Matatlán is a little town located 20 kilometers east of downtown Guadalajara, perched on the brink of a deep canyon with nearly vertical walls. Throughout its entire history — which goes back to pre-Hispanic times — the people here have known of the wonderful hot pools and hot river on the canyon floor.
Tragic proof that post-conquista people have often scaled these walls can be found in numerous crosses erected at various points. Old and rotting ropes still mark La Ruta De Las Cruces (The Route of the Crosses), as it came to be called, which was in use right up to very recent times, when canyoneers appeared on the scene carrying modern gear for rappelling with nylon ropes.
In 2007, Guadalajara-based canyoneer Luis “Luigi” Medina heard that La Barranca de Las Cruces was muy padre (very cool) and some 600 meters deep where it begins, with a river running down its entire length.
“But,” he told me, “no one ever mentioned that there were hot springs down at the bottom.”
Medina was the leader of the Jalisco canyoneering community in those days and was ever on the lookout for waterfalls, so he and three friends decided to go check the place out.
“It was November and really cold,” recalls Medina. “We left town at 6 a.m. with two 50-meter ropes and, just in case, we took along another one, 100 meters long. We went straight to the river and rappelled down a 15-meter waterfall. Then we walked 20 meters and came to a second cascada 15 meters high. We went down it and walked another 30 meters, and there we found a 10-meter fall … and so it went. Would you believe there were 26 waterfalls in that canyon?”
After 17 drops, the canyoneers came to the edge of a really deep fall. When they tried to put a bolt (a permanent anchor to which a rope can be attached) in the walls on either side of the river, they couldn’t.
“The rock was too soft,” Medina explained, “so I had to lean out over the edge with my friends holding onto me, and there I found rock that was somewhat more solid. From that position, I could see the bottom, and it looked like it was an 80-meter drop!”
Let me explain here that every time canyoneers lower a rope, they double it. The midpoint of the rope is clipped into a carabiner (a metal link with a gate) that is attached to a bolt, allowing them to later pull the rope down so it can be used again in the next descent.
The problem with this approach is that once they have pulled the rope down, it’s no longer possible to go back up.
“I had no way of knowing whether our 100-meter rope, doubled, would get us all the way to the bottom of that big fall,” explained Medina, “or whether the rock was solid enough to hold our weight. So we stopped and spent an hour looking for ways we could get out of the river by climbing our way up or down … but the walls were vertical at this point, and there was no escape: we had no choice but to do the rappel.
“Well, luck was on our side. The two ends of the doubled 100-meter rope reached to a point exactly one meter above the base of the fall … and the bolt held.”
By now, night was falling and the temperature was dropping.
“None of us wanted to be in the water anymore,” said Medina. “Since the canyon had widened considerably, we decided to scramble down the sides of the remaining falls so we could completely avoid getting wet.”
As a result, the team never discovered that some of the following falls were flowing with hot water.
“We just headed down the canyon until we came upon a big vertical water pipe, which we figured had to be coming from the town of Matatlán up above. So we simply followed the water pipe up to the town and exited the canyon 17 hours after we had entered it.”
In following expeditions, canyoneers discovered that the water was hot in four of the 26 cascades, and word eventually reached the general public that 400 meters below Matatlán there was a hundred-meter-long río caliente with hot pools and a natural toboggan slide: a delightful spa located in an area so pristine that you could, according to Medina, “hobnob with eagles and swim side-by-side with otters, just to mention two of the 368 species of wild animals down there.”
The canyoneers launched several new expeditions and, naturally, published a few videos on YouTube. As a result, small groups of adventurers — who were not experienced canyoneers — headed for Matatlán, where the locals told them “Claro que sí, there’s agua caliente down there. Just follow the water pipe all the way; it’s easy!”
Following the pipe was indeed easy, but the climbing part, both down and then back up the sheer canyon wall, was something else. One of those adventurous explorers, who goes by the name of “Panzer,” described his experience in this canyon.
“We followed that water pipe, grabbing onto whatever we could while staring down drops of up to 70 meters below us. We were holding on to the rock face with our hands, our fingers, our teeth and our nails … and then we started coming to ropes. But what ropes! There were all kinds: old ropes, new ropes, and a few rotten ropes, tied onto trees here and there.
“This climb, both up and down, is what I call ‘extreme’ in my book, without a doubt the hardest route our team has ever followed, but at the same time the most beautiful.”
Recently — eight years after Panzer’s experience — entrepreneurs in Matatlán decided to make the water pipe route a little easier, welding ladders to the steel pipe along the most difficult parts of the trajectory and also constructing an unbelievable open-air spiral staircase that twists its way down the cliffside and is guaranteed to get the user’s heart pumping overtime.
In December of 2021, Medina decided to give this new route a try.
“Just outside Matatlán, right at the edge of the cliff,” he told me, “I found a campsite called La Arboleda with full facilities like showers, toilets and an open-air kitchen. This is also the place where you can begin your descent to the agua caliente, starting with a very steep trail and followed by the caracol (spiral staircase) and, after that, a great many ladders welded to the pipe, most of them accompanied by railings.
“There is, however, a long stretch where the pipe is almost horizontal and you are supposed to walk along the rungs on top of it. These are more like horizontal slats, but here there are no railings, nothing at all to hold onto. If you slip, or maybe a bee flies into your face, you might only fall a meter and a half — but it would probably hurt. And, of course, if you lose your concentration or your balance, you are definitely going to fall.”
So, should you visit the hot river of Matatlán?
“Well, it’s a killer!” Medina said. “But if you are in good shape physically and you are used to hiking in the mountains, it’s definitely worthwhile climbing down those ladders. The local people told me that a prep school class went down there recently. Bueno, the students had no problems whatsoever, but it just about wiped out the teachers! So, when the bunch of them got back up on top, the teachers all said, “Wow! The place is incredible, but jamas regresamos! We’re never coming back!”
To visit the Matatlán hot river virtually, watch Luigi Medina’s lively YouTube video. It’s all in Spanish, but just fast forward to the eighth minute to follow the route down the cliffside, and no matter what language you speak, I guarantee you will feel an adrenaline rush!
You can reach La Arboleda campsite by asking Google Maps to take you to PRMP+7X Matatlán, Jalisco. The climb, which you should try only if you are in superb physical shape — and at your own risk — takes about an hour each way.Luigi Medina’s YouTube video about Matatlan Canyon.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, since 1985. His most recent book is Outdoors in Western Mexico, Volume Three. More of his writing can be found on his blog.