The birth of a volcano

The birth of a volcano

February 2023

After saying goodbye to the Pacific, we headed for the colonial cities of central Mexico. We still had some 600 kilometers ahead of us and until then, a number of highlights awaited us.

Laguna Santa Maria del Oro is situated in a volcanic cone. The lake is beautiful and many birds were chirping around us. Unfortunately, we could only enjoy the whole thing to a limited extent, because since last night we both had some stomach problems. We therefore took a rest day. The next morning we felt better and set off again. Soon large agave fields appeared on the right and left of the road. We had landed in the Tequila region, our destination was the town of the same name, Tequila. This Mezcal is made from the juice of the agave and there are many small and large distilleries in this area.

In the small town, however, there was a lot going on, it was Sunday and that’s when Mexicans like to party. Tequila stands were everywhere and loud beats came from loudspeakers. This was interspersed with numerous mariachi bands that played more folk music. Sometimes these little combos were only 10 metres apart and you didn’t know where to listen anymore. The crowds of tourists were driven through the city in vehicles shaped like chilli peppers and everyone was lively drinking and dancing.

We skipped a visit to a distillery, as a tequila on a weak stomach might not have been such a good idea. In any case, it was regrettable to see all the delicious food stalls and restaurants, as we would normally have liked to try one or two of them. But today we just had to be a bit more careful.

We strolled to the cathedral and the Plaza de Armas, where four daring men were hanging from ropes on a 10-metre high, rotating pole, while a fifth, sitting on top, played a flute. During the rotation, the rope unwound itself from a spool, so that after a few minutes the four had safe ground under their feet again and were then rewarded for their courage with an obolus from the bystanders. The “Danza del Volador” is a ceremonial dance celebrated by the indigenous peoples of the Olmecs and Totonaks and probably dates back to pre-Columbian times. In 2009, the “Dance of the Flyers” was recognised by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Danza del Volador

We left Tequila and continued east. Our destination was the small town of Teuchitlan, where we wanted to visit the round step pyramid of Guachimontones the next day. For the night, we drove to the local balneario, an outdoor pool with a water slide. There was still some hustle and bustle, but around half past six the last bathers had disappeared and after the caretaker had collected the fee for overnight parking, we were alone on the grounds.


We had not come to Teuchitlan for the open-air bath, but rather for a site that dated back to another century. Just down the cobbled street was the Guachimontones complex. When we got to the entrance, however, it turned out to be closed, as it was Monday. A nice souvenir seller managed to tell us that there is a viewpoint two kilometers further up the mountain. We didn’t get to see much of the structure at this distance, but fortunately our drone got much closer and we were still able to get some nice shots.

View on Guachimontones complex
Round pyramide of Guachimontones

We ended the day in the town of Ajijic, beautifully situated on Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico. Ajijic is at an altitude of 1700 metres and therefore has a very pleasant climate. It is a popular place for “snowbirds” from Canada and the USA who settle here after their retirement.

We also settled here, even if only for two nights. We walked along the palm-lined ‘malecon’ and treated ourselves to a cocktail. We parked the car on a lakeside lawn where local fishermen with nets were trying to outwit the lurking pelicans. We watched the locals and the animals and enjoyed the peace, the temperatures and the surroundings.

After two wonderfully peaceful days in Ajijic, we took the route that circled around Lake Chapala. We made a stop in the tiny fishing village of Petatan. Brown Pelicans have been following us since we reached the Pacific Ocean at Monterey in California. Until recently, we did not know of the existence of the white variety until we first saw them floating around Lake Chapala two days ago.

The White Pelican (Nashornpelikan) has the second largest average wingspan in North-America after the American Condor. At the very end of the small peninsula where Petatan is situated, about 100 of them were bobbing on the water and not entirely by chance. The fish market where sometimes a rejected fish ends up back in the water was just around the corner. Fully grown White Pelicans have a wingspan of 3,5 meters and can weigh up to 13 kilos. We watched them for a while and struck up a conversation with a Mexican family. They gave us the tip to drive to Parque Nacional de Lago Camecuaro.

In a small roadside eatery, we ate a tasty stuffed tortilla and arrived at Camecuaro Park not much later. It was already nearing 16:00 and we still had about an hour’s drive ahead of us to Angehuan so unfortunately there was not much time left. The park is such a typical place for Mexicans to have a party. Picnic benches are set up everywhere and of course the asado or barbeque cannot be missed.

We strolled along the water of the small lake that was shared by several species of ducks and a number of people wearing life jackets floating on the clear water. In the background, several Mariachi bands played as we stood looking at the imposing Ahuehuete trees with their accompanying root system. These trees, some up to 2.5 metres in diameter, grow in the most bizarre twists and shapes and were declared Mexico’s national tree in 1921.

We were now at 2300 metres and we noticed this especially the next morning when it just wouldn’t warm up. The village where we slept last night is called Angehuan. One of the many villages here where indigenous people of Mexico still live. The skin colour of the Purepecha people is a lot darker than the average Mexican and Spanish is only their second language. The vast majority still live in wooden houses and move along mainly on horseback. Women in colourful skirts walk the dusty streets, which are in a deplorable state.

Angahuan village church
Purepecha people
Sunset view from Centro Turistico de Angahuan

In 1943, an eruption created a new volcano here. Within a year, it grew to 400 metres in height and spewed out so much lava that the village of Paricutin was buried under the lava flow and disappeared from the world map. In the middle of the lava field stand the stone remains of Santuario del Senor de los Milagros. A church that partially withstand the lava flows and can now be visited. We put on our hiking boots and descended from our campsite to the beginning of the lava rocks and soon got a view of one of the church towers.

Antigua Iglesia de San Juan Parangaricutiro

The hike to the church took about half an hour, where we left the wide path at the end and walked down a narrow path carved into the lava to the church. We looked at the two church towers, one of which was only half standing. The nave had disappeared altogether, but the distance from the front entrance to the altar was considerable and shows how big this church once has been. How bizarre it is that not much remains of the entire building, but the detailed carvings in the stone are still 100% intact. At the altar many visitors have since left a memento. A church in the middle of the lava field. We looked at each other and agreed, nature always wins over man.

The main culprit in this story is the volcano Paricutin. Named after the village it caused to disappear. Getting as close as possible to the crater was not going to be easy for us. We chose to brave a 30-kilometer dirt road that would end 200 meters below the volcano. The normal main roads in Mexico are already not in the best condition, let alone when you leave them and make your way across the volcanic landscape. It became the worst “road” we had driven so far. Agonisingly slowly, we drove up some parts and down again. It eventually took us four hours when we came to a stop near the top of the volcano on a flat piece of land covered in black lava sand.

By now it was 16:00 but still enough time to go up the mountain and enjoy the view. The scramble up was tiring as you slid back down at least 20 centimeters through the loose rock with every step you took. But in the end it has all been worth it. The long drive over boulders and through potholes and the short but gruelling climb up. The view inside the crater and the circular crater rim was amazing. In the distance, in the middle of the lava field, we could see the church tower where it all had started this morning. We spent the night directly at the volcano, all alone under a beautiful starry sky and accompanied by the howling of the dogs.

Eddy and Romy van Es © 2020, infected.nl. All Rights Reserved.

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