SAN PEDRO NEXAPA, Mexico (AP) _ Families began returning to their homes near the Popocatepetl volcano Wednesday, even as the peak sent up a brief column of ash and water vapor to remind them that it's still active.

On Tuesday, authorities gave tens of thousands of evacuees permission to return to farms and homes on the peak's ash-dusted slopes, but warned them to remain on alert for further eruptions.

Silent and under army guard since Dec. 18, when the volcano staged its most violent eruption in 1,200 years, the adobe villages below the peak rang with the sounds of life once again _ just in time for residents to celebrate New Year's Eve at home.

``We really wanted to come back, even though they fed us and treated us well in the shelter,'' said Benita Pena as her husband and two sons began moving back into their home in San Pedro Nexapa, 10 miles from Popocatepetl's crater.

Carrying bundles of clothing, blankets and donated bags of tomatoes and oranges, villagers began repopulating San Pedro and about two dozen other villages that had been evacuated when showers of red-hot rock began spouting from the peak.

Since then, the volcano has issued occasional bursts of incandescent rock and ash, but nothing comparable to the Dec. 18 eruption.

Experts predict that Popocatepetl is still capable of throwing chunks of rock from its crater, but say only ash is expected to reach the closest towns.

The Pena family _ like most here, farmers _ got a mixed homecoming: their horses and chickens were well, but the fields around the village were covered with a fine film of gritty, gray volcanic ash.

About 3,000 people rolled out of shelters on buses early Wednesday. Several thousand more made their own way back to homes around the 17,886-foot mountain, 40 miles southeast of Mexico City.

Authorities remain cautious, though ash clouds such as Wednesday's are a fairly routine event at the volcano. They checked homes to see if roofs could withstand a heavy ash fall and considering relocating some families.

About 40 families whose homes were built in ravines near the peak _ where mud and ash flows could bury them _ may have to be relocated, and officials are looking to buy land nearby to offer them new homesites.

Among those glad to be back home was Andres Flores, who dropped the bags he had carried from the shelter and went out to check on his horses.

``We missed the tortillas,'' he said, noting that the army had given families bread at the shelters. ``The children need a tortilla and it's not the same.''