Posts Tagged ‘volcano’


Getting a Closer Look at Mexico’s Active Volcano

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

The active Popocatépetl volcanoFew natural wonders are as awe-inspiring as an active volcano, and Popocatépetl rarely disappoints. On a typical day, the second highest peak in Mexico—which rises 17,802 feet above sea level—spews a plume of ash, gas, and steam that can stretch for miles, its trajectory determined by which way the wind happens to be blowing.

For nearly seven years now, I’ve admired this powerful force of nature from a comfortable distance, often perched on the rooftop of our apartment building in San Andrés Cholula, Puebla, some 25 miles away. Countless times I’ve snapped share-worthy photos, swept volcanic debris from our back patio, and watched the evening sun dip behind Popo and neighboring (and dormant) Iztaccíhuatl as it sets to the west. Nature’s majesty never, ever gets old.

I finally had a closer encounter with Popocatépetl—or “Don Goyo,” as the volcano is colloquially known (“Goyo” is short for San Gregorio, its patron saint)—this spring, when friends of ours organized an overnight trip to a town in the folds of Iztaccíhuatl. Our first stop was El Paso de Cortés, the mountain pass through which Spanish soldiers are said to have marched in the 16th century to reach the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, now known as Mexico City.

The Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley at duskPicnic at El Paso de CortésView of Iztaccíhuatl from El Paso de Cortés

Natural Wonder

This gap between the volcanoes today affords visitors access to Parque Nacional Izta-Popo, as well as spectacular views of the mountains and the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley whenever the weather cooperates. So, one fine Saturday in March, we packed a lunch and our overnight bags and headed up the long, winding dirt road from Cholula to El Paso de Cortés. It was a truly glorious day, and our party of six arrived at the pass with plenty of time to check out the small museum in the visitor’s center, take pictures, and enjoy a leisurely picnic beneath the pine trees before the afternoon clouds moved in.

Later, a few miles south of the national park, we settled into our digs at Villa Buenavista Turistíca, a rustic “resort” with a hotel and cabins, a restaurant, and a tiny lake for fishing. Although the fireplace was tempting—it can be quite chilly at high altitudes—rather than linger in our cabin nestled deep in the woods, we headed uphill to a private home on a ridge overlooking the valley. We got slightly lost en route and couldn’t get a cell phone signal, so we parked and hitched a ride with a local resident. Not only did he know the way, but his 4×4 deftly handled the street’s unpaved switchbacks, two of which required backing up to make their extremely sharp turns. At the house, we were treated to a lovely view at dusk, followed by rain showers.

A couple of hours later, however, the clouds parted and Popocatépetl—which loomed in the moonlight—was gloriously dusted with snow. A soft red glow, presumably coming from the molten lava inside, rimmed its crater. Whoa. I’m fairly certain that the word “breathtaking” comes from sights like these. One thing’s for sure: No photo my iPhone could take would ever do it justice. I felt fortunate to be standing there among friends, appreciating the scene, knowing that such moments rarely occur more than once in a lifetime.

The next morning, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Buenavista restaurant, then decided to get a glimpse of La Ermita del Silencio and the other “resort” in the area. The hillside hermitage, founded by a Buddhist monk, offers a quiet retreat for individuals and groups seeking a beautiful place to meditate. The facility is open to the public only on weekends when it’s vacant—but the grounds outside are gorgeous, with waterfalls and views of Popocatépetl. Meanwhile, Villa Ecoturistica La Venta provides an alternate eatery, plus hiking, fishing, and zip-lining opportunities. (For those interested in camping on Izta, this is perhaps the safest place to do so.)

Inside Buenavista’s restaurantLa Ermita del SilencioWaterfall at Villa Ecoturistica La Venta

Local Legends

Poblanos tell a lot of stories about the volcanoes that surround Puebla. Perhaps the most familiar is the legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.

Many slight variations of this tale exist, but here is my translation of the official version that’s posted on the wall inside the national park’s museum:

In Aztec mythology, Izta was a beautiful princess who fell in love with the handsome and brave warrior Popo. Her father sent Popo into battle, promising him her hand in marriage if he brought back the enemy’s head. Before Popo left, he and Izta swore their undying devotion to each other. But while Popo was away, a Tlaxcalteca who had eyes for Izta told her that Popo had been killed in battle and convinced her to marry him instead.

Some time later, Popo returned victorious, and Izta—having already offered herself to another man—committed suicide, because she couldn’t be with her true love. A heart-broken Popo subsequently died of sadness. That night, the Aztecs watched as two massive mountains emerged from the valley floor: one shaped like a woman in repose and the other like a man kneeling before her. The gods had turned Izta and Popo into volcanoes to forever remind people of their ill-fated romance. As for the Tlaxcalteca, he became Citlaltépetl (aka Pico de Orizaba), who watches the pair he could never really separate from a distance.

