Mexico’s Mighty Volcanos

Spanning Mexico’s substantial midriff, the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt won’t keep its pants from falling down, but it does include all of the country’s highest peaks. The gleaming and centrally-located city of Puebla, like the shiny belt buckle, makes a convenient base for hiking and exploring Mexico’s mighty volcanos.

Toluca Plug Dome

Nevado de Toluca Plug Dome

The six highest mountains in Mexico are volcanos, and all are located less than 100 miles (160 km) from Puebla. Our first hiking loop into the volcanic belt was a visit to Nevado de Toluca, Mexico’s 4th tallest mountain, and the easiest to access.

Toluca reflection

Nevado de Toluca Crater Lake

Reaching the crater rim of Nevado de Toluca volcano requires only a short hike from the parking area. As such, many Mexican families visit pushing baby strollers and dragging along their aging grandmothers. Leaving the crowds behind, we descended to the crater floor and hiked around its massive plug dome and crystal-clear crater lakes.

Paso de Cortes and Popo

Paso de Cortés monument and Popocatépetl (El Popo)

Visible on a rare clear day from downtown Puebla are Mexico’s second and third highest peaks Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. These two behemoths, towering over 17,000 feet (5,200 meters), are separated by Paso de Cortés a geographic saddle crossed by Hernán Cortés in 1519, on his way to confront Moctezuma in Mexico City.

Popo with Sign

As close as you can get to El Popo, Mexico’s most active volcano

From Paso de Cortés, Popocatépetl (El Popo) rises in a nearly perfect parabolic cone, white steam puffing from the pursed lips of its summit crater. El Popo is Mexico’s most active volcano, and has been off-limits to the public since the latest surge of volcanism began in 1994.

Izta with trees

La Izta

Climbing from Paso de Cortés away from El Popo is snow-capped Iztaccíhuatl (La Izta) a dormant stratovolcano known as the “White Woman”. The gravel road from the pass at 11,150 feet (3,400 m) to the mountain trailhead parking area at 13,125 feet (4,000 m) is a relatively comfortable high-altitude hike with outstanding mountain vistas.

Orizaba Rain

The weather that kept me from seeing Pico de Orizaba

After viewing Mexico’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th highest points, I aimed to see the great Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain and the third highest peak in North America. Pico de Orizaba stands 18,491 feet (5,636 m) tall outside the town of Orizaba in the state of Veracruz. Unfortunately, clouds engulfed the mighty massif, and lightning and steady rains prevented me from approaching it.

Orizaba river

The Riverwalk in the town of Orizaba

To view Pico de Orizaba, I had planned to hike North America’s highest road to the astronomical observatory atop nearby Sierra Negra, Mexico 5th highest peak. Given the adverse weather conditions, I instead walked around the town of Orizaba, and found it to be one of the prettiest places that I have visited in Mexico.

Malinche ahead

Crossing the treeline to La Malinche

Foiled but not finished, I turned my attention to La Malinche on Puebla’s northeast horizon. Although this dormant volcano is only Mexico’s 6th highest mountain at 14,636 feet (4,461 m), it is still higher than Mt. Whitney, the loftiest point in the lower 48 United States.

Malinche summit

La Malinche summit, my highest ever, El Popo and La Izta in the distance

Hiking a volcano like La Malinche is like scaling a giant parabola, as the slope increases the higher you go. After climbing higher than I have ever been before, I finally pulled myself up onto the summit. Looking down on Puebla and across to La Izta and a smoldering El Popo in the distance, I stood breathless and in awe atop one of Mexico’s mighty volcanos. 

Cholula sunset

Sun setting behind Paso de Cortés and El Popo, from the Cholula Pyramid

 

Feature Image: Popocatépetl (El Popo) erupting ash plume, from La Malinche trail, April 20, 2018

 

Blogger’s Note: From the white sand beaches of Cancún to Mexico’s highest mountains, we have explored a lot of Mexico over the past three months. As this trip ends, we say, “hasta luego” (see you later) to Mexico, and hope to return in the not-to-distant future. For the month of May, we will be moving on to Europe to visit our daughter Claire in Nice, France, and to do some reconnaissance of possible future month-at-a-time travel destinations in Portugal and Spain.

 

 

11 thoughts on “Mexico’s Mighty Volcanos

  1. After being disappointed not to reach the summit of Mount Whitney, I bet you were thrilled to scale La Malinche! Although I’ll really miss your postcards from Mexico, I am thrilled that you will be in Europe and considering a month-at-a-time sojourn to Spain and Portugal… which are on my husband’s and my slow travel radar screen. I am very interested to learn all about what you find out.

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    • Although Whitney is a much longer and more difficult hike, I was very gratified to be able to reach the top of La Malinche. We will miss the people, beauty, and affordability of Mexico, but are excited to see Claire and check out the Iberian Peninsula. I expect that we will find too many great places to spend a month, and will have a tough time deciding where to stay. I would love to know where you and your husband are thinking of traveling.

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    • Hi Deb, It was nice to be back in the mountains, and to have the time for some great hiking. Being this far south, there was much less snow at these high elevations, and the tree line is also much higher than in the Sierras. Esther and I are really excited to see Claire and travel around Europe for a month. Happy travels to you and Jeff!

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  2. The scenery around those volcanoes is amazing! I can’t imagine how beautiful it must be to be able to hike there. I love how you are seeing so much of the true Mexico…most people I know just visit the beach resorts, and possibly the Mayan ruins, and call it good enough. I am learning so much more about Mexico through your blog!

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    • Just seeing the perfect shape of a volcano smoldering on the horizon was a big thrill for me. When El Popo erupted that big ash plume while I was hiking, I almost exploded with excitement. These mountains are elemental in understanding Mexico. Not only do they shape the geography and weather, but also play a part in the culture and superstitions of the local people. Mexico is such a varied and vivid place, and I am so pleased that our articles helped you to better understand it.

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  3. Beautiful pictures, Joe. I’m not really a hiker (though I actually follow a hiker’s blog for some reason!), but I can appreciate the satisfaction you must have felt when you got to the top of La Malinche. Safe travels to Nice. – Marty

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    • Thank you, Marty. For such an amateur hiker like me, reaching the highest summit of my life, on the day before my 58th birthday, without having a heart attack, gave me a lot of confidence and a big sense of accomplishment. We leave tomorrow for Nice, and are bracing for a big culture shock. – Joe

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    • Hi Lydia, The volcanos of Mexico are spectacular for high-altitude hiking and mountaineering. I have seen pictures of people swimming in the crater lakes of Nevado de Toluca, but did not see any on the day we were there. Given the altitude, it was quite cool, and the water temperatures downright frigid. I usually like to swim in mountain lakes back home in the Sierra Nevada, but couldn’t even muster the courage to put my toes into the chilly crater lakes.

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