Popocatepetl – The Smoking Mountain

Two of the highest volcanoes in Mexico stand some 43 miles southeast from Mexico City and they have been the leading roles in many Mexican legends and history. While Iztaccihuatl is already extinct, Popocatepetl has been active ever since we have rec

At 17,802 feet above the sea level Popocatepetl is the second highest volcano in Mexico, just after Citlaltepetl (18,491 feet), and one of the highest mountains in the Americas. It is a stratovolcano with conic shape that started forming about 700,000 years ago. Around its crater it used to have the southernmost glaciers in North America, but by the year 2001 they disappeared because of increased volcanic activity.

Along with Iztaccihuatl, Popocatepetl has always been closely related to the Mexican culture and history. Its name comes from the Nahua words popoca meaning “it smokes” and tepetl meaning “mountain”. According to an Aztec legend it is a warrior who found his beloved wife dead after he returned from a battle. He took her body to a pyramid top temple and covered it with a white sheet while he stood next to her as a faithful guard.

On the other hand, when Hernan Cortez saw the volcanoes from the city of Cholula in 1519, he sent Diego de Ordas to climb the Popocatepetl and find a safe pass to the Great Tenochtitlan. Once found, Hernan Cortez entered the Anahuac Valley through the north slope, today known as Pass of Cortez, thus beginning one of the most important episodes in the History of Mexico.

For the indigenous peoples Popocatepetl is a sacred mountain and there are many little shrines scattered on its slopes to which they go to ask for rain guided by a “tiempero”. Some time ago one of these “tiemperos” claimed to have seen and talked to the volcano spirit who introduced himself as Gregorio Chino Popocatepetl. The volcano is dearly known as Don Goyo (short for Gregorio) ever since by all Mexicans.

With moderate but constant activity, Popocatepetl has expelled steam, ashes and incandescent matter throwing them as far as 16 miles away. In the years 2000 and 2005 the explosions have been so strong that thousands of people have had to evacuate the surrounding towns.