Where I Rode:
Day 1: Into Caldera of Nevado de Toluca, 14,075′ —> Zaragoza de Guadalupe —> Unknown farmland outside of Xalatlaco
Day 2: Tlaxcala —> Parque Nacional Cumbres de Ajusco —> El Capulín —> Ciclovia del Ciudad de Mexico —> Juchitepec
Day 3: Juchitepec —> Amecameca
Day 5: Summited La Malinche, 14,650′
Day 6: Campestre Vocational La Malitnzi —> Ixtenco —> El Seco —> Tlachichuca
Day 7: Rest day, gear rental and convening of the Pico Posse in Tlachichuca
Day 9: Acclimatization at Piedra Grande and short hike
Day 10: Summited Pico de Orizaba, 18,600’
ZOOM IN to see route details! And switch to terrain view…
Staring up at the high 15,300’ peak of the Nevado de Toluca volcano after a fresh snow the previous night. Having camped at the base of the peak, it was a short climb to get to the visitor’s center. From there it was a 500’ climb up over the caldera rim to gain a glimpse of the two lakes inside: Laguna del Sol and Lago de la Luna (Sun and Moon lakes, respectively). I was hoping, as usual, for a quiet peaceful moment up there. After all, this was officially my 1 year anniversary since leaving Seattle by bike, and felt like a momentous moment. But to no avail. A large tour bus of high school kids pulled up shortly after my arrival to follow a guided tour of the volcano. Rolling with life as it comes, yet again.
The previous night’s rain had brought about 4” of snow up here, and as the temperature rose slightly, the snow got heavy, slushy and slippery. Especially pushing the bike up there.
Ah, made it! A few deep breaths to enjoy the moment as snowballs whizzed behind me, but still pretty sweet.
One year ago today, I left the comforts of my life in Seattle. What a ride it’s been.
Looking down at the first lake, Lago de la Luna, I noticed a peculiar detail… A dude. With a bike.
As he and his wife pushed their way up the steep slushy/muddy slope, I told them how surprised I was to see any other bikers crazy/stupid enough to be riding in this weather! They felt the same way.
Inside the crater by Laguna del Sol it was finally quiet. Blinding white snowy peaks blending almost imperceptibly with the grey cloudy sky surrounded the lake in every direction. It was time to have a “moment”. You, get into it, feel the significance of a continuous year of traveling I’d experienced since leaving Seattle. But the sensation felt muted at best. I was cold and damp from the rain and the slush. I was concerned about the storm returning. More than anything, I just wasn’t feeling it. I played my penny whistle for a while to the lake’s gentle breeze, limited by my stiffening cold fingers. Opting for the warmth that would accompany a few thousand feet of descending, I made my way towards the descending road.
Laguna del So during a “reflective” moment.
Lots of these curious looking plants up here, only above 13,000’.
The descent was glorious. Steep rutted dirt roads winding and switch-backing down the volcano for a continuous vertical mile.
Hard to tell if the extent of the road damage (this was a 4-5 foot deep crack across the road rendering it impassable to most vehicles.
A bunch of local turkeys fouling around on the edge of a small town. Yep. I made that joke. It was actually a bit sad to note the end of my peaceful wooded descent from the volcano peak as I rolled into the first town. Reality fully set in during this moment: I’d left behind the silent solace of empty wilderness up there, and had about 30 miles of continuous urban sprawl from Toluca and Mexico City to cross before I’d find enough open land to camp. It was mid-afternoon. This was THE LAST place I wanted to get stuck for a night, as I firmly believe most of the greatest problems with theft and violence happen around the outskirts of cities… The rain clouds were gathering. Time to move. Shoving a couple of pizza slices down the gullet and throwing on the rain jacket, I pushed through.
Reaching the sprawling valley floor around 5pm, the road grade slowly transitioned from negative to positive as I climbed up toward another mountain range. Every couple hundred feet of ascent would bring a slightly more rural feel: Less maintained streets, more dilapidated houses, fewer stores, more farm animals. Finally the pavement ended completely and as my tires rolled back onto dirt I took a deep sigh.
