Vanlife diaries #52: Izta-Popo National Park, Cholua & Puebla, Mexico
Cruising out of Mexico City after an extended stay, we headed south this week into Puebla, a truly beautiful state dominated by the country’s tallest volcanos and home to one of the greatest inventions of the 17th century: Mole Poblano. Although our travels didn’t take us to every corner, I found myself somewhat swept up by Puebla and know I’ll be back soon enough!
Izta-Popo National Park, State of México & Puebla
Finally at 100% after my trip to the emergency room last week and a week spend at an Airbnb in Mexico City, we found ourselves first in Parque Nacional Iztaccíhuatl-Popocatépetl, which straddles the border between the State of Mexico and Puebla. The journey here was long and rough, but we were assured the scenery would be worthwhile.
Behind Pico de Orizaba (5636m) on the border of Puebla and Veracruz, Popocatépetl (5426m) and Iztaccíhuatl (5230m) are Mexico’s 2nd and 3rd highest volcanos, respectively. Perhaps not known for its mountains, it’s impressive to note that Mexico is home to 3 of the top 8 tallest peaks in North America! This country has so much diversity and it’s truly a joy to discover the myriad of ecosystems, from beaches and jungles to deserts and high-elevation volcanos.
According to local legend in the neighbouring state of Tlaxcala, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl were two star-crossed lovers— the daughter of the Tlaxcalteca chief, Princess Iztaccíhuatl eagerly awaited the return of Popocatépetl from battle, with the promise that they would be wed following his victory against the Aztecs. A jealous rival of the young warrior delivered the false news to Princess Iztaccíhuatl that her beloved had died on the battlefield and, consumed by despair, she faded to a slow death before his return.
Popocatépetl, seeking his princess after his triumph, was then met with the news of her death and was overwhelmed by grief, piling 10 hills together to form an enormous mountain tomb that would honour her legacy. Carrying the body of the princess in his arms, Popocatépetl climbed to the summit of the mountain and laid her to rest, kneeling beside her with a flaming torch for the rest of his days in a display of eternal devotion. As time passed, their bodies were covered in snow and they were transformed into 2 immense volcanos, together until the end of time.
It is said that whenever the warrior Popocatépetl thinks of his Princess Iztaccíhuatl, his torch burns with the fire of eternal passion— although Izta is dormant, Popo remains an active volcano and it’s not uncommon to see massive plumes of smoke rising from the caldera, continually honouring the memory of his beloved princess.
After arriving at approximately lunchtime to the visitor centre (which appeared to be closed, as did the access road onwards to the trailhead), I chatted with the police and no fewer than half a dozen of the people clustered about to eventually learn that we would indeed be able to pass the road for a modest 50p ($2.50).
Already the views of Mexico’s second tallest volcano, Popocatépetl, were imposing, as was the steady stream of smoke rising out of the caldera, and I longed for an even better view.
Once at the La Joya trailhead, I set off on the trail amidst fresh mountain air and radiant afternoon sun. Not having researched any particular hike and now without service, I was left to wander upwards with no particular plan— but the trail was easy enough to follow and I was constantly propelled forward by the scenery (and incredibly solitude).
Finally, I scrambled atop a rocky outcrop (which I later learned to be the 2nd pass en route to the refugio and eventually the summit of Iztaccíhuatl) and found myself face to face with Popocatépetl.
At this particular point, having crossed the state border, I was technically in Puebla— but a world away from the charming cities that otherwise characterise this part of Mexico. Not a soul in sight, it was a special moment to sit and appreciate the incredible diversity of Mexico, from beaches to high altitude forests to steaming volcanos, and everything in between.
Opting for a more direct route onwards to Puebla, we drove an incredibly rough dirt road for what felt like hours down the mountain before eventually connecting with a main road into Cholula.
Just 20min outside of Puebla, this little pueblo mágico is known as the namesake of popular Cholula hot sauce, but also as home to the world’s largest pyramid (larger in volume that any of Egypt’s pyramids, though admittedly not as grand).
We were drawn here by the promise of beautiful volcano views, which were certainly delivered in spades, but we also found ourselves completely enchanted by the colourful little town, its rich cultural heritage, abundance of delicious food, and welcoming locals.
We spent our days in Cholula camped out front of the local Cervecería Cholula, wandering around to an endless stream of delicious restaurants and of course exploring the pyramid.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula, or Tlachihualtepetl in the native Náhuatl, is a massive pyramid complex made up of 7 individual pyramids dating back as far as 200BCE. Originally built by the Toltecs, it is believed that numerous indigenous groups contributed to its construction over many hundreds of years and that it was once the capital of the highlands and a sister-city to the sprawling Teotihuacán (located in modern day Estado de México).
Cholula Pyramid has been minimally excavated and appears at first glance like a large hill, but hidden under the ground is a pyramid 4x larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza, a testament to the early civilisations that flourished across Mexico. When the Spanish arrived, they did as colonisers are wont to do— and they built a cathedral right on top of Tlachihualtepetl. Today, it offers a phenomenal vantage point over the city and is definitely worth a visit!
Certainly our highlight in Cholula was a visit to Koatlikue Pachamama, a restaurant serving tradition Nauhuatl (Aztec) food.
