Mexican Pompeii

DSC_0171©Today Greg and I visited the incredible ruins of a 17th Century church sticking up out of a lava flow! The sight reminds me of Pompeii, yet it’s just outside Uruapan, in the state of Michoacán, where we are for Semana Santa.

Paricutín Volcano completely destroyed two towns, but amazingly the original tower, altar, front and rear walls of the Templo San Juan Parangaricutiro still stand—with lava right up to them. You can see why villagers call it a miracle. Today, old San Juan Parangaricutiro is a pilgrimage site, and Greg and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know it. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Construction of Templo San Juan Parangaricutiro began in 1618 under the direction of Friar Sebastián González. It was completed in 1720 but with only one tower; villagers were in the process of completing the second tower when the lava struck two centuries later.

Dionisio Pulido became the first person in history to be present during the formation of a volcano, on 20 February, 1943 when Paricutín erupted. He was working his field when he felt the earth rumble and heard a loud roar. Looking up, he saw plumes of smoke coming out of a crack in the earth and rocks flying through the air.

In the next 24 hours Paricutín would grow seven meters tall, within one week it was 50 meters high, and eventually it became an ash cone 600 meters tall. Its first lava flow began four months after the initial eruption, flowing at 20 meters per minute, and lasted four years.

Parangaricutiro is a Purepecha town six kilometers from Paricutín. The villagers hoped that Captazin Hill would block the lava from entering their town. Lázaro Cárdenas came to warn the villagers to leave, but they refused, saying that the lands they’d relocate to already had owners, and they would not be welcome. To his credit, Cárdenas camped outside Parangaricutiro for one year, ready to help evacuate the villagers, but not pushing them. By May 1944 the lava flow had traveled ten kilometers and made its way around Captazin Hill, entering Parangaricutiro from the other side. The villagers finally made the decision to leave their homes rather than die, and amidst tears and cries they departed on May 10th, led by Cárdenas and the “Señor de los Milagros” cross from their church’s altar. I am currently reading a book about Cárdenas, Tierra Roja, so this historical note was especially interesting.

The “Señor de los Milagros” cross is now in Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro church. Legend says that a traveling religious icon salesman brought three crucifixes to Parangaricutiro in the late 1500s. A villager—Nicolás Moricho—chose his favorite, but the salesman refused to let him pay for it. The visitor wouldn’t share his name, where he came from, or where he was headed, and he didn’t eat or drink anything during his stay. He left the village walking north, and when the villagers went after him he was nowhere to be found. Thus, villagers began to believe that the cross was brought to them by an angelic messenger or divine destiny. An Augustin friar heard the story and blessed the crucifix, proclaiming that it would bring miracles to the town; that is how it came to be known as the “Señor de los Milagros.” I can only imagine the hope those villagers put into that cross as they fled while lava destroyed their homes, and I can understand why they feel it’s a miracle the church survived.

Paricutín Volcano stayed active for nine years, 11 days, and 10 hours: six different lava flows eventually covered 25 square kilometers, and the main ash cone also remains. Fortunately no one was killed.

We conducted extensive research online, but details are very hard to find. I therefore hope the below will help you.

From Uruapan you need to drive to Angahuan. From there you can hire a guide (150-300 pesos, plus horse rental if you want one) or you can drive to the end of the road, following the signs to the volcano. You can park in one of two ecological parks that rent cabins (of course, you could stay there, too), including Centro Turistico de Angahuan. You can also rent horses and hire guides there. From the tourism centers, it is an easy 35 minute walk on a wide dirt road to the site of the church ruins. The stroll is gorgeous; you walk amidst pine trees and cactus, and, finally, alongside fields of dried lava. Once you reach the ruins there are a few simple restaurants selling food and drink.

One of the restaurant owners is Jesús “Cachuy” Velázquez Gutiérrez, the son of two survivors of the volcano: Aniceto Velázquez Contreras and Paula Gutiérrez Aguilar. He told us you can access the ruins by car, but you have to drive way out of your way, covering about 24 km; the walk or horseback ride is much easier. He has a Facebook page for the church ruins, so you can also ask him questions before you visit.

From the restaurant area you can easily see the tower of the church amidst the lava. From that point, however, you have to climb over lava in order to get to the ruins. Be sure to take sturdy hiking boots, and wear a hat and sun screen. During our visit quite a few people started out to see the ruins and turned back. Greg and I spent about two hours climbing around the site and had a ball!

Cachuy shared with us a popular Mexican tongue-twister, centered on this place:
“San Juan Parangaricutiro, el pueblo que fue desparangarimicutirizado por el volcán Paricutín. Y yo anduve en San Juan Parangaricutiro, parangarimicutirimicuariando. Y aquel que lo desparangarimicutirise será un desparangarimicutirizador!” He recites it in the video below:

The walk back to your car is uphill so it’s much more difficult than the way out. Obviously the road was built for cars, but it is no longer accessible to 4-wheeled vehicles; rock barriers cross the road at various points, and benches have been installed in the center of the road at key intervals as well. We went at sunrise so I could get good photos. By 10:30 am there were busloads of visitors, most of whom entered on horseback, so lots of dust on the trail. Of course, we were here on Monday of Holy Week; normal weekdays probably have far fewer visitors. Early in the morning, even during Holy Week, Greg and I were the only ones there.

Some people continue past the ruins to the top of the volcano. We were told that it’s a 2-3 hour hike each way; we highly recommend a guide if you make this journey. Cachuy offered to take us to the top in his pickup truck. He said it would take one hour and cost 1,200 pesos, and he is willing to take a group up.

If you love adventure tourism, religious tourism, or you are just looking for something out of the ordinary, we definitely recommend this place!

About Dianne Hofner Saphiere

There are loads of talented people in this gorgeous world of ours. We all have a unique contribution to make, and if we collaborate, I am confident we have all the pieces we need to solve any problem we face. I have been an intercultural organizational effectiveness consultant since 1979, working primarily with for-profit multinational corporations. I lived and worked in Japan in the late 70s through the 80s, and currently live in and work from México, where with a wonderful partner we've raised a bicultural, global-minded son. I have worked with organizations and people from over 100 nations in my career. What's your story?

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