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Parangaricutiro---Say What?

An excellent day trip out of Uruapan is a hike or horseback ride to the lava flow that swallowed most of the 325-year-old church of San Juan Parangaricutiro ... as well as the town itself!

The departure point for the Paricutín lava flow is the town of Angahuan, which has an interesting history. It was founded by former slaves. Their Purépecha dialect is similar to that spoken in Santa Fe de la Laguna, and the people of Angahuan carry on old traditions regarding dating and marriage rituals. (Young girls are allowed to choose their boyfriends and decide whom to marry. The groom “kidnaps” his bride-to-be and is subsequently forgiven by his future in-laws. A week of festivities precedes the marriage ceremony.) Houses in this ancient community include classic wooden trojes in addition to newer, one- and two-story brick and stucco houses no doubt funded by family members working abroad.

Worth a look in Angahuan is its unique Moorish-baroque (mudejar) church, dedicated to Saint James the Apostle (Santiago Apostle). Here also is a huatápera, one of the original church-hospitals particular to Michoacan. These 16th-century church-and-community-centers were the legacy of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, who the indigenous people referred to as “Tata” (Grandfather) Vasco because of his great concern for their welfare.

A Starting Point, Not a Destination

But interesting though it is, Angahuan is just the jumping off point for a visit to the Paricutín lava flow. In 1943, a farmer in San Juan Parangaricutiro (AKA San Juan de las Colchas) was surprised to hear an ominous rumbling in his cornfield, and even more surprised to see a volcano pop up. The authorities were called in and they kept a vigilant eye as the volcano continued to grow and smoke. Soon the danger outweighed the novelty and San Juan (as well as the village called Caltzontzin or Paricutín) were packed up lock, stock, and barrel and moved to safer ground.

And that was none too soon, as the ever-growing volcano soon fulfilled prophesies by covering the area in viscous black lava. Now dormant, Paracutin Volcano left an abrupt, devilish-looking landscape through which one walks to the ruins of the 17th century church. It’s equally fun to go from Angahuan to the site walking or on horseback. It’s about 1 1/2-mile-walk each way down a pleasant dirt and asphalt road.

Park your car in the large lot; men and boys will approach offering horses for hire. You can walk to the buried church and still have the experience of returning on horseback if you like, or vice versa. Make sure when you negotiate to determine if you’re talking round trip or one way.

Buried in Lava

The walk through a sparely populated pine forest and along the open road is pleasant and not taxing, and it’s awesome to see the buried church’s tower, in the distance, poking up through the lava. Although the lava rocks are sharp and uneven, and stones sometimes shift, you can carefully pick your way across the flow to climb onto to the church itself. Hello! Christmas card photo op!

It’s customary to stop for refreshments after exploring the ruins and before embarking on the walk or horse ride back to the parking lot. A half dozen families cook up enchiladas, tamales, and other typical snacks, and sell cold soda, lemonade, and beer. Or, if you fancy a good long hike or horseback ride and leave early enough in the day, you can continue past the buried church another 9 kilometers (5 mi) to visit the volcano itself. Take the horse most of the way, but the climb up to the cone itself will be on foot.

San Juan Parangaricutiro was relocated to a site just west of Uruapan (the most important city in the region). The new town, San Juan el Nuevo, has an ornate 20th-century church with many colorful murals, some depicting the history of the volcano. There are stained glass windows, an altar area full of saints, and a crucifix enclosed in glass. The most interesting thing about the church, however, is the tradition of dancing up the church’s center aisle to approach the altar. Two steps forward, one step back, the devout cruise slowly up the nave to the beat of their own spiritual drummer.

If you’re driving from Uruapan, head north and then west along a paved state road that becomes a rather rough but passable stone and dirt road to Angahuan. The distance is 37 km (23 mi). If you don’t have a car, take an “Urbano” bus toward Los Reyes from Uruapan.