Anywhere else, Los Negritos Lake would have been turned into a recreational area and its curative and beautifying mud pots into an expensive spa.
But in El Platanal, Michoacán, the local people seem content to keep their natural wonders as they are rather than “developing” them.
If you happen to live anywhere near Lake Chapala, you should note that Los Negritos is practically in your back yard. If you love nature, you’ll be fascinated by the strange shapes and noises of its boiling mud pots and, if you suffer from arthritis, you may find an inexpensive — albeit dirty — possible solution to your problem.
I first heard about Los Negritos from José Luis Zavala, a biologist studying the fish in the area. He explained that this lagoon is unique because it contains all the aquatic creatures that used to be found in Lake Chapala.
“Laguna Los Negritos is actually hydraulically connected to Chapala,” said Zavala, “but it hasn’t been polluted. It’s a perfect laboratory for studying what Lake Chapala must have been like years ago.”
The lake is rumored to be 700 meters deep, but Zavala calls this a myth.
Tall shade trees and several roofed kiosks make the laguna shore an ideal picnic spot and the mud pots are located only 400 meters northwest of the lake, easy to reach on foot over perfectly flat ground.
The mud is black as black can be and the boiling pots are mostly less than a meter in diameter. So “Los Negritos” (The Little Black Ones) is a fitting name for the place. We came upon at least a dozen boiling, hissing, plopping mud pots interspersed with small bogs and occasional wallowing holes filled with cool mud that would bring joy to the heart of any hedonistic porker.
So much moisture, of course, has brought lots of birds to this area and you can see vermillion flycatchers, golden-fronted woodpeckers, house finches, egrets and if you’re lucky you may even spot a white owl.
“Lots of people have drowned in the lake,” a local rancher told us, apparently because it drops straight down from the shoreline with no shallow spots for waders. He said a few people have drowned in some of the cool mud pools whose rims look far more solid than they really are.
However, he assured us that there are great benefits from getting up to your neck in mud, particularly if you suffer from arthritis. One must, however, be careful not to confuse the cool mud with the hot sort.
“One of my horses sank into what seemed to be cool mud and the heat was so intense, the poor horse lost two of its hooves,” explained the ranchero.
Our informant also told us that geysers sometimes shoot several meters into the air, but when and where this might occur is impossible to predict. Finally, our rancher friend said it may be worth staying overnight among the mud pots because occasionally they produce “big green flames.”
We imagined this must refer to the legendary will o’ the wisp or ignis fatuus (fool’s fire), a ghostly light said to hover over bogs, supposedly leading one either to rich treasures or perdition. Science tells us the phenomenon is the result of gases released by decaying organic matter, an explanation that’s not nearly as much fun.
When my friend Mario Guerrero told me he was going camping at Lake Negritos, I asked him to check out those green flames. A few days later, he sent me the following message. I think it nicely captures the flavor of many weekend excursions in Mexico. Tongue in cheek, he described his trip as “nothing special or unusual.”
“You asked me how our trip to Los Negritos went and I can report that it was todo sin novedad (nothing special).
“We started out fine in the morning in two vehicles, but when we stopped to pick up our compañeros, one of the cars refused to start. However, by pushing it, we finally got it going.
“A few hours later, about half a kilometer from Villamar — the closest town to Los Negritos — my own car suddenly died. It was the gas pump — totally shot. So, we had to tow it to Villamar using my friend’s car which, unfortunately, again refused to start.
“However, we push-started it . . . and got to Villamar where we found only one mechanic and he was hopelessly drunk. However, he staggered over to my car, looked at the pump, said he could fix it, but declared that there was no way to get a new one the same day because the spare parts store was closed.
“So, we left my car . . . and told him he should fix it as soon as he sobered up. ‘Just leave me money for the pump,’ he replied, ‘and a bottle of tequila.’
“Then all six of us piled into the other car. It was pretty crowded . . . .
“Finally, we arrived at Los Negritos at 10:00pm It was so dark we couldn’t see a thing, not even the lake. All we wanted to do by then was hit the sack. We went to the first kiosk, but what did we find in the middle of it but a big coral snake about two meters long.
“. . . we chased it away, but nobody in the group wanted to sleep in that particular kiosk anymore, so we went off in the dark looking for another one. Like I said, nothing ‘unusual’ about this trip.
“. . . we set up our tents inside the next kiosk and now it was about midnight. Then I remembered I promised to check out those mud pots for you. Well, I had the GPS coordinates, so we had no choice but to traipse off into the darkness looking for them.
“Since we couldn’t see where we were going, we ended up walking through mud so thick and sticky it soon looked like we had cannonballs at the ends of our legs. Finally, we found the mud pots, turned off our lights and discovered absolutely nothing: no green flames, no mysteries, no ghosts. In fact, once again nothing unusual.
“. . . two hours later we finally crawled into our tents — when all hell broke loose.
“A hurricane-like wind hit us and suddenly the surface of the lake was churning with monster waves. We had to jump on top of our tents to hold them down. I swear that wind was blowing over 200 kilometers per hour, but it finally weakened a bit and at last we were getting ready to go to bed when — it started to rain.
“Well, the wind was still blowing pretty hard and, therefore, we had rain coming at us horizontally. The roof of the kiosk wasn’t doing us any good at all and in a few minutes all of us and our gear were soaking wet . . . We didn’t get to sleep until 3:00am. It was just another one of those nights — nothing special at all.
“The next day we found the mechanic as drunk as ever, but the new gas pump was installed perfectly.
“On our way home we stopped at a taco stand under a canopy and what happened? While we were eating, another sudden downpour hits us — more horizontal rain — and we walked out of the ‘restaurant’ soaked again.
“Finally, at 11:00pm we arrived home after a rather long weekend but, gracias a Dios, a weekend sin novedad, with nothing special to report.”
To visit Los Negritos — if my friend’s report doesn’t dissuade you — ask Google Maps for directions to “Lago Los Negritos, Michoacán.” The mud pots are located at N20.06285 W102.61573 and yes, you can input these coordinates into Google Maps.
If you prefer old-fashioned directions, see Volume One of Outdoors in Western Mexico. Driving time from the town of Ajijic on Lake Chapala is just over two hours.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 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.