(15th – 21st April, 2016)
The state of Michoacán has a very bad reputation, and not just with foreigners either. It was almost like when we crossed from the USA into Mexico when we told people where we were heading. The worried faces looking back at us spoke volumes along with the many stories ranging from “it’s not all that bad” to “fill up your tank before crossing the border and don’t stop for anything (not even to pee) and whatever you do don’t leave the Cuota!” The worst was in the neighboring state of Jalisco were everyone seemed to believe Michoacán is the most dangerous place, so dangerous in fact that we should, if possible, avoid it and only when there is no other option to drive through – and then as fast as possible and don’t forget only during daylight hours! We avoided the coastal region as everyone seemed to agree that it truly is really dangerous only visiting the most northerly region. Of course, no Cuota leads there. With a somewhat unsettled feeling we ventured into the territory. What we certainly hadn’t expected with our visit was that we would end up having some of the most amazing experiences and enjoy the most gracious of hospitality not only of Mexico but our entire trip so far.
Arrival in Angahuan
Our first destination in Michoacán was the Volcano Parícutin which is situated near the little village of Angahuan. The drive led us through a few rather miserable looking villages where the people stared rather distrustfully at us as we drove past. The police presence was also much more noticeable which contributed to our somewhat uneasy feeling of isolation, that and being the only visibly foreigners. For our lunch break we decided to stop at a guarded gas station to make our sandwiches feeling somewhat safer with an armed guard nearby. Though, in the end we reached Angahuan in the afternoon without issue. The town itself is completely indigenous and sort of gives you the feeling as though time had decided to skip this village and leave things as they were. The road dead-ends at a tourist center that has some bungalows, camping area, a forest playground, and even a small restaurant. Though before we could reach our destination we were intercepted at the entrance to the village. Our camping book had warned us of the possibility that the local horse guides would gather at the entrance to the village waiting to reserve potential customers before they even get anywhere near the volcano. If one didn’t pay attention they would chase after them throughout the entire village! The guide that introduced himself to us upon our arrival was Enrique, and we made the mistake of saying “maybe”. Well, that was enough for him because as we drove off once again toward the village he catapulted himself onto his nearby saddled horse and chased after us down the road in a full gallop. Sometimes he would gallop ahead of us, sometimes behind, but he never let us out of his sight seemingly knowing where we were headed and actually ended up arriving at the Tourist center before us, probably to make sure that all the other guides in the area knew that we were his “bounty”. We smiled at all the effort he was putting forth to try and convince us to go on a tour with him and tried to explain to him that we first needed to settle in and think about it.
The tourist center of Angahaun was unexpectedly quaint and well maintained; and from there one had a spectacular view of the surrounding hills with the impressive volcano Parícutin as centerpiece. We found a perfect spot under huge pine trees with a covered picnic table and fireplace to set up our camp – wonderful! It was the ideal spot to spend a few days, we thought and felt comfortable and safe experiencing Michoacán from a completely different perspective as was described to us.
The Church in the Lava
Since it wasn’t all that late we had enough time to acquaint ourselves with the region’s main attraction: The church of San Juan Parangaricutiro, which is half buried by lava. On February 20,1943, the farmer Dionisio Pulido was busy working on his corn field when suddenly the ground broke open and lava started spewing out. Within a few hours a small crater had formed where his corn field used to be. Just imagine that for a moment! After a few months, the crater had grown to over a hundred meters high and within the year the spewing lava had completely claimed the village of Parícutin and San Juan Paragaricutiro – except the uppermost portion of the churches towers, which still stand today as a monument to the buried villages.
Directly behind the tourist center led a wide sandy path to the church; as we made to head out for the half hour hike we were intercepted once again by a number of guide who wanted to lead us to the church on horseback. Rejecting their offers in favor of stretching our legs we strolled through the bright pine forest down towards the church. The view that awaited us was really impressive. The half-buried church stands testament to the historical event that took place here all those years ago. The path continued through a warren of black lava stone discharging us into where row upon row of pews surely stood before the lava invaded the space. Scrabbling over and around the stones and church ruins we felt we were on some kind of adventurous discovery tour; something like that doesn’t come along every day!
