If you take the direct route from Mexico City to Veracruz – the scenic Hwy-150 – you’ll bypass every major town en route; if you’re driving yourself, note that the tolls along this stretch of road are extremely high (over M$450). For those pressed for time, the fast highway is a blessing – Veracruz and the coast are very much the outstanding attractions – but the cities in the mountains merit a stop if you have room in your itinerary. Regardless of how fast you go or what form of transport you take, the journey over the Sierra Madre Oriental is one of the most beautiful in Mexico: as Ixtaccíhuatl gradually disappears behind you, the snow on the Pico de Orizaba comes into view, and the plains of corn and maguey in the west are supplanted on the eastern slopes by woods of pine and cypress, and by green fields dotted with contented cows out to pasture.
It’s worth noting, however, that this is the rainiest area of the country, and while the damp brings bounties in terms of great coffee and a luxuriance of flowers, downpours can become a problem. Particularly irritating – especially in October and November – is what the locals call chipichipi, a persistent fine drizzle caused by warm airstreams from the Gulf hitting cooler air as they reach the eastern face of the sierra. Drivers should also watch out for the fog that frequently cloaks the higher sections of this road.
Midway between Puebla and Veracruz, ORIZABA is an industrial city and a major brewing centre: the giant Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma produces some of the best beer in the republic, including globally famous brands Sol and Dos Equis – ask at the tourist office for details of tours. Despite the industry, the historic centre remains compact and attractive; because the old city was built up against a hill, development has spread in one direction only, so the centro histórico is right on the edge of town, with more modern development sprawling to the east and south. The Parque Castillo, with the imposing Catedral de San Miguel at Colón and Madero, marks the centre of the old town. There’s not a great deal to see, but Orizaba makes an enjoyable short break or overnight stop; better yet, stay in Córdoba, and make a day trip to see Orizaba’s sights.
Orizaba is situated close to the foot of the loftiest peak in Mexico, the Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltépetl), a perfectly formed, snow-capped volcano. There is a fair amount of disagreement over its exact height – 5636m seems the most widely accepted, though locals often claim more – but there’s no disputing that it’s a beautiful sight and a seriously challenging climb, for experienced mountaineers only. Numerous local companies offer guides and facilities, mostly based in the village of Tlachichuca, which at 2600m is where the main trails begin. To get there, take a second-class bus to the small town of Serdán (2hr), where you change for Tlachichuca itself (1hr); there are also occasional buses direct from Puebla. Details of the climb (Oct–May only) can be found in R.J. Secor’s Mexico’s Volcanoes. Reliable operators include Summit Orizaba and Servimont, both with their own accommodation in Tlachichuca.