Connecting Mexico’s Highest Volcanoes: An Adventure in Bikepacking and Alpinism

Sònia Colomo and Eloi Miquel packed up their bikes and left Catalunya in January 2022. They arrived in Latin American with the plan to pursue some of the best multi-day mountain biking routes around. But, after completing the 2,800km Baja Divide, a friend told them needed to check out some of the highest volcanoes in the country. And that’s where the adventure started—they decided the only thing to do was change course and link a few 4,000m and 5,000m peaks by bicycle. They knew the logistics wouldn’t be easy, but the draw of the mountains was too great to ignore. Read on for Sònia’s recap of their human-powered bikepacking and alpinism efforts to link four volcanoes.

The Route

A little more than 500k separated the town of Valle de Bravo from Tlachichuca. The route that joined both towns would consolidate the process of linking the four highest climbable volcanoes in Mexico: Nevado de Toluca (4,690m), Iztaccíhuatl (5,230m), La Malinche (4,460m) and Pico de Orizaba (5,640m). These volcanoes are located in the provinces of México, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz.


Volcano 1: Nevado de Toluca (4,690m)

The well-known village of Valle de Bravo was the starting point of our volcanic adventure and the goal of that first day was to make it to Los Venados, the access point of the Nevado de Toluca National Park. The day was going to be long, and though we were prepared for that, the requisite tarmac sections didn’t sound appealing. We tried to ride as fast as we could through the first 50k of busy roads, and bus drivers that don’t care about cyclists, so we could say goodbye to the stressful asphalt and return to the lonely dirt roads dotted with small farming communities. The pine forests became the tonic of the landscape and right after the small village of Las Raíces, the silhouette of the volcano came into view, looming above us. We pushed through more kilometers after getting the energy boost of seeing our first goal, and late in the afternoon we set up camp at 3,700m to acclimatize.

We were beyond excited about what was to come and we didn’t sleep much that night. The sun rose to expose a clear sky, indicating that it was going to be a great day. Ahead of us, a dirt road wound along the foot of the volcano, gradually climbing to gain the crater where the Sol and Luna lagoons are located. After some hours of pleasant riding up, without even being conscious about it, we found ourselves in the middle of the crater and the two lagoons were sitting there, undisturbed and silent.

We were completely overwhelmed by the vastness of the crater and the different peaks that surrounded it. Pico Frailes, located at an altitude of 4,690m, was one of those rocky pinnacles and it is considered to be the true summit of the volcano.

Without thinking it twice, we pushed our bikes off the track and hid them behind some rocks, and began to follow a stone path that combined stretches of walking and stretches of third and fourth class terrain. The fog covered everything around us and thickened with each step. Almost magically, while I was swinging my leg over a stone block to sit down, the fog dispelled.

If the ascent wasn’t spectacular enough, the descent left us stunned. First, because the bikes were still where we left them, and second, because the path that would leave us near Calimaya de Díaz González was just great mountain bike fun.

Volcano 2: Izztaccíhuatl (5,230m)

Although our main motivation for the trip was summiting the volcanoes themselves, we were amazed to find some of the most fantastic links between our time on foot. Nestled between small towns, lonely tracks and the occasional paved road, we entered the volcanic area of Tepozteco, where hundreds of volcanoes of all sizes and shapes sprouted around us, like mushrooms that appear with the first autumn rains.

We were approaching Amecameca and the Popocatépetl volcano stood before us with its characteristic fumarole. Never before had we seen an active volcano, much less at such a close range. We knew that it was forbidden to climb it, otherwise it would have been on the list, but next to it laid the Iztaccíhuatl, and its summit illuminated by the last rays of the afternoon made our eyes shine. The Iztaccíhuatl is the third-highest volcano in the country at a height of 5,230m. Its name comes from the indigenous Náhuatl language and it is colloquially known as “The Sleeping Woman” because the outline of the snowy mountaintop resembles the silhouette of a reclining woman.

We spent the afternoon looking for mountaineering equipment and, in the end, we contacted Rubén and Anabel who were in the next town over and had the material we needed. We prepared food for the two-day ascent and the next day we headed towards San Pedro Nexapa first thing in the morning. There we left the bikes, equipped ourselves, and hitchhiked until a truck carried us to Paso Cortés where we began to walk towards the Refugio de los Cien, located at 4,700m. Although the ascent did not present any technical complications, the altitude was noticeable. A small cabin, constructed from metal siding sat dwarfed on either side by two immense ridgelines, and would house us that night. That night, we prepared everything we would need to make a push for the top, had dinner and tried to sleep despite being short of breath in the thin air.