Between Sun and Lava
With our adventurous outing to the church we really wanted to hike up to the volcano, though we were told it is inadvisable to go without the services of a guide. However, for a number of reasons we really didn’t want to hire a guide and then have to ramble along after him the whole way. So, we asked around why exactly it isn’t recommended; was it dangerous for tourists in the area? No, it isn’t dangerous at all, but we most probably wouldn’t find the right path. Being of a different opinion we decided to give it a go on our own anyway. Because of the afternoon heat we decided it would be best to get up really early and so the next morning we were up and ready to go by 7am. As we made our way to the entrance of the tourist center we were greeted once again by Enrique, who still hadn’t given up on trying to win us over, and was just curious as to what we had planned for the day. The poor guy, we almost felt sorry for him, though we explained that we wanted to go on a hike alone, though if we decide to go on a horse tour we would definitely do it with him. He need not come every day and check up on us, we would find him, promise! He looked quite crestfallen but took some time to explain the route to the volcano, as best he could, which ended up sounding a tad more complicated than we first though. We shall see…The cool morning air accompanied us to the church and onwards (where some friendly vendor explained the route once more) along a sandy path to a gate, which we were supposed to go through. There were no signs or maps or what not along the path and after some time we were no longer sure we were going the right way or were we in fact lost? The temperature was steadily increasing and we had the uneasy feeling of being alone and vulnerable, should someone want to do us ill. The warnings we had gotten about Michoacán were suddenly very present in our minds which now decided to visualize all manner of horror scenarios where by around the next corner we stumble upon a Marijuana field that tourists shouldn’t have seen. Or behind a bush a couple of banditos with machetes were waiting for naïve tourists to stroll right into their waiting arms… we were relieved however, when we spotted a couple of friendly farmers planting trees. They informed us that we had, in fact, taken a wrong turn and would need to backtrack quite a way before getting back onto the right trail. Taking advantage of the opportunity, we asked the farmers how safe the area was for tourists and were once gain relieved to hear that we had nothing to worry about. After an hour or so we finally reached the lava field that turned out to be a huge area between us and the still very far away volcano. Luckily for us the trail across the field was marked with easy to see white blazes, though we were sadly mistaken when we thought that it would be a simple. Hours upon hours we walked up and down over little hills, through little fissures through which lava once flowed but the volcano seemed only marginally nearer than before. The sun was unrelentingly blazing down upon us while the heat of the black lava stones was slowly baking us from below, we felt like we were walking across a huge charcoal grill. At some point, we realized that we would never make it back to camp before dark if we go farther and decide to turn back. We found a half-way shady spot tucked under an overhang for a break enjoying the view of the still distant volcano and bizarre landscape that we found
ourselves in. A tourist group led by a fit local guide caught up and overtook us as we scrambled over the lava field (we didn’t think that there would be anyone at this time of day not yet at the summit). As we learned the group, who were clearly way smarter than us, had hired horses for the return trip making it much easier to master…They were also being followed couple of dogs (it seems that the street dogs here enjoy accompanying hikers) who greeted us friendly; we gave them a bit of our water which they were quite thankful for, one of the dogs decided that it was apparently nicer with us and escorted us the entire way back. We soon fell for the little dog who came to visit us at camp quite regularly, apparently, she enjoyed our company as much as we hers.
After several more hours we finally ended up back at the church where we enjoyed a rest and a snack at one of the local food stands. Delicious handmade blue tortillas filled with cheese and different fillings. Both of us aren’t the biggest fans of corn tortillas but these tasted so good that we each had a second helping!
