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Here’s the thing about Desierto de Los Leones National Park.
There are no maps, the trails are unmarked, and the campsites look like I would 100% be murdered there if I decided to spend the night.
I also found some true moments of peace and beauty in Desierto de Los Leones as well, something that’s hard to come by in a city of almost 20 million people!
Everyone visiting Mexico City should take a day to visit the Ex Convento Desierto de Los Leones and walk for at least a few minutes in the rugged hills of Southern Mexico City. If you’re an active traveler and have the stamina, you can climb Cerro San Miguel – the tallest mountain in the national park – as well!
This guide covers:
- Why you should visit Desierto de Los Leones National Park
- How to get to Desierto de Los Leones National Park from Mexico City (without a car)
- Where to eat in the park
- How to visit the Ex Convento Desierto de Los Leones
- How to climb Cerro San Miguel
- How to return to Mexico City
- and much more!
Ready to get started? Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about Desierto de Los Leones National Park and then add it to your Mexico City travel itinerary!
Ex Convento Desierto de Los Leones in the morning mist
Why Visit Desierto de Los Leones National Park
Desierto de Los Leones is notable because it’s the oldest protected biosphere in Mexico – it was named a national reserve in 1876 and a national park 41 years later in 1917.
It covers 4,610 acres and the park’s highest peak, Cerro San Miguel, rises to a dizzying 12,434 feet above sea level! The hilly terrain is home to the Ex Convent of Desierto de Los Leones and scattered hermitages from the monks who lived there as far back as the early 1600s.
Despite the name, there are no lions in Desierto de Los Leones (Desert of the Lions) National Park and it’s definitely not a dry sandy wasteland – instead, it hosts miles of trails through cool lush forests often shrouded by mist (ok, and sometimes smog as well). The name comes from the Leon family that helped the Carmelite monks secure the area and build their now-abandoned convent on the land.
Desierto de Los Leones is beautiful, fresh, full of history, and a great place to escape the crowds and stress of Mexico City. Plus, it’s located only a quick 40-minute ride from the heart of the city!
Go early to get the convent and surrounding gardens almost completely to yourself
How to Get to Desierto de Los Leones National Park
The best way to get to Desierto de Los Leones from Mexico City is by Uber.
Because Mexico City is so huge, ride times and costs will vary based on where you live. From the popular Roma and Condesa neighborhoods where many tourists and visitors stay (and where I’m living for six weeks) the trip will take about 40 minutes and cost about 180 mxn / 9.50 usd.
Just be careful dropping your pin when you call the Uber because there is a site called the Convento del Desierto de Los Leones in Northern Mexico City that’s definitely not correct! You need to go to the Ex Convento Desierto de Los Leones in Southwestern Mexico City instead. Two very different places!
Click here to see the Ex Convento on Google Maps and double-check your location before you go.
Cheerful vibes at El Leon Dorado restaurant
Where to Eat in Desierto de Los Leones
I knew I wanted to get to the park early both to visit the convent before the crowds and to get a head start on our hike up Cerro San Miguel, but I didn’t know that the convent doesn’t open until 10 am.
So, we had about 30 minutes to kill before we could start our day and decided to get breakfast in the park. There are a lot of restaurants and small market stalls to choose from to get food, and most of them were just opening – so, if you arrive any earlier than 9 or 9:30 don’t expect to be able to buy food.
We chose the colorful and cute El Leon Dorado restaurant mostly for the atmosphere and the windows with a pretty view. The food was pretty much what I’d expect at a tourist site (aka nothing super memorable) but it was hot and tasty and got the job done.
Predictably, it was a bit more expensive than its counterpart would be down in Mexico City but there were still some good finds on the menu. I got sopes for 80 mxn / 4.20 usd and coffee for 20 mxn / 1 usd. Larger meals like chilaquiles or enchiladas cost closer to 150 or 200 mxn / 8 to 10 usd.
The manicured grounds are the true highlight of the convent
How to Visit Ex Convento Desierto de Los Leones
Ex Convento Desierto de Los Leones is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm. Entrance costs 17 mxn / 1 usd per person and gave us access to the outer grounds and the interior of the convent.
It’s incredibly photogenic. To get the best photos, arrive right when it opens at 10 am both to see the mists still hovering over the church and gardens and to have the best chance of snapping pics before the crowds descend.
