17 Apr Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve Veracruz
Los Tuxtlas’ jungles, volcanoes, mangroves, beaches and a myriad of unique species make it one of the most bio diverse places in Mexico. As Mexico slowly turns toward more ecologically conscious forms of tourism, this region is an inspiring light in the darkness. Internationally renowned, though not particularly popular or known among tourists, Los Tuxtlas Bioreserve in southern Veracruz depends on ecotourism to protect, reforest, and re-introduce and maintain endangered wildlife to the incredible habitat its community strives so hard to preserve.
As many of you know, we’ve lived for over 10 years and traveled extensively in Mexico. We like to travel slowly, overland, and take our time getting to know places. That’s why it’s interesting to share that Veracruz wasn’t on our radar at all, until recently. Two years ago we moved to a remote part of Oaxaca called the Papaloapan River Basin and began meeting people from Vercruz who raved about the many destinations there. For us, it was surprising. We feel immersed in the world of travel in Mexico, constantly seeking recommendations from local friends, but hadn’t heard about the boundless opportunities for eco-exploration in Veracruz.
Well, all of that has changed now.
We quickly realized that their near total lack of online presence was effecting how much the word got out to people who weren’t local to the area. Other issues limited outsiders ability to get there as well, like the difficulty of traveling: poor infrastructure, slow public transportation, and few booking options – but it is absolutely possible! We hope this (and our other articles on Veracruz) can provide you with the information needed to visit some of these stunning locations, soak up their fun-loving culture and try their delicious cuisine.
But first … a little more about Los Tuxtlas …
Los Tuxtlas refers to a region in Southern Veracruz which contains Catemaco, San Andrés Tuxtla, Santiago Tuxtla and Hueyapan de Ocampo. The bioreserve was established in 1998 and its name comes from the Náhuatl word toxtli, meaning “rabbit” or “yellow birds”. The incredibly complex ecosystem marks the northern edge of tropical rain forest in the Americas, and includes a volcanic mountain range that makes the soil particularly fertile: Volcano San Martin Pajapan, Volcano Santa Marta and Volcano San Martin Tuxtla.
Originally an Olmec dominated region, who left giant stone heads behind, the colonial period brought a mixing of indigenous, African and European peoples, making it the heart of the Afro-Mexican population. The area is famous for many things beyond its exquisite ecosystems, including witchcraft and healing rituals, natural mud masks and drinkable mineral water springs, tobacco plantations and world-famous cigars, and, of course, all things sexy (or is that just Veracruz culture?). Although Veracruz is seriously deforested, conservation efforts since the 1970s have promoted ecotourism in Los Tuxtlas, especially in Catemaco.
The vast richness and variety of Los Tuxtlas makes it an obvious draw for ecotourism. Home to a wide array of endangered animals and ones found only in this area, like white bats, giant boas, toucans, pumas, jaguars, over 500 species of butterflies and more than half of Mexico’s bird population, its hiking trails and waterways are fascinating, especially when accompanied by a knowledgeable and eco-conscious guide, of which there are many. They teach visitors about the flora and fauna, medicinal plants, history and traditions, and recount the incredible legends of its people.
Whether you like to camp in the jungle or on a beach, stay in an eco-friendly cabin run by members of the community or participate in home stays, you have the opportunity to spend time getting to know the local people, trying locally sourced food and traditional dishes. There are great opportunities to hike, ride horses, take boat rides, enjoy beach and water activities, like swimming or kayaking, relish in natural spa experiences and cultural activities.
Since Los Tuxtlas received its designation, efforts to protect its biodiversity have increased exponentially, like the Community Ecotourism Network of Los Tuxtlas (RECT), a community of farmers, and Anolis (the local provider we toured with in Benito Juarez) who offer sustainable eco-touristm services in the jungle and cloud forests with no negative environmental impact.
There are many communities that offer eco-services near Catemaco, such as Dos Amates (where we stayed, click here to read about it), Nanciyaga, López Mateos, and La Margarita. The route the mountain waters take to reach the sea, including the estuaries and mangroves, delta and beach of Barra de Sontecomapan, and various magnificent hikes to waterfalls, can be accessed from here.
From San Andrés Tuxtla, there is the Laguna Encantada (Enchanted Lagoon), Yambigapan cabins, and the Cueva del Diablo (Devil’s Cave) where witches perform mysterious rituals; and the magnificent Eyipantla Waterfall, possibly the most famous in the area, standing at 60 meters tall. We stayed in a small village called Benito Juarez (see our article on it here) and visited the Cola de Caballo (horse’s tail) and Velo de la Novia (Bride’s veil) waterfalls, as well as hiking in a preserve where vibrant red Macaws have recently been re-introduced. The beaches of the region include Costa de Oro, Playa Hermosa, Toro Prieto and Roca Partida (we also stayed here: read about it), Terrón Island and its Pirate’s Grotto.
Seriously, it’s almost too much to name. Needless to say, the magic abounds.
Culture, Art, Traditions and Folklore
The region has had a turbulent history. The Olmecs, whose culture is displayed through their massive sculptural stone heads, were conquered by the Mexicas, who were attracted by the valuable resources of the area. Once the Spanish arrived, Cortez the Killer maintained the area under his personal supervision, bringing in African slaves to exploit them and the land. Haciendas and sugar mills, precious metals, cocoa, rubber, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and cattle were all common to this region.
Many legends of Los Tuxtlas come from the Olmecs. Mesoamerican mythology names the area as part of the Tlalocan, a paradise presided over by Tlaloc, the god of rain. Beneath the soil of Los Tuxtlas, there is a magical world, sacred and protected by Tlaloc. With the heaviest rainfall on the Gulf Coast, the enormous biodiversity and towering volcanic mountains, all those who followed the Olmecs believed their powerful myth.
There is also great culinary diversity, like giant memelas (thick tortillas with bean paste) topped with different fillings, a variety of tamales (including a sweet, purple one with grated coconut), savory green banana puree (machucos de plátano verde y mogomogo), green menudo soup, cured nanches (a small sour fruit), locally made milk duds (dulce de leche) and golden wafers (obleas), cassava “chilpachole”, chagapoli liqueur (a fruit with medicinal properties), river prawns, snails (tegogolo) and malanga (a tuber, similar to a potato in taste).
Beyond the witches with their ancient healing traditions and the shape-shifting creatures of legend, beyond the rain god and their protected underworld, beyond the untold stories of colossal Olmec heads, their mouths frozen in time, and the sumptuous blend of flavors waiting to be savored, the natural beauty of Los Tuxtlas is what holds it all together – an epic landscape with an impressive dose of everything worth preserving.
Getting there and getting away
There is a bus station that mainly 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.
Have you visited Los Tuxtlas? Would you like to? Please post your questions and opinions below! We’d love to hear from you.