The town of San Juan Quemado (Saint John the Burnt) wasn’t always known this way. At one time, it was just the little agricultural town of San Juan the not burnt. But in 1943, a farmer named Dionisio Pulido was working in his cornfield and noticed a large crack in the earth at the top of a small hill. Within the day, the hill turned into a volcanic cone 50 meters high. Within four months, the cone had reached 200 meters.
Pulido later told the press:
At 4 p.m., I left my wife to set fire to a pile of branches when I noticed that a crack, which was situated on one of the knolls of my farm, had opened . . . and I saw that it was a kind of fissure that had a depth of only half a meter. I set about to ignite the branches again when I felt a thunder, the trees trembled, and I turned to speak to Paula; and it was then I saw how, in the hole, the ground swelled and raised itself 2 or 2.5 meters high, and a kind of smoke or fine dust — grey, like ashes — began to rise up in a portion of the crack that I had not previously seen . . . Immediately more smoke began to rise with a hiss or whistle, loud and continuous; and there was a smell of sulfur.
Paricutin proceeded to erupt for more than 9 years, emitting slow-morning lava and volcanic ash that reached as far as Mexico City. A volcano that formed over the course of a few months, erupted for years, and now is a tourist attraction? Noah and I were in.
“I felt a thunder, the trees trembled, and I turned to speak to Paula; and it was then I saw how, in the hole, the ground swelled and raised itself”
Lonely Planet says you need to be sauntering out of home base in Angahuan (the closest town to Paricutin) by 9 in the morning if you wanted to do it on foot. It’s an hour-long bus ride to Angahuan from Uruapan, and by 7:57, we were walking into the bus station, just in time to sneak onto the 8 o’clock bus, donut in hand.
With just a handful of locals on the bus headed for Los Reyes, an older gentleman in front of us was the only other foreigner. About ten minutes into the bus ride, he turned around to ask us if we were going to climb the volcano and we had met our hiking companion.
Peter is a a thin 56-year-old artist from outside Amsterdam. He’s traveling Mexico for three months – a luxury that working for himself can provide. His grey hair is cut short and combed back. When we met him, he was wearing a big shawl-necked gray fleece, which he quickly discarded as he stripped down to a t-shirt in the hot morning sun in the lava fields. An avid hiker and smoker, we took our breaks along the way to “let the old man have a smoke.”
Once off the bus, we were hotly pursued by a middle-aged local on a horse – working to convince us that we did not want to hike up the mountain but instead we should ride one of his horses there and back. Unpersuaded by the horses but still in need of a guide, we were passed of to this guy’s much younger counterpart, Raphael. Raphael is 19 years-old, a local to Paricutin, and in his last year of secondary school. Next year, he will go to university about 50km away to study accounting. I asked him if he would come back to Paricutin afterwards. He said he would. When I asked if it would be to work in the tourism industry, he smiled but did not reply. Raphael was not a day-to-day guide – saying he only led trips to the volcano de vez en cuando.
That Raphael didn’t do this often showed as he kept a significant distance ahead of us as we hiked through the lava fields and up the volcano – trying to return to town as soon as he could. This was especially hard on Peter and he called Raphael out for it, noting that we had more than 9 hours until dark and were already ahead of pace. Raphael slowed his pace but would stay still a hundred yards ahead of us when we would take breaks.
For a day that had been forecast to rain most of the time, we had beautiful weather. Big white clouds (and some grey ones) provided some shelter from the beaming sun and added some texture to the bright blue sky.
We began hiking through pine forests until we emerged at a vast lava field – strewn with huge boulders of lava rock that we would soon be hopping across. By taking the via recto to the top of Paricutin, we opted for a shorter but much more rigorous 3-kilometer climb followed by a more meandering 7-kilometer return on the via larga. Boulder hopping across the lava field felt akin to being on the moon. The dark-grey rock covered everything and the ground was dark gray sand, with a few scraggly trees and bushes that had managed to break through.
“Burst like golden marigolds, and a rain like artificial fire fell to the ground.”
Reaching the top, we could see the expanse of Paricutin’s eruption. The avocado farms and pine that drive the region’s industry were just beginning to reappear. The half-century old destruction was still fresh enough to imagine the another witness’ vivid report on the eruption: “We heard noises like the surge of the sea, and red flames of fire rose into the darkened sky, some rising 800 meters or more into the air, that burst like golden marigolds, and a rain like artificial fire fell to the ground.”
The whole reason to hike up Paricutin is to take the 2-minute run down. After the balls-deep run through the ash, I met up with Raphael. While we were cleaning the ash out of our shoes and socks, an older man – very thin with blue jeans, oversized shoes, a checkered shirt, and a belt with more than a few extra holes – began asking Raphael for something. I tried to understand but quickly realized that they weren’t speaking Spanish. Natives of the region speak purepecha, their native language, which bears no resemblance to Spanish or anything else. The name Paricutin comes from purepecha and the man was asking for 15 pesos per climber (75 cents each) to help clean up the area of all thew trash the tourists leave. Peter, Noah, and I scrounge together some pocket change and hand it to the man. He thanks us warmly and, in return, gives us a receipt thanking us for supporting the volcano.
By 1952, the Paricutin had left a 424 meter high cone and significantly damaged a 233 km2 area with the ejection of stone, ash and lava. Three people were killed, two towns were completely evacuated and buried by lava and three others were heavily affected. Hundreds of people had to be permanently relocated, with two new towns created to accommodate the migration of people. What was left was the hardened-lava covered ruins of the San Juan Parangaricutiro Church. Nearly burned to the ground, the lava left just a few windows and the church’s alternative untouched.
Now covered in graffiti with Mexican families drinking beer and taking selfies among the church’s ruins, one might question that CNN has named it one of their Seven Natural Wonders of the World. That said, it was still pretty damn cool.
Not dallying there too long, we continued to the base for a well-deserved Corona in the shade. Noah, Peter and I were insanely
sunburned after the long walk back. The one colectivo that ran by was full so we took a shared taxi back into town – a much quicker ride.