La Presa Cajon de Peñas in Tomatlan: The ideal place to chill out

130 kilometers from Puerto Vallarta, two hours south along Highway 200, take a left and then head 18 kms down a local road, and you will find one of the most important man-made wonders of the region. The Cajon de las Peñas Dam is a paradise for fishing enthusiasts, and a unique destination for visitors looking to escape the heat, the big city, and internet. (Limited cell service and no internet here).
Turning just after Gargantillo-La Cruz de Loreto and shortly before reaching the water reservoir visitors will happen upon the tiny village of La Presa. The journey of 18 kilometers off the highway back to the lake passes through agricultural lands ripe with corn, tomatoes and fruit orchards. Running along the side of the road is an aqueduct system coming from the dam and irrigating this fertile valley that supplies so many with food.
In the village of La Presa is the small Hotel Rincon de la Ceiba with it’s impressive Ceiba tree on the banks of the dam. It is one of the few places to stay in the area, but there is also rustic camping, and across the lake, you’ll find the fishing resort of Rancho Andrea.
Before the flooding in 1974-1976 there stood the prosperous fishing village of Cajon de las Peñas. It, along with several haciendas and even a church were submerged under the water. In those years, the dam was considered one of the largest in Mexico with a capacity of over 700 million cubic meters.
Today the dam/lake is a popular spot for locals from the nearby villages and larger town and seat of the municipality, Tomatlan, with families arriving for lunch on Sundays at one of the five lakefront restaurants.
The area around the lake is open to those who are adventurous. Rent a boat or a canoe and paddle to the nearby islands, the far shores or up the arm of the dam. There are small palapas built around the lake and on a couple of the islands where you can set up a campsite for a night or two.
This natural paradise is home to the famous rubber tree (ask about the chewing gum from Talpa de Allende) parotas, and primavera. There are countless species of birds, among which are ducks, herons, cranes, orange-breasted finches, hummingbirds, and doves. In the early morning, as the sun rises against the water, you can watch the birds come alive, roosting on the submerged trees, like something from a movie. It’s very surreal.
On a trip there I spotted raccoons and a red-tailed fox in the trees on one of the islands. Presumably, they can swim!
The most popular attraction is the local restaurants on the banks of the dam. Kitchens prepare the day’s catch, including bass, tilapia, shrimp, and an exotic mollusk called tegololo, highly prized in the world market.
The waters are ideal for fishing and boating, and the local fishermen collective will rent small boats and provide a guide if you wish. Among other activities, you can go kayaking, swimming, and diving or hike along the edges of the reservoir and the rivers and streams. As well in the area, there are archaeological petroglyphs, painted stones, and the most famous is “the painted cave.” It is a cave painting on the banks of the river Tomatlán, north of the dam. It is located 12 meters from the river bed, the red pigment stone has a height of 40 meters by 8 long and 2 wide. This painting is estimated to be over 3500 years old and depicts the indigenous ways of life.
This river and valley system connects to the north with Talpa de Allende and is part of the ancient migration routes, which are today used by the millions of devout Catholics who walk to Talpa de Allende to receive the blessings of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The dam is located in the municipality of Tomatlan. And a visit to the dam should include a stop in the picturesque town. Located close by are two other smaller dams, El Tambor and San Juan, along with the Tule Lake and more than a dozen rivers. The area is also famous for its forests of precious woods including pine, oak, and parota. Local crafts focus on leather working and wood carving. There are very skilled artisans in the area.
Tomatlan is also famous for its beaches along the Pacific coast. There is Chalacatepec, a rugged beach with the largest turtle camp in Jalisco. Majuahua and La Cruz de Loreto are backed by estuaries and are extraordinarily beautiful natural landscapes. (one was once home to one of the most exclusive eco-resorts in Mexico, which unfortunately was closed in 2015.)
Only a couple hours from Puerto Vallarta, the area around Tomatlan and the Cajon de las Peñas offer an escape to rural Mexico. The best time to visit is during and just after rainy season while the dam’s waters are replenished and the temperatures are a bit more comfortable than along the coast.
Some tips to make your trip better:
The area has limited cell phone service, and the town of La Presa has no internet. The local people are very friendly but speak almost no English. It’s best to fill up your gas tank in El Tuito, just in case. The town of Tomatlan has restaurants, shops and a charming plaza with the church. The last time I was through, there was no bank machine, so bring pesos.

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Living in Mexico full time since 2011, Madeline is a graphic designer, writer, iPhone photographer and road tripper.