« |

Getting a Closer Look at Mexico’s Active Volcano

The active Popocatépetl volcanoFew natural wonders are as awe-inspiring as an active volcano, and Popocatépetl rarely disappoints. On a typical day, the second highest peak in Mexico—which rises 17,802 feet above sea level—spews a plume of ash, gas, and steam that can stretch for miles, its trajectory determined by which way the wind happens to be blowing.

For nearly seven years now, I’ve admired this powerful force of nature from a comfortable distance, often perched on the rooftop of our apartment building in San Andrés Cholula, Puebla, some 25 miles away. Countless times I’ve snapped share-worthy photos, swept volcanic debris from our back patio, and watched the evening sun dip behind Popo and neighboring (and dormant) Iztaccíhuatl as it sets to the west. Nature’s majesty never, ever gets old.

I finally had a closer encounter with Popocatépetl—or “Don Goyo,” as the volcano is colloquially known (“Goyo” is short for San Gregorio, its patron saint)—this spring, when friends of ours organized an overnight trip to a town in the folds of Iztaccíhuatl. Our first stop was El Paso de Cortés, the mountain pass through which Spanish soldiers are said to have marched in the 16th century to reach the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, now known as Mexico City.

The Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley at duskPicnic at El Paso de CortésView of Iztaccíhuatl from El Paso de Cortés

Natural Wonder

This gap between the volcanoes today affords visitors access to Parque Nacional Izta-Popo, as well as spectacular views of the mountains and the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley whenever the weather cooperates. So, one fine Saturday in March, we packed a lunch and our overnight bags and headed up the long, winding dirt road from Cholula to El Paso de Cortés. It was a truly glorious day, and our party of six arrived at the pass with plenty of time to check out the small museum in the visitor’s center, take pictures, and enjoy a leisurely picnic beneath the pine trees before the afternoon clouds moved in.

Later, a few miles south of the national park, we settled into our digs at Villa Buenavista Turistíca, a rustic “resort” with a hotel and cabins, a restaurant, and a tiny lake for fishing. Although the fireplace was tempting—it can be quite chilly at high altitudes—rather than linger in our cabin nestled deep in the woods, we headed uphill to a private home on a ridge overlooking the valley. We got slightly lost en route and couldn’t get a cell phone signal, so we parked and hitched a ride with a local resident. Not only did he know the way, but his 4×4 deftly handled the street’s unpaved switchbacks, two of which required backing up to make their extremely sharp turns. At the house, we were treated to a lovely view at dusk, followed by rain showers.

A couple of hours later, however, the clouds parted and Popocatépetl—which loomed in the moonlight—was gloriously dusted with snow. A soft red glow, presumably coming from the molten lava inside, rimmed its crater. Whoa. I’m fairly certain that the word “breathtaking” comes from sights like these. One thing’s for sure: No photo my iPhone could take would ever do it justice. I felt fortunate to be standing there among friends, appreciating the scene, knowing that such moments rarely occur more than once in a lifetime.

The next morning, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Buenavista restaurant, then decided to get a glimpse of La Ermita del Silencio and the other “resort” in the area. The hillside hermitage, founded by a Buddhist monk, offers a quiet retreat for individuals and groups seeking a beautiful place to meditate. The facility is open to the public only on weekends when it’s vacant—but the grounds outside are gorgeous, with waterfalls and views of Popocatépetl. Meanwhile, Villa Ecoturistica La Venta provides an alternate eatery, plus hiking, fishing, and zip-lining opportunities. (For those interested in camping on Izta, this is perhaps the safest place to do so.)

Inside Buenavista’s restaurantLa Ermita del SilencioWaterfall at Villa Ecoturistica La Venta

Local Legends

Poblanos tell a lot of stories about the volcanoes that surround Puebla. Perhaps the most familiar is the legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.

Many slight variations of this tale exist, but here is my translation of the official version that’s posted on the wall inside the national park’s museum:

In Aztec mythology, Izta was a beautiful princess who fell in love with the handsome and brave warrior Popo. Her father sent Popo into battle, promising him her hand in marriage if he brought back the enemy’s head. Before Popo left, he and Izta swore their undying devotion to each other. But while Popo was away, a Tlaxcalteca who had eyes for Izta told her that Popo had been killed in battle and convinced her to marry him instead.

Some time later, Popo returned victorious, and Izta—having already offered herself to another man—committed suicide, because she couldn’t be with her true love. A heart-broken Popo subsequently died of sadness. That night, the Aztecs watched as two massive mountains emerged from the valley floor: one shaped like a woman in repose and the other like a man kneeling before her. The gods had turned Izta and Popo into volcanoes to forever remind people of their ill-fated romance. As for the Tlaxcalteca, he became Citlaltépetl (aka Pico de Orizaba), who watches the pair he could never really separate from a distance.

To this day, Popo (a personification of Tlaloc, an Aztec god of water and fertility) and Izta continue to be revered by some Mexicans as deities. Residents of the area around the active volcano today are known to deliver offerings—music, food, liquor—to appease him.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Travel tips: Before heading to El Paso de Cortés, it’s a good idea to check the weather, the latest activity report for the volcano, and the condition of your vehicle. Access to Popocatépetl is strictly prohibited. Permits are required to hike, bike, or climb Iztaccíhuatl; download and fill out the form, pay 28 pesos per person at the visitor center, and then wear the wristband you’re given. For additional information, please refer to the various links in the post above.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Tags: , ,

3 Responses to “Getting a Closer Look at Mexico’s Active Volcano”

  1. CR Ruano says:

    Hope y’all are fine and that you’re taking a well-deserved Boreal Summer break. I’m sure you’ve heard/read/saw this many times already but I miss your updates and hope to read more from you soon. All the best. CR

  2. Rebecca says:

    Hi Carl. Thanks for saying so! All’s well, just having an incredibly busy summer. Stay tuned for new posts soon. ¡Saludos!

  3. Rafael says:

    Hola! That´s an awesome post! So inspiring..

    I´m going to Puebla in November – mainly to climb Iztaccihuatl volcano.
    I´d like to ask you two questions: do you know if it´s possible to climb it in November? If so, can you recomend me any agencies in Puebla where I can reserve that tour?

    Thank you!!!