Oct 062011

The small town of Tequila, the center of production of Mexico’s national drink, lies in the shadow of an imposing 2700-meter (8860-ft) volcano. Most visitors to the town visit the National Tequila Museum, take a distillery tour, and then sample one or two of the many world-famous brands of tequila made in the area.

The spine of Tequila Volcano

The spine of Tequila Volcano. Drawing by Mark Eager (Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury); all rights reserved.

Tequila Volcano, which overlooks the rolling fields of blue agaves required to make the liquor, is the home of one of Mexico’s most distinctive geomorphosites. From the rim of its crater, the most arresting thing about the view is not the green, tree-covered crater itself but the giant monolith with almost vertical sides rising perpendicularly from the middle of the crater floor.

This well-preserved central spine, known locally as la tetilla (“the nipple”) is quite unusual. It represents the hardened lava which cooled in the central vent of the volcano and which, solid and unyielding, was later pushed upwards by tremendous subterranean pressure.

Few such good examples exist anywhere in the world. The example most often quoted in geography texts is the spine that was pushed up by Mont Pelée on the island of Martinique in the West Indies in October 1902, immediately prior to that volcano’s disastrous eruption which cost 32,000 lives.

How to get there

A cobblestone road begins near the railway station in the town of Tequila and winds up Tequila Volcano towards the short-wave communications tower on its rim. It is about 20 kilometers from the town to the rim. The hike or drive up to the rim affords glorious views over the surrounding countryside. As you gain altitude, so the vegetation changes, becoming luxuriant pine-oak forest well before you reach the rim. Looking across the crater, on a day when clouds slowly drift across and partially obscure the view, is like watching a silent movie of ancient Chinese landscape drawings.

Want to read more?

For a fuller description of a visit to Tequila Volcano and a climb up the volcanic spine, see John and Susy Pint’s Outdoors in Western Mexico (2nd edition 2011).

For a description of Tequila Volcano and the varied villages and sights in its vicinity, see chapters 9 and 10 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (Sombrero Books, 2013), also available in a Kindle edition.

Dec 182010

One of Mexico’s best kept travel secrets for people driving their own vehicle is the multitude of road signs all beginning with the word “microondas” (literally “microwaves”). Even visitors with good Spanish and a bilingual dictionary in their glove compartment may puzzle over the meaning of this frequently occurring sign, which invariably seems to lead onto a cobblestone track going, so far as one can tell, absolutely nowhere! There is no distant church tower, no sign of habitation, just a radio mast on the distant skyline. And that (rather than microwave ovens) is precisely what the sign refers to: a short-wave communications post!

One of the numerous benefits for the geographer is that virtually any microondas station offers a short, usually interesting side-trip, ideal for a brief respite from the demands of high speed highway driving. The well maintained, cobblestone tracks that provide access to the communications towers serve not only engineers, but also enterprising tourists. The access roads may follow devious routes but they eventually reach the gates of a fenced enclosure, invariably situated on the highest point for several miles in any direction. While there is no guarantee of an uninterrupted view, most microondas stations afford tremendous vistas over the surrounding countryside.

Microondas at top of Cerro de los Caballos. Photo: Gabriel Chaparro Tre….

View from the Microondas atop Cerro de los Caballos. Photo: Gabriel Chaparro Tre….

Very few vehicles use these excellent side roads, so they are usually safe and convenient places to stop, take a rest, stretch your legs and enjoy a picnic. As the tracks wind upwards, they often traverse successive vegetation zones, going from oak woodland up into pine forest if the mountain is high enough, for instance. This provides botanists and birders a range of habitats and transition zones worth exploring. Of course, some microondas sit on top of small mounds surrounded by a seemingly limitless flat and monotonous plain, home only to an infinite number of cacti. But others, the jewels of their kind, are in the midst of tropical rainforest looking out over canyons where spider monkeys can be seen leaping from branch to branch.

