Image by DEA / ARCHIVIO J. LANGE De Agostini
The upstart Volcán Paricutín (2800m) might be less than 80 years old, but clambering up the volcanic scree slopes to its summit and looking out across blackened, village-engulfing lava fields will be a highlight of your travels in this part of Mexico. You can trek to it on horseback or on foot, though the final ascent is always by foot. Whatever you choose, prepare for a long but rewarding day.
The story behind this volcano is as extraordinary as the views from its summit. On February 20, 1943, Dionisio Pulido, a Purépecha farmer, was ploughing his cornfield some 40km west of Uruapan when the ground began to quake and spurt steam, sparks and hot ash. The farmer struggled to cover the blast holes, but he quickly realized his futility and ran for safety. It was a good thing, because like some Hollywood B-grade movie, a growling volcano began to rise from the bowels of the earth. Within a year it had reached an elevation of 410m above the rolling farmland and its lava had flooded the Purépecha villages of San Salvador Paricutín and San Juan Parangaricutiro. Thankfully, the lava flowed slowly, giving the villagers plenty of time to escape.
The volcano continued to grow until 1952. Today its large black cone spits warm steam in a few places, but otherwise it appears dormant. Near the edge of the 20-sq-km lava field, the belfry of the swamped Templo de San Juan Parangaricutiro protrudes eerily from a sea of black lava; it and the altar awash in colorful offerings of candles and flowers are the only visible traces of the two buried villages. It’s a one-hour (3km) walk to the church from Angahuan.
You should be striding out of Angahuan before 9am if you want to climb Volcán Paricutín comfortably. There's no shortage of guides with horses at the tourist center offering their services to the volcano and back via the ruined church, and they will meet you at the bus from Uruapan. Horses and a guide should cost around M$800 in total per person per day. There are two standard routes up the volcano: a 14km round-trip short route and a 24km round-trip long route. Horses always go via the long route as the short route crosses a lava field. If you're going by horse allow five to six hours (including at least four in an unforgiving, wooden saddle).
Whichever route you take, the final scramble up the volcano – a half-hour steep grunt through gravel and unstable rock – is on foot. Coming down is a different matter altogether; sliding down smooth black sand you’ll be on terra firma in two minutes. The standard route visits the San Juan church on the way back. The altar is almost always blessed with colorful offerings of candles and flowers. Close to the church are a number of food stalls serving fabulously tasty blue-corn quesadillas cooked on old, wood-burning, oil-can skillets. Bring enough water and wear decent shoes.
If wooden saddles intimidate you and/or you have energy to burn, you can walk to the volcano, but you’ll still need a guide (M$400) as the trail through the pine forest can be hard to follow. The long route follows a sandy track for around 12km through avocado groves, agave fields and wildflowers. The short route (7km one way) starts in pine forest but then switches to difficult rock-hopping across an expansive lava field. If you're fit and want variety, ask your guide to hike out on the short route and back on the longer trek.