Arriving not long before closing, we were the only customers in the restaurant as Xchel, the charismatic owner, supplied us with an endless stream of pulque and the amazing Tortilla Cholulteca we’d come here to try— two handmade corn tortillas stuffed full of veggies and paprika sauce, topped with Oaxaca cheese, avocado, and tomatoes. Xchel described it as an Aztec pizza of sorts, but it equally resembled a gourmet quesadilla. It was, in a word, magical.
But the real magic came when Xchel invited us to stay beyond closing, bringing over a bottle of mezcal (made by his cousin) which he shared with us over the course of several hours.
He sang— perhaps belted, but with incredible tone and emotion— a Mexican ballad for us, and we spent the remainder of the evening discussing our supposed purpose in life and taking turns playing songs from YouTube over his speaker. It was an incredible night of sharing, connection, and unfettered generosity that only deepened my love for Mexico.
Puebla de Zaragoza, Puebla
Our final stop in Puebla (at least for the current trip) was to the state’s namesake city, officially called Puebla de Zaragoza but almost exclusively referred to as Puebla or Puebla City in conversation.
If we were impressed by Cholula (and we really were), I was immediately awed by the beauty and subtle sophistication of Puebla. Under the shadow of brightly coloured churches, laneways lined with artists’ studios and traditional pottery drew us deeper into the city, and bright jacaranda trees dropped purple leaves all over the spotless footpaths.
Puebla is nothing if not picturesque, and the restrained energy of a Thursday night matched the excitement of just about anywhere we’ve been.
After indulging in several glasses of curado at El Nahual Pulqueria, an excellent pulque bar with the best selection of flavours we’ve seen anywhere in Mexico (everything from blueberry mixed with actual sorbet to queso de zarzamora, which tastes JUST like blackberry cheesecake), we prepared for the main event.
If you missed my previous description of pulque, check out this post!
Although largely dwarfed by neighbouring Oaxaca, Puebla is a culinary destination in its own right— both states claim to have invented the iconic Mexican dish mole, and seeing as we are visiting both of these foodie hotspots back-to-back, a comparison seemed the only reasonable thing to do.
While Oaxaca officially has 7 distinct types of mole (and you can find many variations of the sauce throughout both states), Puebla claims to have conceived of mole poblano, an iconic dish whose origins have been traced back to pre-hispanic Aztec celebrations and which many consider to be the national dish of Mexico.
After much consideration, we set out to try mole poblano at 2 of the city’s top-rated, fine dining establishments, El Muro de los Poblanos and Augurio— the kind of places that cost 10x what we’d pay for a simple dinner of street tacos, yet still a fraction of what such an experience would cost in the US or Australia (for two meals with cocktails, we paid a total of $22USD).
It was well worth the splurge, especially as we dug into the rich, chocolatey, 22-ingredient mole poblano that has made El Mural a favourite among locals and visitors alike. This certainly isn’t like the mole I’ve had outside of Mexico, but almost the consistency of brownie batter and with an indescribable complexity that speaks to the time and labour of making such a dish in the first place.
Our degustación included 5 different moles: mole poblano (the classic chocolate-based sauce), pipián verde (made with pumpkin seeds), pipián rojo (made with peanuts), manchamanteles (a fruity, somewhat Hawaiian sauce), and adobo (a spicier, chili-based mole).
Each was a genuine treat, especially accompanied by duck, warm corn tortillas, and thick homemade salsas. It was a level of sophistication quite rare for us, but for Mexican food, we’re willing to make exceptions.
When we awoke, it was to a sunny morning right out front of the Puebla Police Station, where we’d parked all day and slept overnight. We’d headed there straight from Cholula yesterday and were greeted with such unrestrained enthusiasm that (to repeat an analogy from previous weeks that seems to apply to so many of our interactions in Mexico) we almost felt like visiting dignitaries.
Waving us over and causing an excited commotion amongst half a dozen police officers, they hurried to move a patrol vehicle out of the way to make space for our van directly in front of the station, snapped photos, and invited us to come inside for bathrooms or a hot shower anytime we might need.
We hadn’t taken them up on it the previous day, but this morning, we ended up chatting to several friendly officers outside the van and were soon coerced into coming into the station for that hot shower— before which, a friendly lady officer brought over large plates of chilaquiles and eggs. All smiles, she continually thanked us for visiting her town; even as they served US breakfast, the police felt that we were the ones who deserved gratitude.
It was truly unlike any experience I’ve had with any police anywhere and felt far more like we were paying guests of an exclusive hotel than travellers sleeping in our car in front of the police station. Such is the unfathomable warmth of the Mexican people— no matter how many times we experience it, it still leaves me feeling so full.
Where we stayed this week
We arrived in Oaxaca on Friday evening this week, but I’ve chosen to keep all of our Oaxaca stories and photos together in next week’s update!
- Camping at La Joya inside Izta-Popo National Park on the border of the State of México & Puebla (free after paying 50p/person to access the road; 28 Feb)
- Camping with permission outside of Cervecería Cholula in Cholula, Puebla (free; 1-2 Mar)
- Parking out front of the police station in Puebla, Puebla (free; 3 Mar)