Hiking Mount Tlaloc: The Rain God’s Abode

Last Updated on: 7th January 2024, 10:47 pm

Located in  Izta-Popo National Park, about halfway between Mexico City and Puebla, hiking Mount Tlaloc is one of the region’s most unique outdoor adventures. At the summit, not only will you find beautiful views, but also an expansive Aztec temple.

As the name suggests, the mountain was believed to be the abode of the rain deity Tlaloc, one of the most prominent gods in Mesoamerica. Now a dormant volcano, Mount Tlaloc’s peak stands at 4,120 m high. Officially, it’s the ninth-highest peak in Mexico, though the hike up lasts longer than higher peaks like La Malinche.

In the following guide, we’ll be going over everything you need to know about hiking Mount Tlaloc, as well as the history of the archaeological site at the top. For details on reaching the trailhead, be sure to check the very end of the article.

About This Hike

THE BASICS: Hiking Mount Tlaloc takes around nine hours roundtrip (about five up and four down). This includes walking through the town of Río Frío to reach the trailhead.

The roundtrip hike is about 22 km long, with an elevation gain of 1,360 m. But all in all, the slope is quite gentle for the most part, except for some light scrambling at the end.

Despite the gentle slope, however, altitude sickness can be a problem, and you may find yourself with less energy and stamina than normal.

Another challenge is that the hike is far from straightforward, with no signage or markers on the trail. The trail forks on numerous occasions and it’s often impossible to know the right way without a GPS app.

WHAT TO BRING: Good shoes are a must – either hiking boots or trailrunners. Trekking poles are also a good idea if you have them. As mentioned above, the hike isn’t very steep, but the four-hour descent can be really rough on the knees.

Of course, as with any long hike, you’ll want to bring plenty of snacks, water, sunscreen and a hat. Also come prepared with long sleeves, as it can get chilly in the morning and also atop the mountain.

RECOMMENDED APPS: The trek to the top is clearly and accurately outlined on the Maps.me app, a free app which works offline. Be sure to check the route on Maps.me as soon as you arrive in Río Frío, as the trailhead is quite tricky to find.

At the time of my visit, the only route for Mount Tlaloc on AllTrails was an ‘alternative route’ which involves a trail that doesn’t even appear on Maps.me. As of 2024, a new map has been added (‘Monte Tlaloc via Río Frío’), though it still varies from the Maps.me route I followed.

Therefore, if you want to make the most of the trekking guide below, I suggest you follow Maps.me for this hike.

Tlaloc Map 1
The route as shown on Maps.me (the ascent takes less time)

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Arriving in the town of Río Frío (see below for details), your first challenge will be finding the trailhead. 

While there are numerous trails in the area, if Maps.me is to be believed, only one of them will take you directly to the summit. 

For this hike, it’s imperative to use a proper off-road map application like Maps.me and not Google Maps!

The correct trailhead is located to the northeast of the town center you’ll need to walk uphill while making numerous turns to reach it.

Despite the popularity of the hike, there are no signs nor any mentions of Mount Tlaloc at all in Río Frío.

The route from the town to the trailhead
Hiking Mount Tlaloc
Hiking Mount Tlaloc

I arrived in Río Frío at around 8:45, and walking through the streets on this sunny Saturday morning, I counted more stray dogs than people. 

Stopping at a local corner store for snacks, I followed the route outlined on Maps.me, gradually making my way uphill. I seemed to be the only visitor in town.

As I made my way higher, a helpful local shepherd asked me if I was headed to the trail and told me to follow him. He even showed me a shortcut. Getting higher and higher, we eventually parted ways near the trailhead. I was already out of breath.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Overlooking Río Frío from above, it was clear how far I’d already walked. But the real hike was just beginning.

As mentioned above, it won’t be long before you encounter numerous forks in the trail, with no signs or markers in sight. That’s why it’s imperative you keep a close eye on Maps.me.

While I sometimes did encounter pieces of plastic tied to tree branches – likely placed as impromptu trail markers – they sometimes contradicted the app’s recommendations.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc
Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Despite the slope for the first couple of hours being gentle, I found myself needing to take constant breaks. Wondering if something was wrong with me, I then remembered that I was well over 3,000 m above sea level, 

Even this early on in the hike, I was really feeling the altitude.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

I’d actually just hiked the slightly higher La Malinche the day prior. Nevertheless, my body was still clearly not used to this elevation.

While I wouldn’t recommend anyone do these two strenuous hikes back-to-back, these happened to be the only two days during my entire Puebla stay with zero chances of rain. Both hikes are challenging enough on their own without bad weather added to the mix.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

After a rough start, my body finally adjusted, and I was back to hiking at a normal speed with no need for breaks.

