By Catherine Dunn Original Print Publication: March, 2008
The pull of Catemaco was witchcraft. Lured by spells and spiritual cleansings, we imagined a white-robed clairvoyant channeling ancient Olmec spirits in a steam- and smoke-filled hut.
The idea of visiting Catemaco, in southeastern Veracruz, transfixed us for months. The more we postponed it, the more we became convinced of our need to visit. Whenever misfortune would strike, one of us would throw up her arms and declare, “That’s it, we’re going to Catemaco for a limpia.”
On the map, Catemaco is folded into the belt of volcanic mountains around Los Tuxtlas, a region cradled between two rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. The crystalline lake is a blue-green eye in the northernmost tropical jungle of the Americas. Magic and mysticism were sure to flourish in this far-off and bewitching place.
Of course, it would require an arduous journey to get there.
We left Mexico City by car early, when many Chilangos are just going to bed, and crossed into Veracruz by mid-morning. The beat of a son jarocho CD propelled us over the state line, where sultry gulf air enveloped the car and the arid Puebla highlands gave way to palms, cacti, and banana trees. We spotted waterfalls and dramatic gorges as we wove down through the jungle to the coastal plain.
Catemaco is no stone’s throw from the carretera, and the drive slowed once we left Route 150 and entered the free coastal highway. It’s a spectacular stretch: ocean views flirt with highway passengers on one side and boundless expanses of river basins flank the other.
After ten hours on the road (with a stop in Tlacotalpan) we finally hit the town of Catemaco and followed the lakeshore to Nanciyaga, an eco-resort completely off the power grid. Cell phone service goes dead and the solar-powered lighting in the cluster of cabins is kept at a minimum.
Perched on a clear, freshwater spring, Nanciyaga aims to revive spiritual symbolism from the Olmec era. Labyrinthine stone pathways lead from guest cabins to the “Tomb of the Jaguar” and an amphitheater where white-magic shamans gather each year for their annual conference; past the temezcal (sauna) hut and over a swinging bridge to the thatched roof dining area.
Between mud baths, massages, temezcal treatments and jungle tours, we stayed busy during the daylight hours. (After nightfall you’re expected to navigate with a flashlight). In the clear, placid mornings we canoed, spotting scampering baby crocodiles, tree-hopping monkeys, turtles soaking up the sun in floating gardens, and flocks of tropical birds.
Local resident and waiter Esteban Cortez Contreras sums it up quite simply: “The magic here is nature.”
From the moment we arrived we began hearing stories of curses, healings, and epiphanies. The black magic of the brujos (wizards) and the white magic of the shamans is sharply divided here. While we heard talk of dark magic and sacrilege, only “good” shamans are allowed to practice and confer at Nanciyaga.
Our last day in Catemaco came and we’d been so busy that we still hadn’t received a limpia. Between the morning’s activities we made our way to Nanciyaga’s resident shamans’ dens, through a snail-shell curtain and into dim, slatted shacks adorned with Catholic iconography.
Two minutes and $100 pesos later we were … clean? It happened so fast: a blessing muttered in a string of Spanish, a light-handed beating with basil branches and a cloud of smoke. Then, poof! Had all our dreams boiled down to this? A little hocus pocus charged at a Polanco lawyer’s rate?
Our shamans brushed off questions and sent us packing with clay amulets that testified to our spiritual cleanliness. With that, we climbed back into the car, headed home to the city.
A few days later, over lunch in Mexico City, a friend asked about our trip. She knew a woman who’d been divorced and lost two jobs following her cleansing.
So did our limpias work? We’ve wondered if we can chalk a good day up to genuine purifi cation, and whether a bad day means it was all a sham. Admittedly, within forty-eight hours of our limpias, one of us had been dumped and the other had developed a rash on her leg. Karma or coincidence? Bad luck or liberation?
All we know for sure is that the limpia worked to get us there. Perhaps that was the blessing.
Where to stay: Drive through Catemaco, but don’t slow down. In our opinion Naciyaga is the only place to stay: www.nanciyaga.com
What to do: The shaman limpia, temezcal treatments, and massages; the canoeing is spectacular; we give mud baths a mixed review.
What to eat: Mojarra de Catemaco (black bass) cooked either en tachgobi – special to Catemaco – or a la veracruzana. Malanga – root veggie. Pellizcadas – think quesadilla/ taco/ pizza. Nanciyaga sweet breads are famous. Hand-pressed Veracruz tortillas are delicious. Keep an eye out for carne de chango (once a dish cooked with monkey meat, now served with pork), and tegogolos – freshwater snails said to be an aphrodisiac.
Safeguarding the lake
Preservationists responded to environmental threats by establishing the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve in 1998. This protects 155,122 hectares and keeps the lakeshore largely free of commercial and residential development. Nonetheless, our canoe rides were ruined each morning when tourist-shuttling motorboats turned the glassy lake into a noisy, muddied basin. The area has yet to find true harmony between the local economy and ecological concerns.
Maya Harris and Catherine Dunn have been best friends since the eighth grade. They work for Inside México.