Pico de Orizaba: The Highest Mountain in Mexico

Fast Facts About Pico De Orizaba

Pico de Orizaba towers above valleys and villages in central Mexico. Photograph copyright Robert Frerck/Getty Images

Orizaba is the third highest mountain in North America, with only Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska and Mount Logan in Canada being higher. 

Basic Info on Mexico's Highest Mountain

  • Elevation: 18,491 feet (5,636 meters. Note that Orizaba's exact height is not agreed upon. Different surveys have yielded different results, especially as increasingly accurate means of measurement have been employed. It's generally agreed that the mountain is at least 18,400 high and no higher than 16,600 feet.
  • Prominence: 16,148 feet (4,922 meters) 7th most prominent mountain in the world
  • Location: East-central Mexico
  • Coordinates: 19.029959 N / -97.269527 W
  • First Ascent: First recorded ascent by U.S. soldiers William Raynolds and G. Maynard in 1848. The mountain was almost certainly climbed earlier by locals who did not record their achievement in any documents that survive. 
  • Orizaba is sometimes called by its Aztec name Citlaltepetl, which means “Star Mountain.” It’s also called Volcan Pico de Orizaba, meaning “Volcano Peak of Orizaba."
  • Orizaba is the highest peak in the world between 10 and 20 degrees north latitude and the highest volcano in North America.
  • Orizaba is visible on a clear day from the Gulf of Mexico and the city of Veracruz over 60 miles to the east.
  • Orizaba is located 120 miles east of Mexico City on the border of the Mexican states Puebla and Vera Cruz.

Origins of Orizaba's Name

The name Orizaba comes from a nearby town and the valley south of the peak. Orizaba is a bastardized Spanish word from the Aztecan name Ahuilizapa (pronounced âwil-lis-â-pan), which translates to “Place of the Playing Water.” Early natives called it Poyautécatl, which translates "mountain that reaches the clouds."

Basic Geology: Glacier and Volcano

Orizaba is a huge dormant volcano that last erupted between 1545 and 1566. It is the second highest dormant volcano in the world; only Kilimanjaro in Africa is higher.

The volcano formed in three stages in the Pleistocene Epoch over a million years ago.

Pico de Orizaba is also a true alpine environment with nine glaciers--Gran Glaciar Norte, Lengua del Chichimeco, Jamapa, Toro, Glaciar de la Barba, Noroccidental, Occidental, Suroccidental, and Oriental. Most of the glaciers occur on the northern side of the volcano, which receives less sun than the southern flank.

The Gran Glaciar Norte or Great Glacier of the North is the largest on Orizaba, spilling down from the summit to about 16,000 feet. Until recently, the average thickness of these glaciers was of about 160 feet and covered about 3.5 square miles. Several twenty-first-century climbers' blogs, however, note rapid deterioration of glaciated areas. Many propose that this is the result of global warming. 

Climbing Pico de Orizaba

Among very high mountains, Orizaba is a relatively easy climb. The standard ascent route is along the Jamapa Glacier, The final ascent begins at the Piedra Grande Hut at 14,010 feet (4270 meters). The climb crosses a snowfield area and then ascends the glacier, which reaches an angle of 40 degrees near the top. This requires climbers to be competent with an ice axecrampons, and climbing rope


Orizaba is not a particularly difficult climb, which doesn't mean there aren't dangerous aspects. among them:

  • The high altitude can affect climbers, particularly older climbers. This may begin as mountain sickness -- weakness, headaches, and nausea -- but can progress to pulmonary edema (HAPE) and cerebral edema, both of them often fatal at high altitudes. 
  • The traverse along the crater rim to its high point summit, although not technically difficult, is potentially dangerous—a slip leads either into the crater or down the steep-sided volcano. Either way presents a potentially fatal fall.