When we went there was a small art exhibition and some info on signs (in Spanish only) describing the different rooms and gardens, but I recommend reading up on the history a bit before you go especially if you don’t speak Spanish.
Plan to spend around an hour in the convent. My favorite part of the convent was the back garden that was honestly so peaceful and serene I felt like I could meditate there for 100 years.
But I got stuff to do, so we set off to climb Cerro San Miguel instead.
View from the top of Cerro El Caballete, about 30 minutes from the peak of Cerro San Miguel
How to Climb Cerro San Miguel
Ok, we didn’t actually make it to the peak of Cerro San Miguel.
But hear me out!
On the climb up Cerro San Miguel (the tallest peak in Desierto de Los Leones) the trail also crests Cerro El Caballete (which you can see above). From here I could see the peak of Cerro San Miguel was a straight shot ahead, about 30 minutes to an hour walking, but we opted not to do it mostly because we were tired but I’ll blame it out on the impending rain instead.
Still, I had such a difficult time finding any information about climbing Cerro San Miguel online before we went that I still want to share our climb, our mistakes, some tips, and anything else I wish I had known before we set out to help the hikers that come after me.
Starting our hike in the forests of Desierto de Los Leones
1. Be prepared.
Our round-trip trek from the convent to the top of El Caballete and back ended up taking a bit more than five hours – mostly because we got lost for around an hour on the way down. If you plan to go to San Miguel as well I think a five-hour round-trip is the minimum it’ll take (but probably longer).
We walked about 11 miles (based on my iPhone health tracker) and ascended around 1500 feet (again based on my probably-somewhat-inaccurate iPhone health tracker).
I recommend bringing:
- Snacks or a packed lunch
- Two bottles of water per person
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Sturdy hiking boots
- Jacket (the weather and temperature changes quickly in the mountains)
- Umbrella or raincoat
This is some of my favorite hiking gear that I almost always take along with me.
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We saw a few other hikers and bikers on our climb, but the trail was definitely not crowded and we were the only ones on the peak.
All of this information is to say that you should go in prepared, especially because this is a high altitude trek (which is easy to forget in Mexico City) and you may get tired more quickly than you expect.
Looking back from the start of the San Miguel trail (on the left) at the horses, parking lot, and convent in the distance. From here, we turned and followed it up the mountain.
2. Find the San Miguel trailhead.
Can you believe I couldn’t even find this information online?!
One hiker on Wikiloc said he started the trek behind the convent, so Dan and I began by heading in the complete opposite direction.
We ran into a volunteer organization called Vitalis planting trees in the forest and stopped to help for an hour before they oh-so-helpfully pointed us in the right direction. So we ended up starting our climb up Cerro San Miguel at noon but you should try to begin as early as possible – the park opens at 8 am – to avoid rain and get the best views from the peak before the smog rolls in.
Start your climb up Cerro San Miguel behind the horses.
In front of the convent, you will see a large parking lot wrapping around a hillside. At the top of the parking lot there are horses to ride and behind the horses, there is a wide trail (that almost looks like it’s paved, but it’s not) that heads into the woods and up the mountain.
It’s not labeled at all (none of the trails in Desierto de Los Leones are) but this is the starting point for the climb up San Miguel mountain.
One of many frustrating points on the climb where the trail splits three ways with no markers
3. When in doubt, keep going up.
This trail will drive you crazy. It splits and turns and dead ends so many times but we made it to the top by asking every mountain biker and hiker that we passed by if we were heading in the right direction, and by always going up.
I think there are many different ways to get to the top, but I’ll tell you what we did if you want to try and follow our confused footsteps.
We came to the split shown above about 25 minutes into the hike and chose the middle path to continue going up.
15 minutes later, the trail dead-ends again – we turned left and after a few minutes we found another split where we could continue up again.
About 15 minutes later the trail split again and we chose the path on the right going upwards.
Finally, we came to our last major non-obvious “dead-end” where we had to choose right or left and though a third path did seem to go vaguely uphill it didn’t look well worn enough to be worth the risk. We went right (thanks to the advice from some friendly bikers) and the path started to get really rocky.
Trail final stretch of the trail leading to the peak of El Caballete mountain
4. Summit El Caballete Mountain.
About 1.5 hours into the hike we finally started to emerge over the tree line and get our first views of the park, the rolling mountains, and Mexico City wearing her coy coat of smog below us.