Back into farmland an hour before sunset, the afternoon rains had paused to provide an opportunity to set up a dry campsite. I found a huge fallow field off the road and set my bike down against the bordering brush. As has become the rule in Mexico: you’re never alone, no matter how much you think you are. First one dog emerged from the distant bushes. Then 2. Then 5. Then a large herd of sheep. Finally the parade’s caboose was an older man, directing the dog’s directions. I bid him good evening, trying to decide if I should ask him permission to be in the place I’d already established as my campsite. But he respectfully hushed the barking dogs and passed before me leaving a wide berth. I sensed my presence didn’t concern him much, so I finished setting up and climbed in. Again, less than 5 minutes after zipping up the tent: a brilliant flash lit up the tent, 1 second later, the immense deep vibration of thunder overhead. A couple patters of raindrops on the tent fly. A deluge followed moments later.
Woken up by a parade of large tractors and dump trucks at short range, I was again reminded how rarely one is alone in Mexico. Quickly breaking down camp, I popped back on the road to climb up the mountain range to a nearby national park, Cumbres de Ajusco.
A few miles into the ride, I saw a large group of people walking across this open meadow, all dressed in white clothes and bearing some sort of flags/banners. Rather than make up a story in my head about the phenomenon, I rolled down to the nearest person to ask him. Turns out to be a federal public service group, Nueva Alliaza, who was there to plant some trees as part of a local reforestation effort. Everyone there were volunteers. Very cool! I got extremely inspired to see a group of Mexican people volunteering their time to help with an environmental issue.
Talking to that man for 5 minutes got my gears turning about rekindling a humanitarian theme to accompany my journey. As I rolled onward, I reflected on my original intention of offering random acts of kindness. I considered turning around and volunteering with them for a few hours, but something didn’t feel right about that either. Rather than force myself into it, I spent some time just trying to listen/understand the internal conflict I was experiencing. One one hand, I want to feel useful and helpful in the world. I want to offer myself and my gifts in ways that leave waves of positivity in my wake. On the other hand I had a personal agenda, and my internal voice brought up all the reasons why I should not turn around (it would be linguistically awkward, they didn’t need or ask for my help, I’d throw off my day’s schedule and get stuck in afternoon rains, and maybe I just didn’t feel like it, honestly). It felt like this internal should that I would either be forced to follow or feel guilty about ignoring. It carried my thoughts back to the conversation with Gloria, the co-owner of that mountain restaurant I camped at a couple nights back (see previous post). She spoke of how certain people are ‘egoistas’ which I assumed meant some form of egotistical/narcissistic, always focused on me, me, me. Ring a bell? A bit haunting for me, quite honestly. But what’s an egoista to do about their condition? One could just honor the feelings as they are letting them happen naturally (i.e. just be narcissistic). One could also push one’s self out of egocentric thinking by completely offering one’s self to others. I like the idea of exploring this second option, feeling like I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the first one lately.
So I began reviewing what areas of need I might feel drawn to help with while on my ride. Looking to my side in that moment, I saw another section of enormous trash heaps by the roadside which have been so common throughout Mexico. Of course it bothers me most when I observe it in more rural/wilderness areas, partially because it’s where I’m drawn to spend the most time. I considered spending 1 hour a day collecting a large bag full of trash along my route. But then what? What do I do with it? There is also so much of it that it would feel like a rain drop in the ocean. The problem required more investment than a simple grass routes clean up effort. I needed more information about the system of garbage management in Mexico, it’s current status, and how it’s reflected in the educational systems. Studying the nature of the trash a little more closely for the first time, I realized that in the backroads and forests at least, the majority of trash was plastic bottles and plastic cups. Basically, liquid holding objects. Hm…. Time to start asking locals about their experience of water/liquids…. I’ll touch base again when I have more information…
Art is not trash. I loved seeing this random 10 foot tall bolder in the woods painted like a die.
Lots of cool new flowers and plants around here…
That’s about as close as I made it to DF. I summited a climb on the edge of Cumbres de Ajusco National Park and turned back onto my route, away from insane density of Mexico City.
Further down the road, I saw a bunch of people walking in the same direction with hiking backpacks, large Catholic crosses affixed to them. Asking about it, he said it was a part of some sort of pilgrimage. They’d been hiking since before dawn and had another 6 hours of hiking to get to something called “El Santoario”. I didn’t get a clear understanding of the significance, but still pretty cool to see people dedicating themselves in this way for any purpose of deep personal belief.
Just some random beautiful 11,000 foot volcano. No big whoop.
