Mexican Volcanoes - High Altitude Hillwalks

Are you looking for a wallet and walker-friendly altitude fix? Only got a couple of weeks' leave to spare? The giant volcanoes dotted along Mexico's central plateau offer accessible guide-free highs without the expense of Himalayan-scale peak permits, time consuming multi-day walk-ins or the fear and faff of technical climbing. Stock up in a supermarket, then take a jeep or taxi to base camp...

El Pico de Orizaba from a hill outside Tlachichuca  © Dan Bailey
El Pico de Orizaba from a hill outside Tlachichuca
© Dan Bailey

Descending along Orizaba's crater rim  © Dan Bailey
Descending along Orizaba's crater rim
© Dan Bailey

This is mountaineering at the easier and more convenient end of the spectrum; sleep in a hotel, stop off at a supermarket, then catch a taxi to a roadhead higher than most Alpine peaks to get your acclimatisation underway. Within a few hours' drive from the teeming megalopolis of Mexico City or the more manageable Puebla conurbation (home to a mere million or so) you've got all the ingredients of an exotic 'expedition': snow plodding; scree trudging; hypoxia; bad plumbing; a chilli-based cuisine and sunrises seen from snowcapped peaks well over 5000 metres high. For high altitude first timers or the more experienced in search of something laid back and a bit different it's a great alternative to the Andes or Asia, and compared to many destinations a lot can be achieved here in a relatively tight timeframe. The big three 5000-ers are best known (though only two are currently climbable) but there are several 4000m peaks as well, good for acclimatisation hikes and worthwhile in their own right too.

It's a popular trip for those who want to test themselves at altitude for the first time on technically pretty easy and accessible mountains. You need some basic ice axe and crampon skills to climb Orizaba, but neither Nevado de Toluca, Izta or the others are particularly technical. Culturally, Mexico has a lot going for it, with the visit to Puebla being a highlight. This is en route to Orizaba and has a beautiful city centre, which is perfect for relaxing in cafes, looking around museums and churches and visiting bars...

Tom Briggs, Jagged Globe

The little satellite peak of Sarcofago from the final slopes  © Dan Bailey
The little satellite peak of Sarcofago from the final slopes
© Dan Bailey
Cloud sea, from Orizaba's summit. It was freezing.  © Dan Bailey
Cloud sea, from Orizaba's summit. It was freezing.
© Dan Bailey
Orizaba's summit and Piedra Grande hut  © Dan Bailey
Orizaba's summit and Piedra Grande hut
© Dan Bailey
Pigging out at a stall entirely devoted to pork scratchings in Tlachichuca. Perfect hill food.  © Dan Bailey
Pigging out at a stall entirely devoted to pork scratchings in Tlachichuca. Perfect hill food.
© Dan Bailey

The mountains

Pico de Orizaba (5600m+)

The original Nahuatl name, Citlaltépetl or Star Mountain seems apt. North America's answer to Kilimanjaro or the Ecuadorian biggies, and only fractionally smaller than either, this is the Continent's third highest peak after Denali and Mount Logan, and the roof of Mexico. A dormant volcano rising out of a high plain as a classically elegant free-standing cone, it is the country's premier mountaineering objective. Curiously for such a prominent and accessible peak its quoted height varies, spaning a range of nearly 200m. Most authorities seem to have it rather closer to 5600m than 5800m but either way it's a very big beast, and despite making an ideal introduction to high altitude plodding Orizaba is not a hill to underestimate. Its upper reaches are barren stony wastes and snow, often extremely cold and windy, and there's a sizeable glacier on the northern side. In contrast to climbing in more conventional close-crowded ranges the sense of scale and space on this lone summit is impressive. The surrounding farmland plains seem very far away below you, stretching out from the mountain's forested foot to a curved horizon punctuated by Orizaba's distant volcanic cousins. On a clear day the Caribbean is visible from the summit glacier – a nice juxtaposition.

