Archive for the ‘Weekend Trips’ Category

Mexico City: Hiking Mecca?

February 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Marcos Ferro/Aurora Photos

Climbing Ayoloco glacier on 17,126-foot Iztaccíhuatl, a two-hour drive from Mexico City. While the mountain does not demand much technical skill, its sheer altitude should be taken seriously

Published: February 4, 2011

“WHO knew that this was here?” said Alejandro Escalante, a young businessman from Mexico City, his suit jacket flapping like a flag in the wind. Above us loomed the serrated edge of Nevado de Toluca, a 15,000-foot-high extinct volcano an hour’s drive and a short hike from the Mexican capital. From deep within its crater, two shallow emerald lakes reflected patches of snow that, by last spring, still stubbornly clung to the mountain’s broad shoulders.

Twenty-five years ago, few could have answered Mr. Escalante’s question in the affirmative. In the 1980s, residents of the teeming capital nearly forgot the mountains existed. So thick was the haze encircling Mexico City that some of the tallest peaks on the continent virtually disappeared.

No longer. The mountains surrounding the megalopolis are back, both in view and on travel itineraries. Cleaner air, better roads and a growing middle class have boosted mountain climbing in central Mexico, and hikers are starting to take notice. “Famous climbers come here to start their careers or to train for other mountains,” Mario Andrade, a veteran guide, told me. “Nowadays the reputation of our mountains is widespread and growing fast.”

Still, while increasingly popular among Mexicans and foreign climbers training for the Himalayas, they are almost unknown to the millions of foreign tourists who visit the country each year.

And so, after living in Mexico City for a year, I prepared my backpack, dug out my boots, and set myself a 10-day goal of hiking a trio of the tallest mountains within a day’s trip of downtown: El Ajusco (12,894 feet), Nevado de Toluca (15,354 feet) and Iztaccíhuatl (17,126 feet).

Like most journeys in Mexico, mine began near the city center: the bustling heart of what Mexicans lovingly call el monstruo (the monster).

I met a group of friends in the subway, and we headed south toward Ajusco, a peak rising from the edge of the city like a lookout tower. At the last stop of the train we caught a cab, which — in about 30 minutes — took us the remaining miles to the base of the mountain, past roadside roast chicken stands, paintball courses and patchy soccer fields.

After our taxi dropped us at the side of the road near a final, lonely restaurant, we headed straight up the slope, through light forest and over an irrigation ditch, until we eventually stumbled onto a well-worn path. I had chosen Ajusco as a warm-up for more demanding hikes, but its sheer elevation and sweeping vistas are still more than enough to take your breath away. After a fairly easy two-hour ascent that wound its way around the mountain like a corkscrew, we stood atop a narrow rock ledge named El Pico del Águila, or Eagle’s Peak.

Omar Torres/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images 

Ascending snow-capped Ajusco volcano, on the outskirts of Mexico City, is a popular day trip for hikers.

Looking down, we saw the city wrapped around us like an enormous sleeping dog. We and several dozen other day-trippers rested near a series of metal crosses, sucking in the thin, cool air. (At nearly 13,000 feet, Ajusco is considerably higher than Mexico City, itself already more than 7,000 feet above sea level.)

A few days later, my legs fully recuperated from the Ajusco hike, I met a friend at Mexico City’s western bus station. Our aim: to climb Nevado de Toluca as a final preparation for Iztaccíhuatl, the eighth highest mountain in North America. We arrived in Toluca in little more than an hour and haggled with a taxi to take us the remaining 45 minutes to the base of the mountain. The cab bounced along a switchback dirt road before dropping us off at the entrance to the park. An old man waved us in the direction of the peak, promising that we could not miss the path to the top.

We followed a faint trail through the forest, as small birds and squirrels flitted in front of us like spirits. A forest fire several months earlier had left large swaths of undergrowth charred and stunted, and small yellow flowers and saplings sporadically broke through the black crust. After half an hour of gradual hiking, we reached the tree line. Suddenly, Nevado’s summit, Friar’s Peak, stared down at us, more than a mile above the city of Toluca behind us. Under its watchful eye, we hiked along a dirt road around the mountain to the Posada Familiar where, on weekends, visitors can camp or cook a hot meal for a fee of a few dollars.

