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Volcan Paricutin and Pico Tancitaro National Park
by Bruce Whipperman

August 1998

Paricutin Volcano's spectacular 1943 birth, the world's first volcanic eruption witnessed at its very origin, added to the attraction of its dormant big brother Tancitaro (elev. 12,670 feet, 3,860 meters). The government established a National Park (Parque Nacional Pico Tancitaro); a private volcano visitor center, with cabins, campsites, and a restaurant followed. Now, new paved roads further encourage the adventurous to explore the pine-tufted backcountry of this sylvan, Purūpecha Indian heartland, less than an hour's drive northwest of Uruapan.

Angahuan, Paricutin Volcano, and Vicinity

Before Paricutin there was Angahuan village, about 24 miles (38 km) by road northwest of Uruapan. The name, locals say, was originally "Andanhuan," which means The Place That the People Reached, or perhaps, simply, Resting Place. It's also said that the Spanish couldn't pronounce the original name, so it got changed to the present Angahuan (ahn-GAH-wahn).

Although now the gateway to Paricutin, Angahuan (population about 3,000) is interesting in its own right. When you arrive, men will probably crowd around, offering to be your guide. Whether you accept their services or not, your first stop should be the main square, by the old plaza church, on the left, at the town center.

Even though the Spanish arrived in 1527, in the person of the rapacious renegade conquistador Nuño de Guzman, the church, dedicated to Santiago (St. James), wasn't begun until the Franciscan missionaries could gain the confidence of the local folks, who had been victims of Guzman's reign of terror. By 1577, the church finally was finished, under the guidance of Father Jacobo Daciano. He commissioned a Spanish-Moorish stonemason to supervise the work. The flowery patterns, similar to those on the famous Talavera ceramics, that the stonemason executed resulted in the unmistakable Moorish style that blooms, like an ornate Persian carpet, both on the arched front facade and on the nave ceiling inside.

A Stroll around Angahuan

Much of the fun of Angahuan is the old-Mexico scenes-a backyard lumber mill, bright huipiles hanging out to dry on a clothesline, kids playing kickball-which you might glimpse while strolling its back lanes. Among the most picturesque of Angahuan sights are the log houses, called trojes in the Purūpecha tongue. Their steep shake roofs come in two forms: with two slopes, called "two waters," or with four slopes, "four waters."

As you stroll out from the church be sure to look, about 100 yards on and a door or two to the right of the grocery store, across the other side of the plaza from the church front. Eight prize-winning carved panels tell the story of Volcan Paricutin, from the moment, one afternoon in 1943, when farmer Dionisio Pulido became the first person in the world to witness a volcano's birth.

If you want to see Paricutin's smoky eruption as it appeared at the time, try to get a video, or catch a cable-TV presentation, of the epic movie, Captain From Castile, (1947) starring Tyrone Power, Susan Peters, Lee J. Cobb, and Cesar Romero. It was filmed on location, near Angahuan, with scenes of the erupting Paricutin in the background. The volcano appears during the last 10 minutes of the movie. If watching by cable, you might want to record the volcano scenes with a VCR so you can replay them.

By car, get to Angahuan by heading from Uruapan north along Hwy. 37. After about 19 miles (31 km) turn left at the westbound paved road and continue another 14 miles (23 km) to the Angahuan side road on the left. By bus, go early in the morning by second-class regional bus from the Central Camionera, on the Hwy. 37 ingress boulevard, about a mile northeast of the jardin. You can also go by local tour; contact Viajes Cupatitzio, tel. (452) 352-55, 356-33, or 411-85, fax 416-36, at the Hotel Tarasco, at 2 Independencia, on the jardin, northwest corner.

Centro Turistico Angahuan

Continue from the Angahuan plaza along the main ingress street. After about three blocks, follow the sign left about another half mile, up a low hill, to the private Centro Turistico Angahuan tourist center. A guard collects a nominal entrance fee at the gate. The office is on the right; after that comes the interpretive center-museum, then the cabins, restaurant, and camping area. Behind the restaurant is the mirador (viewpoint), where, above the southern horizon, beyond the lava-choked villages and fields, you can see Paricutin's hulking, truncated cone. On a clear day, more likely during the Dec.-May dry season, you might see the gargantuan, cedar-crested bulk of Tancitaro mountain rising high above the horizon slightly to the right (west) of Paricutin.

