Booming eruptions, ash everywhere: What life is like under Mexico's most dangerous volcano

AMECAMECA, MEXICO - MAY 23: Popocatepetl volcano spews incandescent material as seen from Paso de Cortés on May 23, 2023 in Amecameca, Mexico. The second highest volcano in the country increased its activity while Mexican authorities raised the alert to yellow phase 3. Popocatepetl volcano caused the fall of ashes in different municipalities in Puebla, Estado de Mexico and Mexico City. Mexican army has spread forces as a preventive measure while the 3 levels of government are in coordination to observe the activity of the volcano and the situation in the surroundings. (Photo by Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/Getty Images)
Mexico's Popocatépetl volcano erupting on May 23, 2023. (Cristopher Rogel Blanquet / Getty Images)

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.

Two people plant corn on tilled ground near trees at the foot of a mountain emitting ash
Villagers in Santiago Xalitzintla, Mexico, plant corn in the shadow of the Popocatépetl volcano. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

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 and even the dogs that beg for scraps in the streets.

The sheer quantity of ash — a mixture of rock, mineral and glass particles from deep inside the volcano — has prompted officials to ground thousands of flights at airports in nearby Mexico City and Puebla 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.

People cross a street where two vehicles with headlights on are stopped before a crosswalk
Pedestrians cross an ash-covered street in Atlixco, Mexico, on May 22, 2023. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

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. Authorities aren't taking any chances.

Scientists are monitoring seismic activity, testing the chemical content of ash and probing other metrics that predict volcanic activity. The federal government has mobilized 7,000 troops 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.

A person stands in the back of one of two vehicles driving with headlights on along an ash-covered street
Soldiers patrol as ash from the Popocatépetl volcano blankets the streets of Santiago Xalitzintla, Mexico. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

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, dusting the streets with what looked like 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 sweep up ash. "Our grandparents lived with the volcano, and their grandparents lived with it too."

A person in a lavender hoodie and pink backpack places hands on the masked face of a person in a red hoodie, wearing glasses
Two people wear hoodies and masks to shield themselves from the ash emitted by the Popocatépetl volcano in Atlixco, Mexico, on May 22, 2023. The volcano's activity has increased over the last week. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

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 annual offering this spring, when milder bursts from the volcano ruled out an ascent. Or maybe, he said, the volcano was responding to current events, airing its discontent with Mexico's high levels of violence and corruption.

A woman in a hat sweeps the street near two dogs
A woman sweeps ash from the Popocatépetl volcano in Santiago Xalitzintla, Mexico. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

Popocatépetl and a nearby volcano, the relatively dormant Iztaccihuatl, have loomed large in Mexican mythology since at least the time of Aztecs.

According to one popular myth, they were formed after ill-fated lovers — the warrior Popocatepetl and the princess Iztaccihuatl — died tragic deaths and were turned into stone.

Popocatépetl's explosions have displaced humans in the past. Archaeologists say a pre-Hispanic settlement not far from Santiago Xalitzintla was buried twice by ash long before the Europeans arrived in Mexico.

The volcano was dormant for about half of last century, but rumbled back to life with a series of relatively small eruptions beginning in the 1990s.

The government ordered evacuations then, and some locals moved away. But most returned, adopting new practices such as covering water and food supplies for farm animals to prevent contamination from falling ash. Many, too, have embraced a kind of steely humor to cope with living alongside an ever-present threat.

“We hope it calms down," said Juana Hernández, 55, as she finished off her tacos near the town's plaza one afternoon this week. "If not we’ll have to bring an offering."

She wondered whether a chicken would do. Her friend Francisca de los Santos, 56, had another idea. "Maybe we should sacrifice one of our men," she said, laughing.

The friends said they haven't slept much in recent days, thanks to the volcano's rumblings. In the evenings, villagers gather outside in the cold to watch eruptions light up the night sky.

Many children are scared of the pyrotechnics. Some had urged their parents to find them a new place to live.

But despite her burning throat, scratchy eyes and worry that her family's fruit trees might not survive the volcano's blowing debris, De Los Santos said she couldn't imagine living anywhere else.

After all, in this part of Mexico so prone to natural disasters — where earthquakes can level apartment buildings in seconds — there's a certain pride that comes with living in proximity to danger.

Agustín Ochoa, the 64-year-old owner of a hat shop in the next town over, said life is more exciting under a volcano.

"The day there’s no eruption," he said as he whisked ash from several white cowboy hats, "we’ll miss it."

Cecilia Sánchez Vidal in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

A hazy view of lighted buildings
Volcanic ash obscures a view of the city of Atlixco, Mexico. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.