The Legend of Izta & Popo - A Love Story

The Legend of Izta & Popo - A Love Story

February 2023

Our itinerary included the ascent of the Iztaccihuatl volcano. We were both really craving a bit of nature again after all the colonial cities and Mexico City in recent weeks so this excursion came at the right time.

Iztaccihuatl, together with Popocatepetl, forms a double volcano and can be spotted on the horizon from a great distance away. It was still a hell of a job for us to reach the access road. It was weekend and in the village of Huejotzingo all the main streets were suddenly closed due to a carnival festival. It soon became clear to us that a Mexican reroute works slightly different than at home. Street after street was closed, causing our navigation to quickly give up too. We tried to drive around the village in a wide arc, which meant we ended up on narrow field roads that are probably normally only used by tractors. Miraculously, we managed to reach the other end of the main street and prepared ourselves for today’s “dessert”.

The access road to the Parque Nacional Iztaccihuatl-Popcatepetl is unpaved and in not too good condition. If a road in Mexico is not paved, one should really start worrying right away. The problem with this road is that it is 20 kilometres long and reaches an altitude of almost 3,700 metres! We had already lost a lot of time on the odyssey through Huejotzingo and we were a bit worried about whether we would reach our sleeping place before dark. In Mexico, you don’t drive in the dark and certainly not on a road full of potholes. It became a hellish climb and by far this road for us comes in at number 1 ‘worst roads so far’. We eventually arrived at the visitor centre shortly before dark, where we would also spent the night.


That it was going to be a cold night we knew. At least the “sleeping height record” was broken. The parking heater was programmed again and at 6 o’clock we crawled out of our sleeping bags. Way too early and way too cold, but if you want to hike up a volcano over 5,000 meters, you have to have something to spare for it. We could drive the last seven kilometers where the hiking trail would start and, in the meantime, as Romy went to take care of the entrance tickets, Eddy scratched the ice from the windows again. It didn’t quite go smoothly with getting the obligatory “permit” to drive further up the last bit but eventually it has worked out.

Ice-scratching in the morning
Sunrise at the visitor center
Smoking Popocatepetl
Applying for the entry tickes

Both volcanoes Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl are still considered active, whereas the Popo regularly spews high plumes of smoke and dust into the air, the Izta has been quiet for quite some time. As a result, the Popo is off limits to tourists. Slowly but surely, we hiked up and, apart from the altitude, suffered a lot from the strong wind that sometimes rose from behind the rocks. The view towards the valley was impressive and we could even see Mexico City in the distance. The higher we got the better the view also of the smoking Popo, which sometimes disappeared behind a cloud cover but reappeared soon after.

In Aztec mythology, Iztaccíhuatl was a princess who fell in love with one of her father’s warriors, Popocatépetl. The emperor sent Popocatépetl to war in Oaxaca and promised him Iztaccíhuatl as his wife when he returned. Iztaccíhuatl mistakenly learned that Popocatépetl had died in battle, and she died of grief. When Popocatépetl returned and found his beloved dead, he took her body to a place outside Tenochtitlan. The gods covered them both with snow and turned them into volcanoes.

The climb to the summit at 5230 metres was not our plan and would not have been entirely smart even without some acclimatisation beforehand. At Refugio de los 100 at 4730 meters, we reached our highest point and enjoyed the view and a peanut butter sandwich. The climb to this altitude took us three hours and in two hours we were back at the car. The road to get here is admittedly deplorably bad and our car suffered again on the way down. But in hindsight, it had all been worth it again!

In Cholula we allowed ourselves a campsite with hot shower. No unnecessary luxury after working up a sweat on the mountain.

Campsite Cholula

Cholula has been permanently inhabited since the 5th century BC. By colectivo, we drove to the centre where we continued on foot. Cholula is the site of the largest structure (regarding its volume) ever built by human hands, the Tenapa Pyramid of Cholula. Unfortunately, not much is left of this pyramid other than a large hill on top of which a church has been built later.

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Church on top of the pyramid hill
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Iglesia Nuestra Senora de los Remedios

This church is the work of Hernan Cortez. The Spaniard who also passed by here on his victory tour of Mexico. After first causing a massacre among the indigenous, like everywhere else he passed, he decided to build 365 churches. One for every day of the year. In the end, 50 churches were built, 39 of which are still standing today. Still quite a number for a town of just over 100,000 inhabitants. We climbed the hill from where you have a 360-degree round view of the wide surroundings with the Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes on one side and the city of Puebla on the other.

After a second night in Cholula, a day of driving was on the agenda. 390 kilometres to Oaxaca had to be covered. We arrived there around 4 pm and drove to the car park where also Thomas and Sima had spent the night before. This car park was super central in town, but it was more like a backyard with several parked cars. There were flats of a very simple character and a lot of chickens. It was dusty and rustic, but the owner was friendly and the location unbeatable.

