We spent 18 months driving in Mexico, covering nearly 25,000 miles and telling you all about it in more than 250 posts about travel in Mexico. And yet some parts of the country eluded even us, including the Los Tuxtlas region of southern Veracruz state. With its witches and waterfalls, this region is one that got away. Until now.
When we attempted to visit the Los Tuxtlas area Mother Nature got in the way in the form of devastating floods which created water so high that the army stopped our truck and sent us right back to Veracruz City. We consoled ourselves by watching Veracruz’s soccer team, the Tiburones (Spanish for Sharks), lose to the team from Cancun while drinking enormous cups of beer and going slightly deaf.
So we were thrilled when we were invited to attend the recent Adventure Travel Mexico (ATMEX) conference in Veracruz (put on by the Adventure Travel Trade Association) and take part in a pre-conference trip through the Los Tuxtlas region of the state.
A tour van is like kryptonite to us
As fans of our little road trip know, we’re all about independent adventure travel. We’re used to having the freedom of our own vehicle with just the two of us inside it so we can go where we want when we want. We can count the number of times we’ve been on a guided, group trip on half a hand. We haven’t been on a tour bus in years. We consider three people a crowd.
Our trip through Los Tuxtlas was being hosted by a local tour operator called Totonal. It involved a tour bus, multiple guides, and 10 other people. We braced ourselves. Happily, the van, the guides, and even all those other people turned out to be terrific, outdone only by the satisfaction of finally getting to see some of the Los Tuxtlas area.
Lazing on Sontecomapan Lagoon
Even when the Los Tuxtas region isn’t experiencing destructive and deadly flooding the area is still wet, wet, wet with hundreds of miles of rivers and streams plus sprawling lakes and coastline. One of the main watery attractions is Sontecomapan Lagoon which dumps into the Gulf of Mexico. The presence of fresh and salt water attracts birds and marine life that like both. Turtles nest on area beaches while freshwater birds and fish thrive in the lagoon.
Nestled on the shores of Sontecomapan Lagoon is Los Amigos, a collection of dorm rooms and private stand-alone cabins for couples or families, all with lake views and hammocks (from 210 pesos/US$18 per person and all rates include full breakfast).
The only way to reach Los Amigos is by boat (US$45 round trip for the whole boat) which gave us a chance to check out the mangroves and bird life on the lake before pulling up to the Los Amigos dock where managers Valentina and Antonio greeted us with a refreshing mixture of coconut water and lychee juice garnished with a slice of star fruit, all from their land.
Back in the late ’80s Valentina’s father, Don Juan Vega, had an early-adopter epiphany when he decided that he wanted to have the most beautiful ranch in the area and realized that the clear-cutting he was doing in order to create cattle pastures was not getting him any closer to his goal. So he started re-foresting his land with native trees and plants. Tens of thousands of them have been planted on his hilly hunk of land.
Today, the forested slopes show very few signs of their previous incarnation as denuded grazing land. Today, it truly is a beautiful ranch. While many of Don Juan’s neighbors still graze cattle, more and more ranches are re-foresting. This, coupled with the fact that much of the Los Tuxtlas area is set aside as the Biósfera Los Tuxtlas, is very good news for the local flora and fauna.
A kayaking tour of the lake had been planned after we arrived at Los Amigos, but the siren song of the hammock on the porch of our private, simple, comfortable cabin with a view got the better of us and we didn’t emerge until it was time for dinner. The food at Los Amigos is worth leaving your hammock for. Ingredients, mostly grown on their permaculture farm, are lovingly turned into delicious reasonably-priced dishes in an open air kitchen.
The next morning, after freshly brewed coffee, we took a boat tour of the lake spotting kingfishers, cara caras, parakeets, parrots, and a cuckoo before returning for breakfast featuring farm fresh eggs and hand made tortillas. Then it was back on the tour bus…
Our own private waterfalls
All that water gets into Sontecomapan Lagoon somehow, often by tumbling down a mountain. A loose network of community tourism projects, a specialty of Totonal, has been set up to provide food, accommodation, and access to some spectacular waterfalls that you’ll likely have all to yourself.
Near the village of Miguel Hidalgo a local family welcomed us with fortifying homemade sopes (extra-thick tortillas topped with sauce and cheese and beans) and then we hit the trail to Cascada Cola de Caballo (Horse Tail Waterfall). An easy, well-defined trail took us past two fantastic swimming holes, but they were just appetizers.
After 10 minutes of walking the trail delivered us to the base of the waterfall itself. The long, thin, straight waterfall lived up to its name. A rocky perch provides a good diving point into the deep pool below the falls and a natural smooth rock slide connects the upper pool with a calmer swimming hole below.