To this day, Popo (a personification of Tlaloc, an Aztec god of water and fertility) and Izta continue to be revered by some Mexicans as deities. Residents of the area around the active volcano today are known to deliver offerings—music, food, liquor—to appease him.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Travel tips: Before heading to El Paso de Cortés, it’s a good idea to check the weather, the latest activity report for the volcano, and the condition of your vehicle. Access to Popocatépetl is strictly prohibited. Permits are required to hike, bike, or climb Iztaccíhuatl; download and fill out the form, pay 28 pesos per person at the visitor center, and then wear the wristband you’re given. For additional information, please refer to the various links in the post above.

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Coping With the Volcano: Popocatépetl Safety Tips

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

AAP-Popocatepetl2-wmrkPopocatépetl has been blowing a lot of smoke lately. The active volcano sent so much ash, steam, and glowing bits of lava into the air — sometimes more than a mile above its crater — this past week that it looked like it had snowed in the Puebla capital. Wayward ashes were reported as far away as Guatemala, and flights were suspended at the city’s airport Wednesday until the cleanup crew could sweep up the mess on the runway.

The increased activity led the National Center for Disaster Prevention in Mexico to raise its alert level for the volcano. An official report [PDF] released Sunday morning explained:

“The increase in the general activity of Popocatepetl volcano during the last weeks and especially the acceleration of the seismic activity registered yesterday, today at 1:40 a.m., the Interior Ministry raised the Volcanic Alert Level to Yellow Phase 3. During the period in which the volcanic traffic light remains in this level, two bulletins will be issued daily: the first at 10 a.m., with a summary of the activity of the last 24 hours and the second at 7 p.m., featuring updating the data reported in the first. If necessary, the updates will be reported more frequently. … The volcanic alert level is in YELLOW Phase 3.”

This is the third-highest warning on the center’s seven-step scale [PDF], and it essentially means that the experts who keep an eye on Don Goyo think his activity level may continue to increase.

“In past years, the type of activity reported was associated to the ascent of magmatic material and the growth of the lava dome. This activity leads to the following likely scenarios: intermediate to high-scale explosive activity, dome growth, and possible lava emission; explosions of growing intensity; occurrence of pyroclastic flows [a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock]; and ash fall on the closer villages and in lesser amounts in the more remote places, depending on the wind direction.

“The Popocatepetl volcano is monitored continuously 24 hours a day. Any significant change in the activity of the volcano will be [reported] promptly.” For the latest update in English, click here.

Volcano Health & Safety Tips

There’s currently no reason to panic or to cancel your trip to Puebla. But if you live here or are traveling in the area, it’s in your best interest to stay abreast of the situation. Pay attention to local news reports for updates. (We’ll do our best to share any new information, as it becomes available, through our Twitter and Facebook accounts, too.)

In general, this is not a good time to visit El Paso de Cortés, the mountain pass between Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. The road is permanently closed to through traffic (to Mexico City), but it provides access to the national park, where there’s an observation point and hiking and climbing are permitted on Iztaccíhuatl.

The reason to stay away: Communities near the volcano will be among the first evacuated in the event that the alert level gets raised again. As a preventative measure, Puebla state officials on May 12 put El Plan Operativo Popocatépetl in place. The plan provides for the evacuation and shelter of residents in high-risk areas; the city of Puebla, situated 28 miles east of the crater, is outside this radius.

“This is a prevention phase,” the state governor told local media. “There is no immediate danger and people are calm, but we must be on constant alert.”

Foreign residents and travelers should contact their embassies for instructions in the event of a major emergency. The local equivalent of 911 is 066.

Ashes from the volcano — essentially a very fine gray dust — can cause or aggravate respiratory issues and allergies, including itchy eyes. The city’s civil protection agency recommends that you refrain from outdoor activities, keep doors and windows closed, and cover your eyes and mouth with protective wear (particularly if you use contact lenses). If your eyes or throat become irritated, rinse them with purified water. Avoid al fresco dining, from restaurants to street food. Keep your pets inside. Protect household water sources, including tanks and cisterns.

In addition, authorities note, ashes make surfaces slippery. To clean them up, it’s best to use a broom or a dry cloth to remove them from surfaces. Getting ashes wet first will turn them into cement-like mud. Collect and use this new soil (which is rich in minerals) to fertilize your yard or garden.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Puebla’s Ring of Fire

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

A spiral staircase leads visitors down into the cone.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 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.

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