Unless you’re gazing out of an airplane window, you might not notice that Mexico City is surrounded by mountains, including the second and third highest in the country. But when you escape the dense neighborhoods of this mega-metropolis, you can see the steep slopes and sometimes snow-capped peaks off in the distance.
At least ten national parks lie within driving distance of the city, meaning ziplines, ATM rentals, horses, old ruined convents, waterfalls, caves, and hiking trails crossing expanses of pine forest. You might even see animals like white-tailed deer, weasels, the tiny teporingo rabbit, long-tailed wood partridges, horned lizards, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes.
The two biggest mountains near Mexico City are actually volcanos, one active and the other long dormant. Active Popocatépetl has a classic cone with a wisp of smoke coming from the crater, while Iztaccíhuatl has a rocky, jagged peak that gives few clues to its volcanic origins.
These two pre-Hispanic names are quite a mouthful, so they’re usually abbreviated as Popo and Izta (pronounced EES-ta). Popo is off-limits to hiking because of regular activity; significant eruptions happened most recently in 2000 and 2005, and it ejects long columns of smoke nearly every day. So the spot for hiking is on Izta, an arduous, high-altitude hike that’s only for the experienced.
Want to hike the Iztaccihuatl volcano on a tour from Puebla? Check out this full day hike in Izta-Popo National Park.
The volcanos were revered as gods by the native Mexica, along with neighboring peak Tlaloc, named after the rain god once believed to reside in the mountain. The ruins of an ancient shrine are on the summit of Mount Tlaloc, where sacrifices of children occurred for the sake of summoning the indispensable water from the sky.
In the Nahuatl language, Popocatépetl means “mountain that steams,” as it’s been active for as long as it’s had the name. Iztaccíhuatl means “white woman” because, like many mountains in the world, people have identified the features of a reclining body in its crags and cliffs. Its many peaks are named after the white woman’s body parts, including her feet, knees, belly button, chest, and head.
Created in 1935, Iztaccíhuatl-Popocatépetl Zoquiapan National Park comprises the two volcanos and the broad saddle between them, which runs along the border of the State of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides, and the state of Puebla to the east.
This was our destination for a Saturday of hiking. My wife and I left at five-thirty in the cold morning to begin the drive from Toluca, a mid-sized city on the opposite side of Mexico City from the national park.
Mexico City normally has some of the worst traffic in the world, but driving in the sparse early-morning weekend traffic was easy. The sun rose, beaming orange and yellow through car-exhaust haze, as we changed from multilane highways to inner-city avenues and back again, following directions to the village of Amecameca at the foot of the mountain slopes.
Leaving the highway, we drove past tamal sellers on their yellow tricycle carts, pickup trucks overflowing with pineapples and prickly pears for sale, and stray dogs sleeping in the street, who woke and scurried away always at the last second. Convoluted onramps and unmarked intersections led to a narrow two-lane road on a steady incline lined with squat concrete buildings in various degrees of disrepair. The town’s density subsided, the uphill became steeper, and suddenly we were flanked by open fields of mud and grass, with towering thick-trunked fir and cedar trees all around.
This was the road to the national park, its black asphalt alternately gleaming from morning dew or covered in fallen pine needles. Hand-painted signs hung from trees, advertising private nature parks for ziplines and horseback riding, rustic taco restaurants, and stands for pulque, a pungent white alcoholic drink homebrewed from the heart of the enormous maguey, the largest agave in Mexico. Many magueys grew on the high banks of the road, their broad leaves ending in sharp points, with every tenth or so plant sprouting an asparagus-like seed pod twice as tall as a human on tiptoes.
Sharp turns and big potholes made for slow driving, but thanks to nearly no traffic, we pulled into the parking lot at the entrance to Izta-Popo National Park at exactly eight o’clock.
We parked in front of the national park office, a steep-roofed stone and concrete building with weather-beaten steps leading to the entrance. Towering behind was the black, angry cone of Popo. A thin cord of smoke rose from its wide crater.
A tall rectangular monument stood between the road and the office. It held a large bronze plaque showing Spanish conquistadors in their armor and pointy curving helmets. The one in the middle sat upon a horse—Hernan Cortes, the notorious conqueror of Mexico.
The white sign before the plaque read “Paso de Cortes”—Cortes’s Pass, named for his journey over it in 1519 after leaving Cholula, the important pre-Hispanic city on the other side of the mountains from Mexico City, where he and his men had slaughtered between 5,000 and 6,000 people. Aided and encouraged by their new allies the Tlaxcalans, and wanting to set an example for other native groups, Cortes and his relatively small band of Spaniards gathered the city’s wealthy residents in a field before the central pyramid, and with crossbows and swords murdered as many as they could. Then they turned to the mountains, to make the final push toward the irresistible riches of Tenochtitlan, the island city of temples and markets that’s now the central part of Mexico City.
Legend has it that some of his men climbed Popo to collect sulfur for gunpowder for their canons and muskets. Then they descended into the Valley of Mexico, and the rest is history—the defeat of the Aztecs and the earliest beginnings of New Spain, later reduced to Mexico.