Michael E. Miller
Lago del Sol, seen from Nevado de Toluca’s crater rim, an hour’s drive and short hike away.

Although Ajusco is the most popular hike near Mexico City, Nevado de Toluca is not far behind. One reason is that it is only as difficult as hikers make it. Many Mexicans, including Mr. Escalante, the Mexico City businessman, drive all the way up to the posada, park their cars and walk only the steep half-mile up to its volcanic crater. From there, its twin lagoons — Lake of the Sun and Lake of the Moon — shine like turquoise jewels against the red and gray rock surrounding them. Against the backdrop of its austerely beautiful serrated crater rim, this place seems farther away from the chaotic capital than New York or Miami ever could.

A week later, I rode another bus an hour and a half southeast of the capital to Amecameca, the launching pad for ascents of Iztaccíhuatl. Because of the climb’s increased difficulty and greater risk of altitude sickness I hired a guide, Alberto Buendía, who picked me up at the bus station in his truck.

We barreled past fields of corn and agave, through thick forest and past old women selling quesadillas until we reached El Paso de Cortés, the saddle between Iztaccíhuatl and the still-active volcano Popocatépetl.

Unlike Ajusco or Nevado de Toluca, both of which can be trekked in half a day, Iztaccíhuatl is a two-day hike. And while it does not demand much technical skill, its sheer altitude should be taken seriously. At more than 17,000 feet above sea level, it is nearly two miles above the already nosebleed-high Mexico City and taller than either the Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. Altitude sickness often forces unprepared visitors to cut their hikes short. Even the mountain’s name is ominous. Iztaccíhuatl means “White Woman” in Nahuatl, a reference not only to the way its peaks resemble a reclining woman’s curves, but also to the two glaciers and year-round snow near its summit. Unlike the other two climbs, Iztaccíhuatl can be attempted only from late October to May, during Mexico’s dry season. During the summer, when heavy rains soften the snow and glaciers, the upper stretches of the mountain are unsafe to climb.

My guide and I shouldered our packs, stuffed full of food, water, sleeping bags and extra clothes for the summit, and gripped our hiking staffs. Our ascent began in a breathtakingly green valley, less than four miles but thousands of feet in altitude from the summit. As we hiked, Mr. Buendía explained to me how hiking had grown in Mexico since he became a guide 11 years ago.

“Nowadays there are so many 16-, 17-year-old kids joining hiking clubs and rescue teams,” he said. “Technology has made climbing easier, and now they can see on television what it is like to hike these mountains. They look up, see the summit, and say to themselves: ‘I can climb that.’ ”

After an hour, tall grass gave way to gravel and rock. The countryside opened up below us, a glacial stream running off to our right. Our path turned into sand, then slippery mud as we entered the appropriately named Soapmaker’s Pass. Finally, after three hours, we reached the refuge halfway up the mountain, a silver trailer cemented to the mountain. Like many hiking huts in Mexico, the trailer is available on a first-come-first-served basis. But on this day, we had the barren, amenity-free wooden sleeping platforms to ourselves. As thunderstorms broke on the slopes beneath us, I tucked into my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep.

After a night of little rest, I ate a ham sandwich frozen stiff by the cold. We donned our heavy coats and left the refuge shortly after dawn, moving up Iztaccíhuatl’s rocky “knee,” at times hand-over-hand. The wind whipped across the ridge, and fog settled on us like a ghost, only to disappear again. We passed a frozen lake as gray-blue as an Arctic sea. After another hour we reached the mountain’s “belly”: a glacier the size of two football fields. As Mr. Buendía walked in front of me, his left foot plunged through the glacier’s crust and into the icy water below. He howled with cold, but trudged on nonetheless.

We continued upward, past a false summit and over a narrow, vertiginous pass. The smell of sulfur washed over us from natural springs below. On either side, steep, snow-covered slopes disappeared into thin air, and I gripped my walking stick tighter. Finally we reached the summit, Iztaccíhuatl’s “breast,” nearly three miles above sea level. Forty miles to the northwest, Mexico City was humming and honking as loudly as ever, but here, above the clouds, there was only the sound of the midday wind, and my shallow breaths.