In the volcanic central areas of Mexico, microondas stations are commonly perched on crater rims, making many volcanoes fall in the “drive-in” category, including the Volcán Nevado de Toluca (Xinantécatl).  Full descriptions of the scenic wonders to be encountered on drives up, for example, Ceboruco volcano or Tequila volcano (the former in Nayarit state, the latter in Jalisco) merit a book unto themselves. To anyone who has never seen the legacies of past vulcanicity at close quarters, what more awesome and eye-opening introduction could there possibly be?

Needless to say, though you’re never far from the highway, you mustn’t expect to find any tourist amenities at microondas, not even “microwaved” fast-food. But don’t let that put you off visiting Mexican-style microwaves.

So, next time you spy “microondas” on a road sign (or, if you’re reading this in the depths of northern winter, the next time you press a button on your microwave!), remember – a short detour along one of Mexico’s best-kept travel secrets might well lead you to discover your own favorite stopping place. Someday, somewhere, someone should produce a comprehensive guide to the microondas of Mexico…

Mexico’s volcanic landscapes are discussed in chapters 2 and 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy a copy as a seasonal gift today!

The story of Paricutín volcano in Michoacán

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Jun 252010

Paricutín first erupted, completely unexpectedly, in the middle of a farmer’s field, on February 20, 1943.

Paricutin depicted on postage stamp

Paricutín Volcano depicted on stamp

A remarkable account of its early days is given by Simón Lázaro Jiménez, who recounts in his book, Paricutín: 50 Years After Its Birth , his adventures as a young boy as he fled with his parents for safety as their small village of Angahuan was bombarded with red-hot rocks and ash. Don Simón’s account, which I was delighted to translate into English, may possibly be exaggerated in places, but remains the only first-hand account of any substance written by a native P’urépecha speaker.

The book is illustrated with some magnificent photos by German photographer Walter Reuter. One of Reuter’s photos shows Dionisio Pulido (the farmer whose field was blown apart by the volcano) trying to sell the resulting conical hill to an “eccentric American”. I have since learned that the “eccentric American” is none other than Robert Ripley of “Believe it or not” fame.

The volcano finally stopped erupting in 1952, but only after completely destroying the village of Parícutin (note that the position of the accent has changed over the years) and the town of viejo (old) San Juan Parangaricutiro. All that is left of the latter today are a few broken-down walls and parts of the huge, old church that did a brave job of withstanding the compelling force of the lava as it overran the rest of the town.

Geographic tongue-twister related to Paricutín Volcano.

The landscape around Paricutín is world-class in terms of its eco-tourism potential. Visitors have the opportunity to explore some of the finest, easily accessible volcanic scenery anywhere in the world. What makes Paricutín so special is that scientists have rarely had the opportunity to study a completely new land-based volcano, whereas new oceanic island volcanoes are comparatively common. In fact, the first two new volcanoes formed in the Americas in historic times are just one hundred kilometers apart. The first is Jorullo, which first erupted on September 29, 1759, and was studied by Alexander von Humboldt; the second is Paricutín.

Mexico’s Volcanic Axis is discussed in chapter 2 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. The sustainable forestry project of San Juan Parangaricutiro is examined in chapter 15 and the 2004 UN Equator prize won by the village is described here.

Copies of Paricutín: 50 Years After Its Birth are available from Sombrero Books

How Mexico’s fourth highest peak got its name

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Jun 022010

We are delighted to publish a series of guest blogs by independent researcher Fatimah Araneta.

Fatimah Araneta grew up in Mexico City. After gaining a Masters in City Planning at Berkeley, California, she opted to eschew city life and direct her energy and attention to living in tune with what’s left of Mother Earth before it all gets paved over and criss-crossed with cabled and non-cabled networks. She lives “off the grid” in the shadow of the volcano she prefers to call Chicnautécatl.

Part 1 How Mexico’s fourth highest peak (Chicnautécatl) got its name


Mexico’s fourth highest peak is an extinct volcano that rises elegantly above the city of Toluca. It is generally referred to as “el Nevado”, which is short for “el Volcán Nevado de Toluca”, Toluca’s Snow-Covered Volcano. Nowadays, however, the name is sadly inaccurate since the volcano is hardly ever covered in snow.

