The lush green volcanic hills of southern Veracruz permitted only glimpses of the approaching Laguna Catemaco. Small islands hid among swirls of soft grey neblina.(fog) They appeared then disappeared like ancient abandoned castles in the mythical mist. Tantalised by this lovely landscape luring me to the unknown, I turned to my husband Bill, and spoke in my best, convincing, co-pilot voice, “We have to camp by this lake. It looks like an enchantment scene from Camelot!”
My nose long pressed in our Lonely Planet Mexico guidebook revealed that Laguna Catemaco possessed a “lady of the lake.” In the 19th century, the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared here. In her honour a small lakeside grotto houses a shrine topped with a blue cross. Our three children started chattering excitedly like little monkeys. “Silence, knaves of the back-seat! Thy father doth maketh thee perilous right hand turn into yon sleepy Mexican hamlet!” I hushed, “He groweth weary of this long and twisted highway.” One hundred and forty miles north from Villahermosa off Highway 180, Bill drove the van and trailer into the small lakeside town of Catemaco.
As our rig rambled through the town’s largely unmarked streets towards the lake, we passed the pretty domed and towered church of El Carmen. Around July 16th thousands of pilgrims gather for the feast of El Carmen. The local fleet is blessed during the fiesta and decorated lanchas (boats) sail up and down the harbor giving free rides. Catemaco’s bountiful and affordable accommodations fill to the bursting at Navidad (Christmas) and Semana Santa. (Easter)
Catholic religious customs mingled freely with traditional customs of myth and magic. This marriage of traditions has produced interesting offspring. For example, local people attend the church and then cross the plaza to seek the services of fortune-tellers. A person might pray and then purchase a potion for love or health. In addition, the dividing line between authentic traditional healer and modern tourist huckster blur on the town streets of Catemaco. Brujos or traditional healers hang out their shingles on the streets as readily as doctors do in other small towns. Restaurants, hotels and even discos carry a hint of the possibility of magic in their names and services. All this suggests a place of infinite possibilities!
The entire region is famous for traditional healing methods. North of Catemaco was Monte Cerro Blanco, where reputedly an annual meeting of brujos is held every March. Even Hollywood joined the ranks when it chose this region for its film, “Medicine Man” starring Sean Connery. The film featured an American scientist influenced by a Brazilian shaman and traditional healing customs.
As I looked at the people on the streets, I wondered if any played as extras in the film. Myth and magic of all traditions influences me and I hesitate to seek the sooth-saying predictions of others. This provides insurance against the power of suggestion that I leave Mexico, never to return.
I couldn’t abide such a fate!
The paved road continued east from town around the oblong six-mile wide lake. Several minutes later, Bill turned into a lakeside campsite beside a palapa restaurant. Once we parked, the three children flung open the doors, checked for fresh dung and leapt outdoors to check the lake. “Mind you don’t jump in before I’ve checked the water,” I yelled at their fleeing backsides.
Laguna Catemaco offers a balmy oasis in a region where the general rule is muggy heat. Soon I followed the children and checked the warm silt laden water for hidden dangers before giving the signal for splashing in. The natural splendor of the lake spreads like a feast for the eyes. The sight of the islands in the mist summoned me like a spell to visit them. Floating water lilies dot the lake’s surface while white egrets patrol the shoreline. The lush green hillsides roll right down to the shore. The fragrantly scented breezes rippled my hair and caressed my senses.
Huge gnarled trees snatch at the sky as if to escape the myriad parasitic air plants festooning their boughs. The volcanic grey sand beach lies strewn with air plants blown there in a recent storm. The children delighted in the strange and unusual twisted shapes of these treasures. They busily arranged them in a tiny, creative garden on the shore. Naturally Josh raised the question, “Can we take some of these neat plants home to Canada?” I replied, “No it is illegal to transport plants across the border. Besides remember our policy of leaving natural things in their own homes.” “Darn!” he exclaimed, “How about some of these rocks?” Always sidling up the edge of the rules, that boy! We discussed the issue among the vine-tangled stairs and walls of a ruined rural villa. Birds and insects darted about their reclaimed jungle home.
The next day we unhooked the trailer from the van at the lakeside campsite. We drove along the eastside of the lake. The green fields and bushy hedgerows between estate-like rancheros reminded me of the valleys of my British Columbian home. Bill, being British, commented that it stirred his memories of rural Ireland. Magnificent horses raced across the pastures and cavorted in greeting at the wooden fences. Abundant streams burbled towards the lake. One sign announced the home of Coyame mineral water, bottled and distributed around Mexico. The sign proclaimed its virtues and health promoting properties. Was this the source of a magic elixir that permeated the lake’s atmosphere? Were we the latest set of adventurers seeking the Holy Grail in Mexico? Musings on myth and magic gave way to picnic preparations when Richard spied the perfect spot.
Some say that Laguna Catemaco is one of the most beautiful lakes in Mexico and that it resembles Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. The area is home to 556 species of migratory and local birds. In April and May, hundreds of herons nest on the tiny Isla de la Garzas. (Island of the Herons) A thousand types of bromeliad (tropical plants) chose the shores of Laguna Catemaco for their home. Near-by, the last uncut area of rain forest in the region remains accessible. A five-mile trip away leads to El Salto de Eyipantla, a spectacular local cascada. (waterfall) Although depicted as an idyllic retreat in the twelve movies filmed there, las cascadas have lively refresco and vendor action. Young children haunt the two hundred and forty six descending stairs to the falls, offering their services as guides.