Orizaba casts a dawn shadow over the plains  © Dan Bailey
Orizaba casts a dawn shadow over the plains
© Dan Bailey

Other harder routes are possible but the one attempted by the overwhelming majority of visitors is the Glaciar de Jamapa (graded roughly F+/PD-). This is understandably popular with North Americans, but you probably won't bump into many other Brits. With a 1300m+ vertical elevation from the Piedra Grande hut (free but spartan), lots of dusty volcanic scree and basic glacier travel with a maximum steepness of about 35°, it's a reasonably arduous summit day with the bulk of the ascent generally done pre dawn. Trend right on the concave section of the ice sheet to avoid any possible crevasses (some parties opt to rope up). Weather and altitude are the major hazards, and both can be show stoppers. An acclimatisation walk on something smaller is highly recommended (see below), while an extra night at the hut prior to summit day might also be worthwhile. Some folk seem to favour a high camp just below the glacier, though water is an issue and there's little to gain unless you're acclimatising.

Iztaccihuatl (5230m)

The exploded remnants of a dead volcano, this sprawling mass is the country's third highest mountain and more a range than a single peak. Izta's multiple summits of snow and scree form an instantly recognisable skyline prominently visible from many of the area's towns and cities. It's quite different to the singular cones that predominate in Mexico's volcano valley, its shape often likened (with a bit of poetic license) to a sleeping woman (I prefer mine less craggy). The popular route is the Arista del Sol or Ridge of the Sun, a classic alpine ridge walk at grade F over a series of false summits with a couple of small glaciers for good measure. The ascent starts from a rough car park at La Joya, which can be accessed on a paved road from Mexico City via Amecameca or from Puebla via San Nicolas de los Ranchos; it's a long day, but more a hillwalk than a climb. Do take time to acclimatise first though. To climb Izta a permit is required, available on registration at the park office at Paso de Cortés lodge, which is passed en route to La Joya. If the neighbouring live volcano Popocatepetl is misbehaving then access to Izta might be restricted. The mountain is also part of the ecologically rich Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park, entry to which involves a modest daily fee.

Izta and Popo from La Malinche  © Dan Bailey
Izta and Popo from La Malinche
© Dan Bailey

Popocatepetl (5452m)

Popo is best appreciated from a distance. A perfect cone, Mexico's second highest mountain is also the most objectively dangerous of the biggies, being very much alive and unpredictable. An eruption in the 1990s led to mass evacuations in the area, and Popo has been closed to climbers ever since due to the possibility of further eruptions and poison gas emissions more noxious even than a traveller's tummy. If it ever blows its top it might wreak apocalyptic destruction on Mexico's densely populated heart. Quite a scary thing to have in your back yard.

Nevado de Toluca (4791m)

Otherwise known as Xinantecatl, Mexico's fourth highest mountain is said to give some excellent climbing, with the full traverse of its jagged crater rim being regarded as a bit of a ridge classic (roughly PD+). The route goes over or around several summits and involves some airy scrambling on not altogether reliable rock at about UIAA grade II; the difficulty depends partly on snow cover, which varies from heavy to non-existent depending on the season. For this a rope and minimal rack might not be a bad idea, and some who have done it strongly suggest a helmet. For something a bit easier the standard route to the mountain's high point, Pico de Fraile, is just a scrambly walk up the outside of the crater rim (though remember it might be snowy). The mountain's crater is only a few hundred metres below the rim, a barren moonscape holding two high lakes, which can be reached by rough (though reportedly drivable) road. A cheap-but-basic National Park hut at over 4000m is well placed for summit day and gives a good acclimatisation option, and the mountain is easily accessed via the city of Toluca.

La Malinche (4462m)


The woods thin out on La Malinche's upper slopes  © Dan Bailey
The woods thin out on La Malinche's upper slopes
© Dan Bailey

Centrepiece of La Malinche National Park, a forested island rising high over the farms and towns that surround it, this old volcanic remnant is often snow free, and although there's plenty of height gain the normal route to its jagged crumbly summit is a pleasant non-technical hike. If the original name Matlalcuéyetl is used then the mountain is probably easier to climb than to pronounce. The path is obvious all the way, weaving up through pine woods and scrubland to the rocky peak. If you're lucky with bus timetables the trail head can be reached in a couple of hours from the centre of Puebla via the town of Apizaco, making it a feasible day trip with an early start. Ask for buses to Centro Vacacional La Malintzi, a sort of forest holiday camp at over 3000m (possible accommodation option); a taxi might also be persuaded to drive here. It's an ideal acclimatisation climb, especially if you take time over it with a camp high in the forest.

