A local secret just an hour from Mexico City is the El Fresno waterfalls in Soyaniquilpan, Estado de Mexico. Whether you’re looking for hiking, camping, or just a chill-out picnic with a sound therapy soundtrack, this is one of Mexico’s natural wonders that transports you to a lush oasis.
Even in dry season, the powerful river cascades over huge rock formations and flows through the tangled roots of ancient Tule trees (Montezuma cypress) dripping with Spanish moss. It feels like you enter a fantasy world from another time.
At the waterfalls, you can get close and personal. There are no barriers to stop you from peeking over the top of multi-cascades that funnel down into a grand waterfall below. You can then hike down to see the main waterfall and swimming area below.
Many don’t go farther than the main waterfalls but there is much more to explore. You can spend the day walking several kilometers along the river, which creates a lush green canyon. Here you can scramble over mini cascades and tangled roots, some the size of tree trunks.
There is also a hiking path to the right that follows the top of the canyon where you can admire grand nopales and the strip of green where the river cuts through an otherwise dry landscape. Near the start of the track is a small hill where you can find a humble altar and views across the valley (also phone connection).
The best discovery comes around 1.5km downstream from the waterfalls, what the locals consider a sacred island where rituals are performed among carved rock ruins. You can see remnants of Otomi sacrifice areas etched out in the rocks, plus a newer carving of a local god. It’s one of those local Mexican experiences where you can run your hands over a piece of history.
Like many of Mexico’s local hotspots, the main waterfalls aren’t necessarily the isolated serenity you might be seeking unless you go during the week. It’s a local weekend favorite where families head to dip their toes in the water (or swim if they can brave the cold water!), have picnics with stunning backdrops, or grab a taco from the many makeshift stores that pop up near the entrance. But few people hike down the river, so you can still find yourself alone soaking up the natural sound therapy of the bubbling river.
There was also once a small pyramid in the hills above the waterfall, but it has since been covered to stop looting and destruction of the site. You will see carved frescos in internet searches but locals say it is hard to find, and there’s not much left to see except some rock outlines of historical dwellings. It’s a small reminder of how immense is the historical culture in Mexico, where such a site must wait its turn until proper funding can preserve it. If you ask, a local might take you but they don’t overly recommend it.
The municipality of Soyaniquilpan was a distinctly Otomí area, belonging to the kingdom of Jilotepec where many Otomian settlers once met. Today Otomi is still spoken in the area.
Later, the town became ‘Soyaniquilpan de Juarez’ after the then president of Mexico, Benito Juárez, spent the night in the town of San José on July 10, 1867. You can find the house marked with number 20 on the town’s main street.
Remnants from Spanish conquerors can be seen in the now decaying haciendas – estates – which you can still wander around. Many of the haciendas went bankrupt resulting from problems during the War of Independence.
The most important include:
- ‘La Goleta’ from the late 17th century
- ‘Tandejé’ from the early 18th century
- the Arcada house, built at the end of the 18th century.
At the time of the Reformation, Soyaniquilpan was one of the main passages of the conservative and liberal armies. On December 22, 1860, the battle of Calpulalpan took place on what was then the La Goleta estate. Later, during the French intervention, Maximiliano passed through Soyaniquilpan before he was later caught and shot in Querétaro.
You can also see neoclassical architecture at the Parish of San Francisco de Asís, patron of the town, the Chapel of the Virgen del Carmen, and the church of San Agustín Buenavista.
The municipality also witnessed the march of different revolutionary armies – Carrancista, Zapatista and Villistason forces – on their way to the capital in 1914. One of their most important acts was distributing the enormous lands of the La Goleta and Tandeje estates between the local populations of the municipality and other nearby places.
Where to stay
If you have the time, it’s one of the best places to camp near Mexico City. You can camp directly on the riverfront and disconnect from the world with scarce phone and internet connection.
The local campground is pricey for Mexican standards and for what they offer. It’s 200 pesos per person on the weekends, although the owners say they charge less (around 100–150 pesos) during the week. There are not yet many facilities as they only opened in 2021; the toilets are basic without running water, and there are no showers. There is a small shop on site and the local town center is 5 minutes away. What they offer in return is an open-air cinema on Saturday nights.
Nearby there is another campground that offers adventure activities, like a zipline, although it’s not on the riverfront. Farther away is the luxurious Rancho Las Cascadas, which is located directly next to another stunning waterfall and close enough to visit El Fresno during the day. There you can find hotel rooms and horseriding.
The best way to arrive is by car. Once you turn off the Mexico–Queretaro highway, the last few kilometers are pot-holed and in some places, a dirt road.
It is advised to arrive during the day, as the area is not well marked. To get to both camping grounds, you must cross a part of the road where the river runs over it. It is best to book in advance so they can be aware that you are coming.
Places to visit nearby
Nearby in the state of Hidalgo is the important center of Tule de Allende, renowned for the Tula archeological site. The area was once considererd to be the Toltec capital, one of the major Mesoamerican civilisations that existed around 1000 AD/CE. After the fall of the grand settlement of Teotihuacan, Tula became the most important city in the region.
Five minutes from the town’s historical center you can visit the Tula pyramids, with its warrior Atlantean figures, and the “Serpent Wall,” carved with reliefs that are thought to be a predecessor to similar constructions later on.