June 19, 2024

Climbing Pico De Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain

When you think of Mexico you think about sitting under palm trees and relaxing in cenotes, what you don’t think about is snow-covered mountains and pushing your physical limits climbing to the top of them. Both aspects of Mexico are beautiful, but there is one that only a handful of people will ever see. If you’re looking for a lesser-known adventure that will create lifelong memories, then hiking Pico de Orizaba is a must-do for you. After spending 8 months in Mexico, it is still the story I think about first when people ask me what there is to do there. Not only did it light a fire inside of me to explore mountains and make my way into mountaineering, it encouraged me to explore in ways I never imagined when growing up in a small beach town in Australia.

What is Pico de Orizaba

Pico de Orizaba is an inactive stratovolcano, the highest mountain in Mexico and the third highest in North America. There is little else in the area of much interest besides this giant mountain towering over the local landscape. Be warned: the climb is a tough one. You’ll need previous experience with ice axes and crampons skills (or time to train up when you get there); a high level of fitness, and acclimatization to altitude. If you do not have the gear or the experience you will need a guiding company. This hike can be dangerous, but I have always found life’s most rewarding moments are the ones that are hardest to achieve.


My experience hiking Pico De Orizaba

Starting off…

We stepped out of our cabin in complete darkness with only the light of our head torches pointing towards the blackened peak towering over the landscape in front of us. The weather had been a concern but luckily the silhouetted peak was surrounded by stars giving us hope for a spectacular sunrise. We wound our way through the narrow rocky path for a couple of hours before finally stepping over one last large group of rocks. We laid our eyes on the base of the glacier as the first light wrestled with the darkness, turning the horizon from black to blue.

As we strapped our boots into our crampons we tried to estimate the distance we had left in front of us, but the seemingly endless white of the glacier made it hard to gauge. We could only really tell how far we had come. We put the final knots in our rope, attaching ourselves permanently to one another for the next few hours, and stepped into the snow. This was where the real physical and mental battle began. We started pushing what felt like straight up at times. The struggle was real, but the world provided its motivation as it always does. This is the reason we travel, to see the world in ways we never could from back home. As I watched the snow turn from dark blue to purple to orange as the sun hit the horizon over the Pacific, the beauty of the world reenergized me.

Reaching the summit

The top of the mountain was still a few hours away and it was just a battle placing one foot in front of the other, lying face down in the snow declaring I had gone far enough and being picked up by my partner. I really felt the altitude but she somehow powered through. Eventually, we took the last few steps onto the top of the mountain, and the top of Mexico. We let out a few cheers into the crater, and hugged, smiled and kissed. But our time standing on top of Mexico’s highest mountain was short. As the thick cloud started to roll in followed by heavy hail, we retreated back down the mountain looking forward to a nice hot meal and a steaming cup of coffee.


How to get to Pico De Orizaba

Pico de Orizaba lies on the border of Veracruz and Puebla states in south-central Mexico. It is fairly easy to get to. From Mexico City, catch a bus to Puebla (about 2 hours), a gorgeous little town tucked into the mountains south of Mexico City. From Puebla, you need to head to Tlachichuca (another two hours). This is only about half the journey. From here you are going to need to find a guide company to take you up to basecamp on the mountain which should take another three hours.

Side note: Puebla is a beautiful town that is worth spending a couple of days exploring. It also gives you an incredible view over Pico De Orizaba from certain vantage points.


What to wear when hiking Pico De Orizaba

Mexico is not exactly the place you expect to be taking warm clothes to, but trust me, you will need a puffer jacket, warm hiking pants, thermals, gloves, a beanie, some kind of outer jacket and proper hiking boots. With the altitude comes the cold and the snow. Trust me, it’s not to be taken lightly. You will also need an ice axe and crampons which you can rent from any of the guiding companies. You can always negotiate the price with these things so don’t forget to get yourself a good deal.


How hard it is to hike Pico De Orizaba

Full disclosure: it’s not easy. However, there are things you can do to prepare yourself. There is an amazing hike outside of Mexico City called Nevado De Toluca, this will get you used to higher altitudes and hiking and you’ll have a better idea of how your body will respond. If you are fit, healthy and used to high altitudes then you should not have any problems. Remember, if you do not have mountain climbing experience you will need a guided company.


How much does it cost to hike Pico De Orizaba

There are a lot of variables here. When I hiked it, it was just my partner and I and we had all our own gear, our own transport and experience enough to not need guides. As a result of this, it cost us almost nothing except the transportation up to base camp (as the road is very bad you need four-wheel drive.)

If you have no gear and little experience you will need a guided company. This can get a little more pricey but I can guarantee, like the aforementioned Inca Trail, it’s worth the extra money out of your budget. Prices for guided tours, including all the gear you will need, start at about 300 USD per person. But the price can vary a lot depending on the company so do a little research before you head out.

If this seems like too much for you there are other options. Iztaccihuatl is another amazing mountain in Mexico that is over 5000 meters high and guided tours there are often cheaper. If you do not have that much time, do yourself a favour and make sure you get out of Mexico City to Nevado De Toluca. Not only are these cheaper options, they are also both incredible experiences.


You are more capable than you imagine

When it comes to climbing mountains like Pico De Orizaba you will need to be prepared with the right gear, guides and some determination, but this is something that everyone with a decent level of fitness can achieve. Even though I had hiked several other mountains in Mexico before, it still required the resolution of my partner to help push me up as there were one or two points I was ready to just give up. The incline and thin air at 5000 meters can really do something to you!

This is where professional guides can be amazing. They can see your limitations and know when to push you. They have an incredible way of helping get people to the top, which you certainly might have thought impossible at more than one point of the climb!

If you have ever had the desire to hike in these kinds of conditions, Mexico is an amazing place to start, with a few peaks over 5000 meters and others sitting not that far behind. This is an incredible place to start your mountaineering journey. Our travels are always memorable but from time to time you have an experience whilst travelling that you will never forget. Whether it’s hiking the Inca trail or seeing the Northern Lights for the first time, there are some memories that live with us forever. Climbing Pico De Orizaba is one of these experiences.





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