From Mexico City, the easiest way to reach all three mountains is by renting a car. However, Ajusco is accessible via the metro and then a taxi (120 pesos, or $10 at 12 Mexican pesos to the dollar ). Buses leave every 10 minutes for Toluca from Mexico City’s western bus station, Terminal Poniente de Autobuses, and every 15 minutes for Amecameca from the eastern bus terminal, TAPO (Terminal Autobuses Oriente). Once you are in either town, taxis to the mountains are expensive, running as much as 600 pesos round trip.


All three hikes require some level of physical fitness but no climbing experience. Ajusco can be climbed year-round, but the best time to hike both Nevado de Toluca and Iztaccíhuatl is between late October and May when the weather is generally dry and mild. Hikers of all skill levels should watch the weather before any attempt, and inexperienced hikers should only ascend Iztaccíhuatl with a professional guide.

Rubén García Fernández runs Cumbre 7 Expeditiones ( out of Amecameca. For an English-speaking guide, try Mario Andrade ( in Mexico City.

Experienced hikers can rent their own equipment from Aguayo Deportes (, a cheap and friendly store in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood.


Altitude sickness, or mal de montaña as it is called in Mexico, can be deadly. Visitors unaccustomed to high altitude should spend at least three or four days walking around Mexico City, and Iztaccíhuatl should only be attempted after several easier, acclimatizing hikes.

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Categories: Tips, Travel, Weekend Trips

The Mind-Blowing Museums of Mexico City – Mexico City, Mexico

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

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The Mexican government has recently started bragging that Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world. We haven’t done a scientific head count, however, we are inclined to agree.  Here’s our roundup of the museums we’ve visited in Mexico City, a few we still hope to enjoy, a helpful tip and one burning question.


The only place in Mexico where you’ll see a sculpture of Chac Mool, the Mayan god of rain, of this quality is in the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

Museo Nacional de AntropologíaThe mother of all Mexico City museums (and one of the largest, most comprehensive and most respected anthropology museums in the world) sprawls over 100,000 square feet and includes eye-popping artifacts from every epoch of Mexican cultural development. Fuel up for the culture onslaught at the Super Tortas stand near the museum entrance. Just follow the crowds for a great sandwich. Note: this is one of the few museums that does not allow foreigners in for free on Sundays—just Mexican nationals.

One of the many treasures in the Museo Nacional de Antropología is this Aztec Sun Stone (Piedra del Sol). This 25-ton intricately carved basalt slab describing Aztec life is 12 feet in diameter and was carved in the late 1400s, then lost until it was discovered buried beneath the Zócalo in 1790.

The Olmecs created some of the most distinctive art including this emblematic colossal head, seen in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City and practically nowhere else.


Museo Rufino Tamayo – Not far from the Anthropology Museum lies this tidy museum houses the artist’s collection and rotating modern art exhibits. When we were there only one small, thin exhibit was open but when all the exhibition spaces are in use this is a great place for cutting edge contemporary art.


Museo de Arte ModernThere’s not an artifact in sight at this museum, also within walking distance of the Anthropology Museum, making it a nice way to look into the future after you’ve gotten your fill of gawking at the past.


This partial reconstruction of the massive Temple of Quetzalcoatl from Teotihuacán is a highlight of the Museo Nacional de Antropología. For scale, note the young girl walking past the display in the lower right hand corner.


Museo Mural Diego RiveraDiego Rivera’s famous 15m x 4m mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” is displayed here along with a small collection of surprisingly traditional and contemplative religious art.

Diego Rivera’s famous 15m x 4m mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” is displayed at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera in Mexico City.


Museo Templo Mayor – Located just off  the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, this indoor/outdoor museum takes visitors along a series of walkways over, through and around areas of excavation which reveal a treasure trove of  Aztec artifacts found beneath what is now modern Mexico City. In fact, this was the great city of Tenochtitlan, the seat of the Aztec empire, and the very reason why Cortes and the conquistadors built their church (the Catedral Metropolitana which still stands) and their main city (now Mexico City) on this very spot. It’s an unusual feeling to be admiring ancient artifacts and art with the modern Mexico City skyline all around you.


