La Ruta de los Conventos del Popocatépetl is a challenging cycling tour mainly within the Mexican state of Morelos. Much of the route lies between 5,250–6,550 ft (1,600–2,000 m), which makes for an ideal cycling climate at this latitude. It could be covered in one super epic day, but sleep wouldn’t be an option and you wouldn’t remember much beyond the shape of your handlebars. If you’re really doing this, it’s better to allow at least a week. Take the time to linger over evocative ruins, devour tasty meals, and soak in the culture and surroundings of this special place.
While Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to arrive in Mexico, the clergy was never far behind. The Franciscans came first in 1524, followed by Dominicans in 1526 and Augustans in 1533. They built cathedrals designed to convert native Indians to the Christian faith. Large open spaces called atriums were constructed to serve as meeting points between the clergy and locals. The surrounding walls were built thick and sprinkled with battlements. The buildings resembled castles, which in many ways they were. The clergy living and proselytizing here were invaders, and needed their churches to be defensive as well. The large atriums allowed a handful monks to speak to hundreds of indigenous converts. Masses were held, ideologies were evangelized, and the social order was forever changed.
The monasteries along this route were all added collectively to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. They were selected for being prototypical examples of the earliest evangelization efforts in New Spain and beyond. There is some scholarly disagreement about how much of the architecture was European and how much was "borrowed" from indigenous ceremonial spaces. But most agree that the large atriums were built as a way of accommodating the first indigenous converts, who were not used to entering large enclosed structures. An earthquake in 2017 damaged some churches, but they have been generally restored by 2021.
When to Go
Cuernavaca is one of many cities known as "The City of Eternal Spring", and the other locations along this route are in a broadly similar temperate zone. Only rare occasions will see sweltering daytime temperatures, while nighttime temps tend to stay cool year-round. The only seasonal aspect to pay attention to is from June to September when rainfall is the heaviest. Late October could be a great date to tour, as Dia de los Muertos is widely celebrated throughout this region.
BYOB. While you could try your luck renting a bicycle on arrival, the nature of this route demands something special. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but you should have spent some time dialing in your machine before you depart. Bikes marketed as "adventure", "gravel" or "touring" are likely to meet your needs. There are some fairly steep gradients to conquer here, so make sure you’ve got a "granny gear" that works for you. Aim for medium width tires. Somewhere in the range of 32-45mm should work out well. There’s a lot of pavement on this trail, but it’s hardly immaculate, and there’s dirt and gravel mixed in too. You will need to share the road with cars. Bring spare everything! For the most part you’ll be visiting small villages where shops may not carry even the basics, spare tubes for example. See this page on tour cycling for a full list of what to consider bringing.
In terms of water and nutrition you will need a few items but nothing too crazy. You’re basically guaranteed to pass some kind of food option every few miles. Whether you’ll actually want to stop and eat there is another question. Bring a few bars and light snacks to keep energy levels topped off and avoid any desperate stops. Tap water here is no bueno so bring along iodine pills, a sterilizer pen, or some other type of filtration system. You could try relying on buying bottled water along the way, but it’s pretty foolish to not have a backup plan.
This guide assumes you’ll be sleeping in hotels each night, but camping is certainly an option. All your camping gear must be affixed to the bike, which will make the hills more of a challenge. There aren’t many official campsites out here, so you’ll need to go the "wild" route. Inquire at a local church, firestation, or with someone you trust. Knowing Spanish comes in really helpful here. Wild camping is a bit of an art form, requires a lot of trust, and is not for everyone.
A bike computer or phone with GPS navigation functionality is also strongly recommended. The actual monasteries are not hard to find, but getting between towns on bicycle friendly roads can present a challenge. Companies like Garmin, Wahoo, and Hammerhead all make really great hardware that can help guide you on your way. A quick word of advice: less is more. That fancy touchscreen you splashed out on isn’t so wonderful once your dripping sweat renders it useless.
Finally, listen to your parents advice and dress in layers! Your environment will be constantly changing throughout the day. Quickly adding or removing layers does wonders to increase both your comfort and sanity. Consider bringing a 3-season longsleeve jacket. These can be pricey, but they do a great job blocking wind and repelling the elements.