Another peaceful paved solace from the rough dirt/gravel/rocky roads I’d been riding.
Once the pavement faded back to dirt, I realized this road actually had been fully paved at some point. I’d never really considered what happens to a paved road when it’s completely unmaintained over time. We in the USA complain about a crack or a pothole in our smooth paved roads, writing to city officials to get it fixed. I think this road might be a little past that point.
Following my mapped out route online, I turned off of the main road from a small town onto… what? This seems awfully like a paved rail to trail… but here in Mexico??
Not just any paved rail to trail, but a paved bike-only trail. Yeah!
This man works for the organization which runs the Ciclovia de la Ciudad de Mexico (the Mexico City Bikeway). It extends all the way from downtown for about 80 kilometers, and will eventually link all the way to a neighboring city of Cuernavaca. Way to go Mexico!
Following the bikeway past beautiful lava-crusted meadows and farmland.
They even incorporated the old railway stations into the project, which have small shops selling snacks, offering bike repairs, even bike rentals. Local residents along the route have converted parts of their farms into small cabanas for weekend bike tourists to spend the night.
Turning off the bikeway to follow my route, things looked pretty different. But I was still struck by the architectural effort it must have taken to design this large walking bridge, just to get over a not-so-busy 2 lane street through this town… interesting.
My GPS track lead me out of the little town and quickly onto a tiny, muddy, rutted dirt road through farmland and meadows.
The previous days’ rains certainly left the road wet for my passage, but all still passable…
… until I came around a corner and the open meadow quickly turned into a tunnel through dense jungle. Moss, ferns, mushrooms abound! Oh, and a whole lot of deep mud.
Fungus. Seems like its probably wet here quite often…
It was getting close to dark and I needed a place to camp. On faith I rode on, hoping I’d find a better spot than erecting the tent above a mud pit in the middle of the road. Luckily it paid off, a faded two track road which branched off provided a perfect flat spot for the night.
The following morning: a 1500’ descent from my campsite to the nearest town for some much needed breakfast (I’d underprepared from the previous town). Normally this is a glorious way to start the day, but this road was a mess from the last few days’ downpours and was a hair raiser. Either ride on the smooth and impossibly slippery hard packed mud surface upslope on the angled road surface, or negotiate the rock and debris piles that had washed down into the road’s gulley. I opted for a fun combination of the two.
Nopal farm! First time for me seeing farm raised cacti.
Rolling into the sweet little town of Juchitepec, I found an open street side eatery alongside the town plaza. Sundays are generally the busiest days in Mexican town centers. Everyone is out doing their shopping, going to church, children zipping around in various forms of cavorting. “Cafe, señor?” Yes! as much coffee as you can bring me. Accompanied by a mountain of eggs and fresh house-made tortillas, life was brilliant. Paco, was a jolly server, chatting with lots of familiar patrons and keeping the vibe light around the cafe. Musicians strolled around the benches singling beautiful folk songs by small donation. Tractors passed through the square between farms. And bikes. LOTS of bikes! From cheap heavy town bikes to quite nice road and mountain bikes. This was clearly a town that celebrated life on two wheels.
Across from my bench sat a family of 3. I could hear them quietly analyzing the bike, wondering where it had been and where it was going. After a few minutes the father engaged me in questions. Turns out they were the owners of a local elementary school in town, and avid cyclists as well. They offered some valuable information about my route plan to the next town, and before I knew what was happening had already bought my breakfast! Seriously, no fair. But so kind. Luis, the father, and I got into a great conversation about the issue of garbage in Mexico, and conservation in general. Turns out that group I was so excited to see the previous day was part of a political party, planting trees purely as publicity for the upcoming election. He told me it was all a farce. There was another group called something like Mexico Verde (Green Mexico), same thing. Sad. At their school they fervently attempt to teach the students about environmental awareness, including not littering. But Luis said the school can only do so much when children are surrounded by models of adult family members who toss their trash anywhere and everywhere. It’s a conversation I hope to continue with others as I ride, as it’s one of the most painful things I see so commonly during my travels.
Alternately, the cleanest and most maintained area of any small town is the area around the church. Many of these churches are also designed with quite creative architecture and decorations. Here’s a few examples. This one in El Capulín.
Juchitepec for Sunday services.
