Category Archives: Mexico

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.

Pico de Orizaba (Citlatépetl, ~3h40 up)

Starting toward Orizaba

Starting toward Orizaba


At 18,490′, Pico de Orizaba (or Citlatépetl, “Star Mountain”) is North America’s third highest peak, behind Denali and Logan. Its north side is home to Mexico’s largest glacier, extending from near the summit to around 16,000′, though most of its aspects are entirely unglaciated. Because it is a volcano, i.e. a giant pile of loose sand and terrible rock, the standard route takes advantage of the glacier, approaching from the north via a purportedly rough road to a hut above 14,000′. However, the peak can also be approached from the south, where a radio telescope on neighboring Sierra Negra ensures that a road to the 13,100′ saddle between the two peaks is reasonably maintained (and hosts a webcam). Since our rental car would take us higher on the south side, and hiring a 4WD is expensive, we opted for the Ruta Sur. Though it is the expected loose slog on the way up, I highly recommend this route for the nice camping near the trailhead and epic scree-ing on the descent.

Nearing the end of the road

Nearing the end of the road

After the last night’s adventures, we got a lazy start from Ciudad Serdán, despite having a potentially long morning drive to the south side of Orizaba. This being our biggest day in terms of gain (5,300′) and peak elevation (18,490′), I was antsy to start early; in retrospect, there was no reason to do so, and we probably should have slept in. In any case, after retracing our route a short ways, we turned off on a side road through Atzitzintla and Texmalaquilla, which ultimately leads to the radio telescope. Our outdated guidebook said the road was steep dirt, but it is now semi-paved to the saddle, and passable for any passenger car with enough power or a low enough gear. Beyond the saddle, the road remains passable for another half-mile or so to a well-used trailhead and camping area. It quickly goes to hell after that, though a high-clearance 4WD with a granny gear can reach just over 15,000′, making this perhaps the highest road in North America.

Fausto Gonzales hut

Fausto Gonzales hut

After picking out a random selection of gear, we started hiking around 9:30. I brought crampons (useless), a down jacket and mitts (nice, but not necessary), and about two liters of water, but left my ice axe behind. In retrospect, the peak could be done for speed with a single bottle, a handful of gels, hat and gloves, and a windbreaker. Starting at such a “low” elevation, we climbed about 1,000′ before reaching tree line, and grass and flowers extended to nearly 15,000′. The 4WD road switchbacks steeply to just below the orange-painted Fausto Gonzales hut near 15,500′, while a steeper climbers’ trail cuts directly across most of the bends. We met a fair number of people on this stretch headed in both directions, and two SUVs more competent than ours.

Ascent (red) and descent (green) routes

Ascent (red) and descent (green) routes

Unlike the Los Cien hut on Iztaccíhuatl, the Fausto Gonzales is sort of a dump, with a bare, dirty concrete floor and two utterly repulsive outhouses in back. After dithering around for a few minutes, we started up the long gully leading to the summit. There are three possible routes: a ridge of rocky outcroppings to the left, loose sand on either side of the gully, or talus in its center. The best upward route would probably be the ridge, but the talus was stable lower down and closer to the climbers’ trail, so I chose that, and the others followed.

Talus-slog lower down

Talus-slog lower down

I felt slightly faster than the day before at the same elevation, feeling the noticeable slowdown closer to 16,000′, but this part was a pure cardiovascular test, so I was in complete coma drive keeping up with Mike. The talus became less stable as the gully steepened higher up, and eventually I decided to cut over to the ridge. After a short but extremely unpleasant crossing of the sandy slope — thrashing at a 45 degree angle to move straight across — I reached the ridge and found much easier going that allowed me to gap Mike, who stayed on the talus for awhile. I also found plenty of bootprints and, as is depressingly common in Mexico, bits of trash.

Climbing on the upper ridge

Climbing on the upper ridge

Unlike the past two days, there was a strong west wind, which encouraged me to stay on the protected right-hand side of the ridge. Passing through 17,000′, I felt no effects of altitude other than the expected slowness. However Mike was apparently feeling light-headed when he stopped, and Cameron appeared to be suffering a bit. I found a sheltered nook and put on my shell and mitts to wait for them, then continued climbing.

Dangerous loose section

Dangerous loose section

The convenient ridge disappears below a white rock outcrop known as “the pulpit,” and the steep, loose slope above is both frustrating and dangerous. Moving from rock to rock up the sand-slope, I broke off a decent-sized outcropping, which broke into several pieces and sped down toward the others below. I yelled “rock!” (less colorful than the Mexican equivalent, “aguas!”, a warning from former times of incoming night-soil), though I am not sure they could hear me over the wind. Fortunately no one was hurt, and I continued somewhat more cautiously and less selfishly.

Convenient plane bits

Convenient plane bits

The rock becomes somewhat more solid at the pulpit, and a bizarre plane wreck also provides good holds. Topping out on this section, I got my first views of both the crater and the summit cross. I slogged up the much easier final slope, then did the traditional jog up the last 10 yards to tag the cross, reaching it just as oxygen debt caught up with me. I had expected to find crowds of Americans on the summit, arriving via the standard northern route, but found only a single woman from Guatemala. Using the cross as a windbreak, we shared Coke and Mexican Cheetos, and I learned that she was quite the mountaineer. In addition to four times up Orizaba, she had made three attempts at Everest, reaching 25,000′ once and witnessing this year’s devastating avalanche on the latest.

