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Paso de Cortes: The Wilderness Escape Minutes From Mexico City

As one of the world’s biggest mega-cities, it’s surprising just how quickly you can reach some incredible stretches of wilderness from Mexico City. Paso de Cortes is one such spot, and it’s perfect for a weekend trip away from the big smoke. This forested mountain pass is the stuff of legend. It’s supposedly where Hernan Cortes caught his first glimpse of the jewel of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan. Nowadays, Paso de Cortes is a base for conquistadores of another stripe: outdoor enthusiasts, and mountaineers bound for the nearby peak of Iztaccihuatl.

The pass feels much more isolated than it actually is. Although it’s only a few hours away from Mexico City, Paso de Cortes is some seriously pristine wilderness. To the north of the pass, the glaciated peaks of Izta glisten, while to the south the active volcano of Popocatepetl rumbles. At night, you can see the twinkling, endless expanse of Mexico City far below.

It’s possible to camp pretty much anywhere, and on weekends the forests and plains below Izta are dotted with tents, and the occasional barbecue.

However, as the altitude rises, it becomes easier to get a slice of solitude.

I camped on a small landing about half way up the mountain, and wasn’t disturbed by anyone until some early morning climbers interrupted my breakfast the next morning.

Getting to the Paso de Cortes by public transport took me a little investigative work, as for some reason no one really seems to know how to do it. Pretty much everyone told me it’s impossible without private transport, but this simply isn’t the case. The most common route to get to the pass is via Amecameca, a grimy industrial town on the outskirts of Mexico City. The town can be reached by either taking a direct bus from Mexico City’s TAPO, or a Puebla bound Estrella Roja bus (or TAPO bound bus from Puebla’s CAPU). If you go for the second (or third option), be sure to ask the bus driver to let you off at the Chalco stop, which is sometimes referred to as Sendero. The bus will drop you on the side of the highway. If you’re coming from Mexico City, turn to your right, and follow the road until you reach the yellow pedestrian bridge that crosses the highway. There’s an improvised bus stop on the other side, where you can hail colectivos heading for Amecameca (they usually just say Ameca on the front). If you’re coming from Puebla, the instructions are basically the same, except you’ll have to cross to the other side of the highway when you first get off the bus.

Once you’re in Amecameca, you’ll have to head to the zocalo, which is about two blocks from the colectivo stop. Once you’re there, take a right at the church. Walk down the street one block, then turn left, and walk about half a block. The colectivo stop to Paso de Cortes will be on your right. The colectivos leave roughly once every two to three hours, or when full. This option is only best if you’re alone, as the colectivo ride is a whopping MX$70 (US$3.40). Comparably, you should be able to get a taxi for around MX$200-300 (US$9-15).

An alternative route to the pass is via Cholula, on the outskirts of Puebla. First, you’ll have to get to the village of Santiago, which can be reached from Cholula by colectivos from a terminal on 8 Poniente and 5 Norte. From Cholula’s zocalo, take a right at the big yellow church, walk two blocks, then take another right, and walk two more blocks. That should put you at the corner of 8 Poniente and 5 Norte. Once you reach Santiago, you can take another colectivo to the pass from a low profile stop to the right of the village church, on the edge of the zocalo. Bear in mind that this is the same colectivo that runs all the way to Amecameca.

Whichever way you take, expect to spend at least a good four hours on the road, irrelevant of whether you go from Mexico City or Puebla. Once you reach the Paso de Cortes, you’ll have to register at the national park headquarters, and pay an entry fee of MX$30 (plus an additional MX$30 camping fee). Then, it’s a 2 hour walk to La Joya, a parking lot at the base of Izta. It’s possible to hike almost to the peak without any gear, though to do the full ascent you’ll need crampons to cross the glaciers.

Be aware Izta is a serious peak, and you should come prepared. Even the lower levels of the climb are dotted with crosses for those who have died on the peak. I coincidentally happened to camp under another tribute to some unfortunate hiker. It’s also worth noting that the flanks of Izta can get bitterly cold in winter. I spent the night seriously concerned my tent was going to be knocked off the mountain by the howling winds.

The wind was so loud, I couldn’t hear myself swearing in my tent. When I woke up the next morning, my tent was slightly warped, and a 2 litre bottle of water that had been sitting next to my head all night was half frozen. When I got up to remove the piles of rocks I’d used to reinforce my tent, I found they too had frozen together overnight. I spent a solid half hour kicking them apart. But, the view in the morning was well worth it.

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