It all began as a beach holiday. Having heard that the oceanfront town of Cuyutlán, Colima, had “the most beautiful black sand beach you could ever hope to see,” we drove there one night only to discover that — in the month of October, mind you — the temperature was 34 C, the humidity was 82% and the water was full of manta rays.
“Let’s get out of this sauna,” said my friend Josh. “Do you know some cooler place where we can go for a swim?”
What immediately came to mind was a beautiful waterfall in Colima called El Salto de Peña Colorada, which has a pool of refreshingly cool water at its base: a truly idyllic place for a swim.
El Salto is located inland, 40 kilometers northeast of Manzanillo.
The winding road from the coast to Peña Colorada is nicely paved, but between these two points you are unlikely to find a gas station or a store of any kind, even in these days of ubiquitous Oxxos.
“This is indeed a lonely road,” I told my fellow passengers, “and something funny happened to us as we drove along here some 30 years ago …”
I was a cave explorer in those days, and we had been on our way to El Salto, not only to splash in its delightful waters but also to continue our exploration of a fascinating cave located just minutes from the fall.
About an hour from our destination it began to drizzle.
“Looks like we won’t have a campfire tonight.” I told my wife, Susy. “Let me see how much alcohol we have for the cook stove.”
To my surprise, I found there was only one ounce left in the bottle. “We’re going to need a lot more than this if we’re staying over two nights. Let’s stop at the next pueblito.”
This we did. We were told, “Desgraciadamente, we have no farmacia here, but you might find alcohol in our little grocery store.”
The “grocery store” displayed no goods of any sort but contained several tables and chairs. Upon the latter sat three rather inebriated individuals. If we were going to find alcohol anywhere, this looked like the place, but I didn’t imagine they’d have the highly volatile sort that we needed for our stove.
However, the oldest barfly, who was also the owner of the establishment, immediately insisted that his homebrew was a lot stronger than the drugstore variety. We would have to keep this under our hats, he said, because he still hadn’t gotten around to informing the government about this particular “grocery item” he was selling.
“That’s OK with us, señor, but tell me, are you sure this alcohol of yours will burn?”
“¡Caray! Will it ever! But,” he asked through a tipsy hiccup, “who would want to burn it?”
We handed the man our nearly empty alcohol bottle, and he went off with it into a back room. Meanwhile, one of the other barflies waved at us and, in the best English he could muster, bellowed, “Come seets down here for take leetle dreenk weesh ush!”
When we politely declined — due to a pressing need to reach our campsite before dark — this well-loaded fellow struggled to his feet and staggered over to us, possibly imagining that his English would improve as the distance between us diminished. It allowed us to better appreciate the strength of the alcohol served in this “grocery.”
Thus began a kind of dance in which my wife and I kept moving backwards to escape our newfound friend’s boozy breath and he kept reaching for us, obviously in need of some kind of support.
All the while, we could hear the gurgle of alcohol being poured in the back room. But how could it be taking 15 minutes to fill a 1-liter bottle?
At last, we tore ourselves away from the “Lush’s Lambada” and followed the gurgling sound until we came upon a most amazing scene. The old man was standing there pouring a huge, 3-gallon container of booze into our little bottle, only our bottle was still empty and at least 2 gallons of highly volatile alcohol had been spilled all over the counter and most of the floor.
I couldn’t believe he had missed the bottle entirely. Sure enough, we discovered that el viejito had removed the cover but not the inner seal that’s used on all Mexican alcohol bottles.
There we were, knee-deep in fumes, just waiting for some smoker to walk into the room. While I grabbed the jug and quickly filled our container, Susy paid the old man, and the two of us literally ran out the door, jumped into our Jeep and raced out of the pueblito, expecting to see the whole place burst into flames in our rearview mirror.
Back to 2020 and our drive to el Salto. Upon passing Peña Colorada, we saw a sign for the waterfall, turned off the highway and drove down a steep but nicely paved road to a locked boom gate, in front of which stood — the Iron Lady.
“Sorry, the balneario (spa) is closed, due to Covid.”
“Er, we don’t want to go to the balneario, only to the waterfall.”
“That’s closed too. Sorry.”
“But we just drove 80 kilometers to get here, and we’re dying for a swim.”
That argument, of course, produced no result. We drove back up to the edge of the highway, where we held a sort of war council. First came nefarious plans proposing a commando-type assault on the waterfall via a circuitous route through the brush. Then there was a great debate about mordidas (bribes), after which heads cooled with the realization that nobody was going swimming that day.
“But, John, you haven’t been to this place in 30 years! Didn’t you say you needed a picture of the waterfall to accompany your El Salto stories?”
This was true. My ancient slides of El Salto are all scratched and colorless.
“OK, I will go ask the Iron Lady if I can run down to the fall for a quick picture.”
While my friends waited in the car, I marched back to the gate.
“Muy estimada señora,” I said, “We have given up on swimming … but I’m a reporter, and I need a photo of the waterfall. Can you give me five minutes?
The Iron Lady looked at my press card.
“Ha! I can have one of these made up for 50 pesos … besides, the seminarians are still down there.”
“Seminarians? They can go in, but we can’t?”
“They only wanted five minutes, just like you, but they’ve been there for an hour.”
“Well, it just so happens that I’m an ex-seminarian.”
That provoked raucous laughter. “A reporter, and now an ex-seminarian too! You really are desperate!”
At last, the seminarians departed, and the Iron Lady reluctantly let me pass.
Fifty meters beyond the gate, I could see why El Salto was now such a popular place: two huge swimming pools had been constructed here, chock full of the water slides kids adore.
As I continued down the road, I could see the hillside where El Salto Cave is located. We had been quite amazed the first time we squeezed through the small entrance hole and stood up inside the cave.
“This room completely took our breath away,” I wrote in those days. “Every wall shimmered with long stalactites. At the far end we found several tall, graceful columns about 30 centimeters wide. After squeezing through to another room, one of the cavers climbed up one side and stuck his head into a small niche. ‘Come, take a look here,’ he said laconically.
Standing on tiptoes, I pushed my head into the small opening. As I had expected, I found myself encircled by tiny, beautiful formations. I also found myself eyeball to eyeball with a little bat, which glared at me as if to say, ‘What are you doing in my bedroom?’ Just as it started to gnash its teeth at me, my friend casually remarked, ‘I think it’s a vampire.’”
Recalling those discoveries made in the 1990s, I reached the waterfall. Happily, it was as enchanting as ever, and the only new “development” was a railing, a wise safety precaution.
So, I can assure you that El Salto de Peña Colorada is still there and still well worth visiting, once the pandemic is behind us.
And who knows, maybe it will be the Iron Lady herself guiding you on a tour of the place.
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.