Amid the ash and threat of evacuation, life goes on under Mexico’s most dangerous volcano

The Popocatepetl volcano erupts lava, ash and steam, seen from from Santiago Xalitzintla, Mexico, early Thursday, May 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Each spring, residents of this village tucked at the base of one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes trek up to a cave near its crater to make a peace offering.

Their gifts of fruit, flowers and turkey cooked in sweet mole are meant to placate Popocatépetl, the nearly 18,000-foot-high volcano viewed by many here not just as a geological wonder, but also as a mythological being whose whims have long shaped the lives of those in its shadows.


These days, the consensus among villagers is clear: Popocatépetl isn’t happy.

For months now, the volcano has been spewing molten rocks and shooting massive columns of ash into the sky.

The eruptions have grown bigger and more frequent in recent weeks — rattling homes with wheezing exhalations that residents compare to steam escaping from a pressure cooker. Bone-gray ash blankets everything: cars, crops, even the dogs that beg for scraps in the streets.

The quantity of ash — which is a mixture of rock, mineral and glass particles from deep inside the volcano — prompted officials to ground flights at airports in nearby Puebla and Mexico City over the weekend and to suspend school in nearly two dozen municipalities.

On Sunday, officials raised the volcano threat level to “Yellow Phase 3,” which calls for those who live nearest to the volcano — including the 2,000 residents of Santiago Xalitzintla — to prepare for possible evacuation.

Although the volcano appears to be more active now than it has been in the last two decades, there is no indication that catastrophic eruption is underway, said Ana Lillian Martín del Pozzo, a volcanologist at the Geophysics Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

It has been centuries since the volcano last expelled a significant flow of lava.

Still, the volcano’s long history of destructive explosions and the 24 million people who reside within 60 miles of its crater make Popocatépetl an acute threat, and authorities aren’t taking any chances.

Scientists are monitoring seismic activity, testing the chemical content of ash and probing other metrics that predict future volcanic activity. Meanwhile, 7,000 federal troops have been mobilized in case an evacuation becomes necessary.

As geology fans gape at video feeds that show incandescent rocks blowing from El Popo’s peak, those who live along its flanks have watched with respect and a noteworthy lack of trepidation.

Residents went on with their scheduled celebration of a saint’s day over the weekend, dancing to a live band as flurries of ash fell, coating the streets with what looked like a soft dusting of snow.

And while many complain of sore throats, coughs and irritated eyes, they have mostly continued tilling the earth, tending their horses and otherwise going about life as usual.

“We’re used to it,” said Nazario Galicia, an 81-year-old farmer who on a recent afternoon was feeding his donkeys even as truckloads of national guard troops descended on the village to help sweep up piles of ash. “Our grandparents lived with the volcano, and their grandparents lived with it too.”

Like many people here, Galicia believes the volcano is a kind of deity — they call him Don Goyo — whose behavior is closely linked to human activity.

Galicia wondered whether the powerful eruptions in recent days were occurring because townsfolk had been unable to bring their offering to the volcano this spring, when milder bursts had ruled out their annual ascent. Or maybe, he said, the volcano was responding to current events, expressing its discontent with Mexico’s high levels of violence and corruption.

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