Do you remember going to amusement parks as a kid and wishing you didn't have to leave at the end of the day, and all you wanted was to spend the night running around the park? Well believe it or not, but we found the Parque Cimacuatico aquatic park just outside of Queretaro, Mexico that let us pay to park the van and use their beautiful grounds to cook up some dinner and sleep overnight. The pools, lazy rivers, and other rides were closed after business hours, but we did have the place to ourselves!
When most people think of Mexico, they picture beautiful beaches with bright blue waters and extra-hot sun. As we continued driving through Mexico and meeting more people, we had come to learn that mainland Mexico has volcanoes and mountains, which we were instantly compelled to see. We set off south for Nevado de Toluca, a volcano that reaches 15,354 feet and can be covered in snow any month of the year.
Not having spent much time over 10,000' previously, we decided to acclimate ourselves by spending the night at 13,000', before tackling the hike the next morning when visibility is best. We pulled off the road to the top and found a flat spot to cook dinner and sleep. (Pictured below: our campsite below the peak)
Our first night spent sleeping at 13,000' taught us two things: 1) altitude sickness is a real thing, and 2) cooking is impossible! Of course the idea of a piping hot bowl of soup sounded amazing near the top of a freezing cold and stormy volcano. After almost an hour of simmering, with our flame protected from high winds inside of the van, we were excited for a warm dinner, only to bite into raw potatoes and carrots.
Donde Van Pro-Tip: If you're camping and cooking at high-elevation, you will NEED a pressure cooker! It fractions your cooking time and saves your precious stove fuel.
(Credit goes to our friends Diz & Luke, two Aussies that have just recently finished their journey along the PanAm. We've been told this tool will come in very handy once we get to the Andes in South America, but it's already become apart of our daily routine. White rice in 4 minutes! Whole chicken in 20!)
We made the drive up to the National Park entrance gate, which is at roughly 14,000 feet in elevation. The trailhead for the hike to the peak begins at the parking lot, and it's approximately 2.5 miles (4km) down and back. The path is clearly marked, the incline is not too steep, the trail itself is short, but it's the altitude that will really kick your butt! Of course, suffice to say, the views from the bottom to the top are totally worth it.
How did we get to the bottom, you ask? Where would one link up with that trail? Well let me tell you, about the time that Wayne and I trail-blazed down in to the base of the volcano with loose rock for footing in just our measly running shoes. Wayne must have been inspired by the group of young, adventurous Mexicans from Guadalajara we met on the trail, who showed up fully equipped to hike the perimeter of the volcano and glissade their way down; with helmets, hiking poles, and gaiters to keep the rocks out of their shoes. We, however, had exactly 0% of this gear. (Pictured below: Photo taken after our terrifying decent. Katie not happy, Wayne not sure what the big deal is. You can see our improvised trail between the two smaller rocks in the background.)
While walking around the large lake at the base of the Nevado de Toluca we stumbled across someone's surprise romantic gesture. The rose petals were still being scattered as we went past. We never did see the happy couple.
The whole experience of hiking around and inside an inactive volcano is surreal. It feels like you've landed on the moon. Even the flora is foreign and strange. The weather is predictably stormy, cold, and cloudy. It was completely unexpected to see a place like this in Mexico.
After our early morning spent at the top of Toluca we drove down to the base to brew coffee and make breakfast. We hadn't even gotten the water to boil before a car pulled off the road to ask if we were okay. The driver was curious when he saw our California plates, because he had just returned from living in California for 15 years. He introduced us to his family and dogs in the car, and the next thing we know they invited us over to their house for showers, laundry and lunch! Beto and Elvia were so much fun, we spent the entire afternoon laughing and talking in Spanglish. They were also really helpful with planning the next leg of our adventure, to Taxco. (Pictured below: freshly showered Wayne & Katie, with Elvia & Beto)