Admittedly, math and science aren’t my thing. Merely the fact that I consider them the same thing shows just how not my thing they are. But even my meager science knowledge is enough to know that giant holes in the earth that shoot fire into the sky until they form mountains are pretty cool scientific thingies and must be pretty cool to look at. So when we heard that there was a very famous fire shooter called the Paricutin Volcano within driving distance of Patzcuaro, well we knew we had to go take a look. And while not currently shooting fire into the sky or spewing hot magma everywhere, it used to. A lot. So much that it left behind a mountain, a story of the end of the world, miracles, dancing and a church that was swallowed up by lava and then reemerged. Yep, we definitely had to go check this place out.
So a couple days ago we hopped in the car and drove about 2 hours to the teeny, tiny, remote town of Angahuan, Mexico which is the nearest surviving town to the volcano and the best place to embark upon a visit to Particutin. I’m pretty sure that we found the middle of nowhere. I mean this place is out there, and besides a few small towns and this giant crater on top of a mountain of ash, well, there isn’t much else around. So when two people pull into town with Kansas license plates on their car, well it’s pretty obvious why we were there. It didn’t take long to attract some attention and we almost immediately met Enrique who we agreed to hire to be our guide for the day. It’s not feasible to drive too close to the volcano since the cinder and ash would leave your wheels spinning and the sharp lava would probably just break them off. So we parked our car, gathered our belongings and prepared to start a long and arduous hike. But Enrique had other ideas in mind.
Yes, Enrique expected these two gringos who haven’t been on the back of a horse in more than 20 some odd years to traverse the tricky terrain of volcanic ash and lava on top of one of these caballos. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised, horses are a very popular way to get around in parts of Mexico, particularly some of the smaller, more rural towns and we’ve frequently had to share the road with them. Because we are incredibly adventurous (or stupidly naive) gringos and didn’t want to disappoint Enrique, we went ahead and hopped aboard (that’s the proper horsey terminology, right?) fully aware that this could go very, very poorly. So we nervously took the reins and our lives in our hands and headed out.
When I say the town of Angahuan is remote, I mean it. Until recently, when the emergence of the volcano started to bring some tourism to this area, this was an isolated region where most of the people didn’t even speak Spanish. The indigenous people of the area are of Purépecha descent (known as Tarascans in Spanish) and their native language, conveniently called Purépecha, is what’s spoken here. This is important and I mention it because Enrique does speak some Spanish but his first language is Purépecha. Our first language is English but we also speak some Spanish. That means overall I think I understood about 25% of what he was telling us, Jason thinks he understood about 75-80% and so everything I’m about to tell you could be 100% true or I just made the whole thing up. Either way, it’s a pretty good story.
According to Enrique the origin of Paricutin Volcano began on February 20, 1943. That day a farmer was out tending to his cornfield when the ground began to shake and rumble before literally opening up in front of him and begin to rise straight up into the air spewing gray ash and a horrible stench. He had no idea what was happening and thought it was the end of the world so he took off running towards town (can’t blame the guy) to warn his family and the other townspeople. They continued to watch his cornfield grow and grow and grow, eventually reaching more than 1,000 feet tall at the end of the first year. And this? Well, this is what makes the Parcutin volcano so incredibly special. This was the first time that the formation of a volcano from the very beginning was witnessed by human eyes. Volcanic eruptions are pretty common, but the birth of a volcano had never happened before in modern times. This obviously attracted quite a bit of excited scientific attention as well as curiosity from the people in the surrounding areas. Enrique told us that the people were grateful to have the scientists come and explain that it was not, in fact, the end of the world. I imagine that was quite a relief and I guess those people who understand and can explain math and science stuff are good for something after all.
The volcano erupted many times over the next eight years totally wiping out two nearby villages (thankfully the people had warning and were all safe) and totally decimating all the structures in the area except one – San Juan Parangaricutiro Church. Yep, currently rising out of the massive mounds of hardened lava in the absolute middle of nowhere is this massive cathedral. Sure it’s missing some doors, and walls, and floors and a congregation (maybe because it’s so hard to get to) but it’s still easily identifiable as a place of worship. It’s almost like you’re crossing the desert and see this mirage in the distance. But in this case, it’s real.
From Angahuan, it’s about a 40-45 minute horse ride, depending on how pokey your horse is, to the church that sits close to the base of Paricutin Volcano. Originally built in 1618, this was no neighborhood church. It was the place of worship for the people from surrounding towns and was the regional diocese of the Catholic church. When the lava flowed it eventually stopped about 3/4 of the way up the church walls. While passing through the lava you can see bits and pieces of stone structures that are barely recognizable as homes, but really only parts of the church survived. For years, the church was too covered in lava to get to but it’s spires could still be seen for miles. Eventually the lava cooled and some locals were able to dig it out just enough to get to the building. These days it’s not easy to get to, but put on your hiking shoes and some bravado and you can make it there.
Remember how I said that we either understood almost everything Enrique said or nothing? That is especially important to remember as I relate this next story he told us.
Thankfully, the eruption of Paricutin was a fairly slow one and it took a while for the lava to reach the village and church, giving the people time to remove most of their valuables and flee the scene. One of the most valuable items in the village was the “Cristo” statue hanging above the altar in the church and obviously he needed to be moved out of the way of the oncoming lava flow. But when the people went to move the statue of the saint, well he wouldn’t budge. Many strong men came and tried to lift him but to no avail, he simply wouldn’t move. I feel it’s important to point out at this point that this wasn’t a life-sized bronzed sculpture or something. It was a 3 foot tall wooden statue. 3 feet tall. Made of wood. But he just couldn’t be moved.
The townspeople finally figured out that the saint was incredibly sad because he was being forced to leave his home and was just being stubborn and that was why they couldn’t move him. What to do? Well they had to figure out a way to cheer him up right? And what better way to cheer somebody up than with dance! So, the people started to do a dance for the statue and lo and behold, he cheered right up and they were able to lift him. It was a miracle! Now whenever they move the statue around, which they do from time to time for events and festivals, well they have to do the dance or he’s still too heavy to move. Okay, I have so, so, so many questions about this story. Did they try other things first to cheer up the saint like tell jokes or sing a song before figuring out they had to dance? Who figured out what the right dance moves were? Is our Spanish that bad that we totally misunderstood the whole story? Since Enrique showed us the actual dance moves, I’m thinking not.
After exploring the church, climbing up and over and sliding down some slick lava we headed back to our rides. Since we weren’t walking funny yet it seems Enrique thought we hadn’t had enough horse time and so he took us on a trail ride that gave us a closer view of Paricutin and showed us some more of the destruction that the volcano caused. This is also the route that the statue is danced along during the annual pilgrimage each year where homage is paid to the volcano and shrines are erected along the route to acknowledge various saints and stations of the cross.
Not too long ago Paricutin Volcano was labeled one of the Natural Seven Wonders of the World by CNN. I have no idea what that means, except that hopefully it will encourage more people to check this place out. While Enrique said they occasionally feel rumblings in the ground and Paricutin burps smoke, the volcano has been dormant since 1952. So you can visit without the fear of being swallowed up by flowing hot magma. The whole time we were there we saw only a handful of other people and that’s a shame because the volcano and the church emerging from the middle of a lava flow are amazing. And well, you don’t really see that everyday. Well maybe you do, I certainly don’t. Seeing the result of such an awesome force of nature up close and how it affected the surrounding people and environment is an incredibly powerful thing. Seems I don’t need science or math to tell me that. But if they can somehow clue me in on how dancing works to help move a statue, well I’d sure appreciate that.