I imagined that little had changed in the 500 years following that fateful journey, at least not on the pass itself. The country, however, had changed practically beyond recognition, and in large measure because of Cortes’s crossing from one world into another, first from the Old World to the New, and later on the march toward death and destruction in Tenochtitlan, after leaving death and destruction behind in Cholula.
Today, pre-Hispanic Mexico may manifest as an excavated pyramid, a village with a Nahuatl name, a meal of tortillas and crickets, or even as the white alcoholic beverage pulque. But beneath these superficialities, ancient customs and beliefs persist, if remarkably transformed. Catholic saints replaced gods of nature, the Virgin of Guadalupe replaced the goddess Tonantzin, and Spanish replaced Nahuatl and hundreds of other native languages.
Now, I walked in Gore-Tex hiking boots where conquistadors once walked in boots of steel, and before them, centuries of indigenous wanderers in their huaraches, broad sandals originally woven from agave fibers, now made from leather or plastic.
Only five other vehicles were there, all pickup trucks, and one with a group of hikers standing nearby who appeared to be leaving. It was a relief—we chose to leave early not only to beat traffic and maximize our time hiking, but also to avoid crowds. The volcano nearest to Toluca, where we often hiked, typically had a long line of cars crawling toward its high-altitude parking areas, especially on weekends and after fresh snow draped its broad crater in white. I’d assumed today would be worse—it was much closer to Mexico City and its millions of potential hikers.
“No, it’s not so bad as there,” said the guard inside the park building. He was a stout man with jet-black hair and a bushy mustache, wearing a faded olive-green uniform with fraying hems and missing patches.
“Why?” I asked.
“Izta’s too difficult. It’s too high, and steep. People know it’s not easy.”
“Yes,” I said. “I read online that you need a guide.”
“One of us can take you up if you want. Or we can find someone.”
“But it’s not necessary?”
His response was a shrug.
I said, “In the Nevado de Toluca, you can drive right up to the edge of the crater, and then walk over the top and to the lakes inside the crater. There’re always many people.”
“Have you been there?”
“Yes, many times. I live in Toluca, you know.”
“Oh, I see.” He’d evidently taken me for a tourist, surely because of my appalling Spanish pronunciation. “So you go there often?”
“Very often. This is our first time here, though.”
He glanced at my hiking boots. “You want to climb Izta then?”
“Maybe not all the way to the top, but yes, we’d like to hike the trail.”
“You chose a good day. It hasn’t rained for weeks. There’s no snow up there, only the glacier.”
“You climb it?”
“Not as often as Popo.”
“But you can’t go up Popo. It’s closed, and dangerous.”
“Poison gases, the chance of an eruption. You won’t have to worry about that on Izta. Just follow the trail, up up up.”
“Sounds great. How do we get there?”
“Drive past the gate and then keep driving straight to La Joya. That’s the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain.”
“Register on this form first. The fee is 57 pesos.”
“There are two of us,” I said. I filled out the form, just simple information about who I was, where I was from, and where I’d be hiking today, and paid the fee for two people.
“Enjoy it,” he said. “And come back here before you leave, so we know you’re still alive.”
I laughed. “I will.”
By now my wife had strapped on her boots and was hopping up and down in the clear thin air, rubbing her hands together. We got back in the car and drove across the mountain saddle, through a vast rolling expanse of tall yellow grass broken up by bunchy Hartweg’s pine and the Christmas-tree shape of Oyamel fir trees. The two peaks occasionally came into view high on either side, Popo behind and Izta in front, one a smooth cone and one a broad rocky crown.
A steep descent down a bumpy section of the dirt road took us to the La Joya parking lot, which had more than 10 cars already parked there. A cluster of tents was set up behind a row of crumbling cinderblock structures, where people sat at long tables eating breakfast. Ladies in winter coats and hats stood by charcoal fires cooking quesadillas and gorditas (an oval mass of corn meal with beans, meat, or vegetables inside) on flat grills called comals, and served coffee or atole (a hot rice drink) in Styrofoam cups.
We paused at the trailhead at the end of the parking lot to check a large map. A little beyond the parking lot was a small clearing on the side of a slope with benches and picnic tables. There was no wind to rustle the grass or tree branches, and above was a deep blue sky with only a few wisps of cloud.
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From here the trail was quite steep and continued on the slope below a ridge. Boulders the size of coffee tables filled the trail, with thick, waist-high bushes and underbrush of a deep green all around. When in the shade, the trail was full of black puddles of frozen mud. A closer look revealed countless tiny beetles crawling in the black dirt between the puddles, each no larger than the head of a pin, and of a red so striking that they seemed to glow with a light of their own.
Small mice darted under the rocks, upon which finger-length grey lizards lay in the sun. A few times we spotted larger, fuzzier forms than mice, which we hoped was the small, short-eared teporingo rabbit, elusive and rumored to have gone extinct, or at least vanished from all but the highest volcanic regions of central Mexico, far away from the threat of poachers and packs of stray dogs.
From here we could see the Nevado de Toluca volcano to the west, the one I’d discussed with the guard earlier, across Mexico City and the less dramatic mountain range on the other side of the Valley of Mexico. Its broad crater was unmistakable, shining white in the sunlight.
The trail and the ridge met at a point below a much larger slope of scree at the base of the bulk of the mountain. We sat for a break, watching lizards hunt flies in patches of tall grass poking from between smooth weather-rounded stones.
