When I decided to venture on this trip to the ‘’Nevado de Toluca’’ I was conquered by the amazing pictures I found online, most definitely confirmed by the reality I encountered on reaching the crest of this huge crater. I had done previous hikes, the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu and Mount Kilimanjaro (not a word of a lie), but I learned the lesson here that every hike is a totally new, magical experience, and (second lesson) no matter what you did the year before, always train and be ready for the unexpected.
My experience on the Nevado de Toluca
I always like to be in a safe environment with professional guides when I undertake such challenging walks, not because I am afraid, but due to the considerable amount of respect, I have for mountains and altitude. So, one day I woke up with the idea to initiate my climbing adventures in Mexico, and while browsing the web I found this company ecotura.mx which really caught my attention, and subsequently turned out to confirm how excellent my intuition really was.
Among their programs, I chose the Nevado de Toluca because a) the pictures were stunning, b) it involved 4600 meters of altitude, and c) the scheduled date was perfect for me. My reservation was rapidly and professionally organized via email and once I confirmed they sent me a ‘’to bring’ list, together with suggestions on how to prepare for the hike and useful tips. I was already feeling confident, and that was good.
From Cancun, I was going to fly to Mexico City, and since I was taking a 2-hour flight, naturally I thought to myself, “Why not extend the trip for a couple of extra days, and visit one of the Pueblos Mágicos (magic towns) close by? So, off I went to book my amazing best-kept secret in Tepoztlan as well!
I got to Mexico City on a Saturday and aimed to adapt quickly to the altitude, (bearing in mind the fact that you find yourself at 2000 meters (6500ft) above sea level) however, I wasn´t spared the headache. It was ok, as I am used to it. When I was in Cuzco at 4000 meters (13.000ft), it took me 4 days and lots of coca-leaf-chewing to adapt, in fact, that was the only time I have ever taken medication for altitude reasons. My hostel was located in the quaint zone of La Condesa where you can easily and safely walk around in amongst fancy restaurants and vintage-trendy shops. I love it.
The following morning, the guides came on Swiss time to pick us up. There were about 10 of us in total, a couple of foreigners like me, and the rest, locals. All of us excited and ready to hit the Nevado de Toluca. It was a great crew, lots of fun and great comradeship even though we had only just met, and the guides demonstrated professionalism and knowledge from the outset It was going to take 3 hours to get to the top of the mountain where we would start from.
It was not a long walk, but trust me, when you are bumped from 0 to 2000 to 4000 meters in 24 hours, and you are not trained, your body still feels like you have climbed the Everest. So first tip… if you want to hike… train before!
I was hoping we would have walked from a lower point, but I was grateful in the end and satisfied with the experience. After we passed the busy city of Toluca and started to drive up, the landscape changed drastically and we found ourselves transported from the traffic-packed city to small, bustling towns, and finally, to the countryside. When the bus starts to climb up the hills around Toluca you have an amazing view of the valley surrounded by pines and thick vegetation, becoming what appears to be a rather lunar-like landscape, on your way to the top.
The last base camp of the Nevado de Toluca you can reach by car is at around 4000 meters, at which point we parked our van. Under the guidance of our very well organized and knowledgeable tour leaders, Carlos and Magda, we changed our clothes and prepared our small backpacks with what we would need during our walk. As soon as we got out of the bus, it suddenly hit us how high the altitude was, as our breathing became shorter and our bodies heavier, our internal organs started to inflate and I am not going to go any further at this point on the embarrassing consequences of this physiological and natural phenomenon!
Anyway, we didn’t care… the view was stunning and breathtaking (in every sense of the word), and I was so excited, as was everybody. We were basically just below the crest of the crater on the outer side, and after we finished gearing up and listening to the short briefing from our guides, we started ascending to the last section of the imposing mountain. I was thrilled, I wanted to run, to get to the top as soon as possible, and check out what was beyond there, but to my deep dismay after a few steps, my legs just wouldn’t move and, even worse, my breath was so short I thought I was never going to be able to catch it.
I thought it was a general condition but embarrassingly enough I was the only one to be so held back by the strenuous physical condition. Gosh, I knew I should have trained, but it had been a good while since I had done any track training, and this was the consequence. I felt very bad not only for myself but for the group as I didn’t want to hold everybody back, but Carlos, the guide and co-owner of Ecotura, was amazing, he helped me not to feel like the weirdo of the group, and instead walked at my pace, giving me suggestions and encouraging me, while Magda was with the rest of the group. I felt better even though I wished I was with the rest of my companions.