We woke up at 2am without having slept much and with a great surprise. The landscape had completely changed, and three fingers of snow covered the path adding difficulty to our ascent. We were not the only ones still motivated to reach the top that day as the headlamps of three other climbers marked the first meters of the path. But we soon left those lights behind, advanced along the glacier, and cautiously walked along the “Sleeping Woman”‘s back, now blanketed with snow. The cold air made us even more breathless. We reached the summit before sunrise, wishing for a shred of warmth to help return feeling to the hands that our circulatory systems had forgotten. A mixture of cold and emotion ran through our entire bodies when the sky turned into orange, blue, and purple, and we could only contemplate in awe how the Popocatépetl volcano smoked nonstop in the distance.

Volcano 3: La Malinche (4,461m)

Recovered from the ascent, and the bare-foot descent of the Iztaccíhuatl (my rented boots were definitely not suited for alpinism and their stiffness made my ankle turn blue and swollen), we cycled to Paso Cortés the next day and headed towards Puebla. The area of Tlaxcala, which is where the Matlalcueyatl National Park is located was our next stop. La Malinche, also known as Matlalcueye, an active volcano of 4,461m and the fifth-highest mountain in Mexico, rests in this park.

We were determined to climb as far as we could on our bikes and, in the afternoon, we began to follow the path up to the volcano. When we were as high as we could make it on our bikes, it started to rain. We set up the tent as quickly as possible but getting everything wet was unavoidable. So, we got ready for another short and cold night, slept shivering for a few hours, and started the ascent at dawn.

Motivated to get moving so we could warm ourselves, we packed the frozen tent, hid our bikes in the forest, and began to climb in the light of our headlamps. The pine forest soon gave way to a land with less vegetation and a lot of loose rock that made us go backward at every step. Again, the sunrise gifted us with some dreamy light. This time, however, the strong, icy wind did not want us to linger at the top any longer than was strictly necessary time to momentarily observe our marvelous surroundings (and give each other a high five), before forcing us to going back down. The bikes were still hidden where we left them at dawn, so it was time to enjoy a spectacular descent along a path between beautifully arrayed pine trees.

Volcano 4: Pico de Orizaba (5,670m)

The time had come. We were heading towards the last volcano on the list. The volcano that made our skin crawl and for which it all began. The Pico de Orizaba is the highest mountain in Mexico, and the third highest in North America, with a height of 5,670m (18,602′). The original name of the volcano is Poyautecatl, which means “the one that is where the mist thins,” although it was better known by the name of Citlaltépetl, which in Náhuatl means “hill” or “mountain of the star” because its snowy summit shines all day.

Tlaxichuca would be the starting point for this adventure. Once we got the necessary material for the ascent, we loaded the bikes with crampons, ice axes and boots, and headed for the Piedra Grande Refuge, which is located at 4,260m. But before setting off, we first stopped in the central square, where a big breakfast with tamales and atoles preceded the intense day of pedaling on a steep and sandy climb and, later, a cold rain and the most inopportune hail.

“What you’ve made today, it will make you stronger for the ascent tomorrow” said Lupe, a local guide who was at the refuge with a couple of clients from the United States. But despite his encouraging arguments we were not sure how we would get up the next day. Hoping for his words to become a fact, we ate a little and tried to sleep for a few hours. Exhausted, soaked and in low spirits, our inflatable matts on the wooden bunk beds of the refuge looked like a 5-star hotel; the spring sleeping bags and our wet clothes didn’t look that appealing though. The truth is that we were excited and scared in equal parts; although we knew that we were well acclimatized, an ascent of this magnitude deserves respect.

At 3am the climbing started between rocks and along a path that gradually brought us closer to the foot of the glacier. As the sun began to cast shades of orange and pink around us, our steps slowed down. The air was thin, the cold was more than painful and our frozen hands had a hard time trying to hold the ice axes. The top was so close and yet so far away.

We reached the final section of the glacier and had only a small traverse left before us. A shiny summit stripped of snow by the wind waited our arrival patiently. A blue sky and a quiet breeze that moved the summit’s flag gently invited us to keep going. We both smiled timidly smile and when my hand touched the flag, tears began to roll down my cheeks, and the emotions of the day and the whole adventure exploded at that moment. It was hard, but there we were, we had made it. The views of Mexico from above were the greatest reward.