The huge cone of Popo had disappeared behind the ridge during this first leg of the hike. Now that we were atop the ridge, it was back in view. The sun’s glare made it black as Mordor, but a more careful look showed alternating lines of green and grey-black ridges spreading downward from the crater.
Suddenly there was an eruption, silent but with a massive expulsion of grey smoke. It expanded away from the crater, its rolling motion resembling waves on a beach. It didn’t take long for this smoke to become a long horizontal line in the sky far above the regular clouds.
Several more eruptions occurred as we continued hiking, above the treeline now. Besides occasional tufts of grass, the only vegetation was a dry, colorless flower scattered among the grass and scree, the Rosa de Nieve—Snow Rose—which only grows on the slopes of the volcanos surrounding Mexico City.
The trail was pure rocks and gravel and went straight up, no switchbacks, at a more than 45-degree angle. There were many more hikers now, sometimes families wearing street clothes, and sometimes small groups wearing unnecessary gear like helmets and full rainsuits. I could only imagine how hot they must have been. Now that late morning was coming on, the air was still chilly, but the uphill hiking had made me strip down to my quick-dry t-shirt, although I still wore wool gloves and a winter hat.
We paused to drink some water. A man wearing rain gear with the hood up, a headlamp with the light turned on, a helmet, and chaps over his boots stopped to tell us, “You shouldn’t drink water.”
“What?” I asked, noticing the large ice axe hanging from his enormous backpack. After weeks of sunny weather there was no ice to climb, of course, only a relatively flat glacier far above.
“It’s bad because of the elevation. You should be drinking suero,” he replied, referring to a saline solution found in pharmacies that Mexicans drink when they are sick or hung over. Then he turned and resumed hiking.
Ok, I thought, a drink like that, or even Gatorade, would surely absorb more quickly, but water is bad? It was frustrating to hear, especially in a country with one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world. I’ve met countless Mexicans, in fact, who say they never drink water at all. Mexicans call it “natural water,” to distinguish it from the sugar water flavored with ground-up fruit, also called “water,” that people drink every day with lunch.
We quickly passed the man as he slowly panted up the trail, looking miserable under his hot, heavy gear. From there, the trail followed several sharp ridges on a steady rise into the high alpine area. The next saddle was at the ankles of the white woman, with the sheer cliffs of her feet behind.
Now that we’d reached the white woman’s body, we had views to the east. Beyond a broad flat expanse containing the cities of Cholula and Puebla were clear views of Mexico’s two other famous volcanos. The first was La Malinche, named after Cortes’s native interpreter and mistress. Today, she is also a symbol of betrayal, and indeed the word malinchista is used to describe people more interested in the ideas and fashions of the outside world, especially the U.S. or Europe, than those of Mexico. The volcano itself is another long but non-technical hike, which my wife I had done a month earlier.
Iztaccihuatl isn’t the only volcano worth hiking near Puebla and Mexico City. Check out this tour for hiking the huge volcano La Malinche.
The second volcano, its massive cone a distant triangle on the horizon, was the largest mountain in Mexico and the third highest in North America: the Pico de Orizaba, also known by its Nahautl name Citlaltépetl, which means “Star Mountain”. From this angle, La Malinche and Citlaltépetl appeared as if in a row, and in fact from the nearby peak Mount Tlaloc, every year in early February the two volcanos form a perfect line with the rising sun.
After this was a final section of sandy trail, followed by a rocky section going nearly straight up, which required scrambling over cliffs and boulders. It wasn’t too exposed, however, and there were plenty of hand and footholds.
The trail, marked by cairns and spray-painted circles on the rock, led to a broad rounded peak. From the top, the highest parts of Izta were finally in view, the imposing peaks towering high above. It was clear that the hours of hard scrambling we’d just accomplished were nothing compared to what was ahead. But first, there was a steep descent to a narrow ridge, where an aluminum shelter like a tall greenhouse sat encircled by tents. This was Shelter 19 (Refugio 19), also known as the Shelter of the Group of 100, the last chance for survival for anyone caught on the mountain during one of its frequent violent storms.
About 20 hikers stood around, drinking coffee or even beer. They’d started the previous day, or perhaps the night before. Many people join organized groups for the hike up Izta, which often leave late at night in order to arrive at the top in the morning or early afternoon. Like other hikers we’d passed, many wore helmets, but they didn’t carry ropes. I suspected that the helmets were more about making the clients feel like they were doing something important than about fulfilling a necessary safety requirement.
It was a jagged, uneven landscape all around the shelter. Every remotely flat space was occupied by a tent. Beyond was a nearly vertical climb of loose gravel, by far the most difficult part of the day. We ascended by shoving our boots and fingers into the earth and pulling ourselves upward, quite difficult now that we were above 4,700 meters (15,420 feet). The air was thin and we breathed in short, strenuous bursts.
By now the trail was nearly empty of hikers. One man passed us quickly, dressed in shorts and tennis shoes like he was out for run, with no backpack. When we eventually got above the gravel and reentered broken cliffs and tall boulders, we saw him standing by a tall metal cross, a memorial to 11 students from Guadalajara who’d died near here in 1968 after getting caught in a bad storm.
