Blog 9: Orizaba

 12  November 2013

            If your name is Tomás de Fonseca and your father brings you and your sister and stepmother to Mexico in 1534 and you disembark in San Juan de Ulúa and take the skiff across from the island to the collection of flimsy, palm thatched huts on the edge of the beach that the boatman tells you is called Veracruz, you and your family’s next challenge will be to walk to Tenochtitlán. The survivors of Cortés’s campaign of conquest, and the few thousand immigrants who have followed him to remake the Aztec capital in the image of Spain, have taken to calling the place Mexico City. The man who rents you pack mules informs you there are only two routes you can take: north along the coastal plains and then over the Perote pass into the high plateau, or over the Orizaba pass. Both roads meet in Puebla. You are Spanish, so you know about mountains, and they don’t scare you all that much. The countryside around Veracruz is flat, and you can’t see any mountains from here except, maybe, a white something that pokes up in the distance directly west of Veracruz. You flip a coin and decide to take the southern route. Though you don’t know it yet, the white pointy thing is Mount Orizaba.  

            Those are still the two main routes from Veracruz to the interior: go north of Mount Perote, or south of Mount Orizaba. The old winding two-lane highways that trucks groaned over until just a few years ago were superimposed on those old cart paths. The new four-lane toll roads run along side them. Each of these roads has to climb 2500 meters (7,500+ feet) to get over the passes through the Sierra Madre Oriental.

            Sometime earlier, when the earth’s tectonic plates were drifting slowly round and round the cooling planet, crashing into each other like carnival bump-um cars and making mountains, sometimes a plate found itself situated over a magma vent, a place where the pressure of heat in the incandescent planetary core had worked its way through cracks and fissures to pool threateningly near the surface. Sometimes the pool exploded, and hot magma shot up to the surface and created a volcano. Then, sometime later, when the plate had floated a bit further on its journey to wherever it was going, boom!, the same pool blew its cork again, and a new volcano spurted in a line with the first. And then another, and another. One hot spot could give birth to a whole chain of volcanic islands, like Hawaii. Another hot spot, a belt of volcanoes that stretches west to east across Mexico’s middle from Colima in the west to Orizaba in the east. They come in all sizes and many shapes, some now dead, some only dormant, and some—like Popocatépetl, still spitting cinders. The grand daddy of them all is Orizaba, at 5,747 meters (17,800+ ft) Mexico’s highest peak and North America’s third highest. Citlaltépetl, as the Náhuatl-speaking people on its lower slopes still call it, is of the dormant-ish variety: it erupted 9 years after you and your family skirted it on the cart path that winds along its southern flank, and 3 more times after that, the last time in 1687. Presumably the next time won’t be this afternoon.


            At the foot of the pass the city of Orizaba, named for the mountain, does not attract much tourism, and that is too bad, because it has a lot to offer. The city is located in a bowl, surrounded by high, forest-clad volcanic hills, with the towering giant of Mount Orizaba to the north. The volcano-rich agricultural lowlands to the east of it have grown sugar cane and cotton since colonial days. In the 18th century the city grew rich on textile production, and in the 19th it added cement plants and a beer factory, and swelled to over 150,000 people. Because of where it is, Orizaba, like Xalapa on the Perote route, is a major transportation hub for agricultural products and manufactured goods. All that money fueled construction, so the city has a splendid array of domed and towered churches, public buildings, and parks. The churches came too late to enjoy the talents of the best Mexican baroque architects and sculptors, but they are pretty on the outside, if rather blah in the interior. It didn’t help that almost every army invading central Mexico from the coast marched through Orizaba, including the French and the Americans a couple of times each. Most everything that was worth hanging in a museum or melting down has long since been carried off.

            The town is huge, but it doesn’t seem that way. Most of the buildings are two or three story and look to have been built in late colonial times to early 20th century. There is a smattering of deco architecture and a few modernist cubes. The streets are gridded and numbered, in the Spanish colonial fashion decreed by Philip II, but the city has enough up and down about it that it never appears boring and on every third block there is a church or a park. The old monastery of Saint Philip Neri’s Congregation of the Oratory has been repurposed as an art museum, and it has one of the best collections of Diego de Rivera’s work anywhere, which is one of the reasons we stopped here. The collection is so renowned that it is frequently—and also currently—out on loan to other museums, so I had to content myself with enjoying landscape paintings by visiting German, English, and Italian travelers, the best known being Baron von Humboldt, the early 19th-century explorer and scientist. There were some nice maps, too, including a couple of San Juan de Ulúa that I hadn’t previously seen.


            The strangest building in Orizaba is the former city hall, known now as the Palacio de Hierro, the Iron Palace. It was built by the French (Messieurs Eifel, no less) for the Belgian Pavilion in the 1889 Paris Exposition. A visiting Mexican of ample means saw it, and decided on the spot that he would buy it and have it shipped to Orizaba to be reassembled as the city hall. Voilá! The Palacio is fabricated entirely, 100%, of cast iron plates and columns and balustrades and volutes that are bolted together to create something green and porch-ed and towered that looks like it ought to be a train station in Lucerne. The walls are made of cast iron plates, each the size of a 40” flat screen TV. The columns are each cast as a single piece. The balconies and wrap around porch are cast in separate long sections. In recent years the town fathers of Orizaba have repurposed this building as an attraction. It contains a classy cafe, the tourist office, and a half-dozen small museums: A musuem of fútbol, of beer, of flags, of Mexican presidents, a planetarium, and the one that sucked us in, of the geology and archaeology of Mount Orizaba. Really well done: a gem of a small museum. And good coffee in the cafe: several kinds, all grown locally.


