Mexican Days: Off to the Races at Paricutin, 2000

I floored the rental car, after making a turn at a sign pointing the way to Paricutin, a geologically new volcano that erupted in 1943 in a cornfield near a town of the same name. There were two young men on horseback when we turned onto the dirt road leading to the volcano and they started waving wildly at us. When we didn’t stop, they began thundering after us at a gallop. Unbelievably, they were gaining on us. I went faster. The riders put their heads down and butts up like jockeys to cut down wind resistance. I felt like a pace car, starting a horse race that was about to be overtaken by the horses. The road must have been a mile long through flat fields to a small village at the end of it. We flashed by the village of Angahuan, mostly a footpath of a town that the 17th century forgot. The road drifted left. The riders downshifted their horses to a trot. I eased up on the throttle. The horsemen knew the road eventually came to an end. They had chased us not into a no-way-out canyon (as in old cowboy movies), but instead into a level field that served as a parking lot (ours was the only car) with hitching posts for horses. The few tethered there seemed unconcerned with our drama. A sign in Spanish said the horses were for rent, as were guides to lead visitors to the Church of San Juan that had been nearly destroyed by the volcano. The hombres in pursuit finally caught up to us, offered to be our guide to the church and rent us steeds to carry us there. We accepted.

Paricutin was a town surrounded by cornfields and low hills. It no longer exists…a victim of the lava from the spectacular volcano that also eliminated the town of San Juan. From a flat field of corn, the spew of the lava created a perfect cone of a mountain like a circular pyramid, wide at the base to a perfectly circular cup at the top. The lava, looking for low points to flow to, found the two nearby villages. Both were burned and buried by the lava…leaving nothing behind to rebuild, since both villages were built mostly of wood. But there was a church that partially endured the eruption and that was what we were going to see. What did survive, miraculously, were one and a half towers and a connecting arch that formed the entrance to the stone Church of San Juan. If churches were shoes, this would be a size 12 extra-wide for what would seem like size 4 extra-narrow town. Pre-volcano photographs show a rather small farming village, surrounding the church that would seem to have too thin a roster of folks to fill more than a few rows, much less the full expanse, of the church. So, armed with little prior knowledge of Paricutin, we swung up on the saddles to ride on a winding trail through gnarled trees and brush and soft earth to what remains of this large-footprint church. There is little to rival the eerie surprise at the end of a trail than to suddenly come upon a majestic tower of a church held for eternity in the embrace of hardened, sharp-edged, crumpled lava.

We climbed the uneven mountain of lava that rose from the flatland, where we had dismounted, to a level halfway up the tower, where we could gaze down at the arch and the towers that were surrounded by, but miraculously, not buried by the lava. We were about 50 feet above the level of the pre-volcano town. Perhaps 50 yards west was the alter and the back wall of the church, a survivor as well…another intact remnant. Between the front and the back there was no hint that anything man-made had connected the two. The middle part of the church was covered  by the jagged slabs of lava with some scrub that managed to push its way through cracks in it. Strange that the back and the front…entrance and altar… weren’t covered by the lava. Eerier still are pictures, taken at a distance…the top half of a church tower, rising like a misplaced stone rocket in a sea of vegetation, awaiting liftoff to outer space.

And the riders that waved at us, chased us and then guided us to the church…well they were not at the signpost where they had intercepted us, earlier in the day. One hard ride a day, no doubt, was enough.