He asked how far we were planning to go. “All the way to the top?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I answered.
“Good idea. It’s already afternoon, and the top’s still far away.”
“I’ll go as far as I can. But look at the sky. It’ll probably rain soon.”
He was right. Heavy clouds were moving in rapidly, nearly covering Popo off in the distance. The long line of smoke from the morning’s eruptions had fully mixed in with the clouds, now little more than a black blur among all the white.
“Also,” he continued, “notice that no one has come down for a while. It’s just us up here.”
“Well,” I said, “We’ll get to the top of this part, and from there decide.”
“Yeah! That’s the attitude! You can do it!” With this he started climbing rapidly, hoisting himself over boulders and sprinting through the gaps between them.
His bursts of sprinting couldn’t have lasted long, though, because for the next hour it was a pure scramble up the slope of broken cliffs. Now we were much more exposed, and I avoided looking behind and down into profound chasm below us. It made me dizzy, and I felt that if I leaned too far back, I would tumble into oblivion.
The cliffs became a narrow rocky trail up a slope, and soon we came to a peak. This was the first knee, which at 5,034 meters (16,515 feet) above sea level is the least high of the six major peaks that form the crown of Izta. There was a destroyed mass of metal there, which we later learned was the ruins of the Luis Mendez Hut, a former shelter that had been devastated in a particularly powerful storm.
The view was spectacular. Below us, visible during the brief moments the clouds separated, were the twisting ridges and crags we’d hiked over, with the green expanse of the mountain saddle below and the enormous mass of Popo beyond. On the opposite side was a crater, where streaks of light brown, yellow, and pink led to a small circle at the bottom. The next mountain peaks were in sight farther above, tall and rocky, reached by long narrow ridges. I could see my breath, and when I removed my gloves my fingertips were already white.
The highest peak, found at the end of the trail, is the chest (or breast) at an elevation of 5,230 meters (17,160 feet). The next two closest to us, the second knee and then Mount Venus, appeared to be at least half an hour away. Beyond Mount Venus was a glacier, and then there were several other peaks to cross before the trail reached the chest. We realized that reaching it today was out of the question, as it would probably be dark by the time we could finish the hike down to La Joya.
The trail runner was nowhere in sight, but we did see a group of hikers slowly returning along the ridge from Mount Venus. We watched them as we ate our sandwiches, and decided that we probably had enough time to go there and back, to take a look at the glacier.
The trail leaving the first knee to reach the ridge followed an extremely steep section covered in shadow. Snow lined the trail, which was otherwise coated in slippery mud. About halfway down, as we gingerly lowered ourselves through this mud, I caught a glimpse of the impossibly steep, rocky funnel below. One wrong move, one slip, and we would slide down that funnel like Boba Fett in Return of the Jedi.
This meant that, combined with the exhaustion of a whole day hiking and the light-headedness brought on by the high altitude, we were both badly shaken when we made it to the relative safety of the ridge. Standing there watching the group move so slowly ahead, we decided that we’d gone far enough. After catching our breath and allowing our hearts to stop racing, we turned around and, after quickly re-summiting the first knee, began a long descent.
It was about 2 PM when we passed Shelter 19, where there were now twice as many people standing around. Tents were being erected in unlikely places, like high on the ridge above or at uncomfortable angles among the rocks. And as we continued descending, we saw even more hikers on the trail, most with big backpacks that probably contained tents and sleeping bags. It was Saturday, after all, and because there had been so little rain lately, many others must have figured, like we had, that the mountain was free of snow.
But where would they sleep? The area around the shelter was full, and there were no other flat spaces in sight. There were a few farther below, but by then they’d probably be occupied by other hikers.
Much later we encountered a group of at least 30 people, right above the spot where the man had told us not to drink water. They all wore the same blue jacket and yellow helmet, spoke and laughed noisily, and played loud music from cell phones or little portable speakers hanging from their backpacks. I thought of the several couples we’d passed, earnest and prepared-looking people who weren’t wearing unnecessary helmets, and who probably had a healthy respect for the mountain and a desire to appreciate it without a large group of partiers arriving at sundown with nowhere to set up their tents.
We hiked down the trail far enough to get out of earshot, and took our final break. The thick clouds, which had kept Popo out of view for hours, had not yet reached us. But now, as we sat on a steep incline next to a cliff, large columns of cloud moved in from both directions in swirling slow-motion, like two hands wrapping their fingers together. Once they were fully mixed, the mass of white turned in our direction and enveloped us in a cool, eerie mist.
We resumed descending as still more hikers made their slow way up the trail. Once the La Joya parking lot was in view, we took one last look at the wall of clouds behind. As if on cue, the wall parted in half, and we had the same view of Izta as we had in the morning when the sky was perfectly clear. Only now it all made sense to us. We pointed out our route along the cliffs and ridges and identified our ultimate destination at the first knee.
Near the end of the trail, we stepped onto a wooden footbridge over a dry gully. My wife jumped and grabbed hold of my arm. A rattlesnake twisted in the center of the bridge, its rattle raised but not yet shaking. We stepped back slowly, and it slithered over the edge. Holding my hand tightly, my wife sprinted across the bridge, dragging me behind.
