Did you know Mexico has mountains? Not just tall hills, but legitimate mountains? Up until about 6 months ago I never gave Mexico’s landscape much thought — it had beaches, that’s all I really knew. Well, boys + girls, I am here to tell you a little secret. Mexico has mountains! Really big, incredibly steep + stunningly beautiful mountains!
Millions of people travel from the United States to Mexico for beautiful beaches. Now, I can’t blame them [Sayulita was awesome] but if you have a single mountainous bone in your body, y’all need to wander away from the sand + surf to find yourself a mountain top!
I only had the time + resources to trek up a few mountains, but I was lucky enough to get a little taste of the variety Mexico’s mountains have to offer. While I tend to do most of my travel alone I did get to meet up with friends for a few of these summits…friends who had cars!
that mountains off in the distance is our destination, we never saw the summit
First, good luck pronouncing this mountain…ask a few locals + feel accomplished with your life as you watch them laugh your attempts! The mountain itself is located just over an hour southeast of Mexico City + is known for being the “sleeping princess” who died of grief after she was told her true love, Popocatépetl, had died in battle. Popocatépetl is the active volcano just south of Iztaccihuatl. Seriously, go read about the legend of these two volcanoes!
…that little gray chunk is the refugio we weathered out some epic storms inside of!
We attempted to summit this mountain three times over the course of two days — the afternoon storms are seriously legit. The prime summit season is Central Mexico is during the winter months, we were there in mid-May with fingers crossed the weather would love us. It did not. We got stormed off all three times, once getting caught at the 15,200 foot refugio during an impressive storm. It’s an incredibly gorgeous mountain, just be prepared for the violent mood swings of a broken-hearted sleeping princess!
Pico de Orizaba
After two days of attempting to trek our way up to the top of Iztaccihuatl we gave up + headed east to chase down an even bigger summit. Jeremy + Robb made their way up to the summit of Orizaba just before the New Year, yet it was drawing him back for another summit. This time around he was hoping to go faster with less gear. Initially I was completely on board, but lack of sleep + shoddy nutritional choices had me feeling the altitude in ways that had me worried about a trek that would take me outside of my comfort zone with thin air + mountaineering skills.
We arrived at the Orizaba refugio, which was nestled at the base of a massive mountain just above 14,000 feet, as the sun was starting to sink below the horizon. The refugio was empty so we set right into cleaning it up + whipping up a feast of pasta + sauce. We burrowed down into our sleeping bags around 10pm, anxiously awaiting the beeping of our alarms at 1am. The weather gave us a small window of “clear” weather + we weren’t going to miss it! Unfortunately, my body was not on board with a summit — less than 30 minutes into the trek my heart rate went all wonky + I couldn’t catch my breath. Deep down inside, I knew I’d probably be able to fight to the top but that would require us to slow way down + potentially jeopardize both of our summits.
Feeling like crap, emotionally + physically, I called it + watched Jeremy’s headlamp disappear up the mountain before I stumbled back down to the refugio. As a compromise with myself, I drug my sleeping bag + bivy out to the open space around the refugio + crashed into a deep sleep for the first time in days. While it wasn’t an easy call to make, it was the right call. I awoke with the sunshine + just moments before Jeremy came running down the mountain. Without me trudging along with him he snagged a summit in about 8 hours, nearly half the time it took for his first ascent.
With a few more days open before we parted ways on our own adventures Jeremy + I made a stop by the park surrounding La Malinche for one last summit. I’m still not sure where he dug up the energy + enthusiasm to scramble up another mountain, but the afternoon of his Orizaba summit we headed up La Malinche. This mountain topped out above 14,000 feet + while it wasn’t my highest trek of the week it was my first summit. Finally!
It felt weird to be up on a mountain top without a sea of snowy peaks surrounding me, which is something I’ve come to expect from summits in the Rocky Mountains. Instead, we were the only high peak in sight with a few speckles of civilization far below us. While the mountain felt like home our view [+ the mountain graffiti] put our true location into perspective.
Maybe my body had finally acclimated to the thin air, but this 14k mountain was far easier to summit than any Colorado 14er I’ve climbed. The actual climbs were a bit relentless + my legs occasionally begged for breaks but my lungs were on top of the world, literally. Along the way we watched the cloudy skies, raising windy rain clouds up the mountainside. The park rangers stopped us once to ensure we were aware of the risks. After showing them we were prepared for the weather + impeding darkness they let us continue on. Later that night, after we had set up camp at a campsite near the road, they checked in with us again.
It’s going to be a bit different than the US exploring you’re used to but…get out there + explore Mexico’s mountain trails!
Tips for Trekking Mexico’s Mountains
One thing that’s definitely worth noting is that the trails on Mexico’s mountains are not exactly well marked or well defined. Multiple trails merge together on Iztaccihualt + we ended up on the wrong route, twice. On La Marta the trail jogged along a 4WD road for a bit + there is no way I would have seen the cairn across the ditch leading up the mountain side on my own. The “trailheads” for both of Pico Norte’s route have you feeling like a trespasser for the first quarter mile.
By no means are the trails impassible or unsafe — just be aware that you won’t be following routes that have signs [yea, I’ve seen two trail signs, total] or consistent trail markings. Give yourself extra time + snacks to deal with the route finding, because this little guy might be the only thing you have to follow…
yes, that counts as a “trail marker” in Mexico!
Unfortunately, it is also extremely difficult to find good, reliable trail information online. It just doesn’t exist or is so inaccurate + incomplete that you don’t feel comfortable using it. If you’re in a city [like Monterrey] it may be easiest to just head in the general direction of the trail + poke around until you find it. Sounds sketchy, but the locals living in the residential neighborhoods near the trailheads were great about pointing me in the right direction.
Speaking of “sketchy” — the vast majority of my time in Mexico was solo travel, as an American, English-speaking female. While I did take a few extra pre-cautions [such as camping with someone I knew + roaming aimlessly during daylight hours] I never felt like I was in an unsafe situation. There are definitely parts of Mexico that are unsafe + bandits are very real. There are also Policia Montanas + permitting systems put in place to keep everyone safer. Use your best judgement, follow your gut + go with someone if you’re really roaming far.
Lastly, if you’re going to be heading out into the country side to chase down a few mountain summits invest in this book — Montanas de Mexico, by Jorge A Neyra Jauregui. It’s written entirely in Spanish. However, you can easily find the basic information necessary like trailhead locations, detailed route maps, camping areas, route distance + terrain. It’s incredibly helpful + worth every penny, twice.
Now that you have some photographic motivation…to go explore Mexico, beyond the beaches!