Hiking Among Volcanoes

The Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt is a mountain goes through the centre-south of Mexico, from the Gulf to the Pacific. Here it is known as the Sierra Nevada, and it comprises all of the most famous volcanoes—Iztaccíhuatl, Popocatépetl, Paricutín, Nevado de Toluca—, as well as the third highest point in North America, the Pico de Orizaba. Most of these peaks have snow all year round. All of them are open to climbers and hikers as well, except for the Popocatépetl, also known as Don Goyo, due to its constant activity.

Last Sunday I woke up at 5.30, ready get on a van to Amecameca and then to the National Park Iztaccíhuatl-Popocatépetl, eastwards from Mexico City. I had packed the day before: gloves, a hat, protein bars, water, a compass and signal mirror, a raincoat, extra socks, sunglasses and sunscreen. At 6.30 I was at the arranged location where a group of hikers was to pick me up. They were a bit early and we were soon on our way to the Iztaccíhuatl, one of the most famous volcanoes in the volcanic belt that crosses Mexico from east to west.

It took around 1 hour and a half to arrive at our first stop, the small town of Amecameca. Amecameca looks just like any other town, except for the two giant volcanoes that loom in the background. No matter where you go in the town, you can just lift your head a bit and see the Popocatépetl’s white top and an occasional smoke. You can also see the many signs informing of the evacuation routes in case of a volcanic explosion. The Izta, or Ixta, also looms in the background, a more tranquil and less imposing shape that is actually formed by seven small volcanoes. 

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View of the Popocatépetl from Paso de Cortés.

After breakfasting in Amecameca we got on the van again and used the next hour or so to put on our hiking boots and jackets. We were going to start hiking on an altitude of 4,200 meters above sea level up to as far up as we could make it. Both the Izta and Popo are in the National Park and, in between of them, there’s an unmissable pit stop called Paso de Cortés. If the weather is nice and the visibility good, as it usually is in December, you can see the five most famous mountaintops of the country (which happen to be volcanoes) from here: to the North, the Iztaccíhuatl; to the south, the Popocatépetl; to the east, la Malinche, and a bit further behind in the same direction, the Pico the Orizaba (the highest point in Mexico); and to the west, the Nevado de Toluca. Paso de Cortés also offers one of the best views of the Popocatépetl, but alas, no toilets.

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A first glance at the Iztaccíhuatl, also known as “the sleeping lady”.

From Paso de Cortés to the place where we parked and started the hike, La Joya, the views are also exceptional. The region’s vegetation is mainly composed by pines, oyamels, oaks and alders. Higher up, the vegetation is the same as the one you find on mountaintops in northern regions of the globe, low grassland known as alpine meadows, very uncommon in Mexico. Among the animals that live there in the mountains there are white deer, foxes, rabbits, coyotes and the very famous teporingos, an endangered species of rabbit with rounded ears. All the way up to La Joya is just tall trees towering up to where the eye can reach, and a green light inundates the highway. It was a hell of a bumpy ride.

La Joya is your typical National Park parking area. Backpacks piled next to cars, hikers putting on their jackets and tying their boot laces. That’s where we begun. We had with us a mountain guide. It is very easy to get lost because the grassland covers the paths almost completely. There are six different hiking routes, we went from La Joya to our first stop, Boca de Tiburón or Shark’s Mount (a triangular cave that gives the impression of being a shark half out of the ocean). That took around two hours. Being early December and a perfectly clear day, three layers of clothes were okay, I did not need the jacket until the way down. The path was frozen in some parts and muddy where the snow had already melted, so hiking sticks are very handy. Overall we found perhaps ten other people, it is a fairly tranquil place.

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Up to the cascades.

The last stop in our itinerary was 4,800 meters above sea level. We stopped next to the cascades, a parallel spot to the one called Ojo de Buey, but lower. At this point, the huge clouds of smoke that the Popocatépetl expelled gave the frozen grass and ocasional ice stalactites hanging from the rocks a surreal air. It was too cold to believe that we were walking right next to a smoking volcano, and yet we were. The winds rose at 3.00 pm, when we started going down. Looking down all we could see was grassland and, beyond, only the clouds.

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Last stop. The smokes from the Popo behind me.

Walking at this altitude can be a bit tough, I don’t think I’d ever done it before. Our mountain guide told us at the beginning that the trick not to run out of breath was to take small steps and never big leaps: to walk slowly, one foot barely in front of the other with no rush, but never stopping. The beauty I find in hiking comes from the same principle: you’re not running a race, you’re just walking. Setting one foot after the other repeatedly becomes hypnotic, it is a retreat into an internal world that is somehow intimately connected to the outside world. Your footsteps blend in with your surroundings, your breath acquires the same nature of the sounds you hear around you, the rustling of leaves or the chirping of birds. It is a paradoxical activity, for even when you’re with someone else, you’re really alone in the world, and also alone with the world. And wherever you’re going, when you get there your only reward is to look back in exhaustion. There’re few better rewards in life. On this hike I remember thinking, “I am as tall as the clouds”. It is a great feeling.