Crater

Crater

While there are good views from the summit west to Popo, Izta, and La Malinche, the eye is drawn east to the abyss of Orizaba’s crater. 1,500′ wide, it plunges vertically on all sides in rotten and rime-covered cliffs to an invisible floor 1,000′ below. I am sure someone has been inside, but it would take a long rope to get down, ascenders to get back out, and some creativity to make an anchor on the sandy rim. I stepped as far as I dared down the loose slope on its edge to take some photos, then retreated a bit to sit out of the wind and wait for the others. It was chilly even out of the wind, and I would have been uncomfortable sitting still without my puffy. As the others had not brought down jackets, we did not stay long after they arrived.

Scree-ing with Popo, Itza, and Malinche behind

Scree-ing with Popo, Itza, and Malinche behind

Retracing our steps would have been slow, and would have subjected other climbers to a hail of rockfall. Instead, we headed into the next gully west of the ridge, where we enjoyed epic scree-ing in the sandy equivalent of untracked powder down to about 17,000′. Here we crossed back over to the ascent gully, where further sand took us within a short hike of the hut. Including stops, I averaged about 100 vertical feet per minute descending from the summit to 16,000′. This is why the south route beats the north, despite the slog on the way up.
Epic scree-ing

Epic scree-ing

I chatted with a guide and his client as I emptied my shoes and waited for the others, then we all continued to the car at a comfortable walk, jogging a few sections of the road for variety. We passed a variety of people on the way down, from mountaineers with camping gear to locals out for a hike, but no fellow gringos.

It was only early afternoon, but we were all feeling worked after three busy days, so after hanging out for awhile at the trailhead, we drove only as far as the town of Orizaba before finding a hotel and some terrible (but cheap!) pizza. The road from the Mexican Altiplano down to the town at 4,000′ was spectacular, passing through several tunnels as it wound its way down the side of a lush, steep-sided valley from which Orizaba would occasionally show itself far above. Having avoided injury so far, I let my guard down in the hotel and cut my big toe exiting the bathroom, leaving blood all over the floor. As John Muir said, “few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes.”

Iztaccíhuatl (~4h up)

Izta from visitor center

Izta from visitor center


We woke up at a reasonable hour in Amecameca, added ice axes and crampons to our packs, and drove up to Paso de Cortés, the 11,100′ saddle between Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. Once dirt, this road is now nicely paved on the west side, and I cleverly chose to do some of my share of the driving on this uncrowded and scenic stretch. We stopped at the shiny visitor center, picked up a day pass ($5 for the three of us), then drove a decent dirt road to the southern La Joya trailhead at 13,100′.

View back to Popo

View back to Popo

Rather than being a symmetric cone like neighboring Popo and most volcanoes, Izta is a long, undulating ridge with numerous false summits. From the east or west, it looks like a woman lying on her back, with the pechas being the high point. Therefore it would be several hours before we could see the summit. There were already a decent number of cars at the trailhead when we started at 8:40, unsurprising for a weekend during prime climbing season. The route starts on the shady western side of the mountain, but soon crosses over to east- and southeast-facing slopes, where it was already hot enough to be sweating in a t-shirt. Having expected it to be cold at such high elevations, I had neglected to bring my sun hat on the trip, an omission I regretted as I alternately suffered in my warm hat and roasted my scalp.

"Ankle" camp

“Ankle” camp

After a brief period of shade, we crossed a saddle at the “ankles,” where we met several people breaking camp or just enjoying the clear, windless day at 14,800′. Below to the east, a herd of cows or horses grazed in a spring-fed meadow. A variety of use trails lead from the ankles to the Los Cien hut at 15,500′, most involving unpleasant travel through loose sand or (worse) ball bearings over hard-pack. The hut was reasonably clean, and even had a decent supply of ramen and tuna, but we kept going after only the briefest look around.

Hut and miserable climb to "knees"

Hut and miserable climb to “knees”

From the hut to the “knees,” the route climbs a steep slope of miserably loose sand and rocks. The rocks to the right provide some relief, but the climb still involves a fair amount of back-sliding. I also began to notice the altitude above 15,500′: while the climbing so far had felt more or less the same as climbing a fourteener, my “cardiovascular ceiling” was noticeably lower above Los Cien. This was most noticeable when taking large steps up rock or powering through back-sliding sand. Other than becoming winded more easily, the altitude seemed to have no effect for the remainder of the day.

Comfy at 16,500'

Comfy at 16,500′

After passing through a short third class rock band that gave Cameron a bit of trouble, we reached our first false summit at the “knees,” featuring the mangled remains of some sort of tower. Amazingly, it was windless and probably in the mid-40s — t-shirt weather while moving uphill at 16,500′. The summit is still hidden, but the rolling, gradually ascending route to the glacier is clearly visible. After dropping off the knees, we scrabbled our way east of the next subpeak on wretchedly-angled ball bearings and hard-pack, then followed the ridge to the edge of the glacier, where we could at last see the summit. Though it is in rapid retreat, the wind gathers enough snow here to have created an ice-saddle that will last for some decades yet.
Glacier and summit

Glacier and summit

While Cameron put on his crampons, Mike and I carefully made our way down the glacier’s crunchy surface to the flat saddle, where it was an easy walk in running shoes to the other side.

