This article is from the February 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Off the Beaten Path

by Bruce McGovern 

Itís no secret that Iíd rather have my teeth drilled than go to a tourist place. Of course, that means Iím not a source of hot tips to the ordinary tourist. But, I realize there are other people who, like me, love Mexico, but donít want the standard tourist experience, either. 

So, Iíd like to share three places Iíve been that usually only attract the Mexican people. I was taken there by family or friends. Hardy, more experienced travelers may be able to get there with little help. 

First, four or five years ago, I attended a Scout leader campout at the lake near Molango, Hidalgo. From Molango, looking down the mountain, there seems to be a tiny pond. Itís actually a long ways down the mountain, and itís a large lake. There is a large grassy area east of the lake, where cows graze and where school and Scout groups camp. 

In the middle of the lake is an island. White birds sit in the trees on that island. As in a National Geographic documentary, at times they spontaneously fly around the lake in a group, then land again. 

The view up the mountain can only be described as incredible. 

The road from Molango to the lake is paved. The only problem is the very steep climb back up. But, I think any good vehicle can handle it Ė if it made the trip to Molango through the mountains. 

Iím not sure itís smart for a couple to camp alone on the lake. If your trip coincided with a group campout, that would make a difference. And, Iím sure Molango has a small hotel or two, though not rated for the international tourists, Iím sure. 

The next two places of interest are in the Orizaba / Cordoba area. Use a map to locate Coscomatepec, where the road west starts. After a modest distance along mountain ranges, midst corn and potato fields, and deep valleys on both sides, you encounter a fork in the road. 

Left leads to Alpatlahuac, a small village which boasts a church on a mountain side. Local legend claims there are 500 steps leading to that church, but I counted. The south stairway has 206 steps. 

Due to renovation work, we didnít enter the church. But, the attraction is the view from the flat area around the church. The village below, the surrounding mountain peaks and a view along the valley of miles makes you want to sit and look for a long time. The big volcano, Pico de Orizaba, is technically visible to the west, but itís usually hidden in the clouds. 

Alpatlahuac is also accessible by most vehicles. 

The right fork leads to Calcahualac, a small village visible from the church. Calcahualac is unimportant, except for the boulevard. It is filled with shrubs, cut into a variety of shapes, including rabbits and airplanes. 

If you have a pickup, or any off‑road vehicle, or an OLD VW Beetle, keep on going, generally keeping to the right, past Excola. You are looking for a sign that says Aguas Termales, pointing right down the hillside, and it will lead you to Atotonilco. Due to the 30 minutes Jeep‑test road of rocks and potholes, after you leave the paved road, I really recommend that all but the most insane, er, I mean, experienced explorer, hire a local person with his own highly experienced Beetle to take you to Atotonilco. 

If you assume Iím exaggerating about the Jeep‑test road, are you in for a shock! Only once in Mexico have I encountered a worse road. It drops and rises a half‑mile or more in that 30 minutes, and itís all mud and rocks and potholes. Itís "Bang! Bump! Drag! Bang!" the whole way. 

Where there is a fork, you will generally take the bigger road. 

Assuming you make it to Atotonilco, itís a small village. The place of attraction is a set of hot pools, ďaguas termales.Ē A pipe brings in naturally hot water, and itís mixed with water from the Pico to produce concrete pools of water that were perfectly adjusted to human body temperature, including a pool for kiddies. 

There is a concrete restroom building, DAMAS and Unmarked. There is a flush stool, but the tank was empty. Grab a bucket and get water from one of the pools to flush Ė or to slosh down the floor, if you wish. 

Admission is four pesos per person. The woman who seems to run the place also offers 10 to 12 inch trout, fried, for 30 pesos each. It comes on a chipped plate, with onions and tomatoes, which I didnít eat because we couldnít verify they were disinfected. After you place your order for trout, she walks to the trout pond to buy the fish, so expect an hour or two delay. Youíll be eating that trout with your fingers. But, it was excellent. I especially liked the skin; it was deliciously crisp and lightly salted. 

She also offers that trout in caldo. Boiled Trout?? Blecchhh!!! 

Across the road is a pretty little Catholic Church. Next door is a working sawmill. Next to it is a small building with rooms for rent overnight.  Itís not a real tourist place, so plan food ahead of time, though I bet the trout woman could fix you up for a price if you can eat what she eats. 

All around you are mountain peaks, a kilometer or more high and covered with trees. After an hour or two, the clouds come down. Later, it rained and cooled down. Never very hot at this altitude, itís rather exotic to be frolicking in a hot pool, beneath fog‑covered mountains, with rain falling on your head, in an isolated Mexican village. All for only four pesos Ė and $10,000US damage to any good car you were silly enough to take, contrary to my advice. 

You can wear anything in the pools. I wore what I usually wear ‑ work jeans and t‑shirt, but no shoes. I would recommend you take a swim suit, towel, and terry robe. Itís very cold when you get out to eat, and a terry robe to slip on and off would be fantastic. Also, have a large plastic bag for clothes and things when it rains. 

About 5 PM, as we were leaving, the rain worsened. The Mexican Beetle had absolutely no hotair pipes, so I used my towel to constantly clean the inside of the windshield, as my nephew navigated the mud, rocks, and potholes. I asked him if we can go again, next visit. Visiting Atotonilco was one of the most fun things Iíve ever done in Mexico Ė  but I had the advantage of local talent to get me there and back in one piece. If you go there, and not once say, ďWow! Neat!Ē youíre beyond help.

I have mixed feelings. For the benefit of the poor people of that village, Iíd like to see 500 tourists a day go to Atotonilco. But, if they did, some rich guy would take over; build a nice road; add a pizza place; raise the admission to ten dollars; and the locals would have no place to swim. And, they'd still struggle to make a living.