From your first real views to the top of Cerro El Caballete you have about one hour of strenuous hiking ahead. So, take a break here and take a few photos before you really break a sweat!
Now the path was super rocky beneath our feet and got steeper and steeper. We came to one final split (I know I said we were done with those already, I’m sorry) but it was super obvious because one option went basically straight up and the other straight down – obviously, you’re taking the trail on the left that goes up!
Power through this and you’ll get to a shady, flat section (just for a few minutes) until the climb gets even steeper. Keep going and you’ll finally be rewarded with a false summit and sweeping views in both directions.
Congrats, you made it through the toughest part of the hike!
Take a break, take in the views, and then take a sharp right (the trail to the top of Cerro El Caballete will be obvious by now) and walk the final 15-minute stretch to the peak.
To get from the convent to the peak of El Caballete the climb took me (a pretty-average-maybe-somewhat-on-the-slow-side hiker) about 2.5 hours.
360 degree view from El Caballete peak. It’s always smoggy in the afternoon, so try to go as early as possible for the clearest/best views!
5. Make the final push to Cerro San Miguel.
If you want, you can make the final push to the peak of Cerro San Miguel from here.
It has a watchtower for wildfires, so you will be able to clearly see it straight ahead of you. The trail looks like a straight shot and I would estimate it takes another 30 minutes to an hour to reach it from El Caballete.
If we had started our climb earlier in the day I probably would have went for it, but by then it was already 3 pm and I decided to give it a pass this time around. Plus, the views were so beautiful from the El Caballete peak that I really didn’t feel like I was missing out on much!
San Miguel peak from El Caballete peak – you can just barely make out the watchtower in this photo but it’s easy to see when you’re on the mountain
6. Descend the mountain.
The peak was windy and gray clouds were rolling in, so while I would have liked to enjoy a picnic or just a nice rest break, we turned around and headed down the mountain again pretty quickly.
My advice for your descent back to the convent is to retrace your steps carefully.
I wasn’t being too attentive and we quickly found ourselves on a trail going down that I definitely didn’t recognize from the way up. But I thought as long as I take trails going down, I’m good and we’ll make it back to the convent no problem.
We got lost for an hour.
Eventually, we came across a campsite and a kind family pointed us to a road we could follow out to the road that leads away from the convent, which we were then we able to follow back to the convent.
Besides the campers, we also saw a cop car making a patrol through the park, so it’s not like you’ll get totally lost and die in the wilderness if you end up on the wrong trail, but it’s still good to avoid the scenario.
The trails aren’t marked and there are so many of them and there is no cell service so, so retrace your steps carefully making all the same turns you made on the way up and you should get to the convent in no time!
Congrats, you completed the hike up El Caballete and San Miguel, so rest your feet and relax before heading back to Mexico City from Desierto de Los Leones.
Dreaming of the pizza I’m going to eat once I get off this dang mountain
How to Get From Desierto de Los Leones to Mexico City
Luckily, returning to Mexico City is super easy.
I was nervous after reading that Desierto de Los Leones National Park a cell phone dead zone (it is) and some vague info about buses that run on weekends and not on weekdays but it’s 2019 baby and Uber is here to solve all our transportation woes.
Go to one of the restaurants for a snack/beer/coffee/dinner and connect to their wifi – as you start walking by them servers will give you a menu and ask you to come inside, ask them if they have wifi and you’re good to go. It seemed like most of them did.
Then, call an Uber once you eat/drink whatever you want to eat/drink (I think they’d give you the wifi password even if you don’t want to sit down and spend money) and remember to be careful about where you drop your pin.
We had no problem getting our ride picked up on the first try.
Remember that this is a cell phone dead zone though, which means the GPS will have trouble tracking your driver once he gets into the park and before he arrives at the convent. It may look like your driver stopped at the point where he loses service but really it’s just not tracking him correctly. Go to the place you dropped your pin and look for the car – chances are its actually arrived and the app just hasn’t caught up yet.
Then, get your ass back to Mexico City for some pizza, tacos, mezcal, tequila, beer – whatever you want to reward yourself with after this hike. You deserve it.
Looking for more adventures? Explore the Mexico Series for tons of content on the country and check out this guide to three more easy-to-reach hikes in Mexico City including one that will take you past active volcanoes!