Hiking Mexico City’s Three Highest Peaks - NYTimes.com
Mexico City: Hiking Mecca?
Marcos Ferro/Aurora Photos
By MICHAEL E. MILLER
Published: February 4, 2011
“WHO knew that this was here?” said Alejandro Escalante, a young businessman from Mexico City, his suit jacket flapping like a flag in the wind. Above us loomed the serrated edge of Nevado de Toluca, a 15,000-foot-high extinct volcano an hour’s drive and a short hikefrom the Mexican capital. From deep within its crater, two shallow emerald lakes reflected patches of snow that, by last spring, still stubbornly clung to the mountain’s broad shoulders.
Omar Torres/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Michael E. Miller
Twenty-five years ago, few could have answered Mr. Escalante’s question in the affirmative. In the 1980s, residents of the teeming capital nearly forgot the mountains existed. So thick was the haze encircling Mexico City that some of the tallest peaks on the continent virtually disappeared.
No longer. The mountains surrounding the megalopolis are back, both in view and on travel itineraries. Cleaner air, better roads and a growing middle class have boosted mountain climbing in central Mexico, and hikers are starting to take notice. “Famous climbers come here to start their careers or to train for other mountains,” Mario Andrade, a veteran guide, told me. “Nowadays the reputation of our mountains is widespread and growing fast.”
Still, while increasingly popular among Mexicans and foreign climbers training for the Himalayas, they are almost unknown to the millions of foreign tourists who visit the country each year.
And so, after living in Mexico City for a year, I prepared my backpack, dug out my boots, and set myself a 10-day goal of hiking a trio of the tallest mountains within a day’s trip of downtown: El Ajusco (12,894 feet), Nevado de Toluca (15,354 feet) and Iztaccíhuatl (17,126 feet).
Like most journeys in Mexico, mine began near the city center: the bustling heart of what Mexicans lovingly call el monstruo (the monster).
I met a group of friends in the subway, and we headed south toward Ajusco, a peak rising from the edge of the city like a lookout tower. At the last stop of the train we caught a cab, which — in about 30 minutes — took us the remaining miles to the base of the mountain, past roadside roast chicken stands, paintball courses and patchy soccer fields.
After our taxi dropped us at the side of the road near a final, lonely restaurant, we headed straight up the slope, through light forest and over an irrigation ditch, until we eventually stumbled onto a well-worn path. I had chosen Ajusco as a warm-up for more demanding hikes, but its sheer elevation and sweeping vistas are still more than enough to take your breath away. After a fairly easy two-hour ascent that wound its way around the mountain like a corkscrew, we stood atop a narrow rock ledge named El Pico del Águila, or Eagle’s Peak.
Looking down, we saw the city wrapped around us like an enormous sleeping dog. We and several dozen other day-trippers rested near a series of metal crosses, sucking in the thin, cool air. (At nearly 13,000 feet, Ajusco is considerably higher than Mexico City, itself already more than 7,000 feet above sea level.)
A few days later, my legs fully recuperated from the Ajusco hike, I met a friend at Mexico City’s western bus station. Our aim: to climb Nevado de Toluca as a final preparation for Iztaccíhuatl, the eighth highest mountain in North America. We arrived in Toluca in little more than an hour and haggled with a taxi to take us the remaining 45 minutes to the base of the mountain. The cab bounced along a switchback dirt road before dropping us off at the entrance to the park. An old man waved us in the direction of the peak, promising that we could not miss the path to the top.
We followed a faint trail through the forest, as small birds and squirrels flitted in front of us like spirits. A forest fire several months earlier had left large swaths of undergrowth charred and stunted, and small yellow flowers and saplings sporadically broke through the black crust. After half an hour of gradual hiking, we reached the tree line. Suddenly, Nevado’s summit, Friar’s Peak, stared down at us, more than a mile above the city of Toluca behind us. Under its watchful eye, we hiked along a dirt road around the mountain to the Posada Familiar where, on weekends, visitors can camp or cook a hot meal for a fee of a few dollars.
Although Ajusco is the most popular hike near Mexico City, Nevado de Toluca is not far behind. One reason is that it is only as difficult as hikers make it. Many Mexicans, including Mr. Escalante, the Mexico City businessman, drive all the way up to the posada, park their cars and walk only the steep half-mile up to its volcanic crater. From there, its twin lagoons — Lake of the Sun and Lake of the Moon — shine like turquoise jewels against the red and gray rock surrounding them. Against the backdrop of its austerely beautiful serrated crater rim, this place seems farther away from the chaotic capital than New York or Miami ever could.
A week later, I rode another bus an hour and a half southeast of the capital to Amecameca, the launching pad for ascents of Iztaccíhuatl. Because of the climb’s increased difficulty and greater risk of altitude sickness I hired a guide, Alberto Buendía, who picked me up at the bus station in his truck.
