Catemaco, Veracruz: Land of Sorcery

Julia Holland | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Meaning “place of the burned houses” in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, Catemaco is both figuratively and literally a magical town nestled between lush mountains and the gulf coast of southern Veracruz. Mexicans and foreigners alike flock to Catemaco to experience or observe its age-old tradition of witchcraft that has blossomed into an all-encompassing community of fortune tellers, psychics, herbalists, healers, and shamans. Let's explore Catemaco, the land of sorcery.

© istock/Robert Patrick Briggs

Brujeria, or witchcraft and the practice of black and white magic, is still a widely followed and revered phenomenon in Mexico. Once a year, there is a festival or gathering of sorcerers on the beautiful Laguna de Catemaco, a giant freshwater lake in the center of town that is said to emit magical energy. Tourists come from near and far to participate in cleanses, readings, and other spiritual rituals.

© istock/MattGush

Whether you subscribe to sorcery or not, Catemaco does have a special energy about it, and its many natural attractions will surely draw you under its magical spell. There are plenty of things to see in the town itself, but the main attractions you must visit are the Laguna de Catemaco, Isla de los Monos, and the neighboring nature biosphere of Los Tuxtlas.

Laguna de Catemaco

While the rough translation of “laguna” is a lagoon, the giant 2.5-mile-long body of water in the center of the town is really a giant lake. Surrounded by lush greenery and a panorama of beautiful mountains, the Laguna de Catemaco is incredibly picturesque. There is a large dock with fishing boats as well as tour boats that take you around the lake and stop off at floating souvenir stands before venturing into the open water, where you will witness fascinating and unexpected wildlife sightings.

© istock/MattGush

There are numerous small islands in the middle of the lake replete with aviary life and, of course, monkeys! You can purchase a boat tour for a few hours to half a day with meals included for 500-2000 pesos MXN.

Isla de los Monos

As I alluded to in the previous section, the Laguna de Catemaco is home to various small islands, one of which is known as Monkey Island or la Isla de los Monos. While monkeys are native to Mexico, the monkeys at Isla de los Monos are not.

© istock/ Dr. Jürgen Tenckhoff

In the 1970s, a conservationist at the University of Veracruz brought a small group of endangered Southeast Asian macaque monkeys to the islands in Lake Catemaco as an experiment in repopulation. Various generations later, there is a giant colony of old-world monkeys hanging from the trees and hollering to each other and the hundreds of tourists observing them from boats in the middle of the lake

This was undoubtedly the height of my boat tour and surely the only time I, or you for that matter, will ever see a wild colony of Southeast Asian monkeys outside of Southeast Asia.

Reserva de la Biosfera Los Tuxtlas

Located just north of Catemaco, the Reserva de la Biosfera Los Tuxtlas is an enormous reserve that stretches through the mountains of the Sierra Tuxtlas all the way to the gulf coast and is one of the most beautiful areas of unfettered nature you will encounter in Mexico.

© istock/Ildo Frazao

The lush mountains that give way to a stunning coastline full of completely virgin beaches are the definition of paradise. You will also find a wealth of biodiversity, including amazing flowers, tropical fruit trees, giant anthills, a plethora of brightly colored beetles and birds, wily spider monkeys, and many giant groups of brown and red howler monkeys. Howler monkeys are native to Mexico, and this species travels in groups of 30-40 individuals. They are a joy to watch, and you will be shocked by the wildcat-like howls that come barreling out of their small mouths. I guess that is why they are called Howlers! 

© istock/ Dr. Jürgen Tenckhoff

You will certainly need a guide to lead you on a hike through this magical reserve, and you can contract a tour in the Catemaco.

Catemaco’s natural beauty and cultural significance converge and await exploration. You can spend the morning hiking through the thick rainforest of Los Tuxtlas and return to Lake Catemaco for an afternoon boat tour through the artisan-filled docks and around the famous Monkey Island. If you are feeling completely dazzled by your experiences, then the land of sorcery has surely cast its magical hold over you.

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