Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl – the ‘smoking mountain’ and ‘the white woman’ respectively – are well-known by mountaineers, but also by everyone else thanks to the legendary love story behind them. In January 2020, during a trip to Mexico City, I visited Cholula, in the state of Puebla. Cholula is the longest continuously inhabited town in the country, and its colourful facades and spacious zócalo are a welcome break from the busy and polluted streets of the capital. But much as I love colours, that’s not what drew me there. It was the two imposing volcanoes.
Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl – what and where?
Popocatépetl – or Popo – is one of Mexico’s most active volcanoes and therefore it’s not open to hikers, but luckily this broken-hearted warrior turned into a mountain according to Aztec mythology is not alone. It’s just one of many along the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt (Eje Volcánico Transversal), which means climbing a nearby volcano offers stunning views of Popo. Iztaccíhuatl – or Izta – is part of the same national park, which makes it a great choice and, as a plus, it’s dormant – always a good thing when you’re mountaineering. The name means ‘white woman’ in Nahuatl and is the princess that unintentionally broke the warrior’s heart and ended up turning to stone, too.
Iztaccíhuatl: Ruta de los Portillos
The starting point to climb Izta can be the mountain pass Paso de Cortés, where the mountaineer centre for registration is located, but I’d recommend driving the 25 minutes to La Joya (4,003 m) to skip the boring bit and get straight to the action. Going all the way to the top takes two days, but we didn’t come for that. Given the altitude and the fact that we had been climbing on nearby volcano Malintzin (La Malinche) the day before, we decided to play it by ear and go as far up as we felt like. We followed the well-known trail Ruta de los portillos, and made it to the second one (4,371 m), which took about three and a half hours both ways, including stops to rest and take in the views.
The first segment is quite steep and better taken at a slow but steady pace. We’re not used to this altitude, but it doesn’t take long to learn that you feel tempted to stop every few minutes to catch your breath, which isn’t the best approach because you end up making little progress. Even if you recover incredibly fast when you stop, the shortness of breath starts to creep in again as soon as you resume the ascent. It’s a mental game of endurance and forcing yourself to ignore the burning desire (literally burning in your lungs) to take a break. It’s interesting how this steals the show from the actual climb effort and becomes challenge number 1.
As we neared the first portillo, the Popo appeared behind us against a blue sky, exhaling a cotton-like cloud of smoke that turned out to be a friendly warning of the explosion that took place five days later. We took a longer break here and sat to enjoy some bread and bananas, as carbohydrates are said to help with the symptoms of altitude sickness.
The slope to get to the second portillo was mostly scree, which required climbing sideways and resorting to both hands to try and find the rocks that didn’t move. I don’t like scree in my hikes, especially because as I ascend, I can’t help thinking how much more difficult the descent will be. In any case, the views from the second portillo were worth all the loose rocks: some of the curves of Izta’s body were crisp and clear, there were volcanic formations veiled in snow next to us and the view of Popo was uninterrupted.
Although we were high on endorphins, blue skies and grey rocks, our lungs felt heavy and our legs a bit wobbly, so we did the sensible thing and started the climb down to La Joya. And as a key part of every outdoor activity is the ‘after-party’, we celebrated with a homemade blue corn quesadilla at one of the stalls in the car park – the best tortilla of the trip to Mexico.
If you too feel the call of the Earth’s open wounds, the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt, home to Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, is a great choice. You can either admire the volcanoes from a safe distance in the towns along its flanks or have the real experience, tie up your boots and go for it, whether you make it to the top or not, you will feel how something dormant inside you suddenly catches fire!
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