Back in Juchitepec, I walked into the big public market in search of “pulque”, basically a fermented drink from the maguey cactus that Luis suggested I must try. This was the most claustrophobia inducing market I’d found yet, with low ceilings and way too many people in a tiny space. I did finally find the pulque lady. It was not for me. A bit like drinking flavored vomit to be honest… Not that I’ve had much experience with flavored vomit, but still.
Back into the countryside on some back road that turned out to be access to the city dump. High contrast between the two features in this photo.
Amecameca. The last big town before my next set of volcanos. This town sits at the foot of Mexico’s 2nd and 3rd largest peaks, Popocateptl and Iztaccihuatl, respectively. Amazingly enough, I am now able to pronounce these words quite smoothly! I’m actually loving the myriad tongue twisters involved in learning the names of so many towns and mountains in Mexico. Lots of X’s, TL’s and PT’s. Popocateptl, at around 17,000’ is the most active volcano in Mexico. Recent ash spewage has led to mass evacuations as recently as 2013. Currently you will see plumes of gas streaming from it’s peak and random lava rocks get hurled up and out of the caldera. For this reason they’ve not let anyone hike on the volcanos slopes (legally) since 1994. Hence the evacuation plan.
Between Popo and Izta there is a high mountain pass (Paso Cortez) which connects Mexico City to the city of Puebla. This is NOT the primary means of travel between cities, but certainly a 12,500’ pass between huge volcanoes piqued my interest!
Arriving in Amecameca mid afternoon, it was too late to attempt summiting the pass due to the regular afternoon rains in this season. I found the cheapest hotel I could ($10USD) and prepped for a long climb the next day. Luckily, Luis (the school owner from the previous town) put me in touch with a cyclist friend in this town, Vicente. I met up with him that evening to get info about bike safety around these parts.
7AM sunrise ride out of Amecameca towards Cortez Pass.
Based on the previous night’s talk, Vicente had me pretty nervous about the climb up to the pass. He said there had been a history of bikers getting robbed in the area due to the increased number of bikers on fancy bikes climbing the pass. He initially offered to drive me up to the pass, which was hard to imagine. I’m still attached to the idea of keeping my tires on the ground through this journey whenever possible, and this situation brought up a conflict. I didn’t want to be stupid, getting my bike stolen. I also really wanted to ride. Seeing my torment, Vicente magnanimously offered to trail behind me in his car through the sketchy section, the first 10KM or so. It was a bit awkward, as I’ve never had a car escort me on a ride before, never mind a climb at 10% grade. I crept up the climb at about 4-5 miles per hour, the subtle sounds of his car trolling behind me.
After about an hour, Vicente had to turn around and head to work. Plus the rest of the climb was pretty quiet and was expected to be pretty safe.
Popocateptl in all his glory. As old legend has it, Popocateptl was the strongest warrior of the local people, and was promised the hand in marriage of his love Iztaccihuatl, the chief’s daughter, if he went to war and brought back the enemy chief’s head. When he didn’t return immediately she was told he had died. In sadness, she took her own life. Weeks later, he returned with head in hand to claim his bride. Hearing of hear suicide, he soon died of sadness. Thus these two peaks sit alongside each other, telling the tale of lost love.
After summiting the pass, I considered camping on the slopes of Iztaccihuatl. But the clouds were quickly rolling in and spending another night at 13,000’+ cold and wet did not excite me. Dropping down the East side of the pass was pure magic. The paved road turned to dirt and while there were occasional ruts and rocks to negotiate, I could bomb down the 3000’ descent, merely feathering the brakes at times. Sweet. The next goal: another volcano by the name of La Malinche, about 50 miles away. At about 14,600’ the peak had a hiking trail all the way to the top from a forest campground at 10,000’. I had a good number of hours of daylight left, and hoped I might make it all the way to the campground before dark.
First comedor (eatery) I could find. Normally when rolling into these tiny towns, the locals seem to stare at me, giggling often, but rarely actually speaking to me. I try to engage people but it’s often awkward and doesn’t go anywhere. Not so here. These three sisters were VERY curious and extremely friendly. We talked about our life experiences, what it’s like to live in that little town their whole lives, and how it is to work alongside your siblings for 15 years. Very interesting. Plus, they made THE BEST tacos I’ve ever had so far. Adding potatoes, nopales, mushrooms, cheese and meat to an enormous taco, I was stuffed with only one. Salivating just writing about it.
