Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Birth of a Volcano


Imagine for a moment that you are a farmer, and your farm is far from civilization in the mountains of central Mexico, outside a little village called Parícutin. It is February 20th, 1943. It is a day like any other day and you and your wife are in the cornfield burning shrubbery. The weather is comfortably warm and the sky is clear, so it is with some surprise that you hear what you assume is the rumbling of thunder.

Now, though, you can also feel the ground shaking a little under your feet and you realize that the sound is coming from beneath the cornfield. Smoke begins to rise from across the field, having no relation to the burning shrubbery. You both stop to watch as the ground beneath the column of smoke begins to rise up. The ground is shaking more violently now and the rumblings are ear-shattering.


Photo by Wikipedia


This is what happened to P'urhépecha farmer, Dionisio Pulido and his wife Paula, in their cornfield 70 years ago today. In just one week the volcano reached a height of five stories. During the first year the volcano remained in it’s pyroclastic, or explosive, phase and the nearby villages of Parícutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro were buried in lava and ash.



Photo of the 1943 eruption from Wikipedia


By the end of 1943 the volcano had risen to a height of 336 meters (1,102 feet) and during the next 8 years continued to spew lava from smaller eruptions until it had seared the land around it for 25 square kilometers (9.7 square miles). The violence of the eruptions continued to decline until the last 6 months of 1951 when the volcano had it’s last hurrah before going quiet in 1952. It now stands 424 meters (1,391 feet) above Dionisio’s cornfield, casting a shadow over miles of volcanic rock and devastation.


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Parícutin as it looks today


As with most small towns in Mexico the center of the village of Paricutin was it’s church. When the village succumbed to the might of the volcano the church was buried along with everything else, but it still holds it’s spire high above the volcanic rock as a reminder of what came before. Today you can visit the site and climb among the rocks peeking into what can still be seen above the lava line.


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Parícutin Church Spire


As you drive into the town of Angahuan, not far from the site of the buried church of Parícutin, it is likely that you will be immediately surrounded by men on horseback. The renting of horses for the trek to the site of the buried town is one of the main methods of making a living here and the competition is stiff! On one of our visits we wanted to look around town a little before entering into negotiations with the caballeros and when we managed drive free of the fray, were chased (by men on horseback) for blocks before parking the car and once again becoming surrounded. It’s about a 45 minute ride over some rough terrain to reach the site and in the rainy season it is a river of mud, so it is well worth the price to rent a horse. Not to mention the entertainment of the negotiations.


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My Trusty Steed


For those of you who don’t believe in miracles, pay close attention to what I am about to say. The church of Parícutin was buried right up to the altar…..where the 30 foot wall of lava stopped! I have sat on that 30 foot wall and looked across the short expanse of clear area to the altar, untouched by lava. Folks nowadays make pilgrimages to this altar to leave a little something and pray for a miracle for themselves or their families.


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Altar Untouched by Lava


The top half of the altar is covered with vases and flowers and crucifixes, but the bottom half is what really touched me. It is full of everyday things, left by poor people hoping to be granted their own particular miracle. The assortment is amazing.




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Happy Birthday Parícutin


  1. This. "The church of Parícutin was buried right up to the altar…..where the 30 foot wall of lava stopped! I have sat on that 30 foot wall and looked across the short expanse of clear area to the altar, untouched by lava." Remarkable. Thank you for sharing that miracle. I like believing in magic and spirit. This made me smile.

  2. You are very welcome. It makes me smile too! I also like to believe in things beyond our comprehension and this can not easily be explained away.