Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Uruapan Part 3 - Paracutin volcano and the town it smothered

Paricutin volcano. Paricutin is the only volcano on earth whose birth was witnessed by people still living today. No visit to Uruapan is complete without a visit to Paricutin and the remains of San Juan Parangaricutiro, the village smothered by Paricutin's lava. The picture above was taken from a small lava-dust plateau at the base of the cinder cone.

The town of Angahuan overlooks the volcano. Angahuan lies about 24 miles (49 kilometers) north of Uruapan, off highway 37, the road on which we had traveled to Uruapan originally. The beautiful mountain drive was over excellent 2-lane blacktop roads. The town, inhabited by 35,000 Purepecha indians, is a mixture of ancient and modern. Above, Carole walks past an old wood and stone home, in a style called troje. The home was empty when we came by at mid-day. When we returned from the volcano in the evening, the structure was filled to capacity with rows of chanting Purepecha women sitting on benches and dressed in their vividly colorful finest with their heads covered by luminous blue rebozos. It was obviously a religious gathering of some sort, but whether Catholic or the old religion was hard to say. Not wanting to intrude, I refrained from taking a photo although I was sorely tempted. Just beyond the house can be seen another, this time of brick, no doubt built with money sent back by one of the many Purepechans who work north of the border.

Lolita. I couldn't resist the juxtaposition of the name on the car, representing a highly decadent western culture, with the traditional Purepecha woman, gravely trudging on her daily errands. Notice the beautiful maroon, lace-lined velvet skirt and the deep-green, hand-woven rebozo. Angahuan, founded by former slaves of the Spanish, still follows traditional courting customs. The young women are allowed to pick their spouses, but before the marriage the men "kidnap" their brides. They then reconcile with the bride's family and are forgiven as part of the ceremony. The marriage fiesta lasts a whole week.

Hard at work, wearing her finest. No matter what the activity, the Purepecha women we saw always wore beautiful clothing. This woman had just finished sweeping the street in front of her adobe home. She carries her baby in the traditional fashion, strapped to her back with her rebozo. A rebozo has got to be one of the most versatile pieces of clothing ever invented.

Martin, witness to a cataclysm. We strolled down the streets of Angahuan, uncertain of how close we might actually get to the volcano because it lies some distance down the mountainside. Everywhere we went, we were approached by men on horseback who sought to rent us horses and guides for the journey. Martin, shown above, told that he was 81 years old and had been 15 when Paricutin erupted. He was a genial old caballero (horseman), and he gracefully accepted our polite refusal of his offer with a smile and a wave. Later, I wished we had accepted. What stories he could have told us on our long journey to the cinder cone and back!

The village that was. The steeple of the church of San Juan Parangaricutiro peeps above a vast expanse of congealed lava in the center of the photo above. The dark horizonal body of land crossing just above the church is an even bigger lava flow, and behind that can be seen the ancient cinder cone of a dead volcano. Angahuan sits on a plateau above a vast valley transformed again and again by volcanic activity. The reason trojes have traditionally been favored over adobe can be seen in the pine forests that blanket the region.

Setting out on more of a ride than we expected. Carole, on her horse Canela (Cinnamon), rides beside Ernesto, our 16-year-old guide. Carole is not particularly enamored of horseback riding, to say the least. To my astonishment, she suggested we rent some mounts for the journey. When we questioned horses' owner, he told us--we thought--that the ride would be about 2 hours. It could be our poor Spanish was to blame. Or perhaps his, since Purepecha was his native tongue. Or perhaps for Purepechans, excellent horsemen all, two hours would be a snap on a journey like this. Or maybe he just fudged a little, as salespeople will, in order to make the deal. In the event, the round trip trek took us 7 hours in the saddle. Mexican saddles are made of wood, and are not overly generous with the padding. It was a long 7 hours.

A sea of volcanic sand. When we reached the bottom of the plateau, a sea of volcanic sand stretched out in all directions. In some places, the sand was gradually being covered by small pine trees. Upon close inspection, the ones above appear to have been planted rather than naturally seeded, man giving nature a helping hand as it were. In the distance, the mountains of Michoacan rise up. Many of those are of volcanic origin too. Paricutin erupted February 20, 1943, in the cornfield of Dionisio Pulido, who was plowing at the time. There was no pre-existing cinder cone. The ground simply began to split and smoke and rumble, terrifying Pulido and the other campesinos nearby who immediately rushed off to warn their neighbors. They had witnessed something no human being alive today had ever seen, the birth of an entirely new volcano.

Approaching Paricutin. Carole and Ernesto ride up the dusty trail toward the base of the Paricutin cinder cone. What made the ride so long was our need to trek completely around the long tongue of lava extending across the valley. There was no question of riding through it, since the lava is very sharp and would certainly have injured the horses. Above, we have completed that circuit and are approaching our goal. The volcanic sand was very dusty and the horses sometimes tried to edge ahead of each other to avoid having to breathe it, making for some nervous moments on narrow trails. Ernesto informed me that my mount was named "Crazy Horse" (spoken in English). He was a pretty good horse, although he had a tendency to stop and sample the vegetation along the way. When I pulled on the reins to dissuade him, he would mumble under his breath for some distance, no doubt cursing the #@%*#!! Gringo on his back.

