Mexico City has an elevation of about 7,300 feet. Its location in the tropics at this elevation is the reason it has such a temperate climate year round. Located directly to the east of the city are two large volcanoes topping out at nearly 18,000 feet that were just begging to be visited by us, so, we did.
Exiting the city was pretty uneventful despite missing our very first turn. We decided to wait until our legal driving time and ended up missing most of the rush hour traffic. Just after reaching the outskirts of the city, we began climbing a steep grade and arrived at the Paso de Cortes between the two volcanoes at an elevation just over 11,000 feet. This pass is essentially a saddle between the volcanoes and is the location of the visitors center.
We initially planned on camping in the parking lot at the pass and weren’t sure whether we would hike or not. While trying to figure out what we would do, we met Tinika and Matthew, from California and France, and paid the small entry fee to hike the next day. Our camp spot for the evening was much closer to the inactive volcano and our GPS indicated we were camped at just over 13,000 feet. As my headache grew steadily throughout the evening, I quickly realized that the elevation reading must have been pretty accurate! That night, our temperature dropped to 28 degrees which was the lowest we had to that point on our trip, but our Alaskan stayed nice and toasty with our furnace running on and off all night.
After our usual breakfast of a fried egg in a tortilla smothered with extra spicy Valentina’s, we packed our backpack and began hiking up the volcano. As we began to hike uphill, our breathing became increasingly heavy but we established a good pace and made good strides on our ascent. The view of the active volcano, Popocatépetl, was spectacular and a great deal of ash and smoke was spewing from the top. We had a birds eye view of the valley in which Mexico City sits, but the inversion of smog was too thick to see any real detail below. With each break we took, we reminisced about the beauty one would see without the smog.
Four hours after leaving the truck and camper, we decided to enjoy lunch on a saddle in the sun. As clouds whipped past us by the strong winds and covered the sun, we put on our sweat shirts to keep warm. Our GPS indicated that we were enjoying our lunch at 14,900 feet, so we hiked until we reached 15,000 feet which is easily the highest altitude either of us had ever hiked. Without enough water and energy to finish the additional four hour hike to the summit, we returned to camp where we soaked up the remaining sunshine reading our books.
Sporting my NPR donor shirt…
And Laughlin laughing because she is gasping for more oxygen…
Sleeping at altitude is tough. We constantly woke up gasping for air throughout the night and with a steady headache from lack of oxygen, we both agreed it was time to head down the mountain. Rather than heading back down the mountain and taking the highway, we took the shortest route taking the winding dirt road to Cholula, just west of Puebla.
Many people we talked to indicated we should visit Cholula as we approached Puebla. Without really knowing anything about the area, we were surprised when our camp spot we had picked out weeks earlier put is within walking distance of the downtown area. As we pulled into our camp spot mid afternoon, we talked to the nice Mexican lady about price which we thought was 30 pesos. She indicated it included water, electricity, bathrooms, showers, internet, etc. which we couldn’t hardly believe! After we filled out the paper work and she showed us around, we gave her 30 pesos and she looked at us waiting for more. We realized after stumbling through some Spanish that the camp spot was 230 pesos. Begrudgingly, we decided we had nowhere else to go and paid the difference. Immediately we both agreed it reminded us of running into a guy in Baja from Idaho who was building a garage when we pulled up. He said he got a great deal on some garage doors, but when he received them, they were poor quality and not what he wanted. He indicated that, in Mexico, when you think you are getting a good deal, its probably a misunderstanding. In this case, he was spot on. Oh well.
With only a few hours to explore, we began walking towards the Zocalo area. The quaint streets, friendly people and great views immediately made us fall in love with the town. There were many shops with the most laid back vendors we had run into in Mexico. As we strolled though the streets we visited many churches and made the hike to the spectacular Church of Santa María Tonantzintla which is up on a hill and provides an incredible 360 degree view of Cholula and its bigger neighbor, Puebla as well as the two volcanoes we had just visited. The church itself was incredible with nearly everything inside covered in gold leaf.
The volcano on the left has been active for several months so hiking is prohibited at this time. We hiked the volcano on the right which has been dormant for a long time. In the middle is the Paseo de Cortes:
We headed down the sidewalk back to street level and ended up finding our way through an open gate to the city Museum. The museum had many exhibits covering indigenous art all the way through the Spanish invasion/revolution and through current art produced within the region. The friendly old police officer tried explaining to us the many exhibits in his area although we couldn’t understand much of what he was saying. It was a great way to get so much information about the area.
Our time in Cholula had come to a close and we began our drive to Oaxaca. When we were driving to Mexico City from the coast, we took the toll roads and ended up racking up about $25 in one day so we opted to take the free road to Oaxaca. We have been using Google maps to navigate which only navigates us along the toll roads. Before we left, we determined our drive would take about 4 hours to get to Oaxaca so we took our time getting going in the morning leaving around 11am. As it turns out, the free road took us nearly 8 hours and forced us to break our golden rule of driving at night as we pulled into Oaxaca. Needless to say, we will be giving ourselves a greater cushion as we navigate going forwards as the difficulty of driving and navigating at night amplifies the stress about ten times normal!
Next time we will share our experience in the “food capital” of Mexico!