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Hiking the Izta is a part of a list of hikes in Mexico I intend to do before fall 2019. Next on the list are: La Malinche, Nevado de Toluca, Desierto de los Leones and Pico de Orizaba. I’ll keep you all posted.

Peña de Bernal

“What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations.”
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I used to laugh when, in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice movie, Mary Bennet says, “What are men compared to rocks and mountains?”. Now I strongly agree with Mary, a very munch underrated character. However, the actual quote from Jane Austen’s novel is spoken by Elizabeth, and its the epigraph of this post. And even if in the first part she’s just obviously throwing shade at Darcy, the second part accurately expresses something I have been thinking about a lot latety: it is really hard to describe nature once you’re away from it, just as it has become harder and harder to orientate ourselves using natural landscapes. Many natural features —mountains primarly— do tend to be “jumbled together” in my imagination when I recall trips or even in my everyday life. Where I’m going with this is, real observation is needed to identify natural landscapes and I’m trying to educate myself on the subject, which is why I’ve decided to take regular expeditions into nature and look closely.

The first one of these trips —of which of course I’ll be writing—was to Peña de Bernal, a monolith in the town of San Sebastián Bernal in Querétaro, just two hours away from Mexico City. This particular monolith had me like, “what, indeed, are men compared to rocks or mountains? Preach, Mary”.

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A monolith is basically a large piece of rock. Unlike most mountains, monoliths are huge rocks and not a compound of huge rocks. Now, another thing I hadn’t tought much about until I read Bryson’s Walk in the Woods is that mountains have not been there forever. Most mountains have been there for thousands of years, but just because their life span is much larger than ours, it doesn’t mean they don’t come into existence or, eventually, stop existing. In fact all mountains are slowly washing way as I write this. But very, very slowly, just as they came to be millions of years ago. This particupar monolith, the Peña de Bernal, is thought to be around 8 million years old, but sources differ. And it is massive, one of the largest in the world, just like Yosemite’s El Capitan and The Devil’s Tower in the USA.

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To get to San Sebastián Bernal you have first to get to Querétaro, the capital city of the state of the same name, in the centre of Mexico. Querétaro’s weather is very different from what you get in Mexico City: it is semi desertic, which means it’s sunny and hot during the day, and cold as heck during the night. So be prepared. My friend and I agreed to meet at Querétaro’s bus station and once there, we got on a bus going to Tolimán. These buses leave every hour or so and have big, yellow arrow, so they’re hard to miss. They stop a few times before arriving in Bernal, but you can just ask the bus driver.

The ride lasts about 45 minutes and you’ll see the monolith as you get closer. We arrived in the centre of town and had lunch right away. Bernal is famous for its blue corn gorditas, a kind of pan-cooked dough with different fillings. They’re delicious and better than anything you could get in a fancy restaurant (except for wine— there are many vineyards around, so have some wine too). After lunch we got to our accommodation, a small cabin in a place called Villas la Bisnaga. The place is really nice and cozy, and the staff is really friendly. It’s a bit far from the centre but that has its advantages too: you can see the stars, there’s only the sound of the wind and some crickets at night, and you get this view when you go out:

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It was also EMPTY. We were the only one’s there and it was heaven to get there after the hike. Now, hiking to the very top of the Peña is not really possible. You can do a one-hour hike and then, if you like, climb from there. You can rent equipement or bring your own, and specify what you’ll be doing at the registration office when you start. I am not a climber, so my friend and I just did the hike. It was a sunny day and we were sweating 15 minutes in. It is a pretty easy hike for most of the way, so a pair of running shoes or light hiking boots should make it.

My friend and I were there on a Saturday and the place was a bit crowded (specially by school groups). The monolith is basically in the town, and despite being a protected area, there are lots vendors and hubbub where the registration office is. That Saturday was actually very busy, but as you go higher up, you’ll see less and less people. The climate means vegetation is mostly composed of holly oaks, mezquites and other small shrubs, so it’s not a shady walk. As you go up, vegetation becomes scarcer and on the final part of the hike it’s basically gone. Higher still, the surrounding landscape opens up; a couple of small towns next to green crops and, in the distance, to the north, the hills of the Sierra Gorda and El Zamorano.

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The shapes and colours of this landscape were familiar to me in many ways. Blue hills, scattered clouds and rolling plains are features easily found in the centre of Mexico. These areas— Guanajuato, Querétaro and even San Luis Potosí —share the same climate, where the weather changes depending on the altitude, which is to say, changes a lot because the terrain is rugged and irregular. Hills and mountains, moors and valleys. That is why these areas are good for vineyards despite not being the usual grape growing areas: on top of the hills the weather is not that hot and yet it gets a lot of sun. September, for example, is a rainy month in Mexico City, but Querétaro had clear skies and starry nights.