From there we reached the car and drove back to the park entrance with the windows down. Despite the trail-runner’s prediction, it still hadn’t rained. It was just after 4 PM with only a few hours of daylight left.
As we left a grove of trees and entered an open space, the sound of banda music filled the air, the popular Mexican style of trumpets, clarinets, tuba, frantic snare drums, and wailing vocals. A banda group, up here? It must be an outdoor party, a family who’d caravanned up the highway in their overfilled cars to drink beer and eat from Tupperware containers under an expansive clear blue sky. But the sky was no longer blue, and suddenly rain began to fall in sheets. I hoped that wherever they were, they were under a tent.
The music grew louder as we continued driving forward. Huge raindrops splattered on the windshield. Suddenly the source of the music came into sight—the open window of a beat-up white sedan parked in the middle of a two-track road branching off from the road we were on. Two men in t-shirts sat on the bumper drinking from tall cans, seemingly oblivious to the rain. They returned my wave by raising their cans in a long-distance “cheers” gesture.
By the time we got back to Cortes’s Pass, the rain had stopped, but had evidently come down hard there, since the parking lot was covered in shining puddles.
This time my wife came into the building with me. After admiring the big scale model of the mountains in the center of the high-ceilinged room, we went to the guard offices. I introduced her to the guard, who asked how the hike was. “Beautiful,” we said.
“Did you make it far?”
“Up to the first knee.”
“That’s good. Most people turn around long before that.”
“Actually, we saw a lot of hikers, people with tents and camping gear. There’s no way there’s enough space for them all.”
The man shrugged, and said, “What can we do?”
“Anyway, we really enjoyed the hike.”
“I told you,” he replied. “I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid. Still love it.”
“Where are you from?” my wife asked.
“Amecameca, down the road.”
“We passed it on the way here,” she said.
“My father and all my uncles work here at the park. My grandfather did too.”
“Yes. I think I’ve spent every day of my life up here.”
“So, you said you’ve climbed Popo?” I asked.
“Every morning. We check the equipment up there, make sure the volcano won’t erupt.”
“And if it erupts?”
He replied with a long whistle, and said, “It would be bad.”
“So, listen,” I began, “would you take us up there?”
“You? Up Popo? No way, it’s too dangerous.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“It’s been closed for years, as long as I can remember. Nobody can go up.”
“Except for you guys.”
“Well, yes, except for us.”
We chatted for a little longer while my wife looked around the visitor center, at the stuffed animals and photographs on the walls and again at the scale model of the park. He asked where I was from, and told me about the time he’d spent in Pennsylvania working construction, about how cold it was but the money was good. I told him I understood, that long ago I’d worked in Wisconsin as a roofer, summer and winter. Yes, he’d done some roofing too, and the summers are hot in Pennsylvania. It’s nice and cool in Amecameca, never hot. Then we talked about roofs, comparing the flat concrete roofs of Mexico with the tall pitched roofs of the U.S., and how working on both was a pain. Much nicer here in the park.
“Well, thank you, and we have to be going now,” I said eventually. I pointed in the direction of a wide dirt road that left the parking lot from the opposite side of the road to Mexico City. “Is that the road to Cholula?”
“Yes, that’s it, to Cholula and Puebla.”
“Ok, thanks. Have you been to Cuexcomate?”
I spoke slowly, careful to correctly enunciate each syllable as I’d practiced: kwek-so-MAH-teh. Then I added, “It’s near Puebla. Supposedly it’s the smallest volcano in the world. We want to visit it.”
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“Never heard of it. I’ve got all the volcanos I could ever want right here.”
I laughed. “I suppose you do.”
“Hey, listen,” he said, moving in closer and speaking softly. “I’ll take you up there.”
“Up Popo. Do you have WhatsApp?”
“I do.” We exchanged numbers.
“Send me a message when you want to go.”
“Three people, no more. And get here early, earlier than you did today.”
“And remember, it’s dangerous. Very dangerous.”
“Write me. We can do it.”
“I will. Of course, when we come, we’ll give you a nice tip.”
He smiled broadly. “I know you will.”
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The van turned off the highway onto a sandy two-track. The jungle was a thick wall of green, with leaves reaching out from every direction. Branches scratched windows and scuba tanks knocked against each other under my seat.
The short sand road ended at a small clearing in the jungle of bamboo huts and cinderblock storage sheds. We stepped out of the van into a swarm of mosquitos. I pulled the wetsuit over my shoulders, thinking it was surely the first time I’d taken a van to go scuba diving. But this wouldn’t be regular scuba diving. This was cenote diving.
What’s a cenote, you ask? Well, there are no mountains or large above-ground rivers on the Yucatan in southeastern Mexico. The entire peninsula is like an enormous limestone sponge, jagged and bumpy but generally flat straight across. Like a sponge, it’s full of holes, and the holes are full of clear freshwater. The holes are called cenotes—sinkholes that formed when the crusty surface collapsed and exposed the water beneath.
The Yucatan Peninsula is no simple sponge, however, and cenotes are no simple holes. They lead to a huge network of ancient caverns connected by underground rivers. The caverns weren’t formed by the water, but were flooded 11,700 years ago when the most recent ice age ended. Humans probably lived in them before then, which is why skeletons, fire pits, and artifacts have been found throughout. And before it became limestone, it was a reef, so if you look closely you can see shells and coral mixed in with the rock.