Exploring the Paricutin Volcanic Zone

An overnight stay, followed by an early morning start, is the best strategy for exploring Paricutin's ash-strewn wasteland. Along the way you'll pass lava-covered fields, buried village houses and church, a burned forest, and finally dark, forbidding Paricutin and Sapichi, the parasite vent that belched forth the lava that drowned San Juan Parangaricutiro. The 12-mile roundtrip to the top of the volcano requires an entire day. Bring plenty of water, sturdy walking shoes, a hat, and food. The trail is at times vague, and the lava is sharp and pocked with holes. For safety, best hire a guide in Angahuan or at the Centro Turistico. Rental horses are also available to ease your adventure.

Food and Accommodations

During the high August season and weekends and holidays, reservations are generally needed to spend an overnight in one of the center's dozen rustic family-style cabins or in either their men or women's dormitories. Cabin guests enjoy fireplaces, wood included, with bunk beds, tile floors and bath with hot shower, for about $6 per person. Although far from immaculate, the cabins are clean enough for a night or two. Dormitory guests pay the same $6 tariff per person.

Camping in your own tent costs about $2 plus $1 per person per night. Rain-proof fixed shelters for camping cost about $3, plus $1 per person per night. RVers could probably park their (self-contained) rigs for about the same prices. Reserve by calling their agent in Morelia, tel. (43) 241-911 or 241-200, or writing Centro Turistico Angahuan, Camino al Volcan Paricutin, Angahuan, Michoacán. You could also try reserving through travel agent Viajes Cupatitzio, fax (452) 413-36, tel. 411-85, at 2 Independencia, Lobby of Hotel Tarasco, Uruapan, Michocan 60000.

Tancitaro Peak National Park

The Parque Nacional Pico de Tancitaro encompasses the small kingdom of defacto high-country wilderness that climaxes at Tancitaro Peak, which rises to its 12,670-foot (3860-meter) peak just 17 miles (28 km), as the crow flies, due west of downtown Uruapan. Like many Mexican national parks, the 90-square mile (60,000-acre) Tancitaro has little government presence-no campgrounds, no maintained trails, few if any rangers, and no visitor center.

Adventurous travelers nevertheless can safely explore the park and climb the peak, accompanied by a guide. The best-actually the only-time to go is during the clear Dec.-May dry season. Two major routes are customary for Tancitaro climbers, one on the south side, the other on the north. The north-side approach is shortest and easiest, requiring only a rugged high-clearance vehicle, such as a pickup truck, VW van, or jeep. Begin at the dirt road that takes off from the south side of the highway, a bit more than a mile (two km) east of Angahuan. Continue about another mile and a half (two km), passing Rancho Choritiro. Another 11 miles (18 km) brings you to Rancho la Escondida (Hidden Ranch). Continue three miles (five km) to San Salvador mountain hamlet, where the jeep road ends. The peak is another three hours of rugged walking after that. Light snow (that often soon melts) is possible during the winter. Be prepared with adequate food, water, purification tablets, insect repellent, good boots, layers against the cold, a hat, emergency shelter, and sleeping bags. For a guide, either inquire among the volunteer guides in Angahuan, ask at San Salvador, or (in Spanish) consult the Centro Turistico Angahuan manager, Guadalupe Amado Bravo.

The other route to Tanciitaro peak begins on the mountain's south slope, at Tancitaro town (population 4,000), about 32 miles (51 km), an hour and a half, by gravel road west of Uruapan, see below.

Around-the-Mountain Excursion

Tancitaro town (population 4,000) is a good halfway stopping point on a scenic excursion through the lush foothills around Tancitaro mountain. Starting early, drivers could do it in one leisurely day. Backpackers could trek, thumb, and bus the same route in a minimum of two days. The clockwise route begins by following Av. Cupatitzio west from the Uruapan jardin. Fill up with gas and set your odometer at the Pemex gasolinera at the west edge of town. At mile five (Km 8) comes Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro (population about 5,000), the new town built, beginning in 1946, by the villagers displaced by Paricutin. Their pride is the big Templo del Señor de los Milagros, which contains the original patronal image of Jesus, saved from the eruption. Their eight-day patronal fiesta begins on 13 September; they also celebrate the fiesta of the Tres Reyes Magos (Three Magi Kings) on 7, 8, and 9 January.