As it usually happens, I was amazed at how the continuous effort of putting one foot after the other can get you to wonderful places. After some minutes of physical effort you stop thinking about the sun hitting the back of your neck or the uncomfortable sensation of sweat beneath your backpack, or even the annoying people who are sitting around, yelling or listening to loud music. You just walk and walk, climb some stones, jump some patches and there are less and less people to be seen around. It doesnt matter if you’re with someone, hiking tends to become a solitary activity, in the best way.

Most walks and hikes are rewarding in themselves—walking is the reward of walking—but going up a hill, a mountain or a monolith has an added charm: the views. Up there, after one hour of moving, my friend and I just found a spot to sit down and look around. And looking at the mountains in the distance and the clouds and the vast extensions of land I realised I didn’t know much about my own country’s landscapes. I didn’t know what the names of these mountains were, or even if I was looking north. I didn’t know the names of the plants I could see, I couldn’t tell how high up we were.

Eveything I could see and feel and smell and hear was already being “jumbled together” in my imagination. Sitting there I thought of how hard it is, at least for me, to retain experiences in detail; most of the time what is left is a flicker, a certain kind of light and the rustling of the wind, some blue mountains in the distance. But later, writing about it, these mountains acquire a definite shape and they become a Sierra, an invisible compass appears over a giant map and tiny labels appear next to extensions of land, rivers and even streets. Is that experience mine then? Certainly not altogether after I’ve looked up the names of what I’ve seen and found out the height (433 meters) of the mountain and the type of rock (porphyrytic)… but perhaps I make them mine and create something else altogether, partially mine and partially artificial, but whole.

I don’t know yet if knowing the names and the rocks or the historical facts about the places I visit, specially natural places, is “better”. I only know once I do some research on something, then I can find similar features at some other location and then this new experience won’t be all “jumbled together” in my mind, I’ll sort of know where I am and what I am seeing and I’ll remember it with more detail. That is enough for now. One book I am reading now on the subject is called The Forgotten Art of Reading Nature Signs by Tristan Gooley and it is simply amazing how every rock and plant and cloud can tell so many things about the place and the weather, the season, the time, its own history. What I like about Gooley’s input is how he stresses that it’s not about naming things, it’s about observing. This was not the first time I hiked, not even my longest hike (or even my first time at Peña de Bernal), but it was a very different experience.

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The way down was a bit more challenging than the way up. This was the part when I was glad I was wearing hiking boots. I was also glad my knees work alright because at some points it was really easier to just jump. All in all, it is a fairly easy, very rewarding hike. Just make sure you do it in the morning and, if you can, not during the weekend. We did not do these two things.

Whether you go hiking or not, the town of San Sebastián Bernal is a nice, still relatively calm small town. Like most Mexican towns, it has a pretty main square and church (Santa Cruz chapel) around which you can take a stroll and have some ice cream or coffee. The town is pretty similar to any old Mexican town (this one was founded in 1647), what is actually striking is the contrast of 17th and 18th century architecture against the huge monolith, which is visible from any part of the town.

As I said before, our accommodation was a bit far from the centre of the town. Basically we just had to walk in a straight line towards the East until we saw the building, but the road was not paved and half of the way was uphill. This lonely road didn’t prove that scary in the morning, but walking it at night was an option we didn’t even consider after our host told us to “just beware the packs of dogs” after we asked if it was safe to walk home. So, after dinner and dessert in town (a piece of traditional bread we didn’t like but which my friend ate whole anyway) we decided to take a “mototaxi”, which is basicaly a motorbike with some sort of two-place bench stuck to it. This is an interesting experience I definitely recommend. We even had a pleasant conversation with our driver, who was a local.

This weekend proved to be a compound of experiences I had become familiar with in other parts of the country, specially my home state: stone paved streets, churches, unregulated alcohol commerce, people hiking in flats and high heels (okay this was the first time I saw the last one), new “traditions” which are not really “mexican” but they kind of are now because they attract tourism (see Día de Muertos after Coco and James Bond, an article I’ll write soon— or see this article on creating traditions for the sake of tourism). But despite the familiarity of these experiences, sights and landscapes, I tried to observe them in a different way. Observing things too much can result in what Schlovsky and the Russian formalists called “defamiliarisation”, and I think that’s a great way to explain what happened to me that weekend. It is something I wish I could do more often: to try to look at things instead of just assuming they’re there. For example, every day on my way to uni I get some cool views of the Popocatepetl volcano, but I rarely appreciate them. I rarely think of all the things that are wrong with Mexico City too (it’s basically unwalkable), but I guess that is self preservation.

The moral of the story, if there is any, is that we should think of Elizabeth Bennet when traveling (specially in our native countries), and try to really see things, breathe deeply and feel and smell  what is around us with intention. The other moral is that there are things we should never underestimate: Mary Bennet’s advice, or the power of nature to alter our perceptions of our daily life. In these crazy times it is necessary to think that even mountains come to pass, and that it is okay to remain silent and realise the place, the physical place, we have in the world: the earth below us, the sky above and the mountains in the distance, as cheesy as it sounds.