Updated: Jan 11
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic I wanted to do something socially distanced outdoors but December can be rather cold. I headed south of the border where it was still warm enough to enjoy some hiking. (During the day, at least - the high elevation still meant sub-freezing temps at night!)
My destination was the national park that contained the volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. (Try saying THAT ten times fast!) As you can guess, they are not Spanish names but rather Nahuatl, and since they are tough to pronounce, often abbreviated "Izta" and "Popo". Located about 2 hours southeast of Mexico City, the 2nd and 3rd highest peaks in Mexico can be seen from near and far, including at the top of this picture taken on the outskirts of Mexico City. Izta, a dormant volcano, resembles a sleeping woman and can be hiked. Popo, a more symmetrical active volcano, can be seen but not hiked. The closest town to the mountains is Amecameca.
When I researched this park, the general route was to take a bus from Mexico City to Amecamea, spend the night, and then get a taxi up to the mountain pass at Paseo de Cortés (or even higher to La Joya) to begin the hike. Then find a taxi to take you back and make the return trip in reverse. You see, the hike up Izta begins in the parking lot at La Joya which is over 13,000 feet elevation and ascends 2,000 ft higher from there. If you start at the park entrance (Paseo de Cortés), which is on the main road, you've got to walk 7 km (4.5 mi) just to get to La Joya.
For that reason, I decided to rent a car from Mexico City, so that I could drive to/from the high-altitude parking area at La Joya. Surprisingly, it was only a few dollars more than what a bus/taxi would have cost.
Before I describe my trip, a word about renting a car in Mexico. It was my first time, and I had read that the surprisingly low car rental rates do not include insurance, which is mandatory and where they really make their profits. I reserved a car with Alamo through Expedia which included MXN$750,000 in liability coverage. Because I had read that many rental car places do not honor this, to be safe I made a second reservation with Mex Rent a car directly on their website for a few dollars more, which included the same MXN$750,000 in liability coverage. (Neither reservation required payment in advance.) When I arrived and went to the Alamo desk, I was told that Mexico City requires a MXN$2,000,000 policy which means that I would have to pay for even more insurance. Having none of it, I went to the Mex Rent a car where I was able to rent the car without being forced to pay more. It turns out that the lower insurance was just fine. (Mex Rent a car did try to sneak in additional insurance, but when I caught the higher price on the contract, they told me that they could remove it in exchange for a higher deposit held on my credit card.) So just beware that some car rental agencies are more honest than others. This a pet peeve of mine because any mandatory charge should be included in the price quote so you can plan accordingly, but I digress.
I set out by car for Amecameca where vendors walked up and down traffic lanes to sell motorists all sorts of drinks, snacks, and goodies while they were stuck in traffic. (I also noticed this later on the Mexico City Metro.) Mexicans have to hustle to make money any way they can. The next day when I was driving back from the mountains in a bigger traffic jam, there
were no fewer than 2 dozen vendors plying the gridlocked highway! (And as it was less than 2 weeks before Christmas, I passed several farms selling Christmas trees for about US$30.)
Once in Amecameca, I parked near the town center and got a room at the Hotel San Carlos. It was not luxurious and the rooms were gritty, but the bed was clean and I was only spending the night. For $8, it was just what I needed. It was also located on the Zocalo so I walked around the stalls where everything from tacos and pozole to pastries were being sold as people prepared for Christmas.
At 8,000 ft elevation, no shorts/t-shirts at night here!
Early the next morning I set out for the national park. As I climbed ever higher in elevation, the temperature dipped into the 30s Fahrenheit and the trees looked more like the Rockies or New England rather than anywhere in a warm climate.
On the road up to Izta-Popo, areas for picnics and hot food looked more like Maine than Mexico
Before long I arrived at the Paseo de Cortés, a mountain pass over 11,000 ft elevation where the park office was. The parking lot was full of hikers getting ready for the day, and cars were covered in a layer of frost. I went inside to pay the 37 peso entry fee and get my bracelet and continue the 4.5 mile drive to La Joya. Or, at least, that was the plan. I learned that they only allow a handful of cars to drive to La Joya and it is by reservation only. And the reservation must be made over the phone in advance. They made me leave my car and hike up to La Joya.
The parking lot at 8am in Paseo de Cortés as hikers get ready. (It was even busier at 1pm when I returned to the car!)
Since most of my day's hike would now be spent on the 9 mile round-trip journey to and from the parking lot where I had intended to stop, I could not venture far onto the Izta mountain. However, I was relieved to discover that there was a trail (marked by red arrows) from Paseo de Cortés to La Joya that was beautiful and stunning in its own right. (I'll just have to return next time with a reservation to La Joya to do the hike I had originally planned!)
I was happy that most of the people I saw in the parking lot took other hiking trails, because for the most part I was alone on my hike. I began around 8:30am and it was chilly - I had a jacket and pants, but after only about half an hour the sun was warming things up and I shed my layers.
The trail towards Itza... ...And looking back towards Popo
As I continued higher, I could see the valley to the west (Mexico state) and to the east (Puebla state). And behind me was the magnificent Popo volcano. Around 10am I noticed that the volcano started to erupt! And would continue to do so for the next 2 hours or so. At first it was just a small puff of smoke - as you'd see from a chimney - but then got bigger before slowing down again and stopping. As it is an active volcano, there's a good chance you'll see Popo erupt on a morning hike. The sky was clear as well, but I'm told that after noon the clouds start to roll in and obstruct the peaks, so it's best to begin your hike as early as you can.
A view of Popo erupting on the trail from Paseo de Cortés to La Joya
I arrived at La Joya to see some open spots where I would have parked, and then the trail turned steep as it ascended up Izta volcano. Since I spent hours hiking to/from La Joya, I could only hike up for half an hour or so before I had to turn around. But I'll be back.
After a couple hours of hiking, I made it to La Joya and the gateway to Izta. Here's the parking lot where I would have begun my hike if I had had my way
The steep climb up Izta begins at La Joya (left) and continues through rugged terrain (right)
Looking east towards the mountains above the clouds in Puebla state
Driving back downhill towards civilization, I saw several cyclists heading up and back from the mountain pass. There is no shoulder so there were cars following them. Not sure I'd want to risk that but it definitely makes for quite a workout!