            A river runs through the city from north to south, a river called, unsurprisingly, the Río Orizaba. Rivers in most Mexican cities are not very nice places: sewers empty into them and garbage collects on their banks. City rivers generally invite the passer-by to look the other way and pinch the nose tight. This river, dropping from the upper parts of the city down to the lower valley, runs fast, and has been channeled between banks of concrete and stone. Since Orizaba is a place of civic pride, and the river is an asset, the city has turned both banks into a promenade that follows the current for nearly two kilometers. Many of the city’s east-west streets bridge it, and each of the bridges is different. Every couple of hundred meters there is a park: some with children’s play equipment, some with tables, all with benches. One stretch of riverbank is a zoo! Four ostriches in one cage take pleasure in running along side people as they walk past. A little further up a cat house (no, not one of those) has put up a sign that as of November 25th the jaguar’s new baby cub will be available for viewing. Don’t get me wrong: this is nothing like San Antonio’s glitzy River Walk. Orizaba’s Paseo del río is still pretty grubby, especially under a grey sky. The houses that back onto it are from the Epoch of the Not Nice Rivers, and they tend to present a wall of unpainted, un-windowed, heavily mildewed stone. When it rains a lot in the mountains, this river can be savage. Some sections of the walk are closed where the river has ripped away the concrete. Some of the streets that lead down to the river still show signs of sand bagging. Still, civic pride being what it obviously is, I expect that the Paseo del río will only get prettier and spiffier with time.



The city administration decided that one thing that would draw more tourists to Orizaba would be a teleférico, an aerial cable car that would carry people from downtown to the top of the hill that looms over the city’s west side; in New England we would call the hill a mountain, and we would have to drive to New Hampshire to see it. Had we come to Orizaba next year rather than this, we could have ridden on the teleférico. Pictures of the plans are posted all over town, and three of the cars sit on a flatbed in the middle of the main pedestrian shopping street, inviting citizens to marvel at the next urban achievement of which they can all be proud.


            Day one in Orizaba we walk around. Day two I drive up Mount Orizaba to see, like the bear of song, what I can see. The road services a string of villages and farms that cling to the ridges on Orizaba’s lower slopes. 


            The mountains here trap a lot of moisture-bearing clouds that sweep up from the gulf, so it rains a lot, earning the town its nickname, Pluviosilla (Drippyville). Mornings are often clear, but by 10:00 the dew has evaporated, the moisture has become cloud, the clouds rise to obscure the mountains, and when they get high enough, in late afternoon, they precipitate a light mist, so characteristic that it has its own local onomatopoeic name, chipi chipi. By 5:00 the umbrellas come out. By 8:30 the rain stops. And in the morning it starts all over again. So it is warm in the city when I start, chilly when I go through the mist layer, warm when I am above the clouds, icy when the clouds catch up with me, damp enough that I have to run the wipers as I drop down through them, and then dark grey as I get back to town. I am home before the rain begins.


            The mountain is spectacular. Orizaba City sits at about 1100 meters. As I climb I pass cane fields; then a little higher fields of roses and calla lilies; the upper slopes are mostly pasturage, a few cows and many flocks of sheep. La Perla, the highest actual town I get to, is at 3,000 meters, which means that I and the CRV climb about a vertical mile. I go another few hundred meters (vertical) beyond la Perla, and then the concrete road turns to rocks and ruts of such an irregularity that even I am I am not tempted. Orizaba’s peak, with its huge elliptical crater, is still 2500 meters (a mile and a half ) above me). Besides, 3,200 meters is about my altitude threshold: higher than that I develop a headache and feel dizziness and nausea. I’ve been up to 5,000 meters a few times in Perú and, believe me, forty years later I can still feel the effects. The scenery on Orizaba, in fact, reminds me a lot of mountain Peru. Vast vistas, small farms perched anywhere there is a patch of land flat enough to plow (which means anything up to a 60% incline), a town perched on every little ridge top. For some reason their church towers are invariably painted orange. Every village has an elementary school with a sign that proclaims it to be bilingual, which up here means Spanish-Nánuatl; la Perla has a secondary school, too. The kids are all in school uniforms, different colors in the different villages.


            All the men dress western; though the higher I go the more the women are dressed traditional: bright colored under sheaths covered by skirts covered by aprons; blouses of shiny satin and lace. In the higher altitudes the whole package is covered with a thick sweater or wrapped with a woolen shawl. Many of the women have babies on their backs. Though there are cars and pickup trucks in every town, the higher I go the more mules and donkeys I see. Every village has electricity, and the lines go up beyond where I am able to drive. Almost every roof is capped with a satellite dish. But people cook with wood, and as I wind my way up I can see both men and women chopping with heavy iron axes attached to obviously home-made handles. In the middle-high villages, men are loading bound bundles of calla lilies and roses onto pickup trucks to take them down to the wholesale flower market that is a couple of blocks from the Palacio de Hierro.


            Disappointed and relieved that the paved road doesn’t go any higher, I turn around, put the CRV into first gear, take my foot off the gas, and start the long serpentine down to Orizaba City, stopping only where I can squeeze a pull off to take pictures of the mountains and chasms and waterfalls, the clouds above, and the clouds below. Tomorrow we go to Oaxaca.


David and Linda