Puebla’s Ring of Fire
The high valley of Cuetlaxcoapan, where Puebla was established in 1531, is surrounded by some of North America’s tallest mountains—Pico de Orizaba, Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, and La Malinche—and, on clear days, a mere glimpse of them can be spectacular. The most impressive peak, owing to its stature and proximity, is Popocatépetl: the active volcano rises 17,802 feet into the sky from its base, just 25 miles northwest of the city.
Since its last eruption in 2000, Popo has regularly sent up plumes of gas and smoke, giving it a somewhat ominous aura, but scientists monitor the site continually as a precaution. Due to the activity, visitors aren’t allowed any nearer to Popo than the mountain pass that separates it from the dormant Iztaccíhuatl to the east. Those interested in the area’s seismic history, however, can get an up-close-and-personal look at a related crater—in fact, a spiral staircase leads you right down into it—without straying too far from the center of town.
Cuexcomate has been called the world’s smallest volcano, the devil’s navel, and one of Mexico’s more unusual tourist attractions.
Located in La Libertad, a neighborhood in northwest Puebla, Cuexcomate (the Nahautl word for “mud pot”) was once the only landmark in the area. It is believed to be a secondary crater, or an extinguished geyser, created by bursts of magma and sulfuric water from Popocátepetl during its last violent eruption in 1064. The little limestone cone measures a mere 43 feet high and 76 feet in diameter. On the bilingual plaque outside the cone, an observer from 1585 describes Cuexcomate as “a very large rock crag standing alone, six or seven states tall, with circular form, in whose summit there is a great mouth, as if it was made to hold a well. It is very deep, and at the bottom there is foul-smelling water.”
Whether that stench was residual sulfur, or something else entirely, is unknown. The sign outside suggests that the cone once served as a site for human sacrifices to indigenous gods and later a depository for citizens who committed suicide, because “they didn’t merit being honorably mourned or buried in sacred ground.” Perhaps due to these horrors—or the fact that the inside of the cone is a popular spot for smooching teenagers—the people who lived near Cuexcomate were sometimes referred to as “children’s of the devil’s navel.”
Is it dangerous? The geographers at Geo-Mexico.com say no. “Cuexcomate is considered ‘inactive’ and highly unlikely to burst into renewed activity. However, Popocatépetl itself has been increasingly active over the past few years, leading to several temporary evacuations of the villages around its base. If Popocatépetl were to erupt violently again, some locals believe that perhaps the subterranean link to Cuexcomate might be re-established. …Let’s hope that never happens. It would bring an end to one of the more unusual tourist attractions in this part of Mexico.”
Cuexcomate is located at 3 Norte and 2 Poniente, a few blocks from the intersection of Reforma and Esteban Antuñano, in Colonia La Libertad. Admission is 10 pesos per person.