You get excellent views of the snow-clad volcanic peaks of Popocatépetl (5452m) and Ixtaccíhuatl (5285m) from almost anywhere west of the capital, and viewing from afar is all most people do these days. “Popo” has been rumbling and fuming away since September 1994, and for much of the time since then the region has been on Yellow Alert, with evacuation procedures posted throughout surrounding towns. Activity was renewed in December 2000, culminating in the largest eruption on record. Though there were no devastating lava flows, the crater spat out hot rocks, dust fell on the capital and, on several occasions, Mexico City’s airport (over 60km away) was closed for a few hours. Local villagers, evacuated for weeks during the eruption, were forced to stand idly by while their livestock trampled their fields. In April 2012, renewed activity, including the expulsion of volcanic ash, led the authorities to step up the level of alert to “Yellow Phase 3”, which means among other things that no access is allowed within 12km of the volcano until further notice.
“Popo” and “Ixta”, as the volcanoes are affectionately known, are the nation’s second and third highest peaks (after the 5700m Pico de Orizaba). Their full names come from an Aztec Romeo-and-Juliet-style legend. Popocatépetl (Smoking Mountain) was a warrior, Ixtaccíhuatl (White Lady) his lover, the beautiful daughter of the emperor. Believing Popocatépetl killed in battle, she died from grief, and when he returned alive he laid her body down on the mountain, where he eternally stands sentinel, holding a burning torch. From the west, Ixta does somewhat resemble a reclining female form and the various parts of the mountain are named accordingly – the feet, the knees, the belly, the breast and so on.