The unique geology of the Yucatan isn’t even its best-known feature. Sure, the prime attraction may be powdery white-sand beaches on the sapphire water of the Caribbean, but the region is also famous for the Mayans, the ancient civilization that built great cities like Chichen Itza and Tulum. This civilization wouldn’t have been possible without the abundance of freshwater underground, and many archeologists believe that its mysterious decline and collapse was caused by some disturbance to the water supply.
Today, thousands of visitors to Cancun or Playa del Carmen never visit a cenote, preferring unlimited drinks at the resort pool. They never realize that they’re visiting a geologically unique part of the world, with beauty everywhere—even underground.
There are more than 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula, most lost deep in the jungle, visited by no one. Some are little more than a narrow crack or hole in the earth. Others are at the bottom of lakes, only visible by the circular shadow below the surface of the water, like in Kaan Luum near Tulum.
Many cenotes developed for tourism resemble open ponds surrounded by rocky banks covered in vegetation, where you can swim, snorkel, or go scuba diving. I’ve gone swimming in many cenotes during the years I’ve spent traveling the Yucatan, but I hadn’t yet gone scuba diving in one. Now was the time.
The first dive would be Angelita, a small cenote south of Tulum. There’s not much to attract non-divers to Angelita, as it’s just a circle of water lined with jagged limestone, no larger than a tennis court. Unlike cenotes popular with swimmers or snorkelers, there are no rocky overhangs to jump off, nor shallow entrances to half-submerged caverns, accessible by holding your breath. Instead, Angelita goes deep, straight down, and with a few surprises.
Although there are other cenotes for deep dives, such as The Pit, Angelita is remarkable for its halocline, a yellow cloud of hydrogen sulfate at 30 meters. It’s caused by leakage of decomposing plant matter from nearby Kaan Luum lake, which has a cenote in the middle and shares the same groundwater as Angelita. Above the murky halocline is transparent freshwater, and below is dark salt water. Dive weights made of lead eventually turn black due to the sulfur in Angelita’s halocline.
Slapping mosquitos, we geared up next to the van and walked down a rocky footpath through the jungle to a wooden staircase and platform next to the water, where we strapped on our flippers and jumped in. There were four of us—three divers and Marco, the dive master.
Once in the water, we began our slow descent to a large bump of soil at 25 meters, covered in fallen branches. The dull yellow halocline surrounded it like clouds around a hill, making it look like an island. The bare branches gave it a creepy appearance, like fog over a nighttime graveyard in an old horror movie. Occasionally a grey, lethargic fish swam by. Marco told me later that the deeper sections had fish with no eyes.
We descended in a spiral around the island, stopping just above the halocline. Our flippers dipped into it, out of sight. Here we formed a circle before another descent.
Exhaling fully, we sank into the yellow cloud, flippers first. My body disappeared below me. There was no seeing through the halocline. Soon it was up to my neck, then my chin, and then it reached my goggles. The taste of rotten-egg sulfur filled my mouth and nose. The upper edge of the halocline looked like the sides of a cloud seen from an airplane. Deeper down it resembled thick yellow cotton. The beam from my flashlight dispersed into the yellow and went no farther.
Suddenly I passed through the cloud into total darkness. The flashlight shone forward but illuminated nothing. It was the same in every direction—I couldn’t even see the yellow above my head.
A light flashed to my right—Marco making sure everyone was fine. I made the “ok” gesture with my hands. He signaled me to follow him. I shone my flashlight on the backs of his flippers, following as we descended nine meters lower than the halocline, to our maximum depth of 39 meters (128 feet). Next we slowly swam up and reentered the halocline. You couldn’t see through the yellow, but looking up toward sunlight meant that it was lit with an eerie glow.
I was the first to cross the halocline back into freshwater, so I watched the other divers appear like swamp-things emerging from a yellow mist. I paddled into an upside-down position, exhaled, and dipped my face into it, watching the yellow change from semi-transparent to full-on cloud. I swam along the halocline with my body half above, half-below it. It didn’t dissipate like a handful of fine sand released underwater would, but stayed together, parting only slightly as I swam through it.
In scuba diving, the deeper you go, the more air you use, so you can’t spend much time at 30 meters (about 100 feet) or deeper. Marco signaled for us to follow and we began to ascend, again in a spiral but this time closer to the cenote walls. They were mostly bare rock and dirt with a few green plants hanging on.
Marco swam into a narrow hole to enter a passage that went in a short loop to a nearby exit. He’d told us about this small cavern in his briefing by the van earlier. This would be a good buoyancy test, as later that morning we’d be squeezing through much narrower passages full of delicate stalactites in the next cenote, Dreamgate.
Buoyancy refers to a diver’s ability to maintain an even level under the water. Many factors influence it, especially breathing. When you breathe in, filling your lungs with air like you’d fill up a balloon, you naturally begin to float, and when you breathe out, the release of air makes you sink. Another factor is motion—when you move your arms or legs, you start to rise.