Overnight place Oaxaca

In the evening, we went to the Zocalo, the central square of the city. There was a lot of hustle and bustle, locals and tourists, musicians and street vendors, it was really colourful and pleasant. We watched this for a while and then strolled through the colourful streets of the city, that made a very relaxed and friendly impression on us. The huge church of Santo Domingo de Guzman impressed us immensely with its stucco relief on the gallery at the entrance and the richly decorated ceiling and dome of the entire church. It is one of the most beautiful churches we have visited so far.

Right next to the church there was beautiful street music to enjoy. On the way home, we passed through the big market, where most of the stalls were already closed. We then looked forward to a good night’s sleep after this exhausting day of driving.

Then the visit to Monte Alban was on the agenda. Not far away, but because of the expected heat and crowds of tourists, we wanted to be at the pyramids early. Monte Alban was founded around 900 – 500 BC by the Olmecs and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the Maya had also been here, it had its heyday between 300 and 900 AD under the Zapotecs, who also made it their capital. Completely abandoned around 900 AD, it was still used as a burial site by the Mixtecs and later the Aztecs from the 12th century onwards. Despite the many tourist groups, it was still relatively quiet in the morning and we walked through the complex, which still has many well-preserved buildings.

The climb up the steep steps to the southern platform was sweaty, but the view from up there compensated for the exertion. The relief panels, the so-called “Danzantes”, were also interesting. These do not show dancers, as originally assumed, but tortured and sacrificed prisoners of war. Over 300 of these steles with the oldest hieroglyphs in Mesoamerica have been found so far. We completed the tour via the northern platform, which must once have been the centre of the rulers.

Los Danzantes
View from Plataforma Norte

We left Oaxaca on our way to a campsite east of the city. First we visited the tree of Tule. A gigantic cypress tree that is over 2000 years old and has a fabulous circumference of over 50 meters. The widest part measures 14 meters and it takes 30 people to embrace this giant. We had never seen anything like it.

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After marvelling at this wonder of nature, we drove to the small village of Santa Catalina, where we were warmly welcomed by Sabine on her property. Emigrated from Germany more than 10 years ago, she offers two small flats for rent here and also pitches for campers. An oasis of peace with German cleanliness, what more could one wish for. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the sky slowly turned orange and the lights were lit in lower Oaxaca and we looked out as far as Monte Alban.

After two days, we said goodbye to Sabine and headed for the mountains. The hinterland of Oaxaca is supposed to be good hiking territory and we wanted to explore that. The “Pueblos Mancomunados” – an association of several mountain villages for ecotourism purposes – are located here. The dirt road to these villages was in much better condition than the ones we had experiended recently. We therefore drove uphill at a smooth pace and soon found ourselves 1,000 meters or so higher until we reached Benito Juarez. At the tourist office of this small mountain village, we received some hiking information for today and tomorrow. Before heading out, we ate a delicious filled quesadilla at a local restaurant and then set off.

Road into Sierra Nortede Oaxaca

In 45 minutes, we walked to El Mirador, a 360-degree viewpoint with a rickety viewing tower. The view towards the valley was beautiful. The city of Oaxaca could even be spotted in the distance. We doubted whether it was a good idea to climb the tower. The view won’t be much different from 20 metres higher and the risk of injury or worse seemed high. We couldn’t resist clambering up anyway and braving the danger. Once at the top, we also noted that while the wooden planks may have had nails holding them together in the past, this was no longer the case for every plank. We quickly took a photo and climbed back down.

By car, we continued our route over the ridge towards Latuvi and reported to an ecotourism office for the second time today. For tomorrow we had planned to hike a section of the Camino Real and wanted to know the best way to go about it and where to stay the night. A nice employee enthusiastically shared his knowledge with us and we drove right into the valley to the river from where tomorrow’s hike could start immediately. The only spot along the river where our car would fit and be somewhat straight was full of cow pats. There was a sign hanging from the tree showing that this was really the camping place our enthusiast from the tourism office had been talking about after all.

Campsite at the river

The entire Camino Real connects the Caribbean coast with the Pacific one and was already used by the Aztecs as a walking and transportation path. We were glad the sun showed up at one point because without it, that early it was still quite chilly in the shade! We crossed the valley where the trail followed the river up and down. It was mainly the colourful birds of all shapes and sizes that cheered us up, showing themselves more and more as the temperature rose. From time to time we passed tiny famrsteads along the way. At a beautiful bridge over a river, we made a lunch break and turned around for the way back to the car

These two days in the Sierra Norte were beautiful. It was a small diversions into the mountains, but we had enjoyed the peace and quiet. This tasted like more.

Eddy and Romy van Es © 2020, infected.nl. All Rights Reserved.

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