Exposed dirt-traverse

Exposed dirt-traverse

From there to the summit, the route stays mostly on the ridge, except for one somewhat exposed dirt-traverse to the east. Feeling the same inexplicable urge, both Mike and I jogged the last 20 yards to the summit, reaching it about 4 hours from the trailhead, including several stops. Even at 17,100′, it was barely cold enough for me to add my shell to my long-sleeved shirt. Secor’s 15-year-old book describes the summit as a snow dome, but we found three similarly-high points of dirt ringing a lower ice-field on the south, west, and north.
Ravens and summit icefield

Ravens and summit icefield

We talked with two fit-looking Mexican triathletes for a few minutes, then hung out watching a herd of ravens play near the next summit before retracing our steps.

Headed down

Headed down

Even in the mountains, Mexico seems to operate on a relaxed schedule, and we passed a steady stream of people on their way up in the early afternoon. The hard-packed sidehill section to the saddle above the knees was unpleasant, barely faster going down than up, as we had to carefully skitter across the dirt between the refuge of stable rock outcroppings. The descent from the “knees” to the hut was a challenging but fun scree-ski; as on Toluca the day before, my experience on such terrain gave me a good gap over Mike and Cameron, made larger when they went too far west and cliffed out above the third class step.
Looking down slog above hut

Looking down slog above hut

This gave me plenty of time to sit at the hut and watch the crowd. No one else seemed to have the English or inclination to talk, and I am not good enough at Spanish or humans to want to start a conversation myself. So I ate my Christmas candy and watched them enjoy their cheese and bottle of wine until the others arrived.

Finishing the hard-pack sidehill

Finishing the hard-pack sidehill

After more mixed slippery dirt and loose sand below the hut, we passed the only other white person on the mountain, a guy from Seattle on his way up to camp at the hut. Though still around 15,000′, I absurdly felt like I was “down low” on this section. There was a sizable crowd at the “ankles,” including a dozen or so members of some kind of scouting organization, one of them eating something that looked disturbingly like a full diaper. The people here were more outgoing, and a friendly young woman named Dora approached us and chatted for awhile, then offered Mike and I a taste of the “diaper,” which turned out to be a paper-wrapped pastry stuffed with some blackish plant whose name I did not recognize. It tasted… better than it looked.

The rest of the day was straightforward, if unpleasantly slippery. Mike had the worst of it in his worn road-running shoes, falling several times and getting a nice flapper on his palm, but after making it nearly to the car without a fall, I managed to sit down in some mysterious mud right in front of a ranger. Though the trail had been dry on the way up, and there had been no rain, the porous volcanic soil and rock apparently store up moisture and releases it in the heat of the day.

Parting view of Popo

Parting view of Popo

After returning to the now-full parking lot, we drove back to Paso de Cortés, where I eyed placid-looking Popo. Though it is apparently not safe enough for modern mountaineers, Diego de Ordaz likely reached the summit in 1519, and Francisco Montaño had himself repeatedly lowered into the crater of the lightly-erupting volcano in 1521 to retrieve 60 pounds of sulfur for gunpowder. But we live in a timid age, so after a longing glance, we headed down the dirt eastern side of the pass.

Malinche and Orizaba

Malinche and Orizaba

This was much slower than the way up, with many overloaded cars picking their way along the rough and winding road. The faster drivers passed aggressively close to blind corners, counting on oncoming cars to make room for them. One particularly aggressive driver in a lifted pickup blatantly forced us and an oncoming car to make room as he sped past us. When his running board broke and forced him to stop a few hundred yards later, we cackled with glee. The road became paved above the little town of Xalitzintla, and we could at last go faster, though we had to remain ever-vigilant for the evil Mexican speed bumps, which are large, sharp, unpredictable, and rarely painted or signed. (Sometimes there will even be a speed bump before the stop sign at an intersection, and another one on the other side.)

Cultural postlude

We made better time on the highway through Puebla, but foolishly failed to stop for food or rest until we were back out in the boondocks. We grabbed some mediocre gas station food, then looked for the nearest hotel in our GPS, finding one a couple of miles away in Palmar de Bravo. If the owners took the time to submit a listing, how bad could it be? Well…

The place looked closed as we pulled up, with just an old woman sitting in the dimmed front room. We were about to leave when a middle-aged woman, perhaps her daughter, came to the door and offered us a room for about $25, normally enough for two decent beds. It looked vaguely sketchy, so we asked to see the room first. The middle-aged woman and a younger one (her daughter?) led us up a flight of stairs, through a dimly-lit dining room full of empty tables, and down a short hall with three doors. The room looked old and smelled a bit funny, but it had beds, a toilet, and a sort-of shower (a shower head sticking out of the bathroom wall, and a shower curtain serving as the bathroom door), and we were tired. After pulling the car around to the side for parking, we dragged our suitcases up to the room and gave her sufficient money, expecting change. As we began to settle, she sprayed the hell out of the place with some sort of perfumed disinfectant.

A few minutes after the women left, Cameron discovered that the toilet did not flush. With no real bathroom door, this made the room unlivable. The woman seemingly claimed that she just needed to turn on the water to the toilet, but when that did not work, she offered us two of the other rooms for another 100 pesos. I was frustrated and wanted to take our money and leave, but the others seemed tired enough to be willing to put up with the place, so we reluctantly accepted her deal. I didn’t want to use the shower, and would probably sleep in my sleeping bag on top of the bed, but it had been a long day, so… whatever.

