By Julie R Butler
For the 21 million people living in the shadow of Popocatépetl, having a sense of the power behind the forces that shape the natural world around us is a daily occurrence. This active stratovolcano has been rumbling and sending plumes of ash high into the sky since its birth, which was probably about 730,000 years ago. Although there was a period of quiet that began in 1947, the volcano whose name means “smoking mountain” in Nahuatl began its smoking again in 1994.
Now, el Popo has begun erupting forcefully, sending plumes of ash and gas several kilometers high and showering hails of fire down its slopes over the past couple of weeks. This spectacular volcanic activity has gained international attention, prompted CENAPRED to up the alert level to Yellow Phase 3, and ignited interest in this iconic, beating heart of Mexico.
A Land of Fire and Passion
Did you know that Popocatépetl is the second-highest volcano in North America, rising to some 5,452 meters above sea level? Of course, the highest one is also Mexican: Pico de Orizaba, or Citlaltépetl, as it’s known in Nahuatl, at 5,636 meters.
Both Orizaba and Popocatépetl are stratovolcanoes, which means they are made up of layers of solidified lava and volcanic ash built up by multiple eruptions. But while Orizaba is dormant, el Popo is one of the most active volcanoes in Mexico, along with Volcán de Colima.
These volcanoes and many others form the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, which arcs across the continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. In fact, here you can see six Mexican volcanoes in the belt: from left to right, there’s Iztaccíhuatl, Popocatépetl, Matlalcueitl (Malinche), and Cofre de Perote, with Pico de Orizaba rising up in the distance and Sierra Negra visible behind it.
Popocatépetl is connected to Mexico’s third-highest volcano, Iztaccíhuatl, by a saddle known as Paso de Cortés, which is the mountain pass that conquistador Hernán Cortés crossed over to arrive at Tenochtitlán in 1519. Today, this is where you gain access to enter Parque Nacional Iztaccíhuatl-Popocatépetl.
Iztaccíhuatl, which means “white woman” in Nahuatl, is also referred to as Mujer dormida because the contours resemble the profile of a woman lying on her back. Together, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl represent the power of Mexico’s impressive volcanic landscape to express the passion and intensity of Mexican culture.
The Legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl
While there are different versions of the legend of the star-crossed lovers who became entombed in the landscape, the Mexican writer and journalist Carlos Villa Roiz tells it basically this way:
Long ago in Tenochtitlán, there was a beautiful princess named Mixtli. The daughter of Tizoc, the emperor of the Mexicas, Mixtli was pursued by many men, but her heart belonged to the hansom warrior Popoca. To win the hand of the princess, Popoca was sent to prove his mettle on the battlefield, so he went off to combat strengthened by the knowledge that his beloved was awaiting his return. But Mixtli was tortured by visions that Popoca had been killed in battle and became so dejected that she perished.
Eventually, to everyone’s surprise, Popoca returned triumphant. Upon learning of the death of his one true love, he carried her body to the tops of the surrounding mountains, where she would become Iztaccíhuatl. And he, too, remains there, kneeling at her feet and watching over her eternal sleep, torch in hand, trembling and fuming with passion, until the end of time.
JULIE R BUTLER IS A FREELANCE WRITER AND EDITOR LIVING IN PÁTZCUARO, MICHOACÁN. SHE HAS 20-PLUS YEARS' EXPERIENCE EXPLORING MÉXICO, CENTRAL AMERICA, ARGENTINA, AND URUGUAY. IN ADDITION TO WRITING ABOUT THE WONDERS OF LIVING IN MÉXICO, SHE SPECIALIZES NEW TECHNOLOGIES – PARTICULARLY, HYDROPONICS AND SMART-CITY TECH. ONLINE PORTFOLIO: HTTPS://JULIERBUTLER.CONTENTLY.COM/