Affix in your mind a simple quarter circle. Place the beginning point about 60 mi (97 km) south of Mexico City. Now arc the line counter-clockwise 90 degrees to finish around 70 mi (110 km) to the east. Along this path you’ll cross two national parks, an active volcano, and more historical sites than any reasonable person would ever want to visit. It’s also a bit hilly.
You can break up this route anyway you like—but for the purposes of this guide, daily stretches of roughly four hours of riding have been chosen. This tends to strike a nice balance between time spent biking and sightseeing. In terms of milage, you‘ll cover around 30–40 mi (48–64 km) a day. The road often turns uphill, but gradients are usually a manageable 3-5% for the most part. To be fair, it gets a bit steeper on the dirt sections and the end of day 4 is quite a challenge. Nevertheless, anyone with an average degree of fitness should be able to complete this route.
One nice thing about visiting 600-some year old churches, they tend to be in the center of town. Just head for the Zocalo. You won’t be checking your GPS in the middle of a field wondering if you’re lost. Directions and way-finding are (for the most part) a bit less challenging in this way. Again, knowing a handful of Spanish words won’t hurt either.
The journey’s end in Tlaxcala presents another problem: how to get home? You could ride down to Puebla. There’s an airport there that might work for you. The adventurous could just skip Tlaxcala altogether, choosing instead to cycle back to CDMX over the mountain pass near Calpan. This narrow dirt track is shared with cars and features 4,500 ft (1,400 m) of climbing. Likely the easiest way however, is to simply ask your host to help you arrange transport back to the city.
Entering the country via Benito Juárez International Airport will be quite common for many. This airport is massive. For those considering day 0 (see below), unpack and assemble your machine and start pedaling. For the confident urban cyclist, it’s probably around 10 mi (16 km) from the terminal to whatever your sleeping arrangements are this evening.
If you’re planning to skip day 0 (see below), be sure to arrange something with your host in Cuernavaca before touching down. Don’t expect to exit the airport with a big bicycle box and easily find reputable transport.
(Ride time: 5½ hours, Distance: 60 mi (97 km), climbing: 3,280 ft (1,000 m), max grades: +8%, -11.7%)
This day is optional, as you could easily get distracted by the world-class offerings in CDMX. Sights like the National Museum of Anthropology, La Casa Azul, and Teotihuacan threaten to end your bicycle trip before it begins! Many cyclists find the city’s aggressive drivers, snarling traffic and eye-watering smog to be offputting to say the least. Day 0 is also the longest day of the tour, clocking in at around 60 miles and over 5 hours in the saddle. That said, the notion of touching down on the tarmac and pedaling off into your next adventure is a romantic one. Plus a lot of the day’s distance is on rail trails, protected from cars, and downhill.
If you’re going for it, look for accommodations in the San Angel neighborhood, and wake up adjacent to the Ciclopista Ferrocarril de Cuernavaca. This rail trail to Cuernavaca is roughly 32 mi (51 km), and it’s in decent shape. Once the trail ends, you’re on the roads for several more miles until you hit Cuernavaca. If you have wider tires there are trails available alongside the highway, otherwise ride the shoulder and use your best judgement.
You’re finally here! First things first, get some pozole in you at 1 Iguanas Green’s. Next it’s off to visit your first church, 1 Catedral de la Asunción de María. Renovations in the 1950s uncovered a massive 17th-century mural depicting the gory details of dozens of missionaries crucified in Japan. Wash those bad vibes away with a splash of pulque at 1 La Guayaba Pulqueria, then head to 1 Villa Bonita Les Terrasses, your accommodations for the night.
(Ride time: 4½ hours, distance: 38 mi (61 km), climbing: 3,800 ft (1,200 m), max grades: +8%, -11.7%)
Rise and shine! Set yourself up for success with breakfast and coffee at 2 Restaurante y Pastelería el Vienés. Wrap up your meal and aim to get underway by around 9am. Start by pedaling north across the "river", then snake your way up-up and out of town. The city drops away quickly. After passing under route 95D it’s only a few minutes until your enter 1 Parque Nacional El Tepozteco. This path is gravel-packed and double-tracked; it also provides some truly jaw-dropping views. But all too quickly the pavement arrives, and just like that it’s over. Turn right and drop down into Tepoztlán.