Then I went to my room, turned to close the door, and found a dead mouse behind it. The middle-aged woman was still hanging around in the hall, so I called her in and pointed this out. In a put-upon way, she explained that she had just fumigated the place — apparently I was supposed to be grateful that the mouse was dead — then picked it up in a paper towel and went downstairs.

I was thoroughly pissed at this point, and after a few minutes we agreed to leave, so I went downstairs to get our money back, perhaps letting her keep 100 pesos as a peace offering. Downstairs, I found that a car had pulled up in front, and the woman was talking to its driver at the door. I explained that the rooms would not work, and that we wanted to take our money and go. She said something I took to mean “I’ll be with you in a minute,” then went to the next room, money in hand, before I figured out her game. In an extended and heated conversation aided by the automatic translation app on Cameron’s phone, she claimed not to have the money, so our only choice was to take the rooms. She had probably passed it on to a co-conspirator outside, but even if not, I wasn’t about to frisk or fight her for it. At this point we decided to cut our losses, as the situation was getting sketchier by the minute; at least we still had the rest of our money, our stuff, and an undamaged car, and we had not been subjected to any felonies. Refusing the woman’s absurd offer to help us carry our bags to said car, we hurriedly packed up and drove away, noting that another car had joined the first out front.

Hotel in Ciudad Serdán

Hotel in Ciudad Serdán

Having learned our lesson, we looked up the next decent-sized city on the map, and drove a bleary-eyed 25 miles to Ciudad Serdán. The vibe was much better here, with cobbled streets, some old buildings and churches, and people out enjoying the Christmas fireworks. Less than $30 got us a clean room with a hot shower near downtown. I washed off the stink of the other place, then collapsed into bed.

Nevado de Toluca

Saddle with summit behind

Saddle with summit behind


Since climbing Mount Whitney, I have wondered how I would feel at higher elevations. For someone living in the lower 48, by far the cheapest and easiest way to find out is to visit the volcanoes around Mexico City. Other options within the hemisphere, such as the Andes and Alaska, require some costly combination of gear, permits, and transport. Like Starbucks drinks, Mexico’s volcanoes come in a variety of sizes, the most common being Toluca (15,350′), Iztaccíhuatl (17,154′), and Orizaba (18,491′). We chose to sample them in that order.

After our land attack this spring went off course, Mike and I decided to try again by air. While significantly more costly, this approach would be less likely to end in a barrio garage. With Mike’s friend and fellow pro mountain biker Cameron along, it even became affordable to rent a car. Because of Mike’s full-time job and airline pricing policies, we landed in Mexico City at 11:00 PM on Christmas Eve. After retrieving our bags, we rousted the rental car lady, and were on the road out of Mexico City by around 1:00 AM. The City is famous for its lawless gridlock traffic, so despite our bleary eyes, we considered ourselves lucky to be driving to Toluca during what had to be some of the least-crowded hours of the year. We checked into what claimed to be a Best Western around 2:30, and immediately passed out.

Toluca hut

Toluca hut

A morning shower would have been nice, but the room had very little running water, none of it hot, so we took off grimy for Nevado de Toluca, visible above the smog to the west. After our GPS led us on a scenic tour through a slum and a dumping area on some dirt roads, we eventually reached the highway and the nicely-paved byway. Shortly after passing through a town around 11,500′, we turned onto the rough 2WD dirt road up the volcano. After paying the entry fee (40 pesos), we continued our slow progress up to the hut at 13,800′. We could probably have driven on to the crater itself, but we were bored with the slow drive, so we parked with the other 40 or so cars on the side of the road, and followed the line of Mexican tourists up the wide path to a saddle to the south.

Flowers above 14,000'

Flowers above 14,000′

From there, the sporting route follows the crater rim over a slightly lower northeast peak, but my partners are not fans of unnecessary work, so we followed the crowd down across the crater, passing between the rather unattractive Lago del Sol and Lago de Luna. For unknown reasons, most of the tourists had stopped at the saddle or climbed the lower Arista de Humboldt, and the remainder seemed content to play around near lakes, so we were alone as we climbed a sandy path to the south rim of the crater. After some boulder-hopping and even a bit of fun third class scrambling, we reached the summit in near t-shirt weather.

Popo in the distance

Popo in the distance

We checked out the view of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl rising across the smog-lake of Mexico City, then scree-d down a gully we had passed on the way up, quickly reaching the Lago del Sol. We passed hundreds of people of all levels of fitness on our way back over the saddle to the road, most out for a casual stroll and picnic with kids, dogs, food, and drink. The road had turned into classic Mexican road chaos: parking had extended perhaps a half-mile down from the hut, and the remaining 1.5 lanes of dirt had to support both two-way traffic and a steady stream of pedestrians meandering obliviously among the gridlocked cars. We had plenty of time to reach Amecameca, so I did not mind the delay, and enjoyed learning how many people can fit in various types of car we passed (over a dozen in a VW bus).

