Volcanic Sightseeing
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, October 1999

As I was driving a rental car from Guadalajara to the coast of Mexico, I noticed a name out of my childhood on the map. Paracutin is a most unusual volcano that appeared out of nowhere in 1943. Though I hadn't yet turned three, the event stuck in my mind as one of my earliest clear memories. My father had shown me photographs, first in newspapers, then in Life magazine, of Volcan Paracutin's sudden appearance in poor Dionisio Pulito's corn field. Within the day, the volcano was three hundred feet high. Within the year, it grew thousands of feet high. Lava flows engulfed the village of the San Juan de Parangaricutiro seven miles away. Only the steeple of the new church rose above the molten ocean.

I talked my wife, Barbara, into spending an extra day searching out Paracutin on our way back to catch a flight from Guadalajara. The drive on twisting mountain roads proved to be extremely slow due to roadblocks because of a kidnapping. We were headed toward the tiny Parapuecha Indian village of Atanhuan, from where I hoped to hike or run to the buried cathedral before sunset. My Casio watch computed sunset on March 12 at latitude 19N, longitude 102W to be at 6:50 p.m.. At 6:20 p.m., we entered the town square, still three miles by trail from the cathedral. A rider galloped beside us and offered to guide us to the volcano the next day. When Barbara explained our rush in Spanish, he took off at a gallop as we followed, barely keeping up on the narrow streets at thirty miles per hour. At the end of the road, the young Indian introduced himself as Enrique and told me to jump on an extra horse. It was now too late to run to the cathedral with my camera, so I hopped on and galloped beside Enrique down a steep, rocky trail strewn with pumice. I tried not to think of flying out of the saddle onto the rugged lava as the horse followed Enrique with a mind of its own. With a sigh of relief, I dismounted at a hitching post and sprinted the last two hundred yards to where the steeple turned crimson in the last rays of light as it rose out of the black ocean of rock like the mast of a sinking ship.

I pulled out my Nikon N90S with a 24mm ƒ2.8 lens and got off a number of frames before the sun went down. Even with the two-stop graduated filter I stuffed into my chest pouch, the black lava lost all detail and sense of place in exposures that held the rich light on the white steeple. My best shot turned out to be moments after sunset when a diffuse glow lit the steeple and the rock more evenly.

I'd seen the buried church, but not the volcano itself at close range. Seven miles away across the rugged lava field, the side of its symmetrical cone was still steaming more than half a century after the eruption. As we trotted and galloped our horses back up the hill in the twilight, Paracutin vanished into the shadows.

Back at the roadhead, Barbara translated a plan that I'd just hatched. Could Enrique meet me half an hour before sunrise with only one horse? We would need to do the round-trip in three hours or less, including stops for photography, in order to catch our flight in Guadalajara. He would carry my small pack with water, camera, and Gitzo 001 tripod, while I would run beside him six miles to the volcano. Enrique said yes, but he would leave the horse about halfway to the volcano and we would both run the final distance. Another guide had cautioned Barbara that such a trip would take seven hours with a horse or all day on foot. Enrique was a fit young Parapuecha in his twenties who I'd watched run over the lava near the church, and I thought we could do it in three.

As we drove to a hotel in another town, we passed Parapuecha women in vivid traditional dress which reminded me of Mayan clothing in Guatemala. The Parapuecha culture, despite its traditional appearance, was changing as assuredly as the volcano had transformed the local landscape. Electricity, vehicles, bottled alcoholic drinks, and tourists like ourselves were edging out timeless ways of life.

In this hot and dry part of Mexico, however, there were no streams to drink from as in my home mountains of California. If somebody organized a wilderness trail race to the volcano, there would be aid stations with water and PowerBars every few miles. I planned it for Enrique on his horse to be my moving aid station, carrying two quart water bottles, two energy bars, plus my camera gear.

Just before dawn, Enrique led off through a labyrinth of semi-trails, galloping through a pine forest, across pumice flats, and up to the edge of the lava flow, where he tied his sweating horse to a tree. From there, we began running and scrambling along the tops of discontinuous lava crests. We passed the hour mark not far below the summit where a side cone with bright yellow sulfur stains steamed with vapors. I could see the Spectre of the Brocken in the rising mist, so I called a welcome stop for photos and water before an all-out semi-run up the final pumice slope that could not have been looser or poised at a steeper angle. We crested out atop a completely dormant crater hundreds of feet deep. Paracutin had ceased to be active after just nine years.

I knew just enough Spanish to tell Enrique to wait and come plunging full speed down the slope past my camera after I had descended. I suspected that he might be a regular runner, because of his agility and speed on the rugged rock, but just after I took great shots of him carooming down the steep cone, he tripped and fell on easy terrain. The sharp lava had cut all the stitching on one of his boots so that the sole now flapped in the breeze. He continued running with a high-step like a man with an artificial limb before dropping to a walk for the last mile back to the horse.

When I eagerly reached into his pack for a final sip of water before running the last couple of uphill miles. The water was entirely gone, though I had drunk less than a cup. Enrique, probably not used to such continuous effort on foot, had polished off all the water while I had been taking photos around the summit. Luckily, the journey ended in less than three hours, before the real heat of the day made the dark rock almost untouchable.

Barbara had cold drinks waiting for both of us back at the car. She had just returned from the buried church where I'd been the previous evening. Enrique's friend, Julio, had guided her on horseback. Enrique beamed with satisfaction even before I paid him the peso equivalent of $20 for his fee, a large tip, parking our car in a fenced compound, and a hot shower at the local tourist hostel.

Four hours later, we were back in the very different Mexico that most visitors experience„the tourist section of Guadalajara. I realized how lucky I had been to make it all come together with my lightweight camera gear at the ready, my endurance honed by daily runs, and my Spanish-speaking wife able to translate my odd requests to a young Indian who looked askance at me until we pushed ourselves near our limits and shared an appreciation of his homeland.

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