Taking the bus from Mexico City to Toluca is the easiest part of the excursion to the Nevado de Toluca; in a little over an hour I step off the bus on a crossroads, buy some snacks, and head to the line of white taxis on one of the corners. Some negotiating during which several drivers discuss amongst themselves follow, and within minutes I am in the back of a car, with the son and cousin of the driver in the front seat. None of them have ever been up the mountain that is clearly visible from Toluca, and the cousin uses his phone to find the way. When we reach the lower slopes, the road takes us through a forest, and then, suddenly, we see the mountain ridge ahead of us in an open space in the woods. The locals call this mountain Xinantécatl, often translated to the Naked Lord - and I can see why: a barren landscape of rough mountains appears above the tree line. The unsurfaced road meanders through the trees, brings us past a couple of red and white telecommunication towers, and eventually to a couple of buildings and a boom gate: the end of the road, although it continues past the gate, around a mountain top ahead, to inside the caldera.
We step out of the car, into fresh air: we are over 4,000m here. I ask a guy at the small information booth/souvenir shop about hiking up and around the crater rim, and he confirms that this is possible, and well signposted. The trail to the ridge of the crater is almost as wide as the road up the mountain, and within 15 minutes, I reach the rim, and look down into the caldera of the Nevado de Toluca, an extinct volcano that last erupted more than 10,000 years ago. On the left, I see the small Laguna de la Luna (what a poetic name!), and to the right, the Laguna del Sol. On the other side of the caldera, I see Pico del Fraile, the highest point of the mountain at 4,680m. It seems easily accessible using a trail to my left: down into the caldera, past the lake, and up on the other side. But it seems more fun to hike around the entire caldera, so I take the trail leading north, which means the Pico del Fraile will be the last peak to climb. I do wonder about the rocky sections I see on the northern side, but I assume the trail somehow goes around them. The first part of the hike is easy enough, and I am surprised that, although I arrived from sea level only the day before, I hardly feel the effects of the altitude. There is a steeper section with loose stones, but I manage to climb this, too, without too many problems. Then, the first rocky section presents itself. The trail leads right into it. When I am close, I see snow in the shade, and a sign under a cross on the rocks, commemorating an unfortunate climber who died here - it is the second such sign after the one at the viewpoint up the car park.
Nevertheless, I start climbing the formation, and using basic climbing techniques, I manage to get higher. At several points, there are fantastic views into the caldera, which is now deep below me. All the time, I expect a trail to appear again, and to see how I can continue hiking along the ridge of the caldera. Instead, there are more difficult, vertical sections, which I can manage because there are holds for my fingers and toes. Then, when I reach the top of a rock formation at over 4,500m, my views extend to all sides: into the caldera with shimmering Laguna del Sol, towards Toluca, and far beyond. Also, I see formidable rock formations ahead of me, with Pico del Fraile behind them. It starts to dawn on me that it is not wise to try and continue all alone, without guide and equipment. I still have to traverse a section with hard snow and ice, and descend a chimney, before I decide that it is a better idea to try and access Pico del Fraile from the outside of the crater. Getting down the slopes turns out to be much harder than it looked like from above. Small and bigger rocks roll down, in one case almost trapping my foot, and I descend part of the steep slopes on my ass, in a cloud of dust, controlling my movement with my hands and feet. Then, I finally reach the lower slopes, and can hike again, but there is no trail, and the going is still tough. The lower bushes here sometimes suddenly give away, making me fall into shallow holes in the ground. When I finally reach a trail that seems to lead up to Pico del Fraile, I sit down and eat something. I start hiking up, but the effort of climbing and descending the crater have seriously weakened me. The food does not seem to make me feel stronger at all. Added to that, the uncertainty of the trail: how will it be, and will I be able to manage it, considering my dwindling power? Moreover, there are only two hours left before sunset. It quickly sinks in: I should go for the safer option, and hike back around the northern side of the Nevado de Toluca. This turns out to be hard enough: the trail descends through the forest, comes to a dirt track, which eventually brings me back to the communication towers, where I reach the main road again. By this time, I feel so weak that I cannot walk in a normal way anymore, and I totter forward as if I were drunk. Now, I am faced with a tough decision: walk all the way back to the end of the road, where I am not even sure the taxi driver is still waiting, or hitch a ride down? As expected at the end of the day, there are cars coming down, but who will go up at the end of the day? I decide I cannot let down the taxi driver, and force myself to walk up the road. I feel so weak, I can imagine just falling down. One car goes up, but does not give me a ride; I curse the driver, and my spirit sinks even further. I force myself not to sit down: I am afraid I might not stand up anymore. In the distance, I can see the white buildings at the end of the road, and I try to wave, but cannot even raise my arms anymore. The only certainty I have, is that every step will take me closer to my goal. When I finally reach the end of the road, I see a white car, the driver opens the door, I almost fall into it, and I know I am safe.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Nevado de Toluca (Mexico). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Nevado de Toluca. Read more about this site.