The next 6 hours were a blur of urban sprawl stretching over about 40 miles. I hunkered down and pedaled through the maze of streets and scattered farmland roads that I’d NEVER have been able to navigate without a GPS track to guide me. As I began the steep climb up the volcano slope, afternoon thundershowers greeted me with fervor. Soaking we and cold, I was very motivated to arrive at the (hopefully) covered campground ahead.
Arriving just after sunset (photo taken the following morning), I saw a grand entrance to a huge resort area, and this little restaurant tucked just next to it. Always a fan of mom and pop places, I popped in. Greeted by a big smile both from the man cooking and the small group of Mormon missionaries dining there, dinner was in my midst. Julio Cesar, aka “Don Julio” immediately offered me free lodging in a small wooden cabin behind his restaurant. Given the continuous pounding rain, a dry spot to reside would not be passed up. My wet clothes squishing as I sat down on the plastic chair, I was engaged in a lovely conversation about religion and life with the Mormons. Soon thereafter I retired to the cabin for some much needed rest after 8000’ of climbing that day.
The cabin was certainly rustic. But 4 walls and a generally weatherproof roof was a delicious treat.
As I read the various inscriptions on the walls inside from previous guests, I realized I would not be spending the evening alone in there. Translation, “Rat Hotel”. Very accurate. Once I had gotten the sleeping bag/pad set up on the raised platform and took a deep sigh from a long day, the scratching began… Luckily I was too tired to care. But incessant scampering and scratching into the morning led to a nice early wake up, leaving plenty of time to summit La Malinche before the return of the afternoon rains.
Excited to see the top of this craggy peak I’d been riding towards all day yesterday, I set out on the first section of trail by bike, knowing the grade wasn’t too steep and that it would save a little time descending by bike… and maybe be pretty damn fun as well.
The grade got a lot steeper, but I somehow continued to keep the bike by my side, seeing increasing opportunities for fun downhill riding after I summited. It started out with, “Perhaps I’ll make it up the first 1000’ of climbing with the bike, that’ll be a fun drop at the end of a long hike.” That quickly evolved into, “Well, I’ve pushed the bike up 1500’ now, I wonder if the trail will still appear downhill rideable at 2000’…”.
Once I made it over 2500’ of straight uphill pushing past the tree line, I was committed. I decided I’d carry that damn 40LB bike as high up the volcano as I could get it so long as there was a trail I could ride down. At 3200’ of ascending, the trail had deteriorated into a deep sandy wash. With every two steps up, I’d slide back down one. Then another half step down as I tried to drag the bike up past me. Looking up at the loose scree field that lay ahead, it became clear the bike would wait for me here. Ditching it in some tall grass, I walked the remaining 1200’ feeling much lighter but fighting for air due to the altitude.
One last push up a rough scree field for 200’, and…
Beautiful views of the crater from the top! Totally worth the effort, with a 360 degree view of the whole state of Puebla. Amazing! Unfortunately within moments of summiting the grey clouds started forming around me, clearly conveying it was time to get off of this big lightening rod. I hopped/skipped/glissaded down the loose rocks and sand to my bike to finish the adventure off with a steep 3200’ downhill ride to my Rat Hotel…
“Don” Julio Cesar, with his fantastic smile residing over his sweet restaurant.
I stayed one more night at the Rat Hotel and pushed off early the following morning for my final major volcanic destination, the big kahuna: Pico de Orizaba.
Typical. A sign conveying that littering was prohibited, surrounded by litter.
I’m thinking these are some sort of trash incinerators, but really unsure. Cool shape though…
A moderate day’s riding through a long valley carried me up to Tlachichuca. Somewhere behind those big grey clouds stands an enormous volcano.
I grabbed a cheap hotel to shower and wait for two other riders who’d be joining me to attempt a summit of that very volcano, the Pico de Orizaba. Historically called Citlalteptl (Star Mountain), it’s the 3rd tallest mountain in North America, tallest in Mexico. It would involve renting hiking boots, crampons, and and ice axe as the upper 2000’ of the volcano were glaciated. Luckily there were two local guiding services more than happy to offer gear rental to us. We went with Citlalteptl Tours, as they had the best prices, and were fantastically nice! Originally started by a sweet man some decades back, it’s a family business with a smile. We packed up our bikes with gear and 4 days of food and began our 6000’ climb to the high hikers refuge of Piedra Grande at 14,200’.
