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Climbing El Pico de Orizaba
One of our interns, Temo, recently traveled to Mexico and climbed the tallest mountain in the country, El Pico de Orizaba. Below he shares his experience with us. Thanks Temo!
Mexico has been receiving some terrible reviews and travel warnings for tourists because of the violence and insecurity issues it is currently facing. But the reality is that the violence has seldom been directed to Mexican tourists and even less towards international tourists. The social situation has led to a major decline in tourism across the country and at the same time it has created some great opportunities for the savvy traveler and the budget conscious adventurer. Many small hotels and tour companies are eager to give special discounts during almost any season. This is how I found a great deal for my Mexico ecoturism adventure.
Last winter break (December 2010) I decided to rediscover some of my heritage and also challenge myself physically and mentally on a journey of self discovery. So, on my Mexico tour I decided that I wanted to climb El Pico de Orizaba, also known as Citlaltepetl (which means the Star Mountain). At 18,800 feet it is the tallest mountain in Mexico and the third tallest in North America, only after Mt. McKinley and Mt. Logan in Canada. It is located in between the states of Puebla and Veracruz, almost a 3.5 hour bus ride from Mexico City.
Since I am based out of San Diego the easiest way to get there was to fly out of Tijuana International airport towards Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport. Upon arrival, and prior to the 3 hour bus ride to Puebla, I wanted to make a quick day trip to the beautiful ancient Holy city of Teotihuacán just an hour drive from the airport. The immense and beautiful temple pyramids of the Sun and Moon are one of my favorite places to visit in Mexico. It is said that ceremonial rituals were carried out at the tops of these perfectly constructed engineering marvels and were coordinated with the movements of the sun, moon and stars. Once one of the most important and powerful cultural centers of Mesoamerica, today it hosts thousands of tourists each week. It is a special place where you can recharge your spiritual batteries and receive positive vibes and energy from the sun. So after my good luck blessing and meditation session at the top of the Sun Pyramid, I was ready for the climb.
The next morning I took the bus from Mexico City’s TAPO bus terminal towards Puebla. Three hours later I arrived in Puebla and took a regional bus towards the small town of Tlachichuca, which lies at the slopes of the massive Citlaltepetl volcano. Here I met my guides and they took me to my eco lodge to prep for the climb. We stayed at the Hotel Citlaltepetl, a family owned sustainable mountain hostel operated and owned by local mountaineering legend Joaquin Canchola who has been working and taking care of the mountain for more than 40 years. He rents several private rooms and showers at his home in the center of Tlachichuca, but also offers guiding service up the mountain and 4x4 transports to and from the Piedra Grande hut at 13,976 feet (the main base camp for summit attempts). That same day we visited the picturesque local open air market to stock up on food supplies. In the evening we drove up to the refugio to start acclimatizing. I spent the day just sitting and walking around camp meeting climbers from all over the world that were also going up, some just visiting base camp or others that had just reached the top.
Summiting Pico de Orizaba is no walk in the park and even for those in excellent shape it presents a formidable challenge because of the lack of oxygen at more than 18,800 feet. It is considered extreme altitude and anyone, no matter their fitness level, may suffer from altitude sickness. It takes more than 9 hours to reach the top and there are plenty of reminders of those who could not make it along the way. We left base camp at midnight on our summit day bid. At around 6 am just when the first rays from the sun started to warm our frozen toes we reached the edge of the Jamapa Glacier at around 16,400 feet, which covers the top part of the volcano. From here we put on our crampons and started the steep final climb on the glacier to the summit at the edge of the crater. After the longest four hours of my life, at 10 am, I finally found myself collapsing at the edge of this huge crater that drops for more than 2,000 ft straight down into the center of the ancient volcano. The outer side has a steep 35 degree angle slide out into thin air.
The views from the top are amazing and can hardly be put into words. Being that it is a free standing volcano, it is not part of a mountain chain or sierra. It stands alone, sticking out from the plains below all around it and seems much higher than it really is. To the West it is possible to see the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean. Towards the South East you can clearly spot Mexico’s other famous volcanoes that loom over Mexico City (Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl and Nevado de Toluca). We spent about half an hour resting, eating and taking pictures before it was time for the most dangerous part of the whole trip, the descent. But finally after five or six hours of carefully navigating the glacier and all the loose rocks and pitfalls along the way, we reached our base camp at around 3 pm. Exhausted but ecstatic from having completed our mission, we still had to pack all our gear into the 4x4 for the 2 hour ride down the mountain back to Tlachichuca to Joaquin Canchola’s house to wash up for our celebration dinner of local woodfire pizza and beer!
So even after our successful 14 hour roundtrip summit push, and even though we had not slept in more than two days we where too excited to feel tired or to fall asleep that night. But the next couple of days back in Mexico City, I barely got out of bed.
Now back in the U.S. I smile and get a little emotional every time I remember this trip, not just because of the natural beauty or physical and emotional pain and sacrifice I went through to reach my goal, but also from the cultural history I learned and the self fulfillment I discovered not from reaching the destination but from the journey itself.