Thursday, January 10, 2008

Volcán de Parícutin

Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms...No prize for guessing what am I talking about. Natural calamities. Among all these, I feel volcanic eruptions stand out odd. It first destroys its proximity and then makes it more arable and useful for the mankind. I happened to witness one such volcano, listed among the seven natural wonders of the world - Parícutin.

Parícutin is located in the central Mexican state of Michoacan, about 320Km west of Mexico city. Drive westwards from Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, on Mex14 highway crossing cities of Patzcuaro and Uruapan. Steer towards the road which reads Carapan after crossing Uruapan and keep driving until you find Los Reyes deviation on to the left. There you find the board "Volcán de Parícutin", deviate and keep driving till you reach the village of Angahuan. Angahuan is a tiny colonial village with cobblestoned roads, smelling horse and dust. People are indigenous Purépechas and ladies wear traditional dresses of long gowns, covering their head with shawls. One can reach the base of the volcano by feet, drive ATVs or to get colonial feel, mount on a horse back. Angahuan is the place where you can rent horses to reach Parícutin, it costs 250 pesos per person and you've to pay for the guide and his horse.

The horse journey takes nearly two hours, it's exciting, it's adventurous and it could get wild and wicked if the horse is crazy. The initial part is mostly descent, the path is quite stony and canopied by sparse forests. As you continue to the valley, the volcano starts revealing itself as a distant flat topped mountain, the valley houses farms of avocados, peaches and corn and has a deposition of black ash of the lava. Before I continue my journey, let me digress a bit for the interesting story of Parícutin...

On 20th February of 1943 a Tarascan farmer by name Dionisio Pulido witnessed his corn field fissuring and oozing out ashes with the smell of rotten eggs. The reek of the ashes was due to the sulphur present inside the earth which marked the beginning of the volcanic eruption. Pulido and other farmers fled. An intense pyroclastic phase of the volcano was initiated and the cinder cone volcano began to grow spilling out molten lava, which resulted in destruction of neighbouring village of Parícutin (after which the volcano is christened) and San Juan Parangaricutiro. For the next nine long years, it kept erupting with varied intensity, the second most furious eruption took place in 1949 which killed nearly 1000 mortals. This monogenetic volcano reached it's end in 1952. It's a part of 1100Km long Trans-Mexican volcanic belt which contains about 1400 volcanic vents. What makes this volcano stand out from others, is the fact that this volcano was witnessed right from its conception on cornfield to extinction after 9 years of pyroclastic activity, attaining a grandiloquent height of 458m.

Back to where I was...
The horseback journey is a picturesque one containing a splendid view of the valley with black ash covered mountains all around. There are ample farm houses and you witness farmers loading trucks with avocados and other produce. There are a few small shops selling juices, tender coconuts and cervezas (beers). The guide told me that the language spoken there is not Spanish but a dialect called P'urhépecha which was the official language of pre-Columbian Tarascan state. The final stretch of the journey, which most horses dislike, is an ascent over a black ash covered mountain. My horse was reluctant to climb and started acting mad, I had to dismount from it to avoid a dusty fall. The horses go uptil the foot of the volcano from where the volcano looks marvelously majestic.

The mountain is made up of black volcanic screes that make the climbing a Herculean task, for every step you keep you slide down twice. Numerous small but active volcanoes surround this gigantic mountain, letting out hot sulphurous fumes. The stones are warm and at certain places, it's hot enough to fry an egg. We passed through these tiny gas holes by foot and started ascending the volcano. It takes nearly 30 minutes if you're fit enough for the climb, the dark, dead and dusty crater starts revealing itself when you're almost on top. Certain smoky joints are still alive inside the crater, but as a whole the volcano is extinct. A quick walk on the periphery of the crater is not all that bad idea, hardly takes 10 minutes. From the summit you happen to witness the valley which is almost deserted by the dirty ashes and screes of the volcano with few places oozing out faint white smoke. The descent is quite exciting too, start running down the groove containing the volcanic ash and you're at bottom in less than 5 minutes. The ash bed is pretty much like a quicksand and it requires some effort to pull the foot out of it while running down.

Without wasting much time, we headed towards the cathedral of San Juan Parangaricutiro on our way back. We had noticed the spire of this cathedral during onward journey, but now was the time to explore that. This cathedral was destroyed by Parícutin during its pyroclastic days, all that remains now is just the spire and the adjoining wall among volcanic rocks all around.The church still proudly stands tall with the back drop of the great destroyer itself, Parícutin. Surrounding churches are small shops selling souvenirs and eat-outs dishing out typical and tasty Mexican cuisine.

It takes another 20 minutes to return to Angahuan from San Juan parangaricutiro village. The twilight was already diminishing with the dark curtain of night. We thanked and tipped the guide and started back with the pride of having witnessed for the first time one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

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