Sunset over the volcanoes of Puebla Valley

Puebla Valley: In the Shadow of an Active Volcano

Puebla Valley is home to a few spectacular ancient ruins, and one of the largest colonial cities in Mexico. People live here, in the shadow of four volcanoes, offering a beautiful backdrop to the modern and ancient settlements.

But the active volcano Popocatépetl is the one that presents a constant danger the community learned to live with. Besides the hazard of the eruptions depositing ash everywhere and the lava flow, the summit also has glaciers that melt during eruptions. These might cause mudflows, another danger to the over 25 million people living in its vicinity.

It seems to say, you need “permission from the volcanoes” to live in Puebla Valley.

Ancient People and the Volcanoes

I was standing on top of an ancient spiral pyramid when I read this inscription. The full text says “Permission from the volcanoes was required in order to live in Xochitécatl.”Though we could see for miles, I noticed volcanoes, both dormant or active, surrounding us in every direction. Besides being surrounded by a few large ones, we were also standing on top of an extinct volcano, home to the ancient site dedicated to the Goddess of Flowers and Fertility.

Xochitécatl - inscription of the pyramid
This plaque sits on top of the spiral Pyramid dedicated to the Wind God, Ehécatl.


One of our stops during a long weekend in Puebla Valley,Xochitécatlwas one highlight of our trip. Its oldest buildings dating from about 800 BC, the city was a powerful center by 350 BC. But people didn’t get the volcano’s permission to live there past 150 BC. Popocatépetl’s eruptions that year forced them to abandon the city.

They didn’t settle back in the area for a few centuries, but around 600 AD, they built Cacaxtla, near the abandoned site. Although they didn’t return to Xochitécatl to live there, they rebuilt it to use as a ceremonial center.

Dedicated to Xochitl, the Goddess of Flower and Fertility, the ceremonial center has a special connection with one volcano. As seen from its Pyramid of the Flowers, the largest structure at the site, the sun rises above La Malinche on September 29th. Though we could see it from both pyramids, the afternoon we visited, during the first week of September in 2018, the top of the circular pyramid offered the perfect view of La Malinche.

Xochitecatl - view from the round pyramid - La Malinche
View of La Malinche from the top of the circular pyramid

The Volcanoes

La Malinche

La Malinche, a dormant volcano, lies North of Puebla Valley. Also known as Matlalcueye or Malintzin, at 14,636 feet (4,461 meters) it has the lowest elevation of the four peaks surrounding the Valley of Puebla, but it’s one of the prettiest.

The Tlaxcaltecs named it Matlalcueitl, Lady of the Blue Skirt, the goddess of rain and song. The Spanish named it Malinche only in the 17th century, in honor of the woman who helped Cortez as an interpreter.

Matlalcueye is a stratovolcano, formed in different phases, starting about 35 million years ago. It is not a typical cone, but it comprises side-peaks and slopes.

Isolated from other mountains, a few smaller volcanoes surround it. One of these, Cuatlapanga, at 9,500 feet (2,900 meters) is close enough that indigenous people included it in the legend of how Malinche formed.

The Myth of the Creation of Matlalcueye and Cuatlapanga Volcanoes

The best-known legend about the creation of this volcano is a sad love story.

Matlalcueye was a virgin girl, engaged to Cuatlapanga, a warrior. But before they could get married, Cuatlapanga went to war to a faraway place and stayed away for a long time.

Matlalcueye waited and waited for his return. With no means of communication, she had no way of knowing if her lover was alive or dead during this time. Cuatlapanga was away for so long she thought him dead and she died of sorrow.

But the warrior came back. When he found out that her beloved had died, he went to her grave and cried until they both turned into mountains. Matlalcueye is the tall mountain, with Cuatlapanga the shorter one, kneeling at her grave.

Pico de Orizaba

Farthest from Puebla Valley, on the East, lies Pico de Orizaba. At 18,491 feet (5636 meters), it is the highest mountain in Mexico, and third highest in North America. Dormant, not extinct, it last erupted in the 1800s.

Its name in Nahuatl is Citlaltépetl, meaningStar Mountain. The legend of its creation doesn’t involve a love story. According to ancient Olmec legends, it was created by a powerful eagle spirit.


West of Puebla Valley sit Iztacchíhuatl and Popocatépetl. A dormant volcano, Iztacchíhuatl, at 17,343 feet (5,286 meters) it is the third highest peak in Mexico, after Pico de Oribaza and Popocatépetl.

This volcano’s summit ridge comprises not one, but a series of overlapping cones. The resulting four individual connected peaks resemble the form of a lying woman. The snow-capped peaks represent her head, chest, knees, and feet. Looking at this shape from the distance, no wonder the Nahuatl called her White Woman, Iztacchíhuatl.

This shape and its proximity to Popocatépetl most likely contributed to the legend of the origins of the two volcanoes.

The Legend of Formation of Iztacchíhuatl and Popocatépetl

This legend of the lovers Iztacchíhuatl and Popocatépetl comes from Aztec mythology, and it’s well-known in the region.

Iztacchíhuatl was a princess who fell in love with one of her father’s warriors, Popocatépetl, who loved her back, and they planned to get married. The king had other ideas for his daughter, but he didn’t want to stand in their way. However, he sent Popocatépetl to war to prove his worth, promising to let them marry when he returns.

But at some point, news of Popocatépetl’s death came. Believing it, Iztacchíhuatl died of grief. When Popocatépetl returned, he built a mound where he laid her body, and he stood next to her holding a smoking funeral torch.