Crowds on the way back

Crowds on the way back

Back on normal roads, we were mostly lucky in our drive through the awfulness of Mexico City, spending only about 15 minutes weaving through what looked like a spontaneous street market. By day, the smog and sprawl were oppressive. Being an international metropolis, Mexico City has its share of corporate skyscrapers, warehouses, and stores, but its defining feature is the barrios that spread over the rolling terrain like a concrete fungus. One- and two-story buildings are stacked wall-to-wall, roof-to-floor, fed by narrow streets. Most have unfinished upper stories with rebar sticking up, apparently a tactic to avoid paying taxes by remaining perpetually “under construction.”

After stopping for dinner on the eastern edge of the city, we continued to Amecameca, at over 8,000′ near the base of Popocatépetl, where we randomly chose a surprisingly nice and affordable motel. It even had a zillion channels of cable, so we were able to learn a bit of Spanish from the subtitles of one of the most deliberately awful American movies ever made. Having survived 15,400′, it was time to see how it felt to go a bit higher.

Copper Canyon

Climb out in the afternoon

Climb out in the afternoon


Or, “Gueros getting serious about fitness tourism.”

With some time to kill between sunrise and when auto shop opened, we naturally decided to do a few intervals. A bit of panning around on Google Maps showed some roads unlikely to have too many cars or dogs, we suited up and went our separate ways. Not having planned to run on this trip, I had brought neither real shorts nor headphones, so I had to make do with zipping off the legs of my hiking pants and taking in the “scenery” as I ran northeast out of town past a gravel yard and who-knows-what else.

Afterward, we took the van over to the mechanic, who ran a somewhat bigger and better-equipped shop than the last one. Sensing people who would pay promptly, he got right on it, attaching a pressure gage to the engine block, pulling on some wire to rev the throttle a few times, letting the van run for a bit, then plugging some hand-held device into the diagnostic port. His diagnosis: “fuel pump; should be fixed in a couple of hours.” After killing more time at the hotel, we returned about two hours later to find the van already fixed and parked on a side street. Total cost: $100, or only slightly more than places in the US sometimes try to charge simply to read the diagnostic port.

Headed north again, we returned to the southern outskirts of Chihuahua, then headed west to Cuauhtemoc, passing the time listening to Bach, PDQ and otherwise. Just as we were extracting ourselves from the center of town, the van momentarily lost power — not the total death we had experienced before, but a sort of “hiccup” like a bubble in the fuel line or something. Since Cuauhtemoc is basically the “end of civilization,” we returned to downtown to consider our options. There were almost certainly buses from Cuauhtemoc to Creel, our gateway to Copper Canyon, but we didn’t know their schedule, where the bus depot was in town, or where we could find some internet. After some indecision on my part, we passive-aggressively psyched each other up to take the “stupid” option and power on to Creel in the van. What’s the worst that could happen? We rolled on, through acres of apple orchards filled with wood-fired barrels to protect the blossoms against frost.

Turning off the divided highway at La Junta, we passed a caravan of tanker trucks being inspected by the state police, toting a truly Mexican number of large and fierce-looking guns. The van gave an occasional kick from time to time, but mostly behaved itself as we headed southwest and climbed into the Sierra Madre. After days spent in various un-scenic varieties of desert, it was a pleasant change to begin passing through terrain resembling the Gila of southwest New Mexico, with broad grassy plains, pine trees, and even a shapely volcanic plug.

San Juanito at its best (morning)

San Juanito at its best (morning)

We passed through rolling forest, over an 8,000-foot pass, and down into smoking, ruined hellscape of San Juanito. It was quittin’ time, and dead-eyed men sat along the streets next to the bodegas and crumbled buildings, drinking beer or just watching the passing traffic. It was cool at night at this elevation, and smoke from people’s wood stoves created a gloomy haze over the town.
Serving San Juanito's liquor and FUD needs

Serving San Juanito’s liquor and FUD needs

A pickup truck full of bored-looking local cops pulled in front of us, then fortunately turned off on a side street.

Central Creel

Central Creel

Reaching the outskirts of Creel, the GPS misdirected us off on some side street, taking us through the seedier side of the city, and we briefly worried that we might be looking for lodging in San Juanito’s sister city. Fortunately, tourism supports a clean, well-lit, and safe-feeling area near Creel’s city center. We had hoped to stay in the incredibly cheap and well-appointed hostel, but it was full of Mexican tourists for Holy Week, so we were forced into a “costly” ($25/night) hotel behind a canned goods store. This was a luxury establishment, with four layers of wool blankets on each bed, and a “calefactor” for our calefaccion.

Creel's main street

Creel’s main street

After dropping some stuff in the room, we went touring the downtown in search of things to cook on my camp-stove (and also next to the “calefactor”). Though the town was clearly swarming with tourists, we seemed to be the only gueros, which made us feel a bit out-of-place.
For all your calefaction needs

For all your calefaction needs

The local Mexican and Tarahumara vendors didn’t seem to make a distinction, with one offering apples, beef jerky, and peyote. On our way back to the store, we passed a Mexican army truck rolling slowly down the street with the rest of the traffic. It was everything you would expect: four men sitting in the bed with assault rifles, and one manning a roof-mounted machine gun, all wearing helmets, bullet-proof vests, and camo balaclavas. I’m not sure if it should have been reassuring or not; none of the other tourists paid them much attention.

