling, something most people don’t get a chance to do… be safe and have lots of fun!!,
It’s kind of like a wine snob but only with coffee and I’m totally on board with this!!! 🙂
Its great to read your stories and then look at the photos, almost makes me feel like I was right there with you. Also, I’m Glad you didn’t hallucinate and battle those evil monkeys that could have definitely been a life changing event especially without back up.