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Misty Mountaintops

Leaving Mexico City on Route 150D (known as the Carretera a Puebla or the Puebla Highway), you'll see Mexico's second- and third-highest peaks, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, to your right—if the clouds and climate allow. Popo, 17,887 feet high, is the pointed volcano farther away, sometimes graced with a plume of smoke; Izta is the larger, rugged one covered with snow. Popo has seen a renewed period of activity since the mid-1990s; volcanic activity occurred in early 2008 (the mountain is still in "yellow" alert level).

As legend has it, Aztec warrior Popocatépetl was sent by the emperor—father of his beloved Iztaccíhuatl—to bring back the head of a feared enemy in order to win her hand. He returned triumphantly only to find that Iztaccíhuatl had killed herself, believing him dead. Grief-stricken, Popo laid out her body on a small knoll and lighted an eternal torch that he watches over. Each of Iztaccíhuatl's four peaks is named for a different part of her body, and its silhouette conjures up its nickname, "Sleeping Woman" (although the correct Nahuatl translation is "the white woman").

Popo is strictly off-limits for climbing, but several of Izta's rugged peaks can be explored as long as you are accompanied by recommended guides. You'll be rewarded with sublime views of Popo and other volcanoes, with the Pico de Orizaba (or Citlaltepetl) to the east and the Nevado de Toluca to the west.

Ideally, you won't need it, but the Brigada del Rescate del Socorro Alpino de México (55/5392–9299 or 044–55/1288–5920 www.socorroalpinodemexico.org.mx.) handles emergencies in the Parque Nacional Izta-Popo.

The town of Amecameca is the most convenient base. Its tourism infrastructure is no-frills but adequate, and the offices of the national park and CONANP (Plaza de la Constitución 10-B 597/978–3829 or 597/978–3830 www.edomexico.gob.mx), the national commission for protected areas, are both here. The CONANP bureau, near the church on the zócalo, is a rich source of information on the volcanoes. It also makes guiding arrangements for climbing Izta. The best time to visit is from the end of October until May; it's bitterly cold at night in the winter months.

A cobbled road lined with olive trees and cedars leads to the hilltop Santuario del Sacromonte, a church and active seminary known for the Cristo de Sacromonte. The black Christ figure, made of sugarcane, is said to date from 1527; it's kept in a cavelike space behind the altar. On clear days this perch is one of the best spots for breathtaking views over Amecameca toward the volcanoes. The church is open daily 9-5. Take a bumpy track even higher up to reach the little Guadalupita chapel.

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