Lake Catemaco, Veracruz
A Cool Bewitching Destination
Sitting in the Square – Portrait of a Town
Lake Catemaco, Mexico (population 45,000)
It is hard to determine what is myth, magic or pure hype in Catemaco. It doesn’t matter, I tell myself as we sit in the main square. It is Mexico. Catemaco. Anything can take place here.
This is the home of alternative medicine, shamans, and strange occurrences. Home of Monkey Island and the set for Sean Connery’s “Medicine man”. It is also the birthplace of life for the ancient Olmecs; their Garden of Eden. In the beginning…..
Lake Catemaco is located in southern Mexico’s state of Veracruz where the Sierra Santa Marta and the Tuxtla highlands meet. It is a large body of water – 7 miles (4 KMS) long and 4 miles (2.5 KMS) wide – formed by several extinct volcanoes. It is an ancient crater lake that boasts deep rain forest vegetation, excellent birding and a number of unique arrays of tourist attractions. Monkeys. Witches. Wizards. Ancient civilizations.
In the square we rest in the shadow of the majestic El Carmen Church, and watch as Mexican town life unfolds in front of our eyes. This is typical Mexico where the church sits on the plaza as if at the head of the table, with the municipal palace proudly at her side; Church and State.
Children play with balloons and eat cotton candy. There are two clowns, a man and a woman, with large feet and painted smiles that blow balloons for passersby. They laugh and play with babies and mothers. Vendors sell candy, refrescos (drinks) and snacks. It is a carnival atmosphere and this scene in the center of town repeats itself daily.
It is the end of the day and we are exhausted from touring the area. There is music playing down the street along the Northern flank of the square. It comes closer and we see the marching of a school band that we have heard practicing for days. Songs and dances approach us as we sit on one of the many benches in the square – incognito as a family of gringos can be – laying low and eating palettas. This is a real parade made up for the amusement of those dancing and singing or wiggling their parts and chanting school songs and victory. The band stops on the side of the square and performs for a moment or two before it proceeds to another part of this town.
Within an hour another public march heads towards the square. This time a funeral procession passes. Flowers and more flowers, carried in the arms of almost every mourner and those paying respects for a friend or neighbor. Big bouquets and tall arrangements of carnations, lilies and roses. The procession is somber and for a few brief moments the carnival atmosphere in the square is on hold. A frozen few moments, where mothers hold their children away from the marching procession, lovers stop kissing and teasing and old men look away or down at the ground. Frozen moments respecting life and the inevitability of death. Respect.
The somber procession makes its way into the bosom of the church; the center and heart of town life and slowly the action in the square resumes; Kids laughing, lovers squirming and squeezing, families with nothing better to do than come and watch everyone else. “Don’t they have TV?” asks my daughter.
We walk back to the RV site slowly, taking the long route to our home. Catemaco is known for its brujas and brujos –witches and wizards that can cast a spell on your enemies, cure you of your ills or get your straying husband back. The town boasts the largest witches’ convention on the first Friday in March – the Annual Bruja Convention -“Noche de Brujas” There are healers, fortunetellers and Magic potions.
Locals say the area’s reputation for strange and mystic relationships is over 2000 years and stems from the Olmecs who inhabited the area – the most ancient of Mexico’s civilizations, predating even the Mayans and Aztecs. They claim in Catemaco, that the beginning was here at the lake. The ancient Olmec’s Paradise Lost and the beginning of all creation.
We walk past fortune tellers and stores with shingles and signs advertising various occult services. Cast a spell on your enemy. Cure your ills. Buy your magic supplies. Magic. We dare each other to go in. Maybe we should get our palms read or order a spell or potion or two. We laugh that uncomfortable laugh; that utter when you half believe or maybe half fear. “No you go in…..NO YOU…”
Bill tells me I should go in “and write about it.” There is a pregnant pause. “I’m too tired” I say, and change the subject. He laughs.
Stalls are selling T-shirts proclaim Catemaco Tierra de los Brujos/ or “Land of the Witches.” Devout Catholicism mixes easily with ancient beliefs here in Mexico. Roadside vendors sell religious articles side by side with magic trinkets. Buy a shell rosary, picture of Our Lady or buy good luck, curse an enemy or make yourself irresistible to the opposite sex with a “special” amulet. Only 30 pesos.
We walk by the Hotel de los Brujos (Hotel of the Witches) and the Restaurant de Siete Brujos (Restaurant of the Seven Witches). It is getting dark as we pass the empty lanchas that are occupied during the day at this busy lakeside attraction, taking tourists to Monkey Island. “Go to the Island my friends. Monkey Island. Come here. Best deal here lady.”
It is silent now as we walk back to the RV in the evening with the moonlight shining in wavering streams across the lake. Birds chatter and gossip about us as we pass through the now empty street.
Side Trips and other enchanting things to do
Bird watching: 560 species of birds in the area including parrots, toucans, trogons, woodcreepers, tropical raptors and flycatchers. Hundreds of herons nest on the tiny Isla de la Garzas (Island of the Herons) in April and May.
Lanchas to Monkey Island: On the bank of Lake Catemaco you can hire lanchas or boats to one or more to the nearby islands. Monkey Island is named after the non-native red-cheeked Changos, monkeys brought here by the University of Veracruz from Thailand used for study. Many tourists take bananas or coconuts but are discouraged by University feeding crew.
Salto de Eyipantla: Take a whole day to discover the thunderous waterfalls of Salto de Eyipantla. Just 8 kilometers (just over 5 miles) from Lake Catemaco, the area makes an interesting afternoon. Tourist shops selling typical trinkets are sold both in the parking lot and at the base of the falls. Children and tour guides offer services as you descend the 246 steps down to the base, from gum, candy to tours and lunches. Definitely NOT wheelchair accessible.
The falls are quite spectacular with an approximate 50 meter (150 foot) thunderous cascade down to the small pool of water at the bottom. Water sprays your body as you gingerly walk towards the water along the stone path. A gale force of mist soaks your face.
A few restaurants sell lunch with regular Mexican fare.
SANTIAGO TUXTLA & Tres Zapotes: A Day for Archeology buffs! It is a pleasant trip just 20 minutes north of Lake Catemaco on Highway 180. Founded by Cortés in 1520, the small town of Santiago Tuxtla is nestled in a small valley with a little river running through the center of town. It is a pleasant place with an interesting plaza, church and museum. In the center of the square is a gigantic Olmec head sculpture – an amazing relic placed in the open with only a roof overhead for environmental protection.
The museum flanks one of the sides of the square and is a must see for those interested in ancient civilizations. Here you can see another colossal Olmec head
The town of Tres Zapotes is just ½ an hour down the road. While famous for Stelea C – proving the discovery of “O” as a mathematical concept by any civilization – the ruins and attached museum are disappointing to all but archeology purists. The heads and other significant archeological findings have been transported to Jalapa and Mexico City. On display, for the most part, are plastic replicas of the heads and alters on an adjoining cornfield. `
Note about The Olmec (“Mouth of the Jaguar” or the “Rubber People”) Believed the oldest Indian group in the Mesoamericas, the Olmecs inhabited this area in the Preclassic era (1200 BC to 100BC). They worked in the basalt quarries in the area and created their weighty masterpieces for artistic religious and mathematical purposes. These items, 10 foot (3 ½ meter) heads, thrones, altars and stellae, some well over 20 tons, were them “magically” transported to their religious center La Vente near Villahermosa Tabasco. 17 heads have been discovered in the region.