Vanlife diaries #61: Teotihuacán, México to Grutas Tolantongo, Hidalgo
Back in Central Mexico, we spent this week skirting Mexico City to visit 2 of the most spectacular attractions in the country: the sprawling pre-Aztec city Teotihuacán in the State of México and the jaw-dropping network of hot springs and limestone caves that comprise Grutas Tolantongo in nearby Hidalgo.
What I didn’t know at the start of the week was that this was going to be my final week in Mexico and my final week in the van. It’s a story that has taken me a while to share— you may have noticed that the final instalments of this weekly blog post actually didn’t get published until more than a year and a half later, because it was too painful to even do the minor formatting required to publish all the stories I’d already written about the final weeks of the trip. This post was actually the exception; it wasn’t written at all.
Sitting down now, in December 2023, I’ve had to put myself back there and try to remember the details. I will share the “after” story in another post, but I’ve tried my best to keep this one focused on the adventure of Central Mexico. So, here goes…
The first major city to be established in Mesoamerica, with evidence of human habitation as far back as 400BCE, the ancient settlement of Teotihuacán is every bit as impressive as it is mysterious— despite being the subject of extensive archaeological research, experts still have no idea who built Teotihuacán, what led to its eventual collapse, or even its real name.
Arriving centuries after it had been abandoned, the Aztecs were the ones to bestow the name Teotihuacán on the once-powerful city, meaning ‘birthplace of the gods’.
My introduction to Teotihuacán was actually quite spectacular. We camped near the ruins and, at the crack of 6am, I crept out of the van and clambered into a hot air balloon to watch the sunrise over one of the most significant sites in the Americas.
And from the sky, you can truly appreciate the immense scale of the site, 20 sq. km comprised of more than 2,200 apartment compounds, countless temples, dozens of plazas and avenues, and 3 main pyramids: the Pyramid of the Moon, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Feather Serpent (Quetzalcoatl).
At its height, Teotihuacán was home to 200,000 inhabitants and looking down on it from above is truly mesmerising; you can almost picture the vast ancient civilisation that once walked its avenues and climbed its steps.
Although sunrise was somewhat obscured by early morning cloud cover and some haze, I had a wonderful time in the balloon, delighted constantly by the feeling of being brushed by a gentle breeze while 300m above the ground. The champagne that was passed around only added to the excitement and, by the time we were plopped back on the ground an hour later, I was ready to go up again.
By mid-morning, we drove around to the archaeological site and I then spent several hours wandering along the Avenue of the Dead, a 40m-wide road that stretches several kilometres through the site, connecting to the largest and most impressive structures of Teotihuacán that I had ogled from above.
Joined by several thousand other people, it was far and away the busiest site I’ve been to in Mexico, but there’s simply no equal.
After a full day of ballooning and walking around the enormous ruins site, we ventured nearby for a delicious dinner at Cocina Para el Alma. And indeed, I needed food for the soul today.
Grutas Tolantongo, Hidalgo
My final moments of vanlife in Mexico were spent at some of the best free camping I’ve experienced in my entire life, while also at the most spectacular hot springs I’ve ever seen in my life.
Nestled in the mountains of central Mexico’s Mezquital Canyon, Grutas Tolantongo is a community-owned hot spring resort about 4hrs from Mexico City with an assortment of natural and manmade features designed to enjoy the 25-35C (75-95F) water flowing from the milky blue Tolantongo River.
Travertine pools cling to the cliffside and water pours out of natural caves, all against the backdrop of dramatic Hidalgo mountains. It’s an absolutely mesmerising location and you’ll be shocked by the variety of places to soak, float, swim, and generally play around in what is effectively an adult waterpark.
The expanse of the resort is difficult to really comprehend on a screen, but there are three main attractions that dominate a visit to Grutas Tolantongo:
- Pozas Termales (Hot Pools): there are nearly 100 different pools, all varying in size and temperature, built into the cliffs around the resort; the most famous are the brilliant white travertine pools hanging over the canyon, but there are countless other pools to explore, many of which are far less busy
- Río (Hot River): the turquoise Río Tolantongo is delightfully warm and a fantastic place to swim around; you can camp for free right along its shores and, due to the length (roughly spanning from the hot spring pools to the cave), it’s not hard to find relative peace and solitude midweek
- Gruta & Túnel (Cave & Tunnel): an enormous karst cave, the resort’s namesake, located at the opposite end from the hot pools is among the most impressive natural wonders; hot water fills several large caves, pours from the ceiling, surges through a tunnel, and sparkles over the mossy mountainside
^ the tunnels
And so, we spent our final days in Mexico luxuriating in the warm waters of the pozas termales, swimming through secret passageways in the cave to discover smaller hidden caves (yes, it was as terrifying as it sounds), and lounging along the riverfront.
It was a bittersweet but beautiful end to what has been the most incredible journey of vanlife through Mexico. I have so much love and appreciation for this country and its people, the unbridled generosity that welcomed us with open arms into countless family homes, eagerly shared local traditions with us, introduced us to the real Mexico beyond the headlines and the stereotypes.
There is so much magic here. And after half a year on the road, I feel that a great deal of what makes Mexico so special is only appreciable on this kind of trip— in between the destinations you can reach via tourist bus, away from the crowded backpacker hostels, in the tiny towns you’d never plan to visit but that end up leaving the deepest impressions.
For me, this isn’t goodbye. It’s hasta luego, mi amor.
Where we stayed this week
- Parking in the hot air balloon field near Teotihuacán, Estado de México (free; 30 Apr)
- Parking at a petrol station near Teotihuacán, Estado de México (free; 1 May)
- Camping on the river at Grutas Tolantongo hot springs, Hidalgo (free; 2-3 May)
- Wednesday night, just a couple weeks shy of 6 months in Mexico, I flew out of the Mexico City airport and left the van forever. Read that story here.