Therefore, the best way to control buoyancy is to breathe slowly and move as little as possible. You have to be extra careful in tight spaces, because if you rise too quickly your tank will bang on the rock above, damaging it. I found controlling my buoyancy in the cenote fairly easy, especially compared to the open ocean with its unpredictable currents.
One of the other divers, a girl from Vietnam, had trouble controlling her buoyancy and consequently decided not to go to the next dive, which was for experts only. Both cenotes required an advanced certification, but having an advance certification doesn’t always mean that you are an expert. You learn how to control factors like buoyancy through experience, not through a certification course. She’d be in Tulum for several more days anyway and would go to Dos Ojos, another, less challenging and much more popular cenote. After finishing our dive at Angelita, we dropped her off in Tulum and continued north to Dreamgate.
The day before, the guy at the dive shop had told me that he usually recommends Dos Ojos for first-time cenote divers like me, along with Angelita for its uniqueness. He showed me a little book with descriptions and maps of the main scuba diving cenotes near Tulum. The usual plan was three tanks in two cenotes: one tank on a deep dive like Angelita or The Pit, and then two tanks at a cenote with two different routes through caverns, like Dos Ojos. I’d been snorkeling at Dos Ojos and knew it was beautiful, but I said, “Dos Ojos looks great, but which cenote would you say is the best around here?”
“Dreamgate, no question,” he said. “But it’s not in the book.” He took out his phone and showed me some pictures: the strange radiance of underwater flashlights illuminating a ceiling crowded with long, lumpy stalactites, while stalagmites reached upwards from the floor and a horizontal diver drifted by. “It’s for experienced divers only. Some passages are really tight and you need complete control of your buoyancy. If not, you may break off a stalactite, or you may kick up some sand. Both are really bad. When you kick up sand, the people following you won’t be able to see anything.”
“Sign me up,” I said.
Marco repeated these same warnings as he drove the van to Dreamgate on the highway between Tulum and Playa del Carmen. There was no sign for the turnoff, just a nondescript path that twisted and turned deep into the jungle. At the end of the path was some space for parking and a doorless concrete outhouse, nothing else, unlike Angelita which had a few buildings and some staff hanging around.
The cenote was about as big around as Angelita but oval and surrounded by higher cliffs. You could see that the water was shallow enough to stand on the sandy bottom, and that under the cliffs was a gap where the water went deeper underground.
A staircase led to a platform over the water. Marco lowered the tanks to the platform using a rope, since the stairs were too steep and slippery for us to walk down with the tanks on. We geared up on the platform, got into the water, and floated on our backs, looking up at the trees and vines hanging over the tall cliffs above.
We would do two dives through different caverns, changing tanks between them. Our maximum depth would be only six meters (20 feet), so we’d have plenty of air for both routes, which were marked with ropes underwater. The three of us in a line, with Marco in front, followed the rope down along the sandy bottom and into the caverns.
It was spectacular. Stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that come up) were everywhere, populating the passages like skyscrapers on Manhattan. Some parts had so many that they looked like the edge of a roof covered with icicles. Some were no larger than your index finger, and some twisted and bulged like a boa constrictor swallowing a deer.
As warned, we had to swim carefully through narrow passages where any sudden movement would stir up the sand below or smash the rocks above. You could see how some stalactites had already been broken off in these sections.
As we got deeper, we entered a few wide-open chambers. A strange light came from the end of one, and as it got brighter I realized that it must be another group of divers. They swam into view at the other end of the chamber, looking like astronauts in outer space, fully horizontal and holding flashlights in front of them. The water totally filled the chambers, though if I looked up I could see trapped bubbles of air among the jagged rocks above.
We entered a chamber high enough that it had several meters of air above. We went to the surface and took off our masks. Roots from alamo trees dangled from the rocky ceiling like tangled dreadlocks, their tips barely reaching the surface of the water. “Let’s all turn off our flashlights,” I said. The darkness was complete. The only sound was water dripping all around.
From there we turned around and slowly retraced our route. After a break, the second dive down another cavern was similar to the first, only with different structures, different passages, and different chambers. After the dive, Marco told us that he’d once seen the remains of a fire pit there, presumably from the previous ice age before the caverns flooded, when humans used to live in them. He said you could find bones too, sometimes from ancient animals like mastodons and long-toothed cats.
In fact, in early 2018, several human skeletons were found in an exploration of the nearby Sac Actun system. This exploration also confirmed that the San Actun and Dos Ojos systems (which includes Dreamgate) are actually connected, making it the largest cave system in the world.
Thinking about all the extra air left in our tanks, I asked Marco why we hadn’t gone farther, into one of the deeper sections where we might have found a fire pit or eyeless fish.
“You can’t leave the guidelines,” he replied. “There are big fines if you do. Plus, it’s extremely dangerous. You can get lost in a second, and when your air runs out…” He emphasized this point with a long, airy whistle.
“But you’ve gone deeper, right?”
“Sure, many times.” He tapped the tank still strapped to his back. “We always bring two tanks, one strapped to each side of you, and with special gas. Having them on your sides makes it harder to keep your buoyancy, but it’s necessary that way, so you can fit into the really tight spaces.”
“And you need a cavern diving certification?”
