San Juan Neuvo and Volcan Paricutin

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North America » Mexico » Michoacán
February 13th 2010
Published: March 23rd 2010
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I set off today on my first sightseeing trip in Mexico. I woke up grumpily and forced myself out of bed thinking that a lazy weekend at home and a lie in sounded much more appealing than our proposed plan to climb a volcano! Still, I dutifully grabbed my bag and followed Colin to the bus station (it looked horribly familiar as it was the one I was abandoned at when I first arrived!!) where I tried to force my brain in gear and summon Spanish to get our tickets. We travelled first to Zamora and as Colin fell asleep I tried to stay awake so as not to miss our stop but lost the battle eventually. Fortunately we were both awake before we reached Zamora and the bus stopped at the bus station anyway.
I found the desk to buy tickets to Uruapan and we were soon on the next bus, fortunately this time a nice first class one. Another couple of hours and we reached Uruapan. I was walking along the platform wondering how to get into the bus station and find the ticket desk when someone approached me asking if I was going to somewhere or other. I said no I wanted to go to San Juan Neuvo and instantly another driver started calling 'San Juan Neuvo, San Juan, San Juan.' I walked towards the bus intending to confirm the destination but there was little need as the driver continued his chant of 'San Juan, San Juan' his voice increasing in volume everytime a possible customer strolled past. A short bus ride later we were in San Juan Neuvo. A little nervous about just arriving with no pre-booked hostel and knowing nothing about the town which doesn't even get a mention in the guide book I found everything incredibly easy. We paid the driver who pointed us towards the plaza, literally a two minute walk down the street. We found ourselves in the market which covered the plaza. A huge crowd of people gathered around the impressive church, playng music loudly and families sat around the central fountain, adults socilaising and children running around in play. I approached a woman, her tiny baby hanging in a shawl around her neck and asked for directions to a hotel. Following her directions of around the corner we found a whole street dotted with 'hotel' signs.
Pausing at the first reasonable looking one we were soon greeted by the owner, seated on a plastic chair in a tiny reception area open to the street allowing him easy access to pounce on any passing tourists. I asked to see the room and was bemused to find myself viewing a small apartment with two bedrooms and enough beds to sleep nine! Trying to find out how much it cost for a single room I soon discovered that it was a hotel apartment and the price we were told was in fact for the whole floor; two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and sitting area. Not bad!
We checked in and decided to go straight to visit volcano Paracutin, the reason for our visit.
First we wanted to get some food. Unfortunately the tiny town of San Juan Nuvo is not designd with tourists in mind and the only ating places were a strip of identical litle cafes seling street food. Iopted to make a hasty picnic of bread and fruit bought from a nearby shop but Colin decided to try his luck with the cafes. It took some time. I tapped my foot and stared at my watch as the staff made food, then gabled in Spanish and took it away. They brought a second plate of food for poor Colin who no sooner put his hand on theplate then had it taken away aain, the food moved onto another pate and then returned to him.
Eventually we were free to track down a taxi but on being told the trip would be three hours we hastily ran back to the hostel to ask for advice. After a patchy Spanish conversation with the couple who owned the hostel I ascertained that the volcano was an hour away and most taxis would wait for a hour and then make the return trip. Returning to the plaza we eventually found another taxi. We clambered into the back seat, drove up the road, then were told to get out as another car would take us!
Settled into the backseat of another taxi we slowly bumped our wayup the road, weaving from side to side to avoid potholes or sliding backwards. The air was cooler as we climbed higher and the hills were covered with pine trees. The drive was relaxing and I watched the rows of dark trees out of the window, many of them bearing little plastic pots used to harvest the tree sap. We eventually left the trees and drove through the impressive lava field. The lava stretched as far as we could see, covering a vast area dominated by the dark shape of the volcano and dotted with scraggy shrubs and straggling wildflowers while the blue sky bore perfect white clouds and the sun shone in cheery opposition to the grey winter I left behind in England. We saw the tower of the church potruding from the black sea of lava The taxi left us in a dusty clearing filled with ramshakle stalls selling food and souvenirs. The driver pointed us down a track and which we dutifully followed until we reached what appeared to be a dead end and turned back. We noticed the locals giving us strange looks and then one man shook his head and pointed us back the way we;d come. Taking a second look we found we could climb up the lava towards the church. It was hard climbing over the rough rock with a heavy rucksack and on seeing how far the volcano still was from us I decided I would probably have done better to leave my water supplies with the taxi.