The village of Angahuan is interesting enough alone to warrant a visit. It is populated almost exclusively by the Purepecha people who have their own language and Spanish, when spoken at all, is their second language. For the first time, we saw women in traditional clothing, wonderfully colorful and their blouses and skirts decorated with complex embroidery. The costumes are quite expensive, we were told, but the women are very proud of the tradition and don’t want to wear anything else. It is nice that such traditions still exist! After the tour we did the day before we weren’t really up to anything strenuous so decided instead to visit the village. There were horses everywhere one looked, grazing behind houses, saddled and hobbled on the street waiting for a rider to hop onto their backs, and youths, whose feet didn’t even reach the stirrups, galloped along the alleys as though born on horseback; all giving the feeling that we had been transported a hundred years or so into the past, only the ever-present smartphones that everyone seemed to possess spoiled the picture. We found small tiendas that had the bare minimum of fruit and veggies, caught a quick look into various houses and stumbled upon several tailor shops with huge selections of colorful cloth used to make the traditional costumes. During our stroll, we also noticed a somewhat strange behavior of the people there. The men of the village would greet us in the streets relatively normally with a nod, a wave or an Hola in return, but the women however didn’t. Only by very old grandmothers were our greetings returned with smiles or waves all other women avoided eye contact and would walk by completely ignoring us. We don’t have an explanation for this odd behavior and could only assume it was something cultural that we didn’t understand. The village cohesion, on the other hand, seemed to be very intense as we discovered in a side street that was very moving for us: A house building party! Someone was building a house and the whole neighborhood was helping! A queue of men filling buckets with cement and carrying them up on ramps to empty them into molds, others preparing the next batch of cement or shoveling sand. The owner of the house provided the food, drink and entertainment there was even a stage set up and a full Mexican band was playing! Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves tremendously and we couldn’t do anything but stare in wonder that something like that exists. After a while of watching the goings on and enjoying the music one of the workers noticed us standing there and even brought over two chairs for us! Guests and spectators are apparently also welcome!
That wasn’t the only interesting customs Angahuan had to offer as we soon found out. When you walk through the village it is hard to miss that just about every house has a loud speaker mounted outside. We had heard strange sing-song proclamations from the campground at certain times of the day and would also go on for hours into the night. Having no idea what it could be we first thought it had to be something religious in nature, kind of like a communal prayer hour. What else could it be? It certainly sounded that way to us anyway, and we thought that they must be very religious in deed, such dedication. It remained a puzzle for us for a few days but with help of a local and our Spanish dictionary we managed to puzzle out that we were completely off the mark! It is nothing more than news announcements from food offerings, birth announcements, gatherings or articles for sale. How the villagers manage to filter anything out of the chaos is a wonder as it goes on for hours without pause in the same sing-song way. I guess one needs to be born there to understand anything.
Sunday is family day in Mexico and wherever one looks you seen the whole family out with Granny and Grampa, Uncles, Aunts and all their children; in tow big coolers, grills, and cases of drinks. So, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see, when we returned from our walk, that our covered picnic table had been taken over. The family was happy to see us arrive as our Land Rover with roof top tent had made them all very curious. Not two minutes there and we were invited to lunch and soon had a plate with pizza and Mexican rice in the hand along with a glass of home-made lemonade. They bombarded us with the typical questions but thankfully the eldest son could speak English so with his help we could converse with the entire family. It was really moving to be welcomed so spontaneously – that’s Mexico! So, we got to experience up close how a Mexican family spends their Sunday. With a lot of food, drinks, games and simply enjoying the wonderful weather. A horse was rented so that the kids could be lead through the park and even the adults had a go. A shame, we thought, that something like that happens so rarely in the “modern” world if at all. In Mexico, however, the family life, at least on Sundays, is really celebrated – and we were in the middle of the action! We also ended up playing a children’s game with the family which was great for our pathetic Spanish and of course produced a lot of laughs all around. At the end of the day we were sad to see the family start packing up their things for the trip home. The father gave us his business card with the words “If you need anything at all, let me know.” In the mean time we had managed to collect quite a few cards as most Mexicans are so welcoming and helpful that even those whom we only exchanged a few sentences would pass us a card or give us their contact information – just in case we needed anything. To be on the receiving end of such hospitality is truly heartwarming exceeded our expectations of Michoacán tremendously and we were quite happy to have taken the risk to visit.