El Nevado is also known as Xinantécatl[1]. This name first appeared in an official registry in the second half of the nineteenth century. It sounds like Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, but historians have debated at length about its origin and meaning, questioning its authenticity. The closest place name that bears any etymological resemblance is the town of Zinacantepec, “Hill Where There Are Bats”. However, the volcano does not possess a significant bat population, and Zinacantepec is only one of dozens of small towns that surround it.

It is possible that the original name in Nahuatl had really been Chicnautécatl, “Nine Peaks”. This would dovetail nicely with the Lerma River’s old Nahuatl name of Chicnahuapan, “Nine Rivers”. The River Lerma is the result of the confluence of several streams that spring from the sides of the volcano.

An explanation offered by García Martínez of how “Chicnautécatl” could have become “Xinantécatl” is a not-so-farfetched series of errors, considering the lack of a basic alphabet in Nahuatl. It could all boil down to how the name was pronounced by one person, written down by a second, and later read and copied, or rather miscopied, by a third.

The number nine in nahuatl is “chicnaui” and that is how it is generally written now, but it can be pronounced “shicnaui” as well as “chicnaui”. It is possible that one person informed a second that the volcano was called “Chicnautécatl”, pronouncing it with a “sh” sound, and the one who listened wrote an “X” for the beginning “sh” sound (the Castilian alphabet has no letter for the “sh” sound). So, it may have been registered as “Xinautécatl”. Then, according to this line of thought, a third person misread the name, mistaking the “u” for an “n”, or miscopied it, writing an “n” instead of the “u”, thus giving rise to “Xinantécatl”.

However it may have been, the volcano is still more often referred to as “el Nevado”.

Fortunately, the origins of most place names in Mexico are more straightforward and comprehensible. The next part of this article examines why many Mexican place names have up to four distinct layers of meaning.

[1] In Mexican Spanish, the “x” can be pronounced “s” as in sun, “sh” as in shoe, “h” as in hat, or “x” as in taxi. In the case of “Xinantécatl” it is pronounced “s”.

Click on the word “placenames” or the “placenames” tag for more articles about Mexico’s place names.

The mud volcanoes known as Los Negritos, in Michoacán, Mexico

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May 112010

Los Negritos (the Little Black Ones) are a legacy of the volcanic heritage of most of central and western Mexico. They are located a few kilometers east of Jiquilpan in the state of Michoacán.

Two of the “Los Negritos” mud volcanoes. Photo: Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Los Negritos are small mud volcanoes (up to a meter or two across) which burble and gurgle, hiss and splutter, and occasionally erupt, throwing hot mud into the air and emitting sulfurous fumes. They are great fun to watch, but take care! Don̓t get too close or you may be splattered with the hot mud. Worse yet, you could step in the innocuous-looking but highly unstable surrounding mud patches which can rarely hold a person’s weight.

Other vestiges of volcanic action include several geysers, including the one at Ixtlán de los Hervores and the many thermal hot springs, now often utilized for tourist facilities and spas, scattered  throughout Mexico’s Volcanic Axis.

This is an edited extract from Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury (Sombrero Books 2013).

Mexico’s volcanic landscapes are discussed in chapters 2 and 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Mud volcano puffs into action. Photo: Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Book describing Paricutín volcano in the state of Michoacán, Mexico

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May 052010

On February 20, 1943, Paricutín Volcano erupted in a farmer’s cornfield in Michoacán. Simón Lázaro Jiménez, now a carpenter by trade, was just a young boy. Here, for the first time, an indigenous P’urepecha Indian relives, in vivid and entertaining prose, his first-hand experiences on that fateful day and during the months that followed.

This 51-page softcover booklet includes simple maps and 16 previously unpublished photos, including several by acclaimed German photographer Walter Reuter.

