Days 51-52: Basalt Pillars and the Caves of Tolantogo


I wanted so badly to love these two places but events conspired against us to leave our family feeling slightly ‘meh’ about both locations. 

After a long drive out from Mexico City we finally arrived at the Basalt Pillars, which is a cool geologic formation that has been transformed into a kitschy tourist attraction. Plus they wanted to charge us an astronomical amount for camping, which we eventually paid given that we’d been driving all day and it was getting dark. Bah humbug. 

On the drive up from CDMX I began to have an awful ear ache, and it was soon clear that I had a raging ear infection – something I only thought the two year-olds were capable of catching. Not the case, friends. Adult ear infections are no bueno.


The basalt pillars were quite pretty, however.

This is a nice little example of columnar jointing, a phenomenon that occurs when igneous lava (basalt) cools and consequently contracts. Large areas of rock that are simultaneously cooling often contract in hexagon shapes.


Also, Ben caught a cute little tree frog. He was promptly dubbed Jumpie. 

We camped in the gorge above the basalt pillars. Also in the valley was the ruins of an old hacienda. Beautiful in a shabby chic sort of way, no?

Unfortunately, it was Saturday night and the hacienda has been converted into a wedding venue. You can just make out a couple getting their boogie on between the two blue arches. A cool place to get married… BUT:

This particular couple had a pretty lively celebration, complete with pumping music and a fireworks show that lasted until 3am. Congratulations guys, but damn we really just want to sleep.

The next morning we packed up the truck and got the hell out of dodge.


I’m going to blame our next misadventure on the truly sleepless night I’d just experienced but when Google Maps suggested an alternate route that would save us a whole 10 minutes (over the course of a four hour drive) I jumped at the chance.

I should have checked out the route profile. There were several additional clues that perhaps this really wasn’t an ideal short cut. Like for example, when we started going straight up a mountain, or when the road turned to a dirt track, or the fact that we hadn’t seen other cars for hours. All these things should have raised warning flags. And they did, honestly. But we’re a stubborn lot and the idea of back tracking for hours was a hard pill to swallow.  So when we met a guy in a pickup truck on a mountain turn 1,000 feet above a raging river and he told us that we could get through no problem, well…onward!


That’s a lot of winding loops of mountain road. Fun fact: I had my first panic attack. Weirdly, I lost feeling in all my limbs, in addition to the inability to breathe. Good thing I wasn’t the driver. Glad this one is behind us. It taught me an important navigational lesson, at the very least. This ranks up there as our least favorite day of the trip thus far. Also, Google your name is MUD, at least in the immediate future.

The kids were oblivious: Emma was taking a wee nap and Ben was deep into an audio book. It’s only now that I can appreciate the gorgeous views.


Fortunately we had this pretty river to greet us at the end of a taxing day.

The Grutas de Tolantongo is billed as a double feature: a river of warm water pours out of caves deep within a mountain which is later channeled into a series of man-made pools carved into the hillside. The warm water eventually runs into the river and is known for it’s beautiful azure color. 

Sounds great, yes?! And it was. But we had a few caveats. For one, it was the weekend and the place was packed to the gills with people. Which is fine except every square inch not occupied by a person was littered with trash. I’m not immune to the problems that all countries face when it comes to garbage but this was on a level that was appalling and disheartening. There were trash can everywhere – and none of them were used. Clearly it was simply easier to throw it on the ground, or the bushes, or the water. Also, we’re not anti-party but the number of drunk people doing stupid stuff in the river made for a general experience that was not our favorite.


Our saving grace was that it was Sunday afternoon and the hordes departed in fairly short order. And the resort deployed an army of trash picker-uppers to corral the garbage. So what started off as a rough day quickly turned into a decent evening. We woke up early the next morning and promptly went off to explore the caves.

Heading deep into the bowels of the earth. It was dark and humid; the air so thick it was like breathing in a steam room. I also made a gringo mistake: No other women were wearing bikinis. We’d just come from Baja were two piece swim suits are the norm – or at least perfectly acceptable. But tankinis and cotton t-shirts ruled the day in interior Mexico. I popped on a rash guard for the rest of our tour and that worked just fine. To be clear: I didn’t get any nasty glares or snide comments; it was just fairly obvious that I was not sporting the regular swimming attire for the region. Chris, in his baggie swim trucks, fit right in. 🙂 

The pools were delightful; we even had one to ourselves.

The anxious mother hen inside couldn’t quite relax, however. Too many slippery surfaces and vertical drops. The pools were perfect for soaking tired muscles, not for entertaining bouncy children.  My advice: go on a weekday (preferably a Wednesday) during the non-holiday season, leave the kids at home, and bring your best tankini. It’ll be perfect.





  • Megan Roseman

    So many emotions in one post! Glad you survived the drive and made the most out of a few setbacks. The area looked absolutely beautiful. Tankinis! Who would know?

  • Tom

    I’m with you on ear infections – can be debilitating.
    I can’t think of a place in Washington with so much columnar basalt in such a splashy situation. Eastern WA and OR have basalt everywhere and plenty of water (in season) but the combo not so much.
    Hopefully the panic attack was attributable to some convergence of factors. You’ll be on some pretty vertiginous roads in South America.
    Your photos continue to amaze – good days and bad.

  • mom

    You do look very nice in your bikini–non-normative though it may have been

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