Upon arrival, refuel with some street tacos from the 3 Mercado adjacent to the zocalo. Then cross the square and make your way into church number two, 2 Ex Convento Nuestra Señora de la Natividad. Afterwards, grab a frosty cone from 4 Tepoznieves, well known for their inventive flavors. Point yourself east on the Yautepec road, it’s time to go. It feels almost criminal to leave so quickly, but nevertheless you must press on.
Taking the Yautepec road from Tepoztlán you’ll see traffic increase as the scenery becomes less outstanding. But hey, at least it’s downhill. Bicycles aren’t allowed on route 115D, so stick to the Yautepec road then cut across route 2. Fun fact, at 4,000 ft (1,200 m) this is the journey's low point. From here use backroads to wiggle your way up and into Oaxtepec. This is by far the least interesting place you’ll visit today, so check out the 3 Ex Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, replenish your supplies, and skedaddle. From the monastery it’s an uphill climb for about 30 minutes until you reach 5 Restaurante La Mayordomía. Take a breather here and onboard some well earned calories. You’re almost done!
Ten more minutes up the hill and you’ll find yourself in Tlayacapan. Check in to 2 Posada Los Reyes, and explore 4 Ex Convento de San Juan Bautista by foot. For dinner, get those carbohydrates in at Pedacito de mi Vida, an excellent pizzeria in town. Finish the evening off with a pulque or two at 2 Pulques Xolotl Tlayacapan.
Day 2 — Tlayacapan to Zacualpan de Amilpas
(Ride time: 3½ hours, distance: 33 mi (53 km), climbing: 2,830 ft (860 m) max grades: +8.9%, -7%)
Today doesn’t feel as rushed, as the mileage is shorter and it’s mostly downhill. Those saved minutes get put to good use; however, as you’ve got five churches to tour today! Grab a bite at a nearby panaderia before setting off eastward on the tiny Xoquiapan road. The local farm and ranchland you pass through is quite pleasant, although the patchy road surface leaves something to be desired. If you find your stomach requiring attention, turn off the backroads and head for 6 Cecina de Yecapixtla San Andres on route 2. Grab a super nice platillo típico, served with just the right amount of roadside ambiance.
Maybe 30-40 minutes after leaving Tlayacapan you’ll reach the first church and literal high point of the day, 5 Ex Convento de San Guillermo. Decorated with Augustinian hallmarks "IHS" and "XPS", the temple‘s impressive façade has remained a constant throughout the years. After the visit, grab a coffee at 7 Cafetería El Campirano, then it’s on to the downhill.
The next church, 6 Ex Convento Agustino San Mateo Apóstol, is easily reached after a short descent along route 2. The temple‘s ornate façade is hard to miss. The tall bell tower, graced with a "modern" century old clock, can be seen from a great distance.
Exiting Atlatlahucan, you’ll want to avoid the larger roads, so turn off onto a dirt track just after the spot where route 2 and route 115 come together. Meander south (and downhill) and you’ll eventually rejoin route 10 near the village of Yecapixtla. Once you’re here, tour the 7 Ex Convento de San Juan Bautista. Yecapixtla is the biggest town you’ll be in today, so stock up while you can. If you need it, 1 Taller de Bicicletas Ciclo Nova carries tons of bike gear and is very conveniently located. A great place for some traditional food is 8 Cecina De Yecapixtla, just across the street from the municipal market.
Next, head further east paralleling route 10, until you reach the 8 Ex Convento de Santiago Apóstol in Ocuituco. It’s a bit of a climb to get here, so if you’re feeling peckish before setting off again, try your luck at 9 Cuexcomate. They offer a mix of traditional dishes and drinks alongside more Americanized fare. You’ll also pass a few little abarrotes if you need to restock on your way out of town. It’s all downhill from here!
Heading south from the monastery get on the Los Alacranes road for a bit, it’ll change from concrete slabs to a dirt track pretty quickly. Spend some time on these backroads until you find the Amayuca road. Turn right to enter Zacualpan de Amilpas and you should see signs for your ninth church of the trip, 9 Templo de la Inmaculada Concepción. Check in at the lovely 3 Casa de los Arboles. If you’ve arrived early and you have the energy, check out the 10 Ex Hacienda de Chicomocelo and the 11 Hacienda Cuautepec. Both are also 16th century relics.