An Unforgettable Adventure
After our failed volcano trek, we thought once again whether it wouldn’t simple be better to get Enrique involved with his horses for the trip to the Volcano. Though the thing with rented horses is… well they are rented. Firstly, we really didn’t want to support a business where the horses aren’t taken care of properly, underfed or simply maltreated. Secondly, a lot of rented horses are, to put it plainly, intellectually blunt. They are so used to having people on their backs that don’t know what they are doing they just plod along regardless of what you are trying to do. Simply put, we had no desire to be treated as sacks of potatoes the whole day and ending with saddle sores. Somehow, we had to make it clear to Enrique what we didn’t want. So, we went looking for him, after all we did say that if we needed horses we would ask for him. We thought about how we could explain to him, in as little words as possible, what we wanted. The best we could come up with was “No Caballos abuela!” which one could understand as “No granny horses” which made both him and us laugh. “Good Horses”, he assured us and so we arranged to meet the next morning.
At 7am sharp he stood there waiting for us at the arranged meeting spot with 3 horses, we were honestly shocked at the punctuality – something that we thought didn’t exist in Mexico. And, he didn’t exaggerate about the horses either; they looked healthy and well taken care of that we didn’t think twice about mounting them. Gary got the tan colored “Capitan” while I got the checkered mare “Yolanda” which I immediately fell in love with. Apparently, Enrique took our words to heart about not wanting any granny horses as we were barely in the saddle when he called “Hola Capitan, Hola Yolanda” and we were off at a fast trot – with Enrique bringing up the rear swinging a long rope above his head keeping the fast tempo. We worried that he might want to keep the tempo going the entire 14km to the volcano so after a little while we explained to him that didn’t quite mean that he needed to push, that we know how to ride and he doesn’t need to drive us before him like a herd of cattle, in fact he doesn’t need to do anything at all. That seemed to ease his nerves a bit and so we continued sometimes walking, sometimes trotting through the impressive landscape. The path was different from what we walked and made a large curve avoiding the lava field passing a number of lonely houses. avocado orchards and fallow fields. The temperature was still relatively cool; it felt wonderful to be out feeling the fresh morning air. At one point, we came to a wide sandy straightaway that offered the perfect spot for a bit of galloping. Since we had no idea what gallop was in Spanish the only thing that came to mind was “Rapido?” which of course made Enrique laugh. And, we were off Capitan lunged forward while Yolanda with her somewhat shorter legs gave chase. It was so awesome to be galloping after such a long time enough to shout Yaahooo! I felt at home and happy to be on horseback once again, especially on one so trustworthy and well trained. Actually, they are almost like life insurance as we found out later. In the middle of gallop Yolanda suddenly began to slow down, and before I even knew what was happening. I still had the reigns in my hands but they were hanging limp between her legs without a connection to the horses mouth. Since the tack was “a la Mexicana”, basically a bit with a couple of pieces of rope tied to it, mine fell apart somewhere in the middle of the gallop! Not something you would want to happen on a German horse who would probably have taken full advantage of the sudden freedom and with a few well timed movements thrown its rider and taken off. However, Yolanda simply slowed down and eventually stopped and waited patiently until the bridle was tied back together. Unbelievable! After a couple of hours we reached a steep incline leading to the foot of the volcano and Yolanda marched determinedly up the hill through deep ash without having to encourage her at all; arriving at the top without hardly breaking into a sweat! As we arrived at the top we figured we would have to dismount as we were now surrounded by difficult boulder strew rocky ground; but Enrique didn’t pause a moment he signaled us forward and we were once again impressed by the horses as they didn’t stumble once while picking their way through and over the rocky ground. Every German trained horse I know would have stumbled a half dozen times and ended up with at least a swollen tendon if not worse. Arriving at last, we tied the horses to a nearby tree and continued on foot to the crater.
