20 Apr Catemaco: Ecotourism and Witches Brew
Catemaco, part of the epic Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve in southern Veracruz, is a land full of natural beauty and cultural intrigue. Located beside a misty lake, encircled by volcanoes and dotted with islands, it’s no wonder it’s name means “place of burnt houses” (from Nahuatl: calli- houses and tematli – burn). And it wasn’t only the towns inhabitants putting out fires, a history of sorcery reigns supreme, calling in wizards of black and white magic alike, healers and seers to the enigmatic town.
In Catemaco, there are many activities, like kayaking or boat tours to the white egret lined islands in the lake or Monkey island, filled with macaques, strolling down the mile-long boardwalk beside seafood restaurants with a view of the serene lake, drinking directly from mineral springs and making natural mud masks, and partaking in temezcals or healing rituals. Apart from delicious seafood, vendors sell Veracruzan coffee, charms, and freshwater snails called tegogolo that are popular in the area.
There is direct access to the incredible eco-touristic opportunities of Los Tuxtlas biosphere reserve, the closest being small eco-tours of the unique mangroves and wetlands that open into the brackish river delta and end in a beautiful sand bar beach, called Barra de Sontecompapan; it includes an open air restaurant and bar where you can walk, swim or relax on the beach, Playa Escondida, and observe the confluences of the delta.
The estuary is fed by waters that trickle down from the mountains, and represents a crucial refuge for migratory birds, spawning fish and crustaceans, and rare manglar trees and orchids. The massive root systems of the the manglar trees provide homes for abundant red and blue crabs; and the ecosystem as a whole supports more endangered animals, like howler monkeys, black hawks, crocodiles, green iguanas, and endangered marine turtles that nest in the dunes there. These mangroves represent some of the last wetlands of their kind in the gulf coast area.
Nearby, there are beautiful hikes and waterfalls in the mountains. If you’re interested in visiting Los Tuxtlas Bioreserve, which is staggering in its topographical variety and biodiversity, click here. We personally used Catemaco as our jumping off point to explore the area. There we met a fantastic eco-guide, Pedro, who offers inexpensive tent camping in a small, lovely garden in Dos Amates with access to nearby waterfalls and beautiful vistas, took us on the aforementioned tour of the mangroves and Barra de Sontecompapan. More on Dos Amates, our camping glory and Pedro’s services here.
Originally an Olmec site, the wisdom of centuries live on in the vibrant jungle ecosystem that defines the region. The knowledge and traditions of the Olmecs have filtered down through the years to modern day healers and witchcraft practitioners. It was considered a holy site by the ancients for its wealth of natural resources, copious rain and the revered erupting volcanoes, bringing fire to the earth. Now dormant, the sorcerers continue the rituals of their ancestors, cleaning energy, calling in of spirits, making herbal remedies, casting spells and creating other mystical experiences. Their annual gathering in March can attract up to 5,000 visitors interested in the occult.
Interested about having your own mystical experience? Asking around will quickly get you delivered to practioners who, in their retreat centers and sacred spaces, offer cleansings, natural healing and other types of spells iconcic to the culture of Catemaco.
In Catemaco, the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a baroque and neoclassical church, honors a version of the Virgin Mary, which interestingly dates to the colonial period when it directly replaced Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of water and fishermen who was worshipped locally. Topped with a 21 foot central dome, the Basilica’s stained glass windows recount in vignettes biblical stories. El Tegal, a sanctuary on Agaltepec island, claims to have been visited by the Our Lady of Mount Carmel, making it a pilgrimage site for religious believers. The annual tribute to Our Lady / the goddess includes Danzón, Son Jarocho and other tropical music being played live in the basilica, as well as a boat procession to the island she is purported to have visited.
Getting there and getting away
There is a bus station that connects the city with the ports of Veracruz and Coatzacoalcos. Otherwise, hwy 179 and hwy 180 are the roads that access Catemaco. If flying, it’s not far from Veracruz, Veracruz.