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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.