Volcano of Snow, Volcano of Fire

View of the two volcanoes from the South.

People, generally Mexican friends who live in large cities like Guadalajara or Mexico City, often ask me why I live in Ciudad Guzmán. To them it is a provincial backwater out ‘in the sticks’ – as an ex-girlfriend once memorably said to me, “Es un un pueblito rascuache y polvoriento” – it is a wretched, dusty little town. In reply I say, half-jokingly, that it is “la Perla de Jalisco”– the pearl of the state of Jalisco, perhaps something of an exaggeration.

In fact, there are many reasons why I like living here. One of them is that the city has a wonderful natural location. It is surrounded by hills, has a large lake on its northern side – unfortunately highly polluted so that no-one in their right mind would swim in it – and the view towards the west is dominated by the huge bulk of the Volcán del Nevado (the volcano of snow).  A friend here once told me that according to Feng Shui, Ciudad Guzmán (or to give it its traditional name Zapotlán el Grande) has all the ingredients of a perfect location – mountains, hills, water, and lots of sunshine.

The view of the Volcán del Nevado is constantly changing. Sometimes it is hidden in clouds all day so that you would not know it was there. Other times it seems to dominate the western skyline and impose itself on the city. Looking from Ciudad Guzmán, just behind it, lies its sister (or brother?) volcano, the Volcán del Fuego (volcano of fire). This is the most active volcano in Mexico and I have been told that it was responsible for the major earthquake in 1985 that reached all the way to Mexico City and destroyed a large part of Ciudad Guzmán.

Volcán del Fuego seen from a light airplane

From Ciudad Guzmán, one only glimpses the top of the Volcan del Fuego unless you start to climb the hills around the city in the East. As the volcano is constantly active, it is frequently possible to see fumaroles, clouds of vapour and gasses that the Volcano emits in white snaking spiral shapes.

Volcán del Fuego seen from the south. Photo courtesy of Michael Roberts

Occasionally too there are distinct booms, as the volcano releases gasses that have accumulated – rather like farting, I suppose. In fact, one of the more polite Mexican-Spanish words for farting that is used here is ‘boom’.

Like the other towns and cities of this area, Ciudad Guzmán is on a constant state of alert in case there is a major eruption of the Volcán del Fuego. There is a board in the main square with different coloured lights which express the relative danger of a major eruption, though I have only ever seen one light illuminated – the yellow one – which signifies to be prepared.  I recently joked with an English friend that living in the shadow of a live volcano – as also expressed in  Malcolm Lowry’s famous novel (1947) set in Cuernavaca “Under the Volcano” – tends to focus the mind in a certain way and make one more appreciative of life.

Recently here, in the last two weeks we have had much rain. This is not normal and I think it is an expression of the more extreme and less predictable weather patterns that are emerging all over the world (such as, for example, the recent flooding in Peru in the Cuzco region that I wrote about on another post) due to climate change – notwithstanding the efforts of the oil industry and others to deny that human-made climate change exists. For a period of two days in one week it rained constantly and this was repeated the following week. It was almost like being back in England at times with grey skies and constant drizzle the whole day.

One of the effects of this rainy weather is that in winter, the rain falls as snow on the volcanoes, particularly on the Nevado. So when the rain and clouds cleared, the Nevado was revealed in all its snow-capped majesty. As I walked or drove around the city I would be constantly astounded by different views of the Nevado, sometimes glimpsed out of the corner of my eye and other times apprehended full on.

One of the consequences of snow appearing on the Nevado is that suddenly thousands of people want to visit the National Park in which the volcano is located. Because the snow was particularly heavy this year, even more people than usual wanted to visit the National Park. After the first period of rain which fell as snow, the following weekend there were queues of one and a half hours from 4.30am to enter the National Park through the one public road access. The Park was closed at 9am as it was deemed there were too many people and the situation was too risky. In fact, that weekend, a car overturned on the descent and six people were killed.

Approach to the Picacho. Photo courtesy of Michael Roberts

My son, however, had entered the Park before this during the week, with a group of friends, when there were fewer people trying to gain access. As he and his friends know the route well, and were well-equipped, they were able to climb to the picacho – the very top – of the Volcano del Nevado. For more of his remarkable photos of this journey click here.

The second bout of snowfall created all kinds of logistical problems for the National Park. The meeting of a special committee, called ‘La Montaña Blanca’  – composed of representatives from the National Park, Protección Civil, and the municipalities that surround the volcano – took the decision to close the Park. This led to many complaints from local people who wanted to experience the snow and also saw the decision as damaging to potential tourism. In the end, however, the safety arguments prevailed, though there were people saying that really the Park should have the facilities and the equipment to deal with snow so that people could have access to the volcano.

The whole question of tourism in the Park is interesting and controversial. I attend meetings of the Patronato del Nevado, which is a civil society organization charged with the management of the Park alongside the Jalisco state organization, called SEDER (the Secretariat for Rural Development), which is also responsible for the management of the Park and pays the 4 million pesos each year (about 300,000 USD) for salaries and conservation work. I have written about some of the management issues of the Park on an earlier post. There is considerable tension in the meetings between people whose perspective is to open the Park up to tourism and more visitors and people whose perspective is principally concerned with the conservation of the Park.

For anyone wanting to visit the Park, outside the snowy season there is normally never any problem in entering. The entrance is about 10 kms west from the center of Ciudad Guzmán on the road to San Gabriel, and El Grullo. There is about a 20 km. climb to an area called La Joya at about 3400 meters where it is possible to camp and there are facilities like toilets, barbecues, cabins and an environmental education center.

View of Volcán del Fuego from the top of Volcán del Nevado. Photo courtesy of Michael Roberts.

From La Joya it is about another 1000 meters to reach the picacho of the Nevado. Technically, the ascent is prohibited by Protección Civil, but many people know a route that avoids passing by their control point. It is a relatively straightforward ascent but gruelling because of the high altitude. It is also possible to go to to the top with a recognised guide which, of course, is highly recommended for people who do not know the mountain. Anyone interested should contact Gerard Bernabe at:   gerardo@nevadodecolimatours.com  and you can also read his blog (in Spanish) here.

6 comments so far

  1. garydenness on

    Some nice photos there. Gotta say I love having a volcano or two in the scenery in everyday life. For the last couple of weeks we’ve had just that in Mexico City, with cleansed skies revealing Izta and Popo.

  2. Paul Roberts on

    The last time I flew out of Mexico City was around 9am a few weeks ago to return to Guadalajara and I have never seen the city so clearly from above. The views were incredible, everything could be seen in such sharp detail and the volcanoes seemed so close to the city.

  3. Troy Roberts on

    Beautiful and interesting! Further to what you say about rain, we have had it on 16 days out of the past 30 in this arid corner of Spain, a total of 361.5mls(on our very low tec little rain gauge), more than the local people can remember ever having before, even tho’ rainfall here has generally declined in the last 50 years. Also it’s been grey and cold, and rather like the UK. It makes you wonder what is coming next. Immediately tho’ it means everything is very green and lush.

  4. paulrobertsmexico on

    It seems to me that everywhere you go there is evidence that the climate is changing. It may not be straightforward warming but the climate is becoming more extreme and unpredictable. I think these are what my James Lovelock calls the “early skirmishes with Gaia” and it is likely to get worse.

  5. […] my last but one post I commented that a number of Mexican friends living in large cities cannot understand why I am […]

  6. gerardo on

    Gracias paul por hacer un post con mis datos en tu entrada del blog…

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