Day 3 — Zacualpan de Amilpas to Tochimilco
(Ride time: 4¼ hours, distance: 29 mi (47 km), climbing: 4,470 ft (1,360 m), max grades: +18.6%, -12.6%)
Hopefully you’ll arise well rested, as there is quite a bit of climbing to do today. First grab a bite in your hotel, there aren’t many alternatives in town. Set out heading north and you’ll hit the village of Tlacotepec within minutes. It’s slightly larger than Zacualpan and you should have better luck resupplying here. The climb up to Tetela is long at over 1½ hours. It’s also easy to miss the turn off from the main road, so keep your eyes peeled. Eventually you’ll cross route 10; a sure sign that you’re about to reach the top.
Arriving in Tetela del Volcán you’ll find slim pickings, which is surprising given its location at the base of Popocatépetl volcano. Pay a visit to the 12 Ex Convento de San Juan Bautista and grab lunch at nearby 10 Restaurante Colibrí.
After lunch there’s a bit of downhill before the climb into Hueyapan. It shouldn’t take longer than 45 minutes to arrive at the 13 Ex Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. This structure is quite simple. Constructed with wooden beams and adobe, the cloister is only a single story. Shortly after leaving the temple behind, you also leave the state of Morelos. Crossing over into Puebla state is met with little fanfare, lacking even a modest sign.
The final leg of today’s trip is a real beauty. Climbing up on the Veracruz road, little pueblecitos give way to dirt tracks as you ascend the south face of Popocatépetl. Don’t plan on this, but lucky cyclists might discover a tiny cinderblock shack grilling up freshly caught trout. Even if your nose doesn’t detect a smudgy aroma, the top of the trail has beautiful scenery for your eyes to enjoy. If you brought camping gear, this would be the place to use it. Eventually you’ll descend into Tochimilco to visit 14 Ex Convento Franciscano de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora. Settle in to your cabaña at 4 Finca Mariana & Marcos Tochimilco, and enjoy another fantastic dinner here as well.
Day 4 — Tochimilco to NP Popocatépetl
(Ride time: 4½ hours, distance: 34 mi (55 km), climbing: 5,100 ft (1,600 m), max grades: +15.8%, -11.1%)
Don’t skip leg day! Today will be even more of a rollercoaster ride than yesterday was, so get an early start. You really won’t want to lose the light before arriving at your accommodations. Grab anything you think you might need locally, as resupply options won’t be as forthcoming today as they have been. Metepec could be a good option to refuel and resupply. 11 Textilero Bar offers quality fare, and there’s an 2 OXXO nearby for restocking your provisions. Try to hold out for the grub at 12 Restaurante Doña Petra in San Jerónimo Tecuanipan, a wisp of a town. The corn tortillas here are made by hand and the views of Popocatépetl are great as well. As you make your way around the volcano you’ll be popping in and out of little hamlets all day. Not a tourist in sight. The last bit of civilization you’ll visit today is the little mountain village of Xalitzintla. Try some "Chiles en Nogada" (if you haven‘t already) at one of the roadside establishments you pass heading into town.
Leaving Xalitzintla behind you, the paved road bends to the left, but you’ll want to switch onto the dirt track straight ahead. It’s another turnoff that‘s easy to miss. You’re very much in 2 Parque Nacional Iztaccíhuatl-Popocatépetl now! Spinning your way up these dirt roads is challenging. You’re battling 4 mi (6.4 km) of steep gradients; topping out at almost 11,000 ft (3,400 m). But the payoff is worth it. Riding into 5 you’ll feel a profound sense of accomplishment and relax in quiet awe of your new surroundings. This bed and breakfast offers all meals in house. This is quite helpful, as options are limited halfway up an active volcano.