After a cool dip in the crystal clear water we went into the village of Miguel Hidalgo for lunch at a community tourism project that includes six surprisingly well-appointed rooms (electricity, private bathrooms) and a basic outdoor kitchen that turned out a fabulous meal which included bean soup spiked with fennel, terrific hand made tortillas, and succulent chicken cooked in banana leaves. Fully fed, we hit the trail (briefly) again, this time to check out Apompal crater lake.
Even more impressive than the lake, which locals claim rarely changes its water level, is the amazingly well-constructed and well-placed bird watching tower nearby. We climbed the stairs (no swaying!) and immediately spotted toucans.
In the village of Benito Juarez another eco-tourism project, the lakeside Cabinas y Cascadas Encantada, was the starting point of a well-made trail past five waterfalls (about 1.5 hours for the loop). The view of Lake Catemaco from the open air restaurant was only topped by the view from most of the cabins further up the hillside (150 pesos/US$8 per person all with private cold water bathrooms). The best room in the house is #9 which has corner windows and a particularly good vantage point on the lake.
Island of the (creepy) macaques in Lake Catemaco
Water is also a major attraction in Catemaco, a small city that’s popular with Mexican travelers which means it feels festive and hasn’t become entirely tourist priced yet.
Catemaco is anchored by Lake Catemaco which is dotted with green islands. If the lake looks slightly familiar to you that’s because many movies (including parts of Apocalypto and Medicine Man) have been shot on and around the lake, many of them on the lakeside property of Reserva Ecológica Nanciyaga.
Most of the islands in Lake Catemaco are gorgeous and lush and peaceful as you slip past them in small boats. However, we found the lake’s famous Monkey Island a bit creepy. The tiny island is inhabited by a band of macaque monkeys which were allegedly left there by a research facility in the 1970s. As we drifted past the fat, mottled monkeys our imaginations ran wild trying to figure out exactly what sort of terrible lab experiment had befallen them. Shiver.
Luckily, Catemaco has other attractions. Like witches! Over the years, the town has become famous for its brujos, a Spanish word that means witch. Every March the town hosts a witch festival. But the word brujo also means “alternative healer” and that’s a much more apt (though less sexy) definition of the brujos of Catemaco who are more likely to be leading purification ceremonies than riding broomsticks.
We rubbed shoulders with some of those alternative healers while taking part in a traditional temazcal ceremony behind the Playa Azul hotel. Marisol, owner of Totonal, is well-versed in local traditions and she defines temazcal as “a steam bath with chants and herbal cleanses that make us come back to life symbolically. The way in which the temazcal room is built and its profound meaning recreate the mother womb. It is a place for reconciliation and interacting with the elements of the earth.”
Our temazcal, which is a type of sweat lodge which dates back to pre-hispanic times, started with a massage during which volcanic mud was applied to our skin then aloe was worked into our hair. Next, we assembled in a small round area like a tiny ampitheater where members of a local family, brujos all, chanted, sang and purified each of us with smoke and bundles of herbs.
Grandma was particularly fastidious about the purification process, visibly willing toxins and bad energy out of each body she focused on. Sadly, her purifications were taking quite a while so another family member grabbed some herbs and took up the slack, including our purifications. We can’t help but feel we’d be just a bit purer if we’d gotten Grandma…
Following our purification we were fit to enter the sacred temazcal structure. Picture an igloo made of adobe with an area in the middle for red-hot rocks and you’ve pretty much got it. Though temazcal structures are traditionally small and low, sometimes requiring participants to sit or lie on the dirt floor, this one was roomy enough to stand up in and stumps had been arranged in a circle for us to sit on.
Before entering the temazcal structure we kneeled at the entrance and asked Mother Earth for permission to go inside. As we all took a seat on a stump as the last of the 40 or so red-hot rocks were carefully added to a pile in the center. We were instructed to greet and thank each rock. Finally, a heavy blanket was lowered over the door followed by a wood slab to keep light out and heat in.
In the pitch black, steamy space another member of the brujo family sang more songs, lead us in introspective sharings of what we hoped to gain from the temezcal experience and periodically said the magic word: Puerta! Over the course of the next hour or so our brujo guide called out puerta (Spanish for door) four times, each time symbolizing an element. The rush of light and cool air as the door was momentarily opened was a relief but also an intrusion as the “real” world rushed in too.
After the temazcal was concluded we marched our muddy, sweaty selves a short distance and bobbed under the stars in the warm water of Lake Catemaco until we were clean.
We’ve experienced a temezcal before but this one was much more nuanced and involved and it made us curious to experience an even more authentic temazcal if we ever get the chance.
Little known fact about Veracruz
La Bamba, the song made famous by Ritchie Vallens, is based on a folk song written in Veracruz in the 17th century.
Our thanks, again, to Totonal Tour Company owner Marisol Herrara who led our Los Tuxtlas expedition with knowledge, passion, flexibility, and flair. Think of her as the anti-guided tour guide.
Here’s more about travel in Mexico