Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Spring/Summer 2010 issue.
Day-to-day life was largely uneventful in the small town of Santiago in the municipality of Tomatlan back in the early 1970s. That was until progress required its inhabitants to relocate to make way for a new freshwater reservoir. Named Cajon de Peña, the monumental project was built between 1974 and 1976 at a cost of $928.8 million pesos.
Over three decades later, all is well in nearby Nuevo Santiago—whatever is left of Viejo Santiago lies underwater. And Cajón de Peña has been instrumental not only in the agricultural prosperity of the region—thanks to multiple irrigation canals—it also has become an attractive destination for recreational fishers, campers and nature enthusiasts alike.
Cajon de Peña is approximately two hours south of Puerto Vallarta, driving along Carr. 200 Sur. There is a clearly marked left turn at Km 130, a few minutes after passing the La Cruz de Loreto/Hotelito Desconocido intersection. The reservoir is located 11 miles from the highway. You will notice a multitude of cornfields, tropical fruit plantations and a few irrigation canals along the paved road.
As you reach the reservoir, you will barely notice the small community of Cajon de Peña, population 40, as you head right toward the dam, which stands 256 feet. Stretching over 11 miles at its longest point, the reservoir has a maximum capacity of 707,000,000 cubic meters of water, originating from several nearby rivers and a subterranean stream. The beauty of the landscape, highlighted by a network of small islands interspersed throughout the body of water, some privately owned, is overwhelming.
Once you’ve explored the dam, you will want to return to the town itself, where nine different eateries (possibly the most per capita in the entire state) specialize in fresh catch: tilapia, striped bass, prawns and a rare mollusk called tegololo, which can only be found here and along the coast of Veracruz. In the hands of seasoned fishermen, the catch is transformed into culinary treats such as lobina ceviche on tostadas, spicy prawn soup with artisan cotija cheese and striped bass served fried, whole or in finger food-friendly medallions. We are told all eateries feature a similar menu and can personally vouch for Restaurante Conchita, where the catch was delicious, the layout comfortable and the service exemplary. (English-only speakers beware! Do not pass GO without collecting a Spanish speaker and bringing him along!)
A birdwatcher’s delight, there are over 150 species in the area, with military macaws and chachalacas plentiful. And if fishing is your thing, you can easily catch tilapia, prawns, catfish and striped bass. Kayak rentals and motorboat tours can be arranged at any of the local eateries or the cabins listed below. And if you explore Cajon de Peña by motorboat, insist on having the engine turned off at least once and envelop yourself in the rustlings of the surrounding flora and fauna.
You can probably experience Cajon de Peña in a couple of hours, should you be driving from Puerto Vallarta to points in Costalegre or vice versa. On the other hand, the increasing attractions along the highway between Puerto Vallarta and Cajon de Peña will have you seriously considering an overnight there or in El Tuito to further explore the region. The town of Tomatlan, 20 minutes south of Cajon de Peña, holds its annual equestrian and bullfight celebration during the first two weeks of May, a perfect time to head south for a weekend!
Hotelito Jardin del Tuito offered transportation to Cajon de Peña. And Juan Cibrian of Rincon de la Ceiba, along with his parents, Gilberto and Antonia, took time from their busy schedule to show us around their incredible paradise. We are extremely grateful to them all! —Editor