At around 11:30, I reached another major fork in the trail. As I’d soon learn, sometimes the direction recommended by the app is not the trail that’s wider or more distinct, so it’s careful to pay close attention.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

The app led me to a large grassy meadow and the trail became incredibly faint. While I had some doubts initially, I’d soon be able to confirm that this was indeed correct.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

I passed by a group of cows hanging out in the pasture. Notably, when the Aztecs and prior civilizations made their regular pilgrimages up Mount Tlaloc, not a single cow had ever stepped foot in Mexico!

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Eventually making a right, the trail became more distinct but also steeper. Interestingly, I hadn’t met a single other hiker on the trail up to this point, though it was around noon when I encountered several.

Stopping briefly near a scenic overlook, I continued up the trail. From here, the climb becomes increasingly steep and rocky, with some parts involving a bit of simple scrambling.

After briefly walking through a flat, forested area, I climbed further uphill, arriving at the tree line.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc
Hiking Mount Tlaloc

I’d come to the end of the Maps.me trail, and expected to find myself already at the summit. On the contrary, the most difficult part of the hike was yet to come.

Eventually, the trail will disappear and you will only have one mission: get higher.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

You will have to scramble up the rocks, occasionally reaching some flat grassy areas, after which you’ll need to scramble some more. As there are a multitude of ways to make it to the top, just look around and use your own judgement.

Fortunately, the scrambling here really isn’t that bad, especially compared to the final ascent up La Malinche.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc
Hiking Mount Tlaloc

The Tlaloc Temple

The summit of Mount Tlaloc is wide and flat, so don’t expect to see a distinct rocky peak. But you will encounter a clear indicator that you’ve made it: a massive, centuries-old stone wall.

It was around 13:20 in the afternoon when I reached the summit. Having passed the other hikers I’d encountered along the trail, I took advantage of being the first one up to explore the Temple of Tlaloc in silence.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

The temple complex is credited to the Aztecs, though it’s likely even older. The 16th-century Spanish writer Juan Bautista Pomar, for example, attributed it to the Toltecs. 

Additionally, he described a large white stone idol that once stood at the top. Unfortunately, however, the Spaniards would end up destroying it.

While the statue has never been found, archaeologists have indeed discovered pottery shards that resemble pieces discovered at Tula, the Toltec capital. And as the Aztecs liked to present themselves as the inheritors of the Toltec legacy, they surely would’ve been happy to refurbish the temple and use it for themselves.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Amazingly, between February 7 and 12 each year, one can see the sunrise take place between the peaks of La Malinche and Pico de Orizaba when standing at the eastern edge of the complex.

Presently, the eastern edge is home to a shrine to Tlaloc, though it was supposedly added as recently as the 1970s. In any case, hikers and locals alike continue to bring Tlaloc offerings to this day. 

Interestingly, the stone in the center of the shrine reminds one of a Shiva linga found throughout Asia. It’s possibly a fragment of a much larger statue, though probably not the one mentioned earlier.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc
Hiking Mount Tlaloc
Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Tlaloc was one of the main deities of the Aztecs, with half of the dual temple of Templo Mayor being dedicated to him. But as this mountain is said to be the source of numerous rivers and springs, it was long believed to be his primary abode.

In Mesoamerican cosmology, Tlaloc ruled over a paradise realm known as Tlalocan, a concept that dates at least as far back as Teotihacan’s heyday.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

And this temple complex, which covers an area of about 4,600 square meters, was likely meant to act as an earthly recreation of Tlalocan. While the walls are now bare, they were described in ancient writings as having been covered in stucco.

The fourth month of the Aztec calendar, Huey Tozoztli, was dedicated to Tlaloc, and accordingly was a major time for festivities atop the mountain.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Walking east past the temple complex, there didn’t seem to be much except a vast open field. And so I decided to head back down the long hallway until I reached the western portion of the complex, which was clearly once of great significance.

There is yet another contemporary shrine around here surrounded by massive piles of stones and the foundation of nondescript buildings. In the 1950s, archaeologists discovered the opening to what seemed to be a pit in this area.

While they didn’t investigate further, one wonders if it was once a depository for sacrificial remains. The fact that the Aztecs were a warlike and ruthless empire is well-known. But there are few more disturbing aspects of their society than the alleged practice of child sacrifice.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc
Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Children were occasionally sacrificed during particular rituals in hopes that Tlaloc would reward the local community with rain. Even more disturbingly, local legends say that the practice even went on in secret until as recently as the late 19th century.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Trying to shake these thoughts from my mind, I walked around the rubble for a while before determining that there was little left to see. And so, after pausing to appreciate the beautiful views of the Iztaccihuatl volcano in the distance, I began my descent.

While more clouds gradually began to form in the sky, I was feeling especially thankful to Tlaloc for not making it rain during my hike.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

The hike down was relatively uneventful, though there were a few instances where I would take a wrong turn if I didn’t pay close enough attention to Maps.me. Luckily, it wasn’t too difficult to get back on the right trail.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc

Having returned to the tree line at around 14:30, it was about 17:10 by the time I reached the end of the trail. But the journey wasn’t quite over, as I still had to make the fairly long walk through Río Frío and return to the highway.

