Tierra Secreta

El Pico de Orizaba, Costa Esmeralda, & El Tajín

Dec 14, 2004
Outside Magazine

Seeing Stars: Mt. Orizaba    Photo: PhotoDisc

Known as Citlaltépetl ("Star Mountain") in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, 18,700-foot Orizaba hardly presents a technical challenge for the "Everest is easy" crowd. But the volcanic peak is no snap for the rest of us. Straddling Veracruz's boundary with Puebla, to the west, it's the highest mountain in Mexico and the third-tallest in North America, and most of the summit ascent is over a glacier and snow.

On a clear day, once you're atop Orizaba, you can see her sister volcanoes, 17,887-foot Popocatépetl and 17,343-foot Ixtaccíhuatl, to the west, and, if you're lucky, the Gulf of Mexico, to the east.

With its small, funky hotels and large private homes perched on a strip of grassy land between Highway 180 and the Gulf of Mexico, 12-mile Costa Esmeralda is reminiscent of the Florida Keys of a bygone era—with more cattle ranches and fewer Hemingway look-alikes.

The Hotel Torre Molino, with air-conditioned rooms and a swimming pool, is the best spot to roost. If you're in the mood for a low-key paddle, the front desk can hook you up with a kayak to tour the nearby Ciénega del Fuerte, a protected freshwater wetland.

Every pre-Cortesian ruin in Mexico gooses a different part of the anatomy. Some make your jaw drop. Some make your head spin. El Tajín always makes the hairs on my neck stand at quivering attention. The hulking stone pyramids and grassy ball courts of the four-square-mile site feel labyrinthine, almost claustrophobic. But wait—it gets creepier: Even after studying the place for more than 200 years, archaeologists still can't say for sure who lived here. (They know the city peaked in the Classic Period, between 300 and 900, and probably waned in the 13th century.)

El Tajín—its modern name is Totonac for "Thunder"—was a contemporary of Teotihuacán, to the west, and the Maya cities to the southeast. Today, El Tajín exudes enigmatic charm. Don't miss the 65-foot Pyramid of the Niches, which, with regularly spaced square niches on every vertical surface, looks like a cross between a Sumerian ziggurat and a Japanese pagoda. (Should be easy to spot: It's featured on 2004 Veracruz license plates.)