“Yes, but that’s not enough. You need one for the blended gas too, and rescue certifications, and others. I did it so long ago I don’t exactly remember. You need to be a divemaster, at least.”
“Could I do the certifications at your shop?”
He smiled. “You could, but it would take a while. It took me years.”
“Someday,” I said.
Once we were back in the van, the other diver, well-traveled Max from Australia, told me that it was one of the coolest things he’d ever done—not just the best dive, but one of the coolest things, period. Marco laughed and lit his thousandth cigarette. “I never dive in the ocean,” he said, “only cenotes.” He complemented us on our buoyancy—not one chipped rock or stirred-up cloud of sand all morning.
I agreed with Max. But I couldn’t decide which was better—the creepy descent through the yellow halocline in Angelita, or the outer-space cavern exploration of Dreamgate. I still can’t decide.
IF YOU GO
Visit a dive shop first. There are dive shops all over the Mayan Riviera that arrange cenote diving, but the ones in Tulum are closer to some of the best cenotes, and therefore more convenient and probably cheaper. I went with Space Dive, also called Dive and Snorkel Tulum, and I recommend them highly. Their office is on the main road in Tulum about a block from the ADO bus station.
If you don’t scuba dive but want to visit a cenote, you don’t need a guide or dive shop. Just show up. There are numerous cenotes between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, including a cluster of six across the street from the Barceló resort immediately south of Playa del Carmen. There are also many inland, such as near Valladolid and Mérida. Close to Mérida, next to the small town of Cuzuma, are three cenotes that you get to by taking a horse-drawn cart on train tracks through an old sugarcane plantation, a fun and unique experience.
Two good ones near Tulum are Dos Ojos and Gran Cenote. These and others like them are much smaller (and cheaper) operations than the massive adventure parks like Xel-Ha and Rio Secreto that have advertisements everywhere.
Underwater photography by Gilles from Switzerland
How are you all doing out there in quarantine land? Staying safe? Not too bored or broke, I hope? Me, can’t complain. In case you don’t know—and why would you?—I don’t live in Mexico anymore. More on that another day.
Two months after Part 1, I’ve finally gotten back to some happy reminiscences about travels in Mexico in 2019. What a year. Despite serious problems and general craziness, Mexico is a wonderful country to travel in. I made the most of it during my ten years there.
In 2019 I went to the Mayan Riviera not once, but two times. The first was in February. I spent the entire time at the beach, at the Barcelo Resort watching three nights of Phish.
Phish is one of several U.S. bands that performs multi-night events at resorts on the Mayan Riviera. The great thing about Phish is that when you see three Phish shows, you’ll see three completely different concerts, without any songs repeated. And it’s always fun to do the all-inclusive thing, especially at a place as huge as the Barcelo. It was a quick mini-vacation with my wife, some friends from Oregon, and my favorite live band in the world.
My next trip to Mexico’s Caribbean coast was last October, when I traveled from Tulum to Chetumal with a stop at Bacalar in between. (Actually, I flew into Cancun, and spent an afternoon in Playa del Carmen on the way to Tulum, so technically I traveled all the way down.) I attended an academic conference in Chetumal, with some fun and adventure in Tulum and Bacalar before.
I’ve been to the Mayan Riviera many times, but that trip was the first time I never even went to the beach. Why? Cenotes!
Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes that lead to the underground system of flooded caverns throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. They are nice to swim and snorkel in, but the coolest thing of all is to scuba dive in them, which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, anywhere.
A year earlier, also near Tulum, I went scuba diving in cenotes for the first time. It blew my mind, so it was top priority this time around. I went to the same dive shop in Tulum, Space Dive (AKA Dive and Snorkel Tulum, about a block from the ADO bus station), for a day of diving with three tanks in two cenotes: Dos Ojos and The Pit.
The previous year I went to Angelita and Dreamgate. All four were phenomenal. I wrote a story about the experience, which I’ll publish on this blog soon.
The next day in Tulum I rode to Kaan Luum, a lake just south of Tulum with a cenote in the middle, on a cruiser bicycle provided by my beautiful, friendly and affordable hotel. You can see Kaan Luum’s cenote in the photo below; it’s the circle of darker water.
From there I biked on the shoulder of the hot highway farther south to the Muyil archeological site. It had some interesting structures and trails deep into the jungle. Exploring the area after swimming in Kaan Luum was a good way to spend the day, even if riding back on a bicycle under the hot sun was nothing easy.
The following day I took an easy three-hour bus ride to Bacalar, the small town on the huge lake of the same name.
Bacalar is also called the lake of seven colors, because the fresh water glows in different shades of blue and turquoise, depending on the depth of the water and the angle of sun. Wow, how gorgeous. I spent the first day swimming, and the second on a boat trip around the lake.
After Bacalar, I traveled to Chetumal for an academic conference at the large university there.
Many years ago, when I traveled from Cancun to Roatan, Honduras over several months, I passed Bacalar and Chetumal before crossing into Belize, but I didn’t spend any time in either place. I’m glad I did this time, especially for the seafood tacos! Below are fish, shrimp, octopus, and conch (caracol in Spanish.)
Thanks for reading. I will write at least one more post about traveling in Mexico in 2019.
As always, if you are interested in the Mayan Riviera (or Chiapas), please check out my books:
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