Seeing they wanted to stay together this way forever, the gods covered them with snow and turned them both into the mountains.


The ancient warrior turned mountain is the only active volcano in Puebla Valley right now. Linked to Iztacchíhuatl by a high saddle called Paso de Cortés, at 17,802 feet (5,426 meters) it is higher than its neighbor, being the second highest in Mexico.

This volcano is symmetrical, classic cone-shaped and about 730,000 years old. Its name, Popocatépetl, means “smoking mountain” in Nahuatl.

Popocatépetl is one of the most active volcanoes on the North American continent. It had 15 major eruptions since the Spaniards came to the area, and many more before. The Aztecs recorded a few in their codices. And it was his eruption that chased people away from Xochitécatl in 150 AD.

Legends and Life in the Ancient World

I’m sure you noticed like I did, how similar the legends of Matlalcueye and her warrior, and Iztacchíhuatl and hers. Though the differences are mainly in the way the warriors handle the situation after their return, one kneeling by the gravesite, the other one standing guard with a torch, the main stories are the same.

I’m guessing in the ancient times, with so many wars, tragedies like this might have been common. We saw evidence of these wars at Cacaxtla, the site the ancients built after returning to Puebla Valley around 600 AD.


Cacaxtlawas the reason for our visit to Puebla Valley. We’ve heard and read about its amazing murals for years and this was a good opportunity for us to see them. They are of Mayan design (that’s why we even knew about them), thousands of miles away from the known world of the Maya.

The murals, decorating the main buildings of the site, all sit on a huge platform, covered by a sheet-metal roof, the second largest in the world.

The most famous and largest one at 72 feet long and almost six feet tall is the Battle scene. Warriors fight each other in gory scenes on the whole long wall. Though the background color is the Mayan blue I like, it is far from being my favorite mural. I’m not so keen on fighting scenes.

Cacaxtla - Battle Mural view
The battle mural

But it made me think of the possibility of so many girls waiting for their warriors to return from battle, some stories ending like the legends of the surrounding volcanoes.

The Great Pyramid of Cholula

As much as they fought among each other, the ancient people faced the biggest battles when the Spaniards came. The natives heard about their arrival into the area, and about their habit of destroying old temples and pyramids. So they worked day and night and buried their main pyramid under layers and layers of dirt, making it look like a natural hill.

The Spaniards heard about the large pyramid’s existence, but could not find it. Still, seeing a hill in the center of the city ofCholulathey built their church on top.

The Great Pyramid Today

That’s one explanation of why the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the world’s largest by footprint and volume, sitting in the middle of a modern city, was unknown until the end of the 19th century.

Archaeologists excavated it in 1931. But by then the Spanish church on its top was a protected landmark, and they couldn’t excavate the pyramid without destroying the church. So they dug tunnels through it to learn about its history.

Great Pyramid of Cholula
Only partially excavated, the Great Pyramid looks like a hill topped by a Spanish church.

Though over time they exposed parts of the pyramid, from certain angles it still looks like a hill topped by a colonial-style church, with a mass in its yard every Sunday.

Puebla City

After exploring Cholula, its Great Pyramid, market and zocalo, we dedicated our last day to the largest modern city in the Valley,Puebla City,a designated UNESCO Heritage Site.

No ancient city stood on the site where Puebla de Los Angeles lies today. The people who built Cholula, Cacaxtla and Xochitecatl used this large area for their flower wars. Yes, they had staged wars in those times.

The gods demanded sacrifices, what better way to give them some than captives from neighboring cities. As bad as this sounds, it was no better or worse than people in Europe fighting each other during the Crusades. Everyone was fighting to please a god – or many.

Exploring Puebla City

But here, in Puebla Valley, the war-site left a large area open for a new city. Founded in 1531, Puebla de Los Angeles is a colorful colonial city, centered on its Zocalo, filled with colonial-style Spanish churches.

Though we spent most of our time around the Zocalo, strolling under its trees, eating at the restaurants surrounding it, and visiting the famous Cathedral, I also enjoyed walking through the surrounding streets.

The colorful buildings add a cheerful atmosphere, with Talavera tiles the city is famous for covering some of their walls.

Street corner in Puebla
Street corner in Puebla

As we explored the city, no matter where we looked, we saw the volcanoes surrounding the city. Most noticeable was Popocatépetl, the tallest one, with its smoking top, in the not-so-far distance.

The Smoking Volcano

Puebla wasn’t the only place we noticed Popocatépetl. No matter where we were during our trip we knew we could look up and see it, giving the area a beautiful backdrop.

His smoking top was one of the first things we noticed flying into the Valley before landing, and we were looking at its smoking top while flying out.

Popocatepetl - September 4th 2018
Popocatépetl smoking on September 4th, 2018

By then, we knew from a local pilot we met that they had a no-fly zone of about 10 km around it. Still, the volcano’s smoking top didn’t bother the locals. I admit I liked it, too; it added an element of dangerous beauty to the surroundings.

Popocatépetl Erupting

But about a week after we returned, I watched the news of this active volcano erupting. It was filling the cities of Puebla and Cholula with white powdery ashes, rendering people indoors, or forcing them to walk with masks covering their faces.

The Volcanic Ash Advisory Center was still issuing warnings two months later. But then, for a while, it was quiet.

But now it is erupting again. If Popocatépetl was once a warrior, he is still angry. But I hope he is still going to allow people to live in his shadow.

puebla valley pin2
puebla valley pin

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