The climb to the summit. When we got off our horses at the base of the volcano, Carole and I were so saddle-sore and stiff that we never gave a thought to climbing to the summit. We were very aware that we still needed to retrace our path, and the length of the journey was apparent at this point. Discretion is the better part of valor. As you can see above, the trail winds steeply around the cinder cone like a corkscrew. Since the entire surface of the cone is made of the same fine dust we had been riding over, it would have been a difficult climb, two steps forward, one back. In fact, most of the climbers appeared to have arrived on the back of pickup trucks which carried them quickly over the road we had taken so long to travel and right to the base of the cone. No one had mentioned pickup trucks in Angahuan.

The summit of Paricutin. Within a year of its 1943 eruption, the summit reached over 1100 feet (336 meters). By the time it stopped erupting in 1952, it had added another 88 feet to reach its present height of 1391 feet (424 meters) from base to summit. The hikers seen above have enjoyed the view and are now taking the quick way down by way of the cinder chute which runs in a straight line from the mouth of the cone to the base.

Something like ice skating. The form of transport these folks are using is called glissading. The motion is similar to that of ice skating, as one glides smoothly down the slope first on one foot and then the other. It's actually a lot of fun, certainly more fun than climbing up through the same loose sand. While a small amount of vegetation has taken root on the slopes, there is surprisingly little after 66 years.

Glissading. This hiker has almost reached the bottom. You can see his gliding motion in the picture as he raises plumes of dust. It only took a few minutes to cover a distance he toiled up over a considerable time.

The long trail back. As we headed down from the cinder cone, the valley stretched out before us to the rugged mountains in the distance. The black hump in the upper right is the tongue of lava we will have to ride around to retrace our steps. The day was crystal clear and gorgeous, and we marveled at the sweeping beauty of the country.

Dust devil. The day was windy, helping the visibility, but greatly complicating my photography. I had no drawstring on my broad-brimmed hat. The hat was essential because of the glaring sun, but it constantly threatened to blow off and once had to be retrieved by Ernesto, much to my embarrassment. So, I had to hold on to my hat and drop the reins, giving Crazy Horse his head, so I could manipulate the controls of the camera with one hand. Fortunately, Crazy Horse was very familiar with the best route and was as sure-footed as Canela. I ended up with some crazily tilted shots, but surprisingly few considering the challenges.

The steeple of San Juan Parangaricutiro church. Almost all that is left of San Juan is the ruins of the church. Another town nearby was named Paricutin, but was completely buried and the volcano took its name. The farm house behind the steeple was probably built after the volcano went dormant. I took this with a telephoto setting from the town of Angahuan. You are looking at the church from the back side.

The church, close up. The black lava is mounded up to the second-story level of the church. It was tricky getting good photos because that required moving around over heaps of huge lava boulders. Not only were some of the boulders unstable, but there was constant danger of a fall into various crevasses. And worst of all, the lava was razor sharp. A fall into the rocks even from a short distance would leave me looking like fresh hamburger. To my amazement troops of Mexicans, sometimes whole families, were clambering over the lava. One mother came by carrying a small baby in each arm. I tried not to think of what would happen if she fell.

The front of the church. The man pictured is standing in what was once probably a large stained glass window on the second floor of the church. Since my lava boulder perch was well above him, the lava must have once reached almost to the roof.

Church front from the other side. There was a whole other story below the part of the church you can see, but it could only be reached by wriggling through some narrow crevasses in the lava. This must have been quite a large church for a town as small as San Juan was once.
Looking out the former stained glass window from inside. The lava was piled up inside the church as well as outside. The final destruction of the town and the church, which occurred about a year after the initial eruption, must have been an horrific scene.

Inside the church, looking toward the back. As the lava cooled over time, it must have peeled back away from the sides of the church. You can see that the level of the lava field is actually above the walls in back. Fortunately, the townspeople had a chance to remove valuable objects prior to the final coming of the lava. Still, the loss of a town where they and their ancestors had lived for many centuries must have been a hard blow.

San Juan Parangaricutiro church glows gently in the fading light. In the background, the Paricutin cinder cone looms as a reminder of what brought the end. In fact, the townspeople return periodically to hold services in the hollow shell of the old church. In Mexico, nothing really dies.

This completes Part 3 of my Uruapan series. In the next posting, I will show the Fabrica de Hilados y Tejidos, an old textile factory that now houses a folk art center in Uruapan. I hope you enjoyed this posting. Feel free to comment either by email or in the comments section below.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Such a great posting! A friend & I just visited the volcano on Sept. 17/09. I thought I'd die climbing up to the top of the volcano!! It was so nice to see the photos & be able to have seen it before!!!


  2. Jacquey- Thanks for the comment. We didn't attempt the climb, being so sore after hours in the saddle, with the same amount of time facing our return. But it was fun to see people glissading down through the volcanic scree. Jim

  3. Thanks so much for taking this trek and posting such good pictures. We were just in Uruapan this week, and took a pass on the visit to the volcana (we are in our 60s, and were already exhausted from hiking through the beautiful national park in Uruapan.) But we were SO curious, and your pictures help to satisfy our curiosity. We almost deicded to settle in Ajijic, but now live in Bucerias, Nayarit - be sure to pay us a visit if you decide to explore in this direction.
    Karen and Jerry Knapp


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim