Popocatepétl as seen from Cortez Pass. Photo by
Jakub Hejtmánek at Czech Wikipedia.
The volcano Popocatépetl, located between Mexico City and Puebla, is currently 5,426 meters (17,802 feet) in elevation; it's the second-highest mountain in Mexico. It erupted on May 8, 2013, and has been sending up ash frequently since January 2012. There are webcams pointed at it, and it's often visible from planes flying in and out of the Mexico City airport. (Sometimes too visible; on July 4, 2013, 40 flights had to be canceled because there was too much ash in the air.)
I wanted to get a somewhat closer look at it. Three places where you can do this on the Puebla (east) side are San Andrés Calpan, San Mateo Ozolco, and San Nicolás de Los Ranchos/Santiago Xalitzintla. There are frequent buses from Puebla to San Andrés Calpan, and frequent collectivos (passenger vans) from Cholula to San Mateo Ozolco and San Nicolás de Los Ranchos.
The place where you get the really good view, though, is Cortez Pass, which is between Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, a dormant volcano north of Popocatépetl. The two peaks are included in the Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park. The road there requires a Jeep-style vehicle. If you don't have one, you might be able to arrange for someone in the towns mentioned above to give you a ride up and back. Problem is, this will require some lead time. Another possibililty is Gozamex, which runs a bus tour from Puebla to Cortez Pass. It costs 1,400 pesos, takes nine hours, and requires at least two people. Keep in mind that, like all mountains of this size, Popocatépetl often has a cloud cover.
There's a legend about the two mountains. Iztaccíhuatl was the daughter of the chief of the Tlaxcaltecas, and the young warrior Popocatépetl was her fiancé. Iztaccíhuatl was told, falsely, that Popocatépetl had died in battle, and she died of grief as a result. When Popocatépetl returned from the war, he was devastated by Iztaccíhuatl's death, and ordered a great tomb to be built for her, which is the mountain Iztaccíhuatl.
If you have an interest in history or Mexican culture, or exploring very old buildings, there are a lot more possibilities in this area. Cortez Pass got its name because Cortez' army went through it on their way to conquering Mexico City. Some of his soldiers climbed it. The Spanish were amazed when they first saw Popocatépetl, because they had never seen anything like it. After the conquest, the Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian monastic orders came from Spain to Mexico, and they built 14 monasteries and convents around the base of Popocatépetl. Wikipedia has a good overview of this. I've visited three of them.
Ex-Convento de San Miguel Arcángel, Huejotzingo: Huejotzingo is only four km. from the Puebla airport. San Miguel Arcángel is the oldest of the 14. It was started by the Franciscans in 1524, and completed in 1580. (To put that in perspective, Spanish colonization of the Dominican Republic began in 1496, and the English settlement at Jamestown started in 1607.) A successful restoration effort took place here in the 1980's. The buildings and grounds are in great shape, and there is a good museum on the site.
Asunción de Nuestra Señora monastery, Tochimilco: Tochimilco is south of Popocatépetl, and just outside of the national park. It was built by the Franciscans from 1560 to 1580. The building isn't as interesting as the other two described here, but the site also includes an aqueduct that was built to bring water to the monastery.
Ex-Convento de San Francisco de Asís, San Andrés Calpan: This is the closest of the three to Cortez Pass. The town was “founded” in 1524 by Cortez himself, although people living there will tell you that there was a community there 300 years earlier. The design is very similar to San Miguel Arcángel. This is hardly surprising. It was built by the same Franciscans at about the same time; started in 1548, and completed sometime after 1555.
San Andrés Calpan is an agricultural town; orchards and corn fields alternate with residences and other buildings. There is one hotel, the Meson del Abuelo. Edmundo Velasquez runs horseback trips in the area; his stable is on Calle José María Morelos, near the intersection with Avenida Guadalupe Hidalgo, San Andrés Calpan's main street.
Santiago Xalitzintla also has an interesting church building.