“There’s a river I remember in a remote corner of Nayarit,” said watercolorist Jorge Monroy one day while I sat in his studio, sipping wine and exchanging tales of western Mexico’s hidden beauty.
“You walk alongside a stream between wonderfully colored, high canyon walls and get soaked by waterfall after waterfall. The water, by the way, is neither hot nor cold, but just perfect for having fun for hours.”
This description was enticing indeed, and because neither Jorge nor his artist friend Ilse Taylor Hable had ever painted this river, it was easy to set up a visit to El Manto, located 115 kilometers west of Guadalajara and no longer so remote, thanks to recently paved roads leading all the way there.
Upon reaching the river, we found a very large parking area full of cars and a gateway where we had to pay an entrance fee. A well-made stairway — with what seemed like a million steps — took us down to a truly gorgeous little river winding its way between high canyon walls.
To me, the place looked beautiful, but Jorge had a different reaction:
“It has been developed!” he cried in anguish.
Swimming pools and sidewalks had been built along the 300-meter stretch of the river, bridges now crossed it at various points and, of course, there were people — lots of people — enjoying this unusual and perhaps unique balneario (water park).
It was only when Jorge and Ilse set up their easels that I realized for the first time in my life that artists live in another dimension, a wonderful parallel universe closed to us ordinary people, especially us photographers.
Standing there on the sizzling-hot concrete platform, surrounded by noisy, splashing children, Jorge and Ilse calmly created on their canvases the magical, untouched El Manto of yesterday: the wildly colored canyon walls, the bubbling brook, the waterfalls as they once were.
And wonder of wonders, neither painting contained a single square centimeter of concrete!
Recently, I returned to El Manto with the plan of camping there. I found the swimming area along the river as enchanting as ever … and apparently, so have throngs of others who now flock to El Manto by the busload.
As for the camping facilities, you can pitch your tent anywhere you want in a huge, flat, grassy area the size of a football field. Here you will also find clean toilets, showers and big, roofed platforms with picnic tables … as well as a sign saying music must be turned off at 11:30 p.m.
Well, in true Mexican style, everyone at the campground soon got to know everyone else, and the chatting went on until well after midnight … sin música, I might add.
Early the next morning, I opened my eyes to the crowing of roosters and the lowing of cattle … and to a spectacular sunrise that lasted only a few moments.
Later that morning, I struck up a conversation with a distinguished-looking old gentleman who had wandered into the campground.
“Excuse me,” I said, “do you happen to know anything about the history of this place?”
Well, I had found the right man. He closed his eyes and stood there a moment as a big smile came over his face.
“It all started 50 years ago when I was just a boy,” he said. And I quickly discovered I was talking to Don Salvador Quintero Bernal, owner of El Manto and one of those people who, at the cost of years of hard work, had managed to turn his life’s dream into reality.
As a boy, Don Salvador had been just another kid from a poor family living in the nearby town of El Rosario. He managed to earn a few centavos doing odd jobs, he told me.
“But I dreamed about doing something worthwhile with my life, something no one else had done. Then, one day, I was sitting above the beautiful waterfall here on this river, and I said to myself, ‘El Manto! I’m going to turn El Manto into a place unlike any other, into something wonderful!’”
Young Salvador then walked the length of the river and in his mind’s eye saw what it could become. So he went to the landowner with his idea.
“It’ll never work,” the man said. “You can’t turn this place into a balneario because it floods all the time … But if you want to buy it, I’ll sell it to you for 300 pesos.”
“So,” said Don Salvador, “I raised the money and bought the land, and in 1971, I started building the stairway leading down to the riverside.
“I never needed an architect because I had the whole plan in my head. Everything you see down there was built by the hands of people like me, hardworking folk from El Rosario.”
An important part of Quintero’s vision were strategic floodgates which could be opened quickly and easily to prevent water from rising in the narrow canyon.
As a result, “not one single death, not one serious accident, has ever occurred here at El Manto during all these years,” he said.
In the course of time, El Manto has become widely known and admired.
“All the profit we get, I turn right back into community projects here in El Rosario,” he says.
Apart from the swimming and camping areas, El Manto has two restaurants that, in theory at least, will even make you a stack of hotcakes as early as 8 a.m. You can also book a delightful villa (including a kitchen with a fridge) for four people, at a cost of 1,800 pesos, which includes access to the water park for two days.
The “Villa Village” has, by the way, its own luxury swimming pool in case you’d rather not walk all the way down to the river.
Check out El Manto’s excellent website, and be sure to make reservations in advance if you want to stay in a villa. Note that during the rainy season (July through October), many of El Manto’s pools are kept empty. This greatly reduces the number of visitors during the rainy season, perhaps making it all the more attractive to foreigners, especially those who can afford to stay in one of the lovely villas.
Entrance cost to the water park is 80 pesos for adults and 60 for children. To get there, ask Google Maps to take you to El Manto, Amatlán de Cañas, Nayarit.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for 31 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.
Guests at El Manto swim in the rain.