Nici and Philip. Remember these guys?
I first met them outside of Tok, Alaska last June! They look so different! Super slimmed down from all the biking. We also crossed paths in La Paz on the Baja Peninsula back in February. They got ahead of me when I flew back to Boston this Spring, but I managed to catch up to them to share this stunning mountain climb!
These guys are so great. Super fun, positive, raunchy, and hilarious. So glad we met up.
Will we ever get any closer to that thing?? We’re already 3 hours into this climb!!
The road got VERY steep and sandy. Long sections of hike a bike.
The final push to Refugio Piedra Grande. That little red building seemed to be running away from me as I hiked my bike up this loose rocky sand put for the last couple of kilometers.
Yep, that’s the trail setting up that drainage from the refuge.
Piedra Grande (big rock) was built in the 70’s by a conglomerate of wealthy alpinists who pooled money for it’s construction. 3 levels of bunk platforms extending the length of the room can somehow accommodate up to 80 climbers. We were pretty psyched to have the place to ourselves that night.
Sunrise above cloud cover at 14,000 from the refuge door. Not bad.
Morning constitutional with inspiring view. The sunrise that is!
To acquaint ourselves to the trail and acclimatize a bit, we set out on the lower part of the climb the following day for a few hours.
Cool weird cotton plant type thingies.
7pm. Time for sleep. We decided to set our clocks for midnight and start hiking by 1am so we could summit around sunrise the following morning. Best to hike on glaciers while they’re hard. Unfortunately we weren’t the only ones with plans to summit that morning. A large luxury guided group showed up and began clambering around the shelter, people setting up, cooks prepping food for the clients, pep talks about high altitude hiking. They finally settled down to sleep after a while, just in time for another group to show up around 9:30 making their own whole symphony of sounds outside as they set up their tents to rest for an hour.
Sleepy but excited, the Pico Pirates set out…
For the first 6 hours or so, the hike looked like this. It was snowing quite steadily, so not much visibility other than the rays of other hikers’ flashlights ahead and behind.
Pre-dawn light as we cramped-on and set out on the glacier for the final ascent. Luckily a much more experienced group was about 15 minutes ahead of us, so we were able to simply follow their tracks up the snowfield.
Windy and cold, but beautiful. This was the last view we got that day. A bit of a sunrise then the sky was enveloped by clouds and fog limiting visibility to about 100 feet. Sigh. No big view at the summit for us.
Nici and Phillip had decided to take a break from the final ascent and were determining whether they wanted to summit. After all, not much to see up there. Of course my ego gnawed at me enough to follow the previous group and summit. Quite a lackluster moment up there at the top. I knew there were insane stunning views all around me but what I saw was cloudy grey. A big metal cross with prayer flags and trinkets was posted at the high point. Yay. Now get me the hell down. My head is starting to ache and I’m tired. I found Nici and Phillip only about 2-300’ from the top. They’d pushed on but reluctantly. I shared with them my muted experience at the top and they happily turned around immediately. The descent was hard. Glissading down 2000’ of snowfield would normally be pretty fun, but the snow was soft enough that I was post-holing on every other step, almost tripping on my toes every few seconds. Then the altitude really set in and I started to feel woozy. I made it off the glacier with enough energy to down a couple liters of water and some tuna wraps, but it was a bit too late. I needed to drop elevation immediately. I knew it wasn’t a dire situation, but this headache was not going anywhere until I got lower. Back at the the refuge, we ate alphabet soup, drank water, and huddled into our sleeping bags. Most groups did not bother to summit that day due to the dreary weather and low visibility, but hikers kept trickling in over the afternoon. By nightfall all the groups had left again and we had the place to ourselves once more.
From the refuge, Nici and Phillip descended back down toward Tlachichuca where we’d rented the gear, and I continued in the opposite direction, East, toward the Gulf in hopes of finding some very different experiences in the city of Xalapa, Veracruz. We’d not be at this elevation again until South America, much further down the way! Hopefully we will meet up again in Oaxaca a couple hundred miles South of here. These two are pretty special, and I’m very grateful we keep crossing paths!