After several up-and-down miles through luxuriant foothill avocado groves, the pavement gives way to a graded dirt and gravel road at about Mile 20 (Km 32). Pass Paricuari village (a few stores) at Mile 23.5 (Km 38) and larger Condembaro at Mile 27 (Km 43). You might stop for refreshment and a good word with friendly Dr. Rosendo Zamora Tamaya, who runs his practice out of his pharmacy, on the main side street on the left. Continue as the road bends right (northwest), toward Tancitaro town, at Mile 32 (Km 52). This is an old colonial-era settlement, with venerable church, town plaza, post and telecommunications offices, and a few restaurants. The Hotel Saint Louis (not San Luis) is at 35 Moreles, on the main plaza-front thoroughfare, a block uphill from the plaza. At the hotel, you should meet the friendly owner, Dr. Carlos Navarro, who can put you in contact with a reliable mountain trekking guide. His small, new hotel offers eight clean rooms with hot-water showers, television, and phones, for about $11 s, $14 d. Although usually not necessary, you can reserve a room by writing, or better, calling, the hotel (in Spanish), at (459) 150-49.

The customary climbing route to Tancitaro peak takes off from Zirimondiro village, several miles uphill from Tancitaro town. The entire trek requires about 15 hours of hiking and two nights, three days, roundtrip. Net elevation gain is about 6,000 feet (from about 6,500 feet at Zirimonidiro, to the 12,670-foot summit). Although horses are available, most guides do not recommend using them, because of the difficulty of the route. This trek is only for fit, prepared, and preferably experienced hikers. Be equipped with everything-water, purifying tablets or iodine, food, clothing layers against the cold, cooking utensils, small stove with fuel, matches, insect repellent, sleeping bag and pad, a hat, socks, and sturdy, broken-in hiking boots.

Doctor Navarro recommends experienced local mountain man Francisco Mendoza to lead your trek. (If somehow he is unavailable, Mendoza recommends two more: Francisco Monte Longo and Benjamin Mesa). Mendoza will lead a trek to the top, minimum three days, for a fee of about $15 or $20 per day. Although he doesn't expect it, as a courtesy, you should carry enough food for him, too. He's a kindly, modest, slender but wiry man of about fifty, with a twinkle in his eye. He's probably been to the top a dozen times in a generation of living on the Tancitaro mountainside.

You can usually find Mendoza at his rancho, about two miles uphill, on the road to Zirimondiro, from town. From Hotel Saint Louis, go two blocks uphill, turn right at Dominguez, go four blocks, turn left at the end of the street, Taria, continue one long block to a white sign at Rayon, and turn right. Continue 1.2 miles (1.9 km) to Mendoza's rancho, where the road bends left.

Back in town, continuing on your round-the-mountain excursion, go uphill from Hotel Saint Louis on Morelos several blocks and turn left on to the paved highway, at Bravo. From there, you'll pass a number of colonial-era towns and villages: Apo del Rosario (stores, troje log houses) at Mile 41 (Km 66), and a junction (bear right) at Mile 53 (Km 85) at the farming town Periban de Ramos (population 5,000, has a gas station). Continue through Tzacan village (troje log houses) at Mile 65 (Km 105) and Angahuan at Mile 70 (Km 105) and back to Uruapan and Hotel Mansion Cupatitzio at Mile 103 (Km 166).

Dionisio Pulido's Story

On the afternoon of 4 March 1943, campesino Dionisio Pulido was the first person to witness the birth of a live volcano and live to tell the tale. He said that, around three in the afternoon, he was plowing his field with his yoke of bullocks, when the earth beneath his feet began to shift, shudder, and roar. Soon steam began rising from the animals' hoofprints. When Dionosio grabbed his hoe and desperately tried to fill the steamy holes, more holes appeared. His wife arrived with a dozen villagers, who worked like demons with sticks, hoes, shovels, and picks, struggling to fill the ever-widening hot fissures. But it was no use; a terrifying fiery explosion blew huge rocks into the air, and most people simply knelt down in the field, weeping and praying.

Over the next few weeks, the smoke and explosions gradually became more violent. People ran for their lives as choking ash blanketed their fields and red-hot boulders rained down for half a mile around. Within six months, lava began oozing from the crater and formed huge flows 10 feet deep that burned the forest and buried the villages of Paricutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro, including their church.

When Volcan Paricutin's fires finally sputtered out on 4 March 1952, a grand 10,000-acre moonscape of burnt embers and hardened lava lay at the foot of a dark cinder mountain nearly a third of a mile in height. The entire displaced population of both villages were resettled in a new town, San Juan Nuevo Parangaricutiro, where the people rebuilt their church, six miles west of Uruapan.

Local resident Simon L. Jimenez heard Dionisio tell his story scarcely two days after the volcano had burst from the ground beneath his feet. Jimenez later related the story in his 1993 book, Paricutin, Fifty Years After Its Birth.

Recommended Excerpted from Pacific Mexico Handbook by Bruce Whipperman, Moon Travel Handbooks, 1997.

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