La Malinche

View down route

View down route

La Malinche (or Malintzin) is a 14,600′ volcano between Orizaba and Iztaccíhuatl, named for Hernán Cortés’s Nahua mistress and translator. With a “low” trailhead around 10,000′, it is a considerably harder hike than Nevado de Toluca, despite being 700′ lower. However, because it lacks distracting lakes and sub-peaks, most people who visit aim for the summit via a relentlessly-steep 4-mile trail.

After two days doing essentially nothing on the beach in Veracruz, we were anxious to get back to the mountains, and Malinche was right on the way to the airport. Sensing an opportunity to fulfill my driving obligation in the least onerous way, I volunteered to drive the first stretch. After some boring driving through the coastal lowlands, we followed another amazing (and expensive) toll road that climbed another lush, steep valley via many bridges. Emerging north of Orizaba, the road crossed a dry, rolling plain on its way to Huamantla. Evidence of volcanic activity was all around us: to the south, Orizaba presented its northern, glaciated face; ahead loomed Malinche; and at several points the road crossed lava flows that were home to enormous Joshua trees. For some reason the trees only grew on the lava, yielding strangely abrupt transitions to grassland with sparse pines.

Upon reaching the plain, the road turned from a divided highway to a strange two-lane road with wide shoulders delimited by dashed white lines. Proper driving etiquette was terrifying at first, though I got used to it. When someone wanted to pass, they would simply pull out and do so. It was the responsibility of both the person they were passing and any oncoming cars to pull partly onto the shoulder and cede the center of the road. The system actually works quite well, and the constant attention it demands from all drivers probably keeps them focused on the road rather than their cell phones.

"Parking lot"

“Parking lot”

After some circling back and forth and a little wrong-way driving, we found the nicely-paved road to La Malinche National Park, which is gated just above a restaurant and haphazard parking among tall pine trees. Nearby, a family was enjoying a campfire, and several heavily-armed park rangers lounged next to their ATV. Cameron got a few minutes’ head start, expecting Mike and I to catch up, but he was evidently feeling fast at lower elevations, and beat us to the summit. The road continues well above the gate, and we followed it for a couple of switchbacks before turning onto the direct hikers’ trail. Mike for some reason decided to make a bit of an effort, so I got to suffer.

Steep climb above subpeak

Steep climb above subpeak

We met all sorts of people on the trail, from runners in Lycra to children to overweight middle-aged women. We even passed one of the park rangers, who had left his body armor behind but was still moving slowly in uniform and combat boots. After cutting switchbacks to the top of the road, the trail parallels a badly-eroded former trail, then heads straight up a steep slope of sand and grass to the ridge between the summit and a bump to its north. After passing a rock window on the ridge, it climbs haphazardly up large talus, ending in a short third-class scramble to a decent-sized summit area.

Malinche's east side

Malinche’s east side

We all ended up summiting in around 1h45, far slower than the 1h10 ascent record, but still a respectable 2600 ft/hr, joining a half-dozen people and an exhausted dog lounging among the rocks.
Summit dog

Summit dog

Mike and Cameron soon headed down, while I hung out for awhile to take in Malinche’s steep eastern side and Orizaba farther away, and to try to talk to the locals. Two of them were guides, an older man smoking a cigarette and a 17-year-old boy with slightly better English. Impressively, the boy had been guiding since he was 14, and had climbed all the local volcanoes multiple times.

Hikers' trail through trees

Hikers’ trail through trees

After exhausting their and my limited foreign language skills, I took off back down the mountain, moving as quickly as I could down the talus to reach the skiable sand. Unlike Orizaba, this sand descent was reasonably technical, with intermittent hard patches and rocks to avoid, so I passed Mike and Cameron before the trail entered the woods. The lower trail was steep enough to be an unpleasant run, but walking would have been slow and dull, so I pounded on down to the trailhead, reaching it in 44 minutes from the summit, once again far slower than the record.

A VW bus made its way slowly through the parking lot as I waited for the others, blasting ice cream truck music to announce its purpose. Having hours to kill before returning our rental car, and no desire to spend more time than necessary in Mexico City, we headed over to the restaurant for something like lunch. Without asking about prices, we ordered beers and chicken quesadillas, then realized that with our limited remaining cash, we might have to spend awhile washing dishes. Our worries were misplaced: the bill came out to all of $8, temping us to stick around and order more food.

Having cleverly done my driving in the morning, I let Cameron do the final stretch into Mexico City. It was mostly non-awful until the last five miles, where a teeming mass of cars and buses fought over lanes, swerving in and out of the frontage road between dividers while vendors walked boldly among the trapped cars. After some contortions to reach a gas station and refill the rental car, we dragged our bags over to the airport and settled in to kill time until our 5:30 AM flight. Unfortunately, even with a camping pad sleep is hard to find in a busy airport.

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