We barreled past fields of corn and agave, through thick forest and past old women selling quesadillas until we reached El Paso de Cortés, the saddle between Iztaccíhuatl and the still-active volcano Popocatépetl.
Unlike Ajusco or Nevado de Toluca, both of which can be trekked in half a day, Iztaccíhuatl is a two-day hike. And while it does not demand much technical skill, its sheer altitude should be taken seriously. At more than 17,000 feet above sea level, it is nearly two miles above the already nosebleed-high Mexico City and taller than either the Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. Altitude sickness often forces unprepared visitors to cut their hikes short. Even the mountain’s name is ominous. Iztaccíhuatl means “White Woman” in Nahuatl, a reference not only to the way its peaks resemble a reclining woman’s curves, but also to the two glaciers and year-round snow near its summit. Unlike the other two climbs, Iztaccíhuatl can be attempted only from late October to May, during Mexico’s dry season. During the summer, when heavy rains soften the snow and glaciers, the upper stretches of the mountain are unsafe to climb.
My guide and I shouldered our packs, stuffed full of food, water, sleeping bags and extra clothes for the summit, and gripped our hiking staffs. Our ascent began in a breathtakingly green valley, less than four miles but thousands of feet in altitude from the summit. As we hiked, Mr. Buendía explained to me how hiking had grown in Mexico since he became a guide 11 years ago.
“Nowadays there are so many 16-, 17-year-old kids joining hiking clubs and rescue teams,” he said. “Technology has made climbing easier, and now they can see on television what it is like to hike these mountains. They look up, see the summit, and say to themselves: ‘I can climb that.’ ”
After an hour, tall grass gave way to gravel and rock. The countryside opened up below us, a glacial stream running off to our right. Our path turned into sand, then slippery mud as we entered the appropriately named Soapmaker’s Pass. Finally, after three hours, we reached the refuge halfway up the mountain, a silver trailer cemented to the mountain. Like many hiking huts in Mexico, the trailer is available on a first-come-first-served basis. But on this day, we had the barren, amenity-free wooden sleeping platforms to ourselves. As thunderstorms broke on the slopes beneath us, I tucked into my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep.
After a night of little rest, I ate a ham sandwich frozen stiff by the cold. We donned our heavy coats and left the refuge shortly after dawn, moving up Iztaccíhuatl’s rocky “knee,” at times hand-over-hand. The wind whipped across the ridge, and fog settled on us like a ghost, only to disappear again. We passed a frozen lake as gray-blue as an Arctic sea. After another hour we reached the mountain’s “belly”: a glacier the size of two football fields. As Mr. Buendía walked in front of me, his left foot plunged through the glacier’s crust and into the icy water below. He howled with cold, but trudged on nonetheless.
We continued upward, past a false summit and over a narrow, vertiginous pass. The smell of sulfur washed over us from natural springs below. On either side, steep, snow-covered slopes disappeared into thin air, and I gripped my walking stick tighter. Finally we reached the summit, Iztaccíhuatl’s “breast,” nearly three miles above sea level. Forty miles to the northwest, Mexico City was humming and honking as loudly as ever, but here, above the clouds, there was only the sound of the midday wind, and my shallow breaths.
From Mexico City, the easiest way to reach all three mountains is by renting a car. However, Ajusco is accessible via the metro and then a taxi (120 pesos, or $10 at 12 Mexican pesos to the dollar ). Buses leave every 10 minutes for Toluca from Mexico City’s western bus station, Terminal Poniente de Autobuses, and every 15 minutes for Amecameca from the eastern bus terminal, TAPO (Terminal Autobuses Oriente). Once you are in either town, taxis to the mountains are expensive, running as much as 600 pesos round trip.
HIRING A GUIDE
All three hikes require some level of physical fitness but no climbing experience. Ajusco can be climbed year-round, but the best time to hike both Nevado de Toluca and Iztaccíhuatl is between late October and May when the weather is generally dry and mild. Hikers of all skill levels should watch the weather before any attempt, and inexperienced hikers should only ascend Iztaccíhuatl with a professional guide.
Rubén García Fernández runs Cumbre 7 Expeditiones (cumbre7.com.mx) out of Amecameca. For an English-speaking guide, try Mario Andrade(email@example.com) in Mexico City.
Experienced hikers can rent their own equipment from Aguayo Deportes(clubalpinomexicano.com.mx/tienda.htm), a cheap and friendly store in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood.
Altitude sickness, or mal de montaña as it is called in Mexico, can be deadly. Visitors unaccustomed to high altitude should spend at least three or four days walking around Mexico City, and Iztaccíhuatl should only be attempted after several easier, acclimatizing hikes.