Mexico week 18 – Volcán Paricutin

With only a couple of weeks left in Mexico, I thought that it was about time to visit Uruapan to see Volcán Paricutin, the volcano sometimes known as ‘the world’s youngest volcano’.

We finished work on Friday evening and headed home for tacos with our friends. At 9pm, we headed for the bus station ready for our overnight bus to Uruapan. I love catching the coaches in Mexico. If you get the ‘1st class’ coaches, you get handed a drink, a snack and headphones as you board the bus, and the seats have TVs and USB connections, and they recline far enough to get some decent sleep!

We arrived into Uruapan at 6am and went straight to our hotel, who very kindly checked us in early! We spent the day exploring the city, visiting the waterfalls in the national park, ziplining through the jungle and shopping in the textiles market. We had a fantastic lunch outside the market and tipped a mariachi band to play for us!

On Sunday we got up early to get the bus to Angahuan, one of the towns once affected by the volcano, which now benefits from the tourism that has grown from interest in the volcano. We were directed to the tourist centre, where we had a fantastic breakfast of Mexican Chilaquiles overlooking the volcanic landscape! We hired a guide and horses to ride across the surrounding farms, to the base of the volcanic cone. Lava flows cover much of the area surrounding the volcano, but the local people have continued to farm around the sea of dark rocks.

Climbing to the crater was steep and ash-y, but relatively short and not as hard as other volcanoes I have climbed! The highest point reaches 2800m above sea level, but the cone stands about 400m above the surrounding valley floor. The view from the top is spectacular – you can see many of the other volcanic feature that lie throughout central Mexico in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, a band of volcanic activity stretching across the width of central Mexico. The volcano is now dormant, but small fumaroles still steam away! It’s incredible to think that this volcano grew from a field to a several hundred meter high cone in only a few years…

On February 20, 1943, at about 4:00 PM local time, a local farmer, Dionisio Pulido, was clearing his field ready for spring planting. He noticed that there was a crack in one of his fields. This crack began to steam and hiss, and right before his eyes, the ground began to swell.

“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.”

“I then became greatly frightened and I tried to help unyoke one of the ox teams. I was so stunned I hardly knew what to do . . . or what to think . . . and I couldn’t find my wife, or my son, or my animals. At last I came to my senses and I remembered the sacred Lord of the Miracles. I shouted out ‘Blessed Lord of the Miracles, you brought me into this world — now save me!’ . . . . I looked into the fissure where the smoke was rising and my fear disappeared for the first time. I ran to see if I could save my family, my companions and my oxen, but I could not see them and I thought that they must have taken the oxen to the spring for water. I saw that there was no water in the spring . . . and I thought the water had gone because of the fissure. I was very frightened, and I mounted my mare and galloped to Paricutin where I found my wife and son and friends waiting for me. They were afraid that I was dead and that they would never see me again.”

Within the first 24 hours, the eruption had produced a 50m high cone made out of lapilli (small and light, pebble sized volcanic rocks) and lava bombs.

9 years of volcanic activity buried two towns and three other towns suffered damage and disruption. An area of around 233 km2 suffered severe damage or destruction, including much agricultural land. Almost all of the surrounding vegetation was destroyed. Basaltic lava flows covered an area of 26km2 – the equivalent of 38 football pitches. Of the two towns buried beneath lava, the only visible trace is the remains the church of San Juan Parangaricutiro, whose towers stand tall above the mounds of lava.

Two new towns had to be built to accommodate all of those displaced by the eruption. Camps set up near Uruapan provided shelter for refugees until more permanent settlements were built. Some people moved away from the area to start new lives elsewhere. It is said that before leaving his land for the final time, Pulido placed a sign on his land; ‘This volcano is owned and operated by Dionisio Pulido’.

The eruption of the Paricutin scoria cone is important to scientists. It presented the first opportunity to study the full life cycle of such a volcano, from birth to death, which is why it is sometimes known as the ‘world’s youngest volcano’ – although this may not be strictly accurate!

AN: Thanks to Alex, Victor and Yvonne for many of these fantastic photos!

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