Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park: The Complete Guide

A couple running down from the summit of Iztaccihuatl volcano
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Parque Nacional Iztaccíhuatl - Popocatépetl

Address
Pl. de la Constitucion 10-B, Centro, 56900 Amecameca de Juárez, Méx., Mexico
Phone +52 597 978 3829

Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park was decreed by President Lázaro Cardenas in 1935, making it the oldest national park in Mexico. In 1937, the Hacienda of Zoquiapam was included, so its official name is the Parque Nacional Iztaccihuatl-Popocatepetl Zoquiapan, although people usually refer to it simply as the Izta-Popo park. It’s spread over 98,395 acres and crosses three state lines: Puebla, Morelos, and Estado de Mexico.

The main attractions in Izta-Popo are the two prominent snow-capped volcanoes that are an imposing part of Mexico’s landscape, and also figure prominently in mythology. Local legend imagines them as star-crossed lovers: Smoking Mountain (Popocatepetl) was a fierce warrior, and his love, the White Woman (Iztaccihuatl) was a princess. They could not be together in life but were transformed into mountains so they could be together for the rest of time. When viewed from the west or east, the top of Iztaccihuatl does look distinctly like a sleeping woman. 

In 1519, the Spanish invaders, led by Hernan Cortes, crossed between the two volcanoes on their way to Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), giving the pass its name: “El Paso de Cortes.”  Cortes would later send some of his men back to climb Popocatepetl and obtain sulfur from inside the volcano, which they used to make gunpowder.

Things to Do

This national park is an ideal place for nature lovers and makes for a peaceful getaway in the great outdoors as a day trip from Mexico City or Puebla. There are lots of options for hiking. Mountaineers, with the necessary preparation and equipment, can ascend its peaks, while other visitors can hike easier trails at mid-elevation or go mountain biking, camping, or enjoy a picnic with fresh air and wonderful views.

The park is home to several different ecosystems, including pine forests, grasslands, alpine areas, and mixed pine-fir forests, which are home to a great variety of plants and animals. Keep an eye out for the teporingo (also known as zacatuche or volcano rabbit), a very cute, small rabbit that is only found on the slopes of Mexico’s volcanoes, and now in danger of extinction. There are also white-tailed deer, grey foxes, lynxes, coyotes, opossums, and badgers, besides many bird species. See the species checklist for the national park on iNaturalist.

Some choose to make the drive over the Paso de Cortes on their way from Puebla to Mexico City (or vice versa), as an alternative to the toll highway. It takes longer but it’s much more scenic. The road on the Mexico City side is paved and signage is good whereas the Puebla side is not paved and at times is in bad shape—so if you’re considering making this drive, it’s best to go in a vehicle with good ground clearance, and preferably with four-wheel drive.

The Paso de Cortes Visitor’s Center is located between the volcanoes at 12,000 feet above sea level. This is the starting point for exploring the park and offers spectacular views of the volcanoes. There are restrooms, and water, and snacks for sale here, as well as tourist information available. If you’ll be doing any hiking or camping, register and pay admission to the park—you’ll be given a bracelet to wear to show you’ve paid the fee.

A group of hikers passing a rock formation near the top of the Iztaccihuatl volcano in Mexico
Henrik Karlsson / Getty Images

Best Hikes & Trails

There are several options for hiking within the park. There are several trails that start at Paso de Cortes, and La Joya is the trailhead for the hiking paths to the peaks of Iztaccihuatl. Most people drive to La Joya and start hiking from there, but you can also opt to hike from the Paso de Cortés to La Joya, about 5 miles. ExperTurismo offers day and overnight hiking trips at all difficulty levels. Mountain biking excursions are offered by 3Summits Adventure. Choose a one or two-day adventure. They have bicycles or you can bring your own. 

Many visitors come just to take on the challenge of ascending Iztaccihuatl, which at over 17,000 feet above sea level is the third highest peak in Mexico. Due to its eruptive activity, climbing Popocatepetl is prohibited. If you’re planning to climb to the summit of Iztaccihuatl, you should go with a guide. There are different companies that offer tours, or you can ask at the visitor center if a guide is available. Although Iztaccihuatl may not seem like too challenging a climb, the upper areas are covered with snow and ice and should only be ventured with the necessary equipment and experience.

Where to Camp

Camping is allowed at Paso de Cortes, La Joya, and Llano Grande sites, but you must obtain a permit. Facilities are minimal: bring everything necessary for your stay. If you will be ascending Iztaccihuatl, there are a few “Refugios” or shelters that you can stay in, but space is limited and again, you will need to bring everything you need: a sleeping bag, food, water, toilet paper.

Where to Stay Nearby

Many people on climbing expeditions choose to stay in Amecameca, about 16 miles from Paso de Cortes, to get an early start. There are a few simple but serviceable hotels here, such as Hotel Fontesanta, Hotel San Carlos and Hotel El Marques. The Hotel Campestre Eden is located within the park and has cabins and offers a temazcal experience. For something more upscale, the Hacienda San Andres in Ayapango is a good option, with a spa and farm-to-table dining.

How to Get There

  • Getting to the Izta-Popo National Park in a private vehicle is the most convenient way to go. It’s about an hour and forty-five minutes drive from Mexico City to the Paso de Cortes via Amecameca or, if you're coming from Puebla, about two hours via Cholula and San Buenaventura Nealtican. Some of the roads within the park are quite bumpy and a vehicle with high ground clearance is recommended. 
  • There are many tour companies that offer activities in the park and will provide transportation from Mexico City or Puebla to the Park.
  • If going by public transportation, from the TAPO bus station in Mexico City, you can get a bus to Amecameca. In Amecameca's main square, you may find a colectivo (a collective van) that goes to the Paso de Cortés, or hire a taxi (and arrange to be picked up later).

Tips for Your Visit

  • Popocatepetl is an active volcano, so you should check its activity before departing for your trip. It’s not uncommon for the volcano to spew ash and dust, and in this case, access to the site may not be permitted. You can check the Mexican government website CENAPRED which offers updated information about volcanic activity (in Spanish).
  • Get an early start as the best visibility is early in the morning and closer to sunset. You'll be very disappointed if you come to the park and can't see the volcanoes!
  • Register at the Paso de Cortés Visitor Center, or at the national park headquarters in Amecameca. You will need a permit to get to La Joya, which is the base of the trails to Iztaccihuatl.
  • If you’re going hiking, be sure to carry sufficient water with you. You’ll find bottled water for sale at the Paso de Cortes, and sometimes at La Joya. 
  • Wear sunscreen. Although you may be bundling up to ward off a chill at this elevation, the sun is still strong, so make sure any exposed skin is protected. 
  • Dress in layers. With a great range of elevation, temperatures within the park can vary greatly. Come prepared with a sweater and jacket, and if you'll be climbing, a hat and gloves also.
Article Sources
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  1. American Alpine Club, "The First Mountain Ascent in North America." 1941

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A complete guide to Mexico's Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park