Creel seems to be trying to promote itself as a place for mountain biking, so the next day I headed down the street to start the next part of the “fitness tourism” agenda by renting a bike (Mike had brought his own, of course). The rental place had plenty of more-or-less maintained and usable bikes for a reasonable price, but convincing the guy to rent me one took some doing. He needed his entire cycle-herd for a large family the next day, and needed mine back in good condition by 6:00 that evening. I foolishly told him we wanted to transport it in a private vehicle — ¡tu romperlo! — then ride to Batopilas — ¡no es possible! — and barely made it out the door after giving him my passport and swearing to have it back in good shape.

Cliffs and abandoned house

Cliffs and abandoned house

From Creel to the gorge containing Batopilas, the two-lane road winds in and out of canyon after canyon, many over 1,000 feet deep, past white cliffs and hoodoos poking out of the pine forest. Though as deep as the Grand Canyon, the Copper Canyon area is not a single, awesome hole in the ground, but a maze of plateaus with deeply-cut canyons running between them. The road, well-paved and almost entirely free of traffic even while Creel was full of tourists, would make an excellent road bike tour.

Descending a larger canyon

Descending a larger canyon

Looking at the surrounding country, we saw how the Creel area had acquired its supposedly-excellent network of singletrack bike trails: generations of Tarahumara, walking from house to house, had worn foot-paths along the valleys and across the mesas. We saw a number of them as we drove, the men wearing the universal uniform of blue jeans and button-down shirts, the women mostly in the traditional full, colorful skirts and blouses. Most had large shawls over their shoulders, which they used to carry both possessions and children. Some were walking comfortably along the trails, but most were simply sitting by the side of the road, miles from the nearest town or house. They didn’t seem to be trying to sell anything or hitch-hike; I have no idea what they were trying to accomplish.

Our plan was to drive to where things “get interesting”, either at the edge of the big canyon or where the road deteriorated to dirt, then bike the rest of the way to Batopilas and back. I had expected the pavement to end at a certain intersection, but it continued for miles beyond. Near the edge of the main canyon it started to become potholed enough to be annoying to drive, so we parked at a dirt pull-out around 6,900 feet and started riding.

Up from 3,100 feet

Up from 3,100 feet

After a bit of gently rolling, thoroughly-potholed tarmac along the rim, the still-paved road plummets in just five miles to the river at 3,100 feet. Though relatively new, the road is poorly-designed, and was frequently reduced to one lane by piles of fallen rock. My El Cheapo rental bike’s brakes weren’t all they should be, so I had to be a bit cautious; Mike gamely took it easy. At the river, we found a somewhat lackadaisical construction crew and some large Caterpillar equipment apparently working on a new bridge. The old one, a sketch-ball looking wooden thing, looked more suitable for the old one-lane dirt road than the new paved one.

From the bridge to Batopilas, the river drops 1,100 feet in only 16 miles. So does the road, but via an endless series of rollers rather than a smooth descent. We passed a few natives hanging out or walking along the road, and, across the river and on the hillside above, we saw the occasional foot trail leading to an isolated home, but the canyon was surprisingly quiet. The pavement degraded to chip-seal, then finally ended a couple of miles short of town.

Impressive mystery-building

Impressive mystery-building

After passing an amazing and well-maintained building that might have been a hotel or a monastery, we crossed a final bridge to reach the outskirts of Batopilas.

Batopilas bridge

Batopilas bridge

Mindful of the need to return my bike by 6:00, I had been riding fairly hard down the canyon, and only paused briefly for a couple photos to prove we were there before turning around for the grim slog home.
Downriver to Batopilas

Downriver to Batopilas

This was fitness tourism, and it was time for type II fun, not sight-seeing. The day had been blessedly overcast, but it was still hot some 5,000 feet below the rim, and that began to get to me on the rolling climb back along the river. I had no power on some of the steeper rollers, and shamefully even stopped on a couple to cool off before crawling back into the pain cave. We passed more Tarahumara on the side of the road, and a road crew of four slowly clearing away one of the many rockfall piles with shovels. At the rate they were going, they could remain fully employed indefinitely, clearing the last 20+ miles of road to Batopilas at the rate of a couple dozen feet per day.

Resting (yet again)

Resting (yet again)

I hoped that the weakness would pass if I drank more water and kept up a moderate pace, but a 6:00 return looked impossible. I finally convinced an increasingly-bored Mike to take off at his own pace, fetch the car, and meet me on the climb out. That turned out to be every bit as bad as I had expected, a slow, grim accumulation of vertical feet in units of 250, with rest stops between each of these weakness-induced “intervals.” With unlimited time I could have made it back to the car by dark, but would almost certainly have had to play “giardia roulette” with one of the roadside streams, as I ran out of water some 2,000 feet below the rim (and had not been saving my own urine).
Burros along the climb

Burros along the climb

On the good side, this unpleasant process gave me an excuse to take a few pictures.

Sunset on the way out

Sunset on the way out

I timed things just right, mounting up for another 250-foot push just seconds before Mike drove around a bend. I tossed the bike in the back and collapsed in the passenger’s seat, and Mike began rallying the van — to the extent that’s possible — back to Creel. I took some decent evening photos of the scenery through the window, but stopping was not an option. At 5:55, we pulled up 50 yards short of the rental place, and I “triumphantly” pedaled across the street to give the surprised rental guy his precious bike. Then it was time to shower and visit the grocery store for chorizo, eggs, and vegetables to make an extra-large pot of nutrient glop.

Jimenez

Or, “Dr. Dirtbag loses to Mexico, part 2.”