When we reached our first goal at the top of the Nevado de Toluca, El Campanario, the view made the whole effort well worth it. We had the entire panoramic view of two lakes within the sleepy crater; the lakes of the sun and the moon, which provide a spectacular scene that you don´t want to miss. Carlos told us a little bit about the history and traditions while we caught our breath (in this case, everyone!). The wind was strong, but the sun kept us warm and there were not many people, allowing us to take lovely pictures of the naked crater. Simply stunning…
We started the descent down to the lakes, preparing ourselves mentally to go back up on the other side of the slope to reach an even higher peak. The guide mentioned that we would be adding another 400 meters of altitude, which sounds like nothing, but at 4000 meters makes a huge difference. On looking upwards, the top seemed so close and yet so far, as each step I took seemed like a mountain in itself and so heavy; in my delirium, I wondered how the hell I had climbed Kilimanjaro and reached 6000 meters! I couldn’t explain it to myself but I have a theory and a suggestion for all of you who wish to venture onto such an amazing trip here, there or anywhere: train A LOT.., run, climb stairs, do sit-ups, squats, anything, every day, for at least a year; eat properly, no junk food, drink loads of water or natural juice, very little wine (just to be sociable, and not too social, if you know what I mean), and if you can start from the foot of the mountain… When I climbed Kili I had lived at 2000 for the 3 weeks prior, and then started to climb from that altitude, going up step by step and down again at 3000, to acclimatize; if possible you should do that. As for the Toluca trip, it was not an option and it was beneficial to experience this feeling as well. During this second phase Carlos was really helpful and understanding again, and thanks to his help I was not that far behind the group, and when we reached the top… Wow, what can I say? Just look at the pictures… Sometimes words cannot express how the beauty of nature makes you feel…
Those 400 meters in altitude felt more like 2000 but were worth the effort and pain. I made it and I was content with the experience, grateful to my fellow hikers, my guide and most of all Mother Nature, has proved yet again that it is greater than us.
The return was very easy, except for the last bit of the climbing trail; but a piece of cake really, compared to the beginning. We went back to our van and headed off to our next stop for a well-deserved meal included in our tour, in the small town of Toluca, which was on the way back to Mexico City and all its metropolitan traffic.
It was an amazing day, a must-do if you happen to be in Mexico City for more than 3 days and you love nature.
I planned 5 days, and because I had already visited Mexico, I decided to explore the surroundings. After the hike, I was ready for my cultural piece of the journey in Tepoztlan and I was even more excited that my adventure hadn´t quite finished yet!
To conclude the narration on the Toluca trip, I would say that you can definitely go on your own if you have a car, or if you love adventure and don’t mind taking local buses. I have to say I am very much a fan of do-it-yourself trips, except when I climb a mountain. I have so much respect for nature, and mountains, in particular, are no joke! It’s a pretty good altitude and anything can happen if you are not used to it, and you often won´t know how your body is going to respond. So, in this case, I feel I can easily suggest going with an organization, of which I am sure there are plenty. I was very happy with Ecotura (www.ecotura.mx) for the reasons expressed above and I would personally recommend them.
Parque Nacional Nevado de Toluca: It was decreed a National Park in 1936, primarily to protect the volcano, which forms nearly the entire surface of the park, and constitutes the fourth-highest peak in Mexico. It is said that the park was established with the aim of conservation, but it is under increasing pressure from the growth of the Toluca metropolitan area, as well as falling victim to illegal logging by local communities. Its Nahuatl name, Xinantecatl, translates as “naked lord,” a reference to the fact that the top of the volcano is above the tree line, with only rock and grassland, and devoid of snow for most of the year. However, as per usual, there is a dispute regarding the original name, too; however, I like the naked lord and I’m going to stick with it. The volcano has long been extinct and has a large crater in which there are two shallow lakes: the lake of the moon, and the lake of the sun. There are also a number of archeological sites in the park, even within the lakes themselves, which contain numerous offerings of copal and other items deposited there during the pre-Hispanic period and related to ceremonies that were performed at that time. (Source: Wikipedia)
Max alt: 4690 meters
Time on the road from Mexico City: 3hrs approx (135km)
What to bring (most importantly) March through November:
- Sunscreen and sunglasses – at that altitude the sunlight is strong and you can easily get burnt without even realizing it.
- A hat and/or ear protectors and warm gloves – it will be cold.
- Dress in layers – the first layer (in contact with your skin) being the most absorbent and delicate, the second to isolate your body from the wind, and the third to protect from the cold.
- Water – it is very important to stay hydrated.
- Bring snacks – I cannot eat when I am making so much effort at such a high altitude, but many people need to eat all the time, so chocolate and nuts would work, and a couple of sandwiches if you are a big eater.
- A comfy backpack – not too big, just big enough to transport all of the above
- Last but not least, a good camera – to capture the beauty and works of nature.
In the coldest months from November through February, more layers, very warm gloves, and a cap are heartily suggested.
Tour options: There is a second option of a tour that has a higher level of difficulty (imagine that), going up to 4690 meters, which is the maximum height and which, of course, requires a high level of fitness and no vertigo issues. You start walking at 4000 meters to reach ‘’Paso Quetzal’ at 4100, then head off down to the crater, crossing it, and starting your hike again up to 4400 meters to a place called El Campanario at 4400. From there, you continue the walk all along the crest until you get to 4690 meters in about 4 hours, at which point you have an amazing view of the entire crater. After a rich meal to fill up on energy again, you start the descent towards the lakes and you’ll be walking for about another 3 hours. It’s a long day, but certainly worth it.
There is also the possibility of a 2-day tour, sleeping in a cabin in the Parque de los Venados, a wooded zone, but you need to reserve it well in advance. It is located in a beautiful area with an amazing view of the volcano. Ecotura can arrange this too also as a private tour.