Hiking Mount Tlaloc
Hiking Mount Tlaloc

In stark contrast to the tranquility of the nature paths and the majesty of the Tlaloc temple, the atmosphere of Río Frío was rather bleak. Despite its gorgeous surroundings, it’s a dilapidated little town with litter all over the place. 

And while there were more people out and about at this hour, the locals were still outnumbered by street dogs, who began to get feisty and aggressive as the sun made its descent. But as I still hadn’t put away my trekking poles, they knew better than to approach me.

Successfully making it back to the highway, I had one more challenge in store before I could finally rest my legs (see below).

Additional Info

*What follows are detailed instructions on getting to the trailhead from Puebla. But if you’re coming from Mexico City, follow more or less the same steps, taking an eastbound bus from TAPO instead. Be sure to take the particular type of Estrella Roja bus that allows passengers to get off along the way.

GETTING THERE

From Puebla’s CAPU station, you’ll need to take a bus headed west for Mexico City. When buying the ticket, be sure to tell the vendor that you want to get off at Río Frío.

Note that there are three types of Estrella Roja buses on this route: Primera Clase, Directo and Intermedio. At the time of my visit, only the Intermedio buses were able to drop passengers off along the way, so this is what you must take.

Confusingly, at the time of writing, the Intermedio buses are not showing up in the search results on the official Estrella Roja website. If you’re still having this issue, I’d recommend confirming the timetable in person at CAPU a day in advance.

The ride from Puebla to Río Frío takes around 70 minutes one-way. Therefore, I’d recommend taking a bus that departs at 7:00 or 7:30, though even earlier would be good if you’re an early riser.

The driver won’t automatically stop at Río Frío unless you go up and tell him to. You’ll likely be the only one getting off here, so it’s imperative that you save the town location in your phone in advance and closely monitor your GPS app during the ride.

You will be let off along the highway, from which you can walk down some steps and into town.

GETTING BACK

Finished with hiking Mount Tlaloc, getting back was a lot more difficult than I could’ve anticipated. Walking beneath an underpass and then up some stairs to get to the correct side of the highway, I waited and watched for the buses heading toward Puebla.

Most of these buses are considered ‘first class’ and do not make any random stops for people waiting along the road (there’s no bus station or even bus stop in Río Frío). Basically, anything run by AU or ADO won’t stop for you, nor will most of the Estrella Roja buses that are ‘Directo’ or ‘Primera Clase.’

A few other companies’ buses did stop for me, but they were headed toward towns like Apizaco and not Puebla.

Finally, after 30 minutes of waiting, an Estrella Roja bus finally pulled over. But the driver told me he was only headed as far as Cholula, not Puebla.

Needless to say, standing along the highway for all this time was not the ideal way to finish off a nine-hour hike.

It was another 30 minutes before I got an Estrella Roja bus to stop for me again. And it too was bound for Cholula! While the driver told me a Puebla-bound bus should be coming at any moment, I didn’t want to take any chances and just hopped on.

Arriving at Cholula, the final stop turned out to be a random bus stop, and there weren’t any CAPU-bound minivans heading down that street. And so I simply hailed an Uber which took me directly to my accommodation.

The most beautiful part of Puebla is undoubtedly its Centro Historico. And this is also where you’re going to find most of the city’s cultural landmarks. What’s more, is that there are plenty of hotel options to choose from here, such as the highly-rated Hotel Boutique Casareyna (high-end), Hotel Diana (midrange) and Hotel Centro Historico (budget).

But would there any reason to not stay in the center? Yes, and for two main reasons. First of all, Puebla is not just a destination in its own right, but the city is one of the best bases for day trips in all of Mexico.

Secondly, the main bus station, CAPU, is unfortunately located quite far from the center. While I originally wanted to stay in the historical district, I realized that there were at least five day trips I wanted to go on that would require a visit to CAPU – not to mention my arrival and departure days.

And so I found an Airbnb within fifteen minutes on foot from the station. In the end, I’m really glad that I did, as it saved me a lot of time and hassle.

Unfortunately, however, the whole area around the bus station is not the most charming, to say the least (though it did at least feel safe). Compared with the historical center, it felt like another world.

While I didn’t have the best experience at my Airbnb for various reasons, you may want to consider Hotel Central, located right next to the station. I would end up staying here during a later trip, and while it was very basic and a bit rundown, I found it fine overall for the price.

Puebla has no tram network, and the drive between the center and CAPU is at least 20 minutes (only if traffic is perfectly smooth). Deciding where to stay, then, all depends on how many day trips you’ll be taking and how extra early you’d be willing to depart to ensure you don’t miss your buses.

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