Across the lake, Isla de Changos, the largest and best-known island, is clearly visible. Back in the town, numerous small out-board lanchas lie in wait, hoping to take visitors on an hour-long trip around the lake. In the past, the University of Veracruz transported a colony of red-cheeked changos ( mandrill baboons native to Thailand) to the island for studies. The semi-wild tribe rushes to greet each boat in expectation of the arrival of the university feeding crew. Tourists are not encouraged to feed them. But boat operators know if they bring coconuts and tortillas, good photo opportunities abound. The changos know it too!
After several relaxing days amidst the local environs, I suggested that we leave the trailer secure in the campsite and venture towards the Gulf Coast. The journey began by following the paved road further east towards the high volcanic hills. The van climbed the gradually ascending slope for half an hour. Suddenly the road fell away to a panoramic vista of the Gulf coast. Laguna Sontecomapan sparkled in the near distance and the Atlantic shimmered afar. Interspersed by the rolling green hills, the ribbon of road beckoned to the ocean.
“How can we resist going further?” I beseeched Bill, who surveyed the descending road grade with trepidation. “The van’s in good shape; the brakes work,” I implored, “Besides we’re not hauling the trailer!” Bill later claims that he was “bewitched” when he began the cautious descent. Finally the pavement disappeared in the rutted dirt roads of the village of Sontecomapan. “I’m not chancing driving the van to the coast on these roads,” Bill staunchly maintained. As I surveyed the roller coaster ruts of the muddy road, I suggested, “How about renting a lancha?” I had already spotted a dock down a village side street.
The decrepit dock swayed beneath our feet as we joined the locals who milled around the few arriving lanchas. The rare appearance of tourists provide little incentive for the boat business. No one offered us a boat ride as they gazed with curiosity at this gringo family of five. “We won’t know if we don’t ask,” I said, screwing up enough nerve to face and speak to the staring faces. I looked around at the people’s faces for clues as to whom to ask about a boat rental.
First I asked a friendly faced middle-aged passenger who directed me to Manuel, a younger man who sat on a fish trap away from the dock. Manuel said that a boat ride was “no problema” and offered us a choice of trips of variable duration and rate. The ride for ten miles across the Laguna Sontecomapan to the village of La Barra on the coast intrigued us. A deal struck, he took us aboard and we slowly cruised through a tropical slough. This being our first such boat ride, we gazed in wonder at the luxuriant jungle growth dangling with thick twisted vines. “Can we swing from those vines like Tarzan,” chirped a chorus of three voices, “We’ll be really careful. Really truly!” With a customary delaying tactic, I answered, “Maybe next time.” Three loud groans replied.
All eyes craned futilely for a lurking crocodile. Many types of birds fishing the marsh with long legs and bills rewarded keen observation. Brightly coloured small birds darted through the jungle foliage. Exotic looking flowers adorned the jungle’s leafy hair. “This jungle is missing monkeys!” exclaimed little Rose.
“Most of the wild monkeys are gone,” I commented with reflections on the tremendous loss of wilderness habitat that Mexican wildlife must endure. The children had sought evidence of tropical mammal life for thousands of miles. The only place for tropical mammals was in an outdoor zoo in Tuxtla Gutteriez, the capital of Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. They had been appalled when people had offered us iguanas and tropical birds in cages as our van slowly rumbled through dusty village streets. In a large country like Mexico where many people go hungry, wild animals are generally hunted for eating or selling.
Suddenly the lancha burst from the sloughs onto the shining open waters of Laguna Sontecomapan. Manuel looked pleased to apply full throttle to the boat’s engine so that his lancha nearly flew over the water. The surrounding green hills rolled out of view in every direction. Soon, he beached the boat on a wide sand bar that hindered the waves of the Atlantic from dashing full-force into the lagoon. Manuel told us that he would return for us in an hour. A few palapa restaurants dotted the beach. The only customers for a sunny warm March day, we slaked our thirst with a few cool refrescos before plunging into the welcoming waters.
True to his word, Manuel arrived to return us in his flying lancha to the village of Sontecomapan. There were still no signs of crocodiles or monkeys spotted in the sloughs. Upon the arrival to the dock, we were pleased to pay Manuel the $20 for the two-hour jungle boat ride. A new collection of local people stared with curiosity at the returning gringo tourists of the day or was it, the week?
As the van began the steep return ascent, I poured over the chapter of the region in the guidebook. It stated that public transportation to the coast is limited to Transportes Rurales’s small Nissan pickup trucks, affectionately dubbed piratas by locals. These four-door vehicles with wooden benches built into their caged-in beds can carry the entire population of a small town. They bump, grind and lurch along the road as far as the last village of Montepío. On the way there, Hotel Playa Escondida, El Eden de Dios invites the traveller to linger on its crescent of sloping white sand beach. The hotel sits high on a bluff thick with tropical vegetation and commands a stunning view of the surrounding Sierra de la Tuxtla. A stay in the “Garden of God” lured me like a siren’s song. As I excitedly described my discovery to my family, three young voices answered me in chorus, “Mom, maybe next time!”
This broke the spell as we wound our way back to the campsite. As enchanting Laguna Catemaco appeared in view, the magic feeling insured my return to Mexico.