[This part was not photogenic, though the next was. — ed.]

Finding our way out of Chihuahua late in the morning, we calculated that we would arrive in Toluca after midnight, but that with some possibly ill-advised late-night driving, we could still nearly stick to our original plan. (On hearing that we gueros were headed to Mexico, one of Pablo’s friends advised us to never drive at night, and to run over anyone manning a blockade who was not obviously one of the Federales. But we were running out of options.) From Chihuahua, Mexican highway 45 heads southeast through Delicia to Jimenez, leaving the truly barren desert for something more like the area around Las Cruces, including regular arrays of pecan trees.

We were feeling rushed, but optimistic: with only a day’s drive to Toluca, the Ford with the ghetto fuel injector was running well. But at the last toll plaza before Jimenez, the van once again died. Mike paid the slightly impatient lady in the booth, then mercilessly flogged the starter until the car was able to keep running long enough to limp into the parking lot. We had found another good place to break down, but were even more doomed.

Finding no payphone nearby, we milled around aimlessly. To avoid the heat, I took over a recently-vacated covered table. One of the previous occupants returned with a rag to clean it off and, impressed by my obvious guerosity, tried out his limited English. I sort-of explained our situation, and he immediately broke off his poor son’s surreptitious make-out session to ask that he take a look at our van. The son asked a few questions, tasted some oil in the coolant water, and declared that we were in bad shape.

Fortunately we were at a full-featured toll booth, with some kind of semi-official Chihuahuan aid station across the road. After waiting for some Federales to finish a photo shoot against the mountain backdrop (flashing lights, puffed-out chests, etc.), we scampered across the highway to ask for help. One of the men at the aid station lent us his cell phone, and after some back-and-forth with the insurance company, and a long, very awkward period trying to use our combined few hundred words of Spanish to make small-talk with men knowing only a few dozen words of English, we drove the van onto another tow truck.

This one was immaculate and modern compared to the last, driven by a father-son team who knew a bit of English. The son was even studying programming, so I tried to encourage him to stick with it. The aid station chief had recommended a particular mechanic in Jimenez, and the tow truck driver agreed, pointing him out as we drove into town. The mechanic was closed for the day, and there didn’t seem to be much to do in Jimenez, so we settled into a surprisingly-empty hotel with internet to consider our options.

While most things in Mexico are cheap, including fuel pump replacements, the dozen or so replacements it would require to reach Mexico City would add up, not to mention taking more time than we had. Being my usual pessimistic self, I was leaning toward either making a run for the border in Mike’s van, or setting it on fire, fleeing back to the US, and claiming the insurance. However, Mike suggested another option: a detour to Copper Canyon on the way back from a shorter trip. We had deliberately skipped the canyon, partly because it was out of the way and partly because the State Department suggested that going there was a bad idea. But at this point, it seemed no riskier than the Chihuahuan barrio, and preferable to utter defeat. If the car took multiple days to repair, we could seemingly get there by (many hours of) bus. If repairs went quickly, we might even be able to coax the van an extra few hundred miles on the way home.

It was early, we were bored, and Jimenez is not exactly a happening place, so we turned to the Iternets for entertainment. I had never seen “The Three Amigos” in its entirety and, amazingly, it turned up on YouTube. It was the perfect movie to watch at the time: a cornball 1980s Steve Martin comedy full of Mexican stereotypes, made even better with Spanish subtitles. Laugh now, and deal with life in the morning.

Chihuahua

Welcome to the neighborhood

Welcome to the neighborhood


Or “Dr. Dirtbag loses to Mexico, part 1”

[Apologies for the (more than usually) long and rambling narrative and lack of pictures. — ed.]

It all started when Mike came into some unanticipated free time. Neither of us had been above 14,500 feet on foot, and I have long been curious how my body would react to higher elevations, so when Mike proposed a trip to the Mexican volcanoes, I eagerly agreed. These are normally done in the dry season around Christmas, but Spring Break looked reasonably dry, so we decided to give it a shot.

At first, we figured out the costs and logistics of flying to Mexico City or Puebla and climbing 2-3 volcanoes in a week (car rental, checked bags, etc.); they were reasonable, but not great. However, living only a few hours from Mexico, we realized that driving would be cheap, not too slow, and “stupid” in the “awesome” sense. Looking at the three cars we had available — ancient 4Runner, old Outback, middle-aged Windstar — we chose the Windstar for its comfort and room, and set off for Mexico in style: crampons, ice axes, sleds, bike, peanut butter pretzels, tuna, apples, onions, and 17 gallons of water.

After a night in Las Cruces, we headed for the small Santa Teresa border crossing, bypassing the chaos of El Paso. The crossing was uncrowded, but we soon found that Mexican officials speak almost no English, and that travel in Mexico is much harder than travel in Canada. As long as you have enough money to get in and out of Canada, you can apparently do whatever you want. But if you want to go to Mexico, you need to specify exactly how long you’ll be there, buy special insurance for your car, and leave a $300 deposit to make sure you bring it back north.

