Santa María del Oro is a picturesque crater lake located 150 kilometers northwest of Guadalajara in the state of Nayarit and easily reachable in two hours via autopista/toll road 15 heading for Tepic.
While there are a good number of crater lakes in the Volcanic Belt which crosses Mexico diagonally, this one wins the prize for sheer beauty. On top of that, its waters are clean, almost transparent, and warmish, because this laguna is fed by hot springs issuing forth from … I’m tempted to say from its bottom, but for many years it had no bottom (according to the local folk) until, of course, some scientific type came along, measured it and found there was a bottom after all, about 111 meters below the surface.
Such a depth should make for very cold water, suggesting that the springs down at the bottom must be hot indeed. The lake’s resulting year-round water temperature is neither hot nor cold, just right for splashing around for as long as you wish.
Swimming, kayaking and water skiing are popular activities at this lake but an even bigger attraction is eating. Over the years the lakeside restaurants have gained good reputations for mariscos, the most famous plate being chicharrón de pescado, small bits of mojarra fried in batter, perhaps called fish fritters in English. These are deliciously crispy when freshly made. Chicharrones de camarón (shrimp fritters?) are also popular and, of course the old standby pescado dorado. Naturally these delights must be munched under a thatched roof right out at the water’s edge or – even better – hanging over it, on a balcony made of creaking boards, from which you can toss scraps to dozens of eagerly observant coots just dying for a treat. What fun!
For this visit to La Laguna de Santa María del Oro (abbreviated SAMAO), I stayed at Koala Bungalows (altitude 718 meters) with my friend Josh and his three kids. We stayed in what they call a “casa” (as opposed to a bungalow), which had two bedrooms and a big kitchen/fun room with a fridge and a sofa bed fine for sleeping one adult.
By some standards this place might be classified as primitive, but here in Mexico I rate overnight accommodations by asking the following questions: Does everything work? Does anything stink? Is it clean? Is it quiet? Do mosquitoes sing in your ear all night? Does it make you feel you are in jail?
Believe it or not, I have found a number of so-called four- or five-star hotels in many corners of the world which have failed some of these tests, but Koala Bungalows passed with flying colors, even though, as far as luxury goes, it wouldn’t get even one star.
But, as a friend who knows the place said, “Think that you are going there to camp, and you’ll find the bungalows just fine.”
Josh rented some of the sturdy, unsinkable boats they call “kayaks” (I don’t think the Inuit would agree!) and he and his children had a great time on the lake. I took advantage of the gorgeous view and peacefulness of the place to catch up on my writing. As for the hiking, there is a dirt road circumnavigating the lake, which I’d like to see some day. This is described as too “feo” for passenger cars and I noticed on Tripadvisor.com that some mountain bikers found it far more challenging than they had anticipated
The next morning we went for breakfast at Koala’s little restaurant, called La Mojarra de Samao and were pleasantlyshocked. Everything we ordered was not just delicious, but perfect! The coffee was real coffee, not the usual Nescafé instant dishwater.
My huevos rancheros were the best I’ve ever had anywhere. One of the boys ordered an “English Breakfast” and it certainly looked like the real deal to me!
Of course, I was suspicious. “Who owns Koala?” I asked the smiling, pleasant and efficient waitress. “Señor Christian,” she replied.
“Does Señor Christian happen to be an Englishman?”
“Claro que sí,” she answered.
Now we all regretted not having eaten lunch here the day before.
Other indications of Señor Christian’s influence at Koala is a list of regulations prominently posted, the first three of which are dedicated to controlling loud music and noise, hopefully guaranteeing peace and quiet after 10 p.m.
We enjoyed that peace and quiet on our Friday-
How to get there
First, note that this site is in Nayarit, which is in a time zone one hour earlier than Jalisco. To get there, ask Google Maps to take you to “Laguna de Santa María del Oro, Nayarit.” Don’t input Koala because another hotel has tricked Google into leading you to the wrong place. When you leave the town of Santa María del Oro, don’t forget to stop at the mirador (lookout point). After that, prepare for a steep, breathtaking, twisting and turning descent down to the crater floor. If, upon reaching the edge of the lake, you want to go to Koala Bungalows, just turn left and drive 400 meters until the road ends … and there you are! Driving time via the toll road is about two hours from the west end of Guadalajara and three hours from Chapala via the Macrolibramiento.