Mexico City’s Castillo de Chapultepec Museo Nacional de Historia looks like a European castle for a reason.

Castillo de  Chapultepec Museo Nacional de Historia – The Castillo de Chapultepec (castle of the grasshopper) is eerily European looking, and for good reason. Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph of Austria lived here with his wife after being put in charge of Mexico by the French (who were angry that Mexico had refused to pay its debts) with the support of Mexicans eager for better government. Now the hilltop castle is a wonderful history museum with fantastic views over Chapultepec Park and right up Avenida Reforma into the city center. The archduke’s swanky living quarters are a treat to see too.

This “Retablo de la Independencia” mural by Juan O’Gorman adorns one of the walls inside the Castillo de Chapultepec Museo Nacional de Historia in Mexico City.


Galeria de Historia  Museo del Caracol – Just below the Castillo de Chapultepec National History Museum this clever building, which curves in on itself like snail shell (hence the name), is full of chronologically arranged dioramas depicting major moments in Mexican history. Great for kids and anyone (like us) who could use a crash course in Mexico’s complicated past.


Museo del Palacio de Bellas ArtesThis beautiful theater in the centro, worthy of a visit just for its architecture, is also a wonderful place to see some of the most iconic works from some of Mexico’s most iconic muralists (including Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros) which adorn the theater walls.


This wall gives you some idea why the other name for the Museo de Frida Kahlo, in the artist’s home in Mexico City, is Casa Azul.

Museo de Frida Kahlo (Casa  Azul)For every one thing that Frida Kahlo revealed about herself in her art she seems to have hidden 10 more. Walking around the house she lived in, including her bedroom, almost feels like an invasion. The collection includes  pieces of Communist propaganda that Kahlo and Rivera did in addition to the work we know and love. Tickets include entry to the Museo Anahuacalli (see below).


Museum of Mexico City – When we were there this small central museum had an awesome retrospective of memorabilia from the world of lucha libre including information about early female lucheras. There was also a great collection of models and photos chronicling some of architect Luis Barragan’s work in the city.


A whimsical modern take on classic catrinas at the Museo Arte Popular in Mexico City.

Museo Arte Popular Playful takes on classic Mexican art forms and iconography make this museum, near the Alameda, the perfect antidote if you’re suffering from artifact-overdose. The museum gift shop is also full of affordable and adorable gifts as well as collectible investments in silver jewelry or handmade shawls and other traditional fabrics.

We like to call this piece “Frijole Jesus.” It’s just one example of the playful take on Mexican artistic techniques and imagery on display at the Museo Arte Popular in Mexico City.


Museo Franz Mayer – In addition to the stunning and wide-ranging personal collection of Franz Mayer, when we visited this museum was also exhibiting the 2010 World Press Photo Award winners including awesome work from from photojournalists around the world.


An art car version of Mexico’s national car, the Volkswagen Beetle, at the Museo Arte Popular in Mexico City.


Museo Casa-Estudio Frida Kahlo & Diego RiveraThese connected houses/studios in a lovely affluent neighborhood of Mexico City were both home and workplace to the power couple of Mexican contemporary art. It’s full of atmosphere plus you get to see things like Frida’s bathtub–one of the few Frida moments that feels truly intimate. Diego’s studio is bohemian enough to inspire even the most un-artistic among us. Maybe it’s the power of his size 14 shoes left on the floor in the studio…

The exterior of Museo Casa-Estudio Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera in Mexico City.


Museo Nacional de la Estampa A collection of historically and artistically important pieces of graphic art (estampa means print in Spanish) are housed in a gorgeous building near the Zócalo. We loved the collection of tiny illustrated children’s books.


The sculpture-filled grounds of the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City.

Museo Dolores OlmedoDolores Olmeda is said to have been one of Diego Rivera’s lovers but her eponymous museum and collection reflects a love of Mexico, not just a love of Rivera. The gorgeous and tranquil home and grounds are bursting with pieces from Rivera (and Frida Kahlo) and other classic Mexican artists as well as a pack of  Xoloitzcuintlis, an ancient hairless dogs, and a fabulous and informative collection of top-shelf examples of crafts from around Mexico. For us, this museum provided a better (and certainly much more relaxing) overview of the work of Rivera and Kahlo than any other museum we visited in the city. The gift shop is exquisite.

