Volcan Paricutin

I had been thinking about continuing down the coast to Acapulco before turning inland, but I’ve been on the beach or in the desert for so long it’s time for something different. I head east out of Puerto Vallarta up into the mountains toward Guadalajara. The road climbs quickly up over 5,000′ and the change in temperature is dramatic, from 95 to 75 in a few hours.

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It finally feels like fall. All of the little farms along the way are harvesting their crops.

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Skirting the huge city of Guadalajara I find a very nice campground on the shores of Lago de Chapala. Next day on to the little mountain town of Anaghuan near the Volcan Paricutin.

This volcano appeared in 1943, when a farmer plowing his fields saw the ground crack in front of him, then smoke, steam, and eventually lava erupted. The volcano grew to 1,400′ while lava flows engulfed the towns of Paricutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro. Luckily of the villagers it was slow moving and everybody was able to evacuate safely. The only trace left of these towns is parts of San Juan Parangaricutiro Church which still stand in the lava fields.

There is a large visitor center just outside the town of Angahuan, which is where I plan to camp for a couple of days. It’s a short walk to the church ruins from the visitor center, but if you want to go to the volcano you need a guide as the route is not marked. Turns out I have no trouble finding a guide, as I am bumping along the cobblestoned streets of Angahuan a guide comes galloping up on his horse and trots alongside me through the town. I tell him I would like to hike up to the volcano rather than going on horseback, but it seems like he doesn’t want to walk all that way. He says it’s $500MX to walk with a guide or $600MX for a guide and two horses, and the trip is about 8-9 hours walking or 6 hours on horseback. I sign up for the horseback tour leaving a 8am tomorrow. Just after I get set up in the campsite it starts to rain, which feels strange as it’s been over 6 weeks since I have seen any rain. The visitor center is at around 7,900′ so it got a little chilly at night. I could also feel the elevation, having spent a long time at basically sea level, so horseback option may be the best way to go.

Next morning is clear but chilly. My guide Rodrigo meets me with our horses and we set off towards the volcano, over many unmarked back roads and trails following the edge of the huge lava fields. Steam rises from vents all around the volcano.

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After about 2 hours riding we arrive at the base of the volcano. Surprisingly, Rodrigo stays with me the whole way. All of the reviews I’ve read on this trip say that the official guide will sign you up and set out with you, then after the first half mile or so will turn you over to an 11 year old boy for the rest of the trip. I guess because it’s a slow period I get the official guide for the full trip.

These vents are very hot and you can hear the steam whistling out of them.

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There is a kind of a trail going up the side of the volcano from the gate at the bottom, but Rodrigo sneers at it, saying something like “Oh that’s for tourists.” Instead we head pretty much straight uphill. It’s steep and slow going as the volcano is mostly loose ash with rocks so you slide back every third step. After a couple of rest stops we arrive at the crater rim, the high point of the rim is at 9,200′. Plenty of hissing steam vents all along here as well.

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The volcano hasn’t erupted since 1952 so there is no seething pool of lava inside the crater.

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Walking around the crater rim I can see the smoking lava fields stretching out in all directions. Somewhere under there are two towns.

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This is the way down, from the highest point on the crater rim down the steepest slope. You can see the buildings of the gate below. It’s kind of a chute going about 1,000′ straight down, filled with loose volcanic ash. The idea is you take a big step, land in the loose ash and kind of boot ski down 6 or 8 feet at a time. Just have to keep your balance.

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It goes pretty quickly, Rodrigo stops me about half way down for an action shot. It probably took about 4 minutes to go all the way down, much quicker than the way up.

Back on the horses, about an hour and a half back to the famous San Juan Parangaricutiro Church. There is a good paved trail from the visitor center but the last hundred yards or so you have to thread your way through the lava fields. The places where you step are worn down from thousands of people walking through but the rest is all razor sharp lava.

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It’s quite a sight, it seems like something from a movie set. All that is left is the front of the church with its bell tower and the second story window. The second bell tower on the left was under construction when the volcano erupted and was never finished.

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At the other end of the church the altar is almost completely swallowed by lava, you have to walk down into a little grotto to see the altar.

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Back on the horses for the last time, it’s only about 30 minutes more back to the visitor center. I have ridden horses before but this one is very uncomfortable. The saddle is small and hard as a rock, and for some reason my horse keeps wanting to break into a trot. So I have to keep reining him in, every 30 seconds or so, for four hours. Even when he’s walking it’s not a smooth walk, a little bouncier than I would have preferred. When I hop off at the end my butt is very sore, and for some reason my knees as well.

Camped for a second night at the visitor center, no rain but it got pretty cold as the sun set. They have a good restaurant right there so no need to hike back into Angahuan for dinner.

The cemetery in Angahuan decorated for Dias de Muertos

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