Driving near Salamayuca

Driving near Salamayuca

By the time that was all settled, the border parking lot was starting to fill with cars, mostly Mexicans headed south, many carrying piles of assorted goods in back, from barbecue grills to bikes. After passing through the checkpoint without even a cursory vehicle inspection we were on our way, traveling southeast on the first of many Mexican toll roads to join the main highway between Juarez and Chihuahua.
Sands of Salamayuca

Sands of Salamayuca

The road was basically like an American 4-lane divided highway, except for periodic toll plazas ($4-15 apiece) and a lack of overpasses — most intersections were simply crossovers in the median. Other than some sand dunes near Salamayuca and some gas stations and vendors in Villa Ahumada, the scenery was mostly empty high desert, with barren, isolated peaks rising from the creosote and yucca plain.

Outskirts of Chihuahua

Outskirts of Chihuahua

Passing through Chihuahua, the GPS decided to have one of its periodic freak-outs, sending us off the main highway for mysterious reasons. Looping around an overpass near the University, the engine suddenly died. Fortunately we were moving reasonably quickly near the top of a small hill, so Mike, thinking quickly, was able to coast the van back down the way we had come and directly into the parking lot of a Sam’s Club. Though we could hardly have chosen a better place to break down, it was mid-afternoon on the Saturday before Holy Week in a very catholic country, so it seemed likely we would spend a day or more “visiting” Chihuahua before we could continue.

Mike had fortunately bought deluxe Mexican insurance, which gave us a number with a more-or-less English-speaking person to call, and would pay for the tow. After some wandering around, we figured out that it was a toll-free number, and found a payphone across the street. 45 minutes or so after making the call, a dilapidated tow truck pulled into the lot, and Mike and I began the first of several attempts to explain an apparent fuel pump failure with hand gestures and small words. It was getting on toward evening, so I wasn’t too optimistic, but the tow truck driver thought for a bit, made a call, and told us to hop on board. Perversely, the van decided to start right up and drive onto the tow truck without complaint.

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

Leaving the very American-looking area around the Sam’s Club, we drove east into the barrio. The driver pulled to the side of the lane-and-a-half street and, after some more negotiation, unloaded the van into a “garage” situated on the first floor of what was intended to be a multi-story apartment, with rebar sticking up out of the concrete walls, and an old tarp serving as a partial roof.

Max (r) and replacement

Max (r) and replacement

To my pleased surprise, the mechanics at this inauspicious establishment both spoke English: Jose had voluntarily moved back to Chihuahua after spending 20 years in Washington State, and Reyes had just been deported 3 months ago, leaving a wife and three children behind. Jose seemed content with his lot, but Reyes obviously missed his family, both those still in Washington and those in Michoacan, one of the more drug-gang-infested parts of Mexico. Sensing customers who would pay promptly, they immediately went to work in ghetto fashion, blocking the front wheels with a couple pieces of scrap wood, lifting the rear end off the ground with a hand jack, and crawling under the precariously-lifted car to lower the enormous fuel tank on another jack to get at the fuel pump. Jose had it out in 15 minutes, and things were looking good. Not to mention cheap: 800 pesos for the part and 400 ($27) for labor, or the equivalent of 3 prostitutes for the whole job.

Max checks out my bed

Max checks out my bed

Rather than taking a replacement off a shelf or going over to AutoZone, Jose made a couple of calls, and a young man came by on a motorcycle to pick up the old pump and track down a replacement. He came back quickly, but with something that did not even vaguely resemble the old pump, then left again, promising to return. It was getting on toward evening, so we made a run with Reyes to the local bodega for the mechanics’ evening beer, then returned to sit around and talk about travel, women, and whatever else we could think of. Having a slightly-buzzed mechanic working on the car probably wouldn’t have been especially effective or safe, but it seemed increasingly unlikely the part would come that night, so we were content to relax and watch the neighborhood.

Camping in style

Camping in style

The next-door neighbor, who lived in a slightly-more-complete part of the same unfinished building, came by with some scrap-wood to heat water for his morning shower, and Jose helpfully pointed out that he would have to get by with cold water, since a bit of gas that sloshed out while lowering the fuel tank would probably set the place on fire. A middle-aged woman came by with a shy young boy in tow; I offered him an apple from my supply, which he took after some hesitation.

Mike's accommodations and water heater

Mike’s accommodations and water heater

Later, a young deportee who spoke near-flawless English came by on a bike. He had lived near Denver from a very early age, quitting school in fifth grade to work on a nearby farm. Though he was friendly, I am sort of glad I did not meet him under other circumstances. His tales of hot-wiring cars and joy-riding them around for fun seemed playful, but you got the sense he was something of a tougher customer than the other two.

After going up the block for some tamales, it was time to think about where to sleep. The best option seemed to be the garage, which had both a locking door and a starving pit-bull named Max, so Mike crawled into the back of the still-slightly-jacked van, while I threw out my tarp and bag on the oil-soaked ground nearby. I was a bit concerned that Max might want to cuddle — he was clearly attention-starved — but after checking out my sleeping arrangements, he went over to curl up in his usual place in the “office.”

The party next door quieted down by midnight, and I was able to get a surprisingly good night’s sleep. With some time to kill in the morning before the mechanics returned, Mike and I cooked some corned-beef hash for breakfast, then explored the “shop.” Jose was in the middle of completely rebuilding an engine block for a woman who had driven her car without oil — a two-week job, he said — and a nearby truck looked next in line to receive the same treatment. Once the part arrived, they had the car put back together in 20 minutes, and we were once again on the road south, less than 24 hours behind schedule. This thing still seemed possible.