We payed a small toll to the man who took care of the path, astounded that someone actually lived at the foot of the volcano, and after accepting the proffered walking stick followed Enrique who took the lead. He pointed up an incredibly steep scree field and said “we will come down that later.” What that? From where we stood it looked almost vertical! Though, for the time being the path up was much less steep through a very surreal setting: Steam was rising out of numerous small cracks and clefts giving the impression that one was walking through a witches cauldron. It was our first time hiking up a volcano and we were both fascinated by our surroundings. At the top, a stunning panoramic view as well as one into the crater, were hot gasses were also escaping, awaited us. Walking the perimeter of the crater we took loads of photos finally ending up at the aforementioned scree field. “So, that’s our way down” grinned Enrique before turning from us and proceeding to demonstrate how to go down jumping, sliding and skidding leaving a cloud of dust behind him. Gary didn’t think about it too long before joining Enrique in the fun, but it took me a little longer to work up the courage before I too was skidding and sliding my way down. Once I got the hang of it I had a real blast! A little like skiing on volcanic ash we slid and skidded down laughing all the way. Arriving somewhat out of breath at the bottom we noticed that our shoes were now full to the brim with volcano ash. With a coca cola in hand we set about emptying our shoes of ash before taking a pause to enjoy the sandwiches we had packed. The owner of the little hut, though shy and could only speak Purepecha, smiled at our excitement, and gave us a couple of small chocolates, and then another to share – a wonderful gesture of hospitality. We enjoyed the pause while Enrique chatted a few minutes with the old man before heading back to the horses for the ride back to camp. Barely settled in the saddle we were heading toward the steep hill once again, we actually thought that we would be taking it a bit easier on the way down, however Enrique had other plans for us. He took the lead and we ended up doing almost the same thing on horseback as we did on the way down from the volcano sliding down on the horses’ hindquarters. At little way from the volcano we wanted to stop and have Enrique take a photo of us on horseback, “no problem” he said before taking the camera and heading off the track on his horse through even rougher ground. It was difficult to watch honestly, I thought at any moment the horse would break a leg, but they are almost like mountain goats and mastered the difficult terrain without a problem. Another good gallop and then we trotted and walked the rest of the way home. Along the way Enrique taught us a couple of words in Purepecha and complemented us on our riding skills. What a day! It was one of the most wonderful experiences of our entire trip and we told Enrique that too when we invited him for a beer when we got back. We also gave him a huge tip since what we ended up paying for the entire day was no more than $50. If you are lucky you get a single horse for an hour in other countries, not 3 with guide for an entire day! The day would definitely be remembered, and not just because of the severe muscle aches that had started forming almost directly after dismounting!
Enjoying the Peace and Quiet
We were really taken with Angahuan and although we would have liked to stay longer our supplies were dwindling and since the village had only the most basic of supplies we decided that we needed to head to the next nearest town of Uruapan to resupply. It was difficult for us to leave the idyllic setting and were almost shocked when we arrived in the hustle and bustle of Uruapan. The town was dirty, ugly, loud, hectic and filled with the stink and noise of the overloaded roads. It didn’t take us too long to decide that we had no desire to stay any longer than absolutely necessary to resupply, check our emails, and turn around and head back to Angahuan. They laughed a bit when they saw us arrive at the tourist center. Yes, we liked it that much. For a few more days we enjoyed simply being in our camp, waking up with the sunrise and going to bed just after sundown. It came naturally to us without having to force ourselves into the rhythm. For hours upon hours we sat at the view point looking out over the volcano enjoying the peace and quiet. We baked bread, cooked fancy meals and wrote a bit for our blog. As the time came once again to leave we still had a hard time packing up. We could have stayed months, but Mexico is big and there was still much to see. The magic of Angahaun and the volcano Parícutin will forever have a place in our hearts.