Diego Rivera maintains a commanding presence at the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City.

One of these hairless Mexican dogs, called Xoloitzcuintlis, at the Museo Dolores Olmeda in Mexico City is a statue. Can you tell which one?


Labortorio Arte de Alameda Near the centro you will find an old church which is now a cutting edge temple to boundary-pushing multi-media art installations that gleefully tackle taboo subjects.  It’s by far the most avant-garde museum we visited in Mexico City and it feels like a gallery/art space that would fit right into the Manhattan or Brooklyn art scenes.


Ones that got away…

Though we’ve visited Mexico City three times (for a total of over three weeks) on our Trans-Americas Journey, most recently to take part in the Bicentennial celebrations including fireworks, President Felipe Calderón’s Grito and other highlights, we have still not manage to visit all of the museums we want to see in the city.  Here are a few that got away but which we hope to get to one day!

Though we visited the Guadalupe Basilica (more on that in an upcoming post), the Museo y Santuario de Nuestra Señora Virgen de Guadalupe was closed by the time we got there.

We never made it out to Museo Anahuacalli, the dramatic pyramd-inspired museum designed by Diego Rivera to house his collection of more than 50,000 pieces of pre-Hispanic art.

We managed to be in Mexico City in between shows at the La Coleccion Jumex. The ubiquitous Mexican juice company has an impressive private art collection and hosts temporary shows that are open to the public in a big space just outside central Mexico City as long as you make a reservation and time your visit to coincide with one of their temprorary shows. Otherwise there’s nothing to see as their private collection really is private. We hear Jumex is planning a new museum in town which will be more easily accessible.

And we didn’t call to make a reservation far enough in advance (they require two weeks notice) to gain entry to Casa Luis Barragán which is famous as much for the architecture as the contents. This UNESCO site is the former home of ground-breaking architect Luis Barragán and it’s a must for art and design buffs.

We didn’t make it to the new museum from the world’s richest man (Mexico’s Carlos Slim) for one very good reason: it’s not open yet. But we did drive by the construction site and get an eyeful of the enormous mushroom-like shell of the structure (being designed by Slim’s son-in-law) in the chi-chi Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City. The $750 million new branch of Slim’s Museo Soumaya, named after his deceased wife, is expected to open in November though that seems ambitious to us.



At most museums in Mexico Sunday is free day for all citizens and often even for foreigners. Pro: the chance to save some money. Con: huge crowds at the most popular museums.


And now, the burning question we promised you: Art or commerce?

Post a comment and let us know what you think about the fact that the Mexican government just issued a brand new 500 peso note—picturing Diego Rivera on one side and Frida Kahlo on the other.


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Stunning Shipping Container City Springs up in Mexico

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

sustainable design, green design, shipping containers, shipping container architecture, Mexico, Container City, container restaurant, shipping container restaurant, recycled materials

This hip, colorfully painted shipping container city recently sprung up just outside of Mexico city. Created by a small community of businesses, the project features restaurants, gallery space, bars, funky stores and even living spaces constructed completely out of recycled shipping containers.

shipping containers, shipping container architecture, Mexico, Container City, container restaurant, shipping container restaurant, recycled materials

Container City is located about two hours outside of Mexico City in Cholula, and is comprised of about 50 standard shipping containers. The developers took 4500 sq meters (48,500sq.ft) of space and plopped down the containers, stacking them to create courtyards, alleys and streets. The containers were then painted bright colors and outfitted with lighting, kitchens, dining areas and more. There is even an open public area with ping pong tables where people can go and hang out.

The city consists of restaurants, juice bars, normal bars, funky little shops, bookstores, art galleries as well as a few residential apartments. There’s plenty of outdoor space to sit around and hang out and there are events and bands scheduled all the time. Container City is open Monday thru Saturday from 10am-8pm and Sundays from 11am-6pm.

+ Container City

Information taken and more info at Inhabitat