A church, half-buried in settled lava rock, is all that remains of this settlement destroyed by the Parícutin volcano in Mexico. Dubbed ‘Mexican Pompeii’ by many, only a single ruin remains; and a new settlement called Nuevo (‘New’) San Juan Parangaricutiro, established by locals who fled when the volcano formed.
The walk up to the ruins is unique. The undulating natural terrain created by the volcanic eruption is a great trail to follow on its own. But the church, half-buried in this awe-inspiring natural terrain, and the knowledge that something lies below creates an experience that is ethereal to view, but eerie at the same time. The terrain is a symbol of the force and power that nature yields over humans, while the church is a symbol of resilience.
Unlike a visit to Pompeii, an opulent city fossilized and frozen in time, the ruins of San Juan Parangaricutiro do not offer insight into the history of the settlement that was, but rather locals who fled at the time and their descendants are the sources of what we know about the buried settlement.
The Paricutin Volcano
In 1943, the Paricutin volcano surged suddenly, erupted, and continued to do so until 1952. Despite its significant size and spread, locals from two affected towns were able to evacuate before the eruption began in earnest. The volcano was one of the first to be studied from eruption to dormancy, and in addition, its scale and timespan attracted worldwide attention; despite the timeline overlapping that of the second world war and its aftermath.
According to the indigenous community who lived around the village, there were earthquakes in the region before the appearance of a fissure which drove the people out of the village in fear. Some village elders even predicted an apocalypse! Many myths and stories came up at the time, running parallel to the deep research that volcanologists carried out. Given how young its formation and the subsequent eruption was, Paricutin was studied in great detail – at different stages and using new technology.
In 2019, Francisco Lazaro, told EFE, “There was no rumbling, and we didn’t see any ash. When it stopped, the volcano was born. The volcano rumbled, expelled (gases), and glowed. That’s why people ran, out of fear. They didn’t even lock up their houses or even grab anything. A neighbor told people it was the end of the world, he didn’t know that a volcano had been born.”
When the volcano erupted, about nine days after it began forming, the community had begun evacuating already and there were no fatalities but the settlements were buried under the lava.
Around a year after the initial eruption, the lava reached the church which is the only remnant of the past settlement. The rock of the cemetery walls around the church slowly melted and the lava flew over the graves and ahead, leaving the tower and altar standing. The Paricutin volcano stayed active for eight more years, but the church remained standing.
San Juan Parangaricutiro; Today
The Paricutin volcano is part of the Sierra Nevada, a still-active volcanic belt that runs transversely through Mexico. The volcano, however, is dormant. This allows visitors to climb the trail and cinder cone where it is naturally accessible and safe.
The church ruins can be seen even today, with the main tower half-buried yet intact and the altar also largely retains its original form. This forms an experience like no other—a striking image with the volcano’s great cinder cone visible in the background.
The terrain created by the volcanic activity, with the view of the surroundings and the volcano, is a beautiful hike. The church ruins add a new dimension to this drawing people from far and near who trek to the ruins. The church stands out as the only built form surrounded by the natural terrain. It also acts as a reminder of the settlement that exists below. One is in awe of the structure and also of nature, overpowering and burying the rest of the region.
One of the driving factors that draw people to the church is also an altar that survived the eruption. Visitors are drawn here to see this part of the structure and often pray and light candles at the altar. Many see it as a sign of faith and the good it brings, or just are drawn to the story of the church that survived nine years of the volcanic eruption.
What could have been a barren local hiking trail, has become a well-known tourist destination as a result of the church ruins. A large number of people in Nuevo San Juan are involved in tourist activity. Estimates suggest that the number of people entirely or in a small capacity involved in tourism and related industries is over 50%. The ruins thus, also largely sustain the descendants of the displaced community.
Atlas Obscura. n.d. Viejo San Juan Parangaricutiro. [online] Available at: <https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/san-juan-parangaricutiro>
Cobo, E., 2019. San Juan Parangaricutiro, Mexico’s Pompeii buried by Paricutin volcano. [online] www.efe.com. Available at: <https://www.efe.com/efe/english/world/san-juan-parangaricutiro-mexico-s-pompeii-buried-by-paricutin-volcano/50000262-4022825>
En.wikipedia.org. n.d. Parícutin – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Par%C3%ADcutin>