Ride South – Nevado de Toluca

We returned to México City with parts and tools for Stuart’s bike and a deep lust for exploring volcanoes. All in all, Stuart had to pull his bike apart again and get pretty deep into his engine to replace the ‘doohickey’: a common issue with the KLR that, if ignored, can quite literally destroy the bike’s engine.

We got in to the airport in the evening, ate tacos at our new favorite taco stand in México and met up with Garry’s family again. We were up the next morning cracking the engine case with Garry providing us company, tools and space.

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Stu turned it around in a few hours and upon starting the KLR again, it was purring along great. No more funny sounds, and no more risk of catastrophic engine failure!

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The next morning we were out early and Garry helped lead us out of the labyrinthine streets of México City. He was a fantastic host – and we left our doohickey repair tools at his, so if you are ever in México City with a broken KLR, he might be your best bet!

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After Garry led us out of México City we whipped through the curvy roads through its surrounding hills towards Toluca. Quite quickly, the massive volcano Nevado de Toluca came in sight. We let out an audible gasp in our helmet microphones when we saw it. It was a great, clear day to go up it and the bigger it grew, the more we were in disbelief at its sheer scale and beauty.

The road up to the volcano turns into a small country road at some point, with some nice turnoffs with views of alpine villages and fields. You’d never guess that one of the American continent’s largest cities is in arm’s reach from the tranquil vistas the road affords:

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Stuart snapped away and I tried to climb up onto a small field where burros were grazing to get some shots.

More excitement built as the pavement ended where the turnoff for the Nevado de Toluca National Park began. At this point the road simply goes up, and winds through evergreen forest as we gain elevation. From Toluca City, elevation is constant, starting at the city’s already impressive 8,750 feet.

The volcano eventually goes up to almost 15,000 ft, and Stu was already feeling it in the reduced power output of the KLR which was somewhat gasping for oxygen in the thin mountain air. My HP2 was losing a bit of power, but mostly just got fantastic mileage. Quite a beneficial side effect of being in the mountains!

We got to the summit gate pretty quickly after ripping around a few slower cars. The road up to Nevado de Toluca isn’t incredibly busy, but there’s more people going up there than we expected, often in regular cars that aren’t very well equipped for the rougher sections of the dirt road. We passed with care. At the gate we paid a nominal fee (I think it was in the order of 40 pesos per person) and ripped right up the side of the mountain.

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This is where it gets very fun. The road gets rockier, in areas quite rutted, and some loose sand and dirt came in as the road switchbacks up the mountain through a beautiful forest that grows increasingly sparse with the elevation. Before we knew it, we hit the treeline.

As the road wraps around a ridge of the mountain here, you can see all of Toluca and the valley around you. Incredible panoramic views were on our side as we crossed some gnarlier sections of rocky dirt before we rode up to the main gate — rather clearly indicated with about five dozen vehicles parked everywhere there was space and some Mexican Alpine Police (how cool that this exists!).

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We had foolishly assumed we’d be able to ride into the caldera and park right up to the crater lake, but that road was now closed for ecological reasons. Makes sense. We packed up some things and secured as much of our gear as we could and set off to hike in our thick Rev’It Dominator GTX riding suits.

Apart from being rather heavy to hike in, they actually were a fantastic piece of clothing to have on because the entire peak and its sides are incredibly windy. The wind up around 14,000 feet is obviously extremely cold and dry, and it was really nice to just close the suit vents and stay warm.

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As an added benefit, the otherworldly landscape combined with our suits to make us look like we were space-walking on another planet. It felt like that at times, too, until we ran into some other hikers.

México is amazing when it comes to this: we see families and elders and kids hiking in places like this all the time, even on a weekday like this. What seems like an easy hike is made difficult by the thin air up on the volcano, which makes hiking up the equivalent of two flights of stairs completely rob you of your breath. I was feeling sick at times with how little breath I could get — but then again, I was also born and raised in the Netherlands, which is literally -below- sea level, so I don’t think I am well adapted to altitudes like this.

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We decided to hike to the largest lake first (Lago del Sol, or ‘Sun Lake’). The hike is up the steep side of the crater at the top of the volcano and then dips deep into the crater on somewhat loose volcanic rock.

The colors were unreal.

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Clouds formed and were quickly ripped apart on the razor-like ridges of the caldera and the wind let down a bit as we were in the shadow of the caldera ridge towering over us.

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We hung out a bit, shot a few photos and drank some water and walked the flat trail to the other lake known as ‘Moon Lake’. Both lakes were used as ceremonial sites back in the day of the Aztec civilization, and as such it’s rather expressly prohibited to swim or dive in the lakes as there is a fear or people absconding with ancient cultural artifacts. Honestly, we weren’t interested in that anyway. It was cold as hell.

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Stuart set a few steps in the shallow side of the lake and we both enjoyed the scenery. It was getting late, and the sun had sank beneath the ridge. Shadows were getting deeper, bluer and most definitely colder. We decided to hike back up the steepest trail, from the Moon Lake to the caldera ridge on loose, sharp volcanic rocks.

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The hike totally kicked my ass, but it felt really nice to be out hiking and exploring off the bikes. Once we made it to the top, orange light was playing with the rapidly tattering clouds at our altitude that obscured our view of what seemed like the entire world.

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Against better judgment, we stayed until sunset. How could we not? If you love photography and the immensely humbling beauty of nature, you’d stop in your tracks as well. We were treated to an intense spectacle of light and color as the sun dipped below the horizon and clouds began to percolate in the valley below us. No more cars were on the road.

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We turned off a side of the top of the mountain to look around.

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The high-altitude clouds colored pink and orange with the sunset light, we watched the sun slip away as all the lights of the cities below us lit up.

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We rode the rest of the road downhill in pitch-black darkness. I was thankful for my extra auxiliary LED lights which I set to daystar-like brightness. Once we arrived at the park entrance we were pretty tired and extremely hungry. A small restaurant was open and we decided to just get dinner there, pitch a tent and turn in for the night.

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Even though we dropped down quite a bit in elevation, it was still cold, and still high up. I felt a bit hungover without having drank anything, which having looked it up later seemed like it might have been a mild case of altitude sickness. Sick or not, I enjoyed some of the best tacos we’d had since México City: a local specialty of blue corn tacos with green chorizo and nopales (cactus! Not the fruit, the actual green part).

Absolutely delicious with the way-too-spicy red salsa they provided. It sure was needed to keep us warm that night. We crawled into our sleeping bags and fell asleep to the sound of wind in the trees mixed with the sound of stray dogs barking, a sleeping ancient mountain god watching over us.

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