La Malinche summit  © Dan Bailey
La Malinche summit
© Dan Bailey

A few facts

Afternoon clouds roll in above the Piedra Grande hut  © Dan Bailey
Afternoon clouds roll in above the Piedra Grande hut
© Dan Bailey

When to go

Late summer/early autumn is the hurricane season, bringing occasional widespread destruction and disruption, and plenty of snow up high. You might not want to go right now, but you could start thiking about it for later in the autumn. Though ascents can be made throughout the year the November – March dry season gives the best chance of success, with generally stable weather. The Christmas period can be pretty busy so to avoid crowds on the more popular peaks such as Orizaba, go midweek if possible.

Getting around

Hiring a car is always a possibility though with fast, frequent bus services and taxis that can often be persuaded to drive to the trail heads there's no real need for cars. All the mountains listed here are easy to access from cities such as Puebla (colonial and touristy) and Mexico City (enormous and bustling). The climber's base close to Pico de Orizaba is the small dusty town of Tlachichuca – it's like the Chamonix of Mexico minus the nightlife and facilities.

Equipment

On Orizaba and Izta bring UK winter mountain clothes, plus a duvet jacket. A walking axe, crampons and decent winter boots are required, as is a stove, warm sleeping bag and mat for the huts. Some gear can be hired when you get there, and this is especially an option in Tlachichuca - though it's generally going to be old and clumpy. More cautious parties might want to rope up on glaciers or exposed ridges, but if conditions are good and any (generally small) crevasses obviously visible then people with just a bit of basic mountaineering experience are likely to feel comfortable going rope free most of the time. UK summer hillwalking kit will do you fine on smaller hills like La Malinche. At this latitude the high altitude sun is fierce, so high factor suncream, decent shades and some sort of brimmed hat are de rigeur. When stocking up on food take your pick from big modern supermarkets in the cities or traditional fruit-n-veg markets and basic corner shops in smaller towns. Clean drinking water isn't always plentiful on the hills so it's often a good idea to bring plenty of bottled stuff.

Acclimatisation

Convenient access means you can very quickly get high on the Mexican volcanoes. Make sure your ascent isn't dangerously fast. If coming straight from sea level in the UK consider first passing a bit of time in Puebla or Mexico City, both of which are over 2000m up. A few days in either could be time well spent, and there's plenty to see and do. Follow this with an acclimatisation trip up something moderately high like La Malinche, then perhaps have a night or two in a high hut before going for a 5000m+ summit.

Feeling the altitude near Orizaba's summit  © Dan Bailey
Feeling the altitude near Orizaba's summit
© Dan Bailey

Security

Mexico's shocking drug-related shoot-outs make our recent urban disorder look like a tea party; some parts of the country are suffering what basically amounts to a civil war. Less troubled areas still boast random street crime, kidnapping for extortion and the occasional bit of political violence. Don't let any of that put you off, since the vast majority of people could not be more welcoming. But do take basic precautions: watch where you wander in towns, particularly at night, and avoid overt displays of wealth. If you leave any gear in the huts while climbing it might be worth asking someone to keep an eye on it.

Maps, books and other info

Proper maps are hard to come by, and it's probably not worth the bother. For the popular hills at busy times of year just follow the footprints.

The book Mexico's Volcanoes: A Climbing Guide by R.J.Secor is worth a look, though it's a little outdated.

For more recent info see Summitpost.

Going guided?

If you've a little mountaineering experience then guides are not needed at all. However for those who'd appreciate a bit of extra security and convenience local guides are of course available. Alternatively for an all-inclusive fortnight with their usual excellent standards of guiding you might also consider this trip with Jagged Globe.


If you tire of volcanoes then bag some pre-hispanic pyramids  © Dan Bailey
If you tire of volcanoes then bag some pre-hispanic pyramids
© Dan Bailey



This post has been read 4,373 times

Return to Latest Articles or view other Walking Destinations


No comments yet