Paricutín, 50 years after its birth was written by Simón Lázaro Jiménez, and translated by Tony Burton. The booklet was published by Editorial Agata in 1994.

“Early that morning when we reached the town all the houses were completely deserted, with their doors open but nobody inside. We went round the town three times and found five men reciting the Holy Rosary…” (p 14)

“The first flows of lava oozed out of the volcano’s mouth and formed a hard initial slope but this didn’t work as Nature intended. It only resulted in reinforcing the side, enabling the volcano to increase its height, which is just what happened.” (p 23)

“The greatest number of tourists always arrived at night because this was the best time to appreciate, in all its splendor, in all its magnitude, this marvel of Nature, and the volcano, as if showing off its immense pride, threw its fiery stones as high as possible. These same stones would then totally cover everything…” (p 27)

The author tells a compelling tale, and one which might never have seen the light of day had it not been for the generosity of Editorial Agata in arranging its translation and publication.

Apr 302010

The Cuexcomate volcano, in a suburb of the city of Puebla, is generally considered to be the world’s smallest volcano.

The world's smallest volcano

Weighing in at an estimated 40 metric tons, it stands just 13 meters (43 feet) tall, with a reach (diameter) of 23 meters (75 feet). The name Cuexcomate derives from the Nahuatl Cuexcomac which means bowl or place for keeping things.

Mexico has thousands of volcanoes, and many very interesting ones, but Cuexcomate must surely be the only volcano in the country with a spiral staircase inside it! The volcano formed in 1664, as an offshoot parasitic cone during an eruption of a much larger volcano, Popocatépetl.

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 and the world’s smallest volcano could become somewhat larger…

Let’s hope that never happens. It would bring an end to one of the more unusual tourist attractions in this part of Mexico. Climbing down a spiral staircase into claustrophobic darkness is hardly an everyday experience for a tourist, or indeed for a vulcanologist. The crater is about eight meters across. Inside there is, frankly, not much to see apart from the inevitable lava!

Cuexcomate volcano is located in a residential suburb of the city of Puebla, a city better known for its proximity to archaeological sites, colonial buildings and a massive Volkswagen factory.

Factual note:
The world’s smallest active volcano is probably Mount Taal, located near the city of Tagaytay in the Philippines. It is a positively gargantuan 508 meters (1,660 feet) high, more than thirty-nine times the height of Cuexcomate, its Lilliputian cousin.

This is an edited version of an article first published on MexConnect: Original article

Volcanoes, in all their sizes and shapes are discussed in chapter 2 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico

Earliest landscapes on Mexican postage stamps

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Mar 192010

The earliest landscapes to be depicted on Mexican postage stamps were in 1899. The set included these magnificent images of The Juanacatlán Falls, popularly known as the “Niagara of Mexico”, on the 50 cent stamp, and of Popocatapetl volcano on the 1 peso stamp.

The Juanacatlán Falls are on the River Santiago, shortly after it leaves Lake Chapala on its way to carve the deep Oblatos Canyon on the northern edge of Mexico’s second city, Guadalajara. In 1899, these falls were considered to be the second largest waterfall in North America (in terms of volume of flow) after Niagara Falls. A bridge with 24 arches spans the falls and joins the villages of Juanacatlán and El Salto (The Waterfall).

There are two major volcanoes near Mexico City. The first is the still active Popocatepetl (“Popo”), which rises to 5500 meters (18,045 feet) and is shown on the 1899 1 peso stamp. Alongside it, the dormant volcanic peak of Iztaccihuatl is 5220 m (17,126 ft) high. Both are clearly visible from Mexico City on a smog-free day. The southern suburbs of Mexico City are overshadowed by a third, smaller volcano, Ajusco, which reaches 3930 m (12,894 ft).

These beautiful 1899 stamps, designed and printed in the UK, are considered to be among the gems of Mexican philately.

Mexico’s many volcanoes are discussed in chapter 2 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.  Water issues are examined in chapter 7, and environmental trends and issues are the subject of chapter 30.