Finding Nature in Mexico Near the Mega Metropolis
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Mexico City from the air looks like a never-ending floor covered with Lego blocks, but an escape from the concrete leads to adventures in the natural world and on community-owned land.


I got out from under my warm blankets and faced a bracing cold in the unheated cabin. I quickly threw on a few layers of clothing and a hat. Out the front door, the morning sun I was hoping for couldn't penetrate the thick morning fog. As I walked down toward the misty lake, past the campfire spot from the night before, my shoes got wet from the morning dew. I shivered a little while looking out at the pine forests and realized I was having nostalgic thoughts about autumn camping where I grew up in Virginia.

I thought, "Am I really in Mexico?"

Yes, in Mexico, and only a few hours from one of the world's biggest metro areas by population too, the country's capital. This trip through Estado de Mexico, as the state around the capital city is known, turned out to be surprising on a daily basis. I'd already been to more than half the states in the country, living for years in one of them. I was still being surprised though in this varied geographical country. While the typical foreigner may picture beach resorts and cacti-studded deserts across the land, this country also has thick jungles, snow-capped mountains, fertile plains, and here, pine forests that attract migrating monarch butterflies.

It wasn't time for the butterflies yet when I visited. They usually arrive in November. They are attracted to a certain kind of pine tree, so there are just a few spots where they gather, mostly here and in the neighboring state of Michoacan. Even without them though, this Corral de Piedra camp is a gorgeous place to stay. Built on ejido shared land and run by the community, it's a Paraisos Indigenas project partially funded by the government, a program that's meant to create local jobs in rural communities. On weekends it's often packed with families and groups escaping the big city and getting out into nature.

Corral de Piedra Amanalco Estado de Mexico lake camp

Our trip started out in Mexico City, where the whole metro area has an estimated 21 million residents. The metropolis certainly has its share of problems. It's a sinking city built on marshy land, there are frequent earthquakes, and the valley location tends to trap smog. Still, it's one of the world's great capitals when it comes to culture, museums, and food.

The Dopamina Travel group I'd be on this adventure with with met up for a late lunch at Real del Barro with the owners of Vive Frida. That company does tours that revolve around Frida Kahlo's legacy, with an emphasis on the culinary side of her life. We go through a seven-course menu of Oaxacan food items, including guacamole with some dried fried grasshoppers on top, a plantain stuffed with Oaxacan cheese, tlayudas with different salsas to choose from, and tacos with three different kinds of mole sauce.

Oaxacan mole in Mexico

After starting with a yerba santa drink made with herbacious leaves, we move on to a generous shot of clear mezcal, the glass rimmed with "worm salt." Apparently oily and smoky unaged mezcal is not nasty enough on its own, so you have to add salt mixed with dried ground-up worms that eat the agave plant to make it appropriately authentic.

We headed to Frida's Blue House in the Coyoacan neighborhood, which becomes more of a circus each year as Frida Kahlo's image pops up in more places around the world. The first time I visited a decade ago, there were a few other couples wandering around the house. Now you must buy tickets in advance or join a line snaking around the corner. Milat from Vive Frida tries to be an informative guide, but there are ropes and crowd control people inside to keep things moving and it feels a lot like those slow-moving waits for a ride at Disney World. The curse of post-death fame now impacts the living as well.

My crankiness dissipated inside Arena México though, the country's top venue for Lucha Libre—Mexican wrestling. A big beer in hand and a show going on in front of us in and out of the ring, it was hard not to smile. Sure, it's all fake, and silly, and illogical on so many levels. But with the bright lights, the crazy costumes, and the dancing girls in front of swirling spotlights as the wrestlers enter, it was hard to avoid getting into the spirit and at least admiring the acrobatics.

Mexico tour lucha libre

From the City to the Sacred Lands

In the morning we left before dawn to beat the notorious Mexico City traffic, going past the surreal Santa Fe suburban office park area and beyond the satellite city of Toluca. After a hearty breakfast and a roadside joint serving quesadillas and soup, we push on to the volcanic mountain of Nevado de Toluca. It has been quiet for thousands of years and it houses two different colored lakes. It is a protected area that has long been sacred to the Nahuatl people who came here to worship.

We hiked up to the crater in the cool morning air and were rewarded with a clear, panoramic view. We saw the larger Sun Lake off to the right, the smaller Moon Lake to the left. This is as far as many visitors go, but we were on an adventure tour and besides, we had plates of quesadillas to work off.

Nevado de Toluca Sun Lake hike in Mexico

So we started off on our hike, descending down into the crater until we came to the edge of the larger lake that has filled the crater over time. Looking around at the vista, I felt flickering memories of past experiences: Peru perhaps, Kyrgyzstan, or was it Indonesia? It certainly didn't look like any place I've ever been in Mexico.

As we got to the far side of the lake, it felt even more strange. We walked down a wide sandy beach, the kind you could set a tent up on for the night. There's no camping allowed here though, or fishing, or boats, or anything else. It's a place to enjoy nature and breathe the fresh air.

We circled the far end and then the Moon Lake, getting incredible views the whole way and hoping the menacing clouds in the distance wouldn't head our way. What came down had to go up, so the toughest part of the hike was at the end, when we had to come back out of the crater, ascending to the lip of it again. When we emerged at the top, the dark clouds were between us and our van at the bottom, the parking lot and ranger station shrouded in thick fog. Fearing a downpour, I ignored my sore legs and double-timed it down.

Nevado de Toluca Moon Lake hike in Mexico

To the Corral de Piedra Camp

After a roadside lunch that felt like a replay of breakfast, we relished to post-hike beers before setting out through the countryside to our camp. After rumbling along rutted dirt roads that went through communal ejido land and farms, we came to a flat spot and the Corral de Piedra Amanalco camp.

After unpacking and enjoying the lake, we stripped down to bathing suits and headed into a makeshift temazcal: an indigenous sweat room. Blankets were stretched over a wood frame dome, with plastic over that to keep the heat from escaping. Red-hot stones from a blazing fire outside were passed in with a pitchfork and glowed in the dark room. A local shaman said prayers to the ancestors and the natural gods as he put fragrant comal on them. He then poured water on them and the room filled with steam. He chanted, his helpers responded, and more sweat came out of my body than I thought was physically possible. Just as I felt I was going to pass out, they opened the door flap for five minutes and gave us a break.

Then back at it, the room heating back up to what must have been at least 120F degrees. We were asked to give our intentions for this ceremony one by one and I avoided the temptation to bail out during the distraction. The man next to me put his head on the floor toward the end to try to get under the heat and I had a steady stream of sweat dripping off my nose. Eventually it ended, all of us a few pounds lighter and needing many gulps of water.

After a great dinner cooked by the camp's neighbors, we gathered around a fire to watch the flames dance. We were purified supposedly, but if nothing else, content.

The night sky was full of stars, the kind you'd have little hope of seeing in the big metropolis a few hours away. There's no electric grid coming into Corral de Piedra, just solar panels and batteries that provided enough power for lights to brush our teeth and dig things out of suitcases before bed. Our eyes had to actually work like the ancestor's eyes to get us back to our individual cabins. One person twisted his ankle while stumbling back from the campfire and though and had to skip the hike the next day. Nature gives, nature takes away.

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