Once we reached the ruins it was a lot of fun. The Templo San Juan Parangaricutiro stands near the edge of the 20 square kilometre lava field, its altar and tower the only visible remains of the two villages, Sn Salvador Paricutin and San Juan Parangaricutiro, which once stood in the area.
On 20th February, Dionisio Pulido, a P'urhépecha farmer, was ploughing his fields when the ground started to shake and steam rose from a fissure. The volcano grew quickly, rising to a height of over 400 metres over the next year and continuing to grow with smaller erruptons over the next eight years. Fortunately all the villagers were able to escape and relocate, hence 'San Juan Neuvo'.
We enjoyed exploring the church. The altar is still cared for and bears fresh flowers, candles and images of Christ and Mary. The church must once have been really beautiful and still retains some carving and decoration on its pink stone walls. Eventually we returned to our waiting taxi expecting to drive on to the volcano which friends had assured us could be reached by car and then climbed in 30 minutes. I soon realised th etaxi driver had no intention of continuing on toward the volcano and was taking us back along the same route. I asked him about it and said we'd specifically asked to visit the volcano when we hired the taxi. My spanish is far from perfect but the excuse I got, almost word for word, was 'the volcano is too tall and hot, and the car is not strong.' Right. I wasn't expecting the car to reach the crater, the foot of the volcano would have done! The driver seemed to sense our ire and compensated us with several photo stops. I think Colin was more disappointed than me. I was actually rather eleived that after a week of teaching, five hours of travel from Sahuayo and an hour spent scrambling over lava rocks, I didn't have to do anything more active than strolling around the chucrh and plaza back in town.
We wandered around the main plaza and stopped to admire the church. The crazy commotion was still going on and we could finally see a bride and groom in the middle of the chaos. The musicians kept playing their insruments as loud as possible and slowly the wedding party formed themseleves into a parade and started heading off down the street.
We spent some time back at the hotel room then went out agian to visit the church. It was empty of the wedding party so we were free to enter. When the volcano errupted in 1943 the 2000 villagers began a 3 day and 33 kilometre pilgrimage, carrying their 'Lord of Miracles', an image of Christ dating back to the 16th century. The image now stands in the new church and many devotees come to San Juan Neuvo specifically to see it. As we entered the church we saw many Catholics approaching the statue on their knees and others slowly exiting the church backwards by taking three steps back and two forward. The church is an impressive structure and the interior light and airy. I was happy to spend time simply sitting inside or walking around. Once we had visited the church and the plaza there seemed little else left to do but get something to eat and retire for the night.
We walked to the far end of town and back with out finsing anything interesting.It was starting to get dark and I was annoyed to find all the eating places around the plaza had closed at 6 - this place really doesn't cater for travellers! We found one restaurant attached to a hotel, were welcomed in by a man who spoke english, but found mostly fish dishes at extortionate prices and left. We wandered back tot he plaza, stoping to let another parade go past. Whether it had anything to do with the wedding or was just a bunch of people playing music and walking en mass I have no idea! It's obviously the local form of entertainment!
We stopped to admire the church by night, then I found a bench in the plaza and colin found himself some chips. Sitting on the bench I watched the locals packing up their market stalls while their children played in the cool of the evening. The church looked really beautiful against a backdrop of deep blue dotted with stars, although the cross shaped neon lights on top of each tower rather detracted from the overall aesthetics!!

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