Laguna Santa Maria del Oro

From San Pancho, a two-hour drive northeast carries you up the dense jungle pass, into the sunny Sierra Madre valleys patchworked with sugarcane fields, and over to the dusty, rolling cowtown of Santa Maria del Oro. Here, you wind your way through the narrow streets of the pueblo, past the closet-sized tiendas and the sleepy town plaza before nosediving down a hairpinned road that leaves zero room for error. At the bottom of this tangled snarl of potholes is the even sleepier village of Laguna Santa Maria del Oro, a dotted ring of houses, haciendas and restaurants lining a navy blue crater lake.

This densely forested bowl is what's left of a dormant volcano's interior, now filled with water and home to a beautiful cacophony of bird life. Huichol legend speaks of La Laguna's majestic healing properties and bottomless depth (although recent geological studies have put it somewhere in the 65 to 100 meter range.) Down here, days are noticeably cooler than on the plateau, and nights are accompanied by the chorus of crickets and owls, with roosters, sheep and donkeys singing backup.

We camped two nights on La Laguna, hiking the rim of the lake with occasional stops for a swim, eating the Laguna's specialty of chicharron de pescado (deep fried coins of thinly sliced catfish) and marveling at the array of exotic plant life. We were camped between a tall hedge of coffee bushes and a ficus tree so old and sprawling it looked as though it would come alive and spout ancient wisdom at any moment.

As we drove back to San Pancho on Sunday, the magic of the lake was still fresh on our skin. (Or was that algae?) Here's what I captured of our weekend inside the volcano.