Day 5 — NP Popocatépetl to Tlaxcala
(Ride time: 3½ hours, distance: 40 mi (64 km), climbing: 2,050 ft (620 m), max grades: +10.7%, -11%)
Waking up at 10,000 ft (3,000 m) is quite an experience. Put on a jacket, grab some food, and check out the views from your cabin. If you have any energy left, head up the road a bit to investigate a mirador. The Paso de Cortéz is quite popular, the scenery up here can really take your breath away. Any masochists can head further up the mountain for "La Joya", the trailhead leading to Iztaccihuatl's summit. This will add at least three hours to your itinerary and another 2,600 ft (790 m) of climbing so be sure you’re up for it. The rest of you should head north, the final descent is about to begin.
After 7 miles of dirt track, you are once again reacquainted with pavement as you swoop into Calpan from the west. Here you can visit 15 Exconvento de Calpan, your first church of the day. While the interior is quite austere, the abundance and beauty of the façade‘s stonework is quite magnificent. Did you miss visiting any Ex-conventos yesterday?
Your penultimate church for the trip will be 16 Ex Convento de San Miguel Arcángel. This one has an adjacent museum if you’re into it and have the time. There’s nothing much to eat by the church, but a few blocks north you can treat yourself to some healthier fare at 13 Date El Gusto Huejotzingo. There’s several OXXOs in town too, if none of the bodegas you passed caught your eye. Keep heading northeast and follow the "river" until you pass under route 150D. To reach the tunnel you can either ride through an unmaintained drainage ditch, or boldly cross two highway on ramps. This manuever is short but terrifying, and your reward is entering Tlaxcala, the smallest state in Mexico.
The final church of your trip is a fitting one. The 17 Ex Convento Franciscano rests within a complex of historic buildings set among cobblestoned streets. The bullfighting ring and nearby museum are certainly also worth your time. For last meals you could do worse than 14 Comedor Nacional Porfirio 21. This elevated take on traditional cuisine makes for a fitting end to your journey along La Ruta de los Conventos del Popocatépetl.
La Ruta de los Conventos 6 Day Stats:
Total Ascent/Descent: 21,500 ft (6,600 m)
Churches Visited: 15
Locations Visited: 20+ towns over 4 states
Calories Burned: 13,400+
- It’s a basic law of physics. Picking a fight with something 10-20 times your mass means you’re going to lose. So do everything you can to be seen. Run lights (both front and rear) during the daytime and especially at night. Wear high-vis clothing. Use hand signals, attach a mirror, and so on. None of this is particularly "cool", but it sure beats getting hit by a vehicle!
- If you’re bringing nicer gear along, theft could be a concern. One option is to bring a lock and learn where and how to use it. Any lock can be defeated; however, and they‘re heavy as well. Instead, bring a buddy! It’ll be more fun sharing the experience with someone, and you can watch each others gear as necessary. Additionally, any hotel should allow you to take your bike into the room. or at least give you access to a lockable storage area.
- You’ll spend one night at around 10,000 ft (3,000 m), so altitude sickness could be a real thing. It’s also the reason for the sequence of this itinerary. Saving the mountain climb for the end allows more time for acclimatization.
You’ll either pass directly through or get pretty dang close to all of the cities listed below. If you're blessed with the gift of time, consider extending your stay at any of these locations. Most are Pueblos Mágicos, a designation given by the government to locations exemplary of the beauty, historical importance, or natural wonders found in Mexico. Surprisingly, many are found off of traditional tourist trails.
- Preeminent city of eternal spring—Cuernavaca boasts beautiful parks, restaurants and museums. It’s also a great jumping off point for exploring the ruins of Xochicalco.
- Tepoztlán is a Pueblo Mágico, so don’t feel bad extending your stay here for a day or three. Many a visitor has fallen under a similar spell.
- Consider extending your stay in Tlayacapan. This Pueblo Mágico is filled with historic museums and ruinas. As an added bonus, it sees rather less touristic traffic than Tepoztlán to boot.
- Renowned for its architecture, you may be pulled into Puebla by its sheer size. This city of millions offers up industry and history aplenty.
- Time your visit to Atlixco for last weekend in September to experience El Huey Atlixcayotl. A modern interpretation of an old indigenous harvest celebration honoring the god Quetzalcoatl. Yup, it’s a Pueblo Mágico.
- Visit the great pyramid of Cholula. Topped by a 16th century church, this is the largest pyramid (by volume) in the world. What else would you expect from a Pueblo Mágico?