Apr 28, 2017

Monkeys, Witches, Wizards, Ancient Civilization

A true relationship is someone who accepts your past,
supports your present,
loves you and encourages your future.


Reina in her simple kitchen.  Still cooking with wood.
We debated coming to Lake Catemaco.  It seemed too far off main or maintained roads.  With only a small overloaded car we weren’t sure it was prudent.  Nonetheless we went, reminding ourselves that the best and most genuine adventures we experience are usually in remote, hard to find or access places. 

After hours of driving, covering only a few miles, we finally made it to the ‘Bamboo Cabins’ at the far end of Lake Catemaco.  Even GPS mapping had difficulty leading us here.  We had to stop and ask for directions.  The gentleman at the counter gestured for me to look out the back window of his tienda and pointed straight down a steep hill to a roof between the treetops.  Down there – you can walk from here but you must go all the way around the hill if you are driving.  Too steep, good only for hooves or feet. 

Once there, we still wondered if we made the right decision when we saw how steep the driveway up to Bamboo Cabins was.  Jungle was taking over, tree branches and vines sagging low all along the driveway.  We had to take the bicycles off the car before attempting to gun it up the slippery cobblestoned hill.  OK, we’re almost there.  We can do this.  No turning around this late in the day.  Seriously questioning my sanity, since I did the research and tried to convince Mike to come here.

Hazy day over Lake Catemaco.  Lush jungle surrounding it.
Even walking to our cabin was difficult, a nearly vertical trek loaded with bags, bikes and all.  But up there, we had the place to ourselves and a great view of the lake.  In the upcoming dusk, we could hear various bird calls as well as the wind in the native bamboo growing near…  We were surrounded by jungle, coffee bushes, many types of tropical plants in bloom.  Heaven!

This place is so remote, you basically have to eat all your meals here unless you came prepared to cook your own.  We hadn’t and were glad we didn’t.  Reina cooked a storm just for the two of us at a cost we couldn’t match even if we prepared everything from scratch ourselves.  They are proud to say that nearly everything they offer is local: eggs, fish, snails, chicken, pork, vegetables, fruits, berries, coffee, etc. 

If there is a little something we have learned while traveling in Mexico is that you cannot be too shy to ask.  When Reina inquired about what we wanted to eat or drink, we had a short list of things we hadn’t had yet but knew were local.  We asked for juices made with native fruits.  We asked for coffee from their own plantation.  We asked for Lake Catemaco fish.  They are so happy to provide things that are truly local and we LOVED it.  Too often Mexicans think all we want are tacos, tortillas and beans, maybe because that’s all many foreigners know to ask, yet that is not truly representative of what many eat. 


We heartily enjoyed a dinner of perfectly grilled mojarras (type of tilapia from Lake Catemaco) caught that day, with a drink of sweet and slightly sour tamarind water.  A dinner of pork in a spicy sauce with plantain washed down with pineapple-chaya water.  Our host called the meat ‘chango’ aka monkey when she served it so I had to ask for clarification, a little befuddled.  She explained that several monkeys were left to procreate around the area after a study had been done of them.  These macaque monkeys were brought here by the University of Veracruz from Thailand.  They were not native and since they were becoming too numerous, the locals started catching and eating them.  That time has long passed but, jokingly, people still call pork monkey meat, because they say it is prepared and served the same way.  A few macaques remain sequestered on an island in the middle of the lake and are a sad touristic attraction.  They are grotesquely obese, being overfed by the throng of tourists visiting them.  We chose not to see or partake in that…

Chagalapoli berries make the darkest purple jam ever
Instead we visited a more remote jungle reserve with an indigenous guide, Alejandro, extremely well versed in plants and birds.  The reserve is small but packed with many plants, birds, waterfalls, interesting rock formations, seeds, etc.  During that walk, our guide mentioned that the chocho palm (a smallish palm with nasty spines along its trunk) has edible flowers.  He also showed us a bush that had deep purple chagalapoli berries very similar to blueberries but with a seed in the center and four times the antioxidant properties!  Many other plants had edible berries or fruits but were, unfortunately, not in season. 

Wild orchids and many lianas throughout

Even at the end of the dry season,
waterfalls in many places
Therefore, crossing many streams and rivers
And, cooling swimming holes
Our guide, Alejandro, looking up at basalt prisms.
After the visit to the reserve, we had an excellent meal with chocho palm flowers in a tempura batter somewhat like fritters.  Without our knowledge, Alejandro had let Reina know that we were fascinated by these edible flowers. She spent her afternoon in the jungle to find the few that were left, for it was the end of their season and many were past their prime, and cooked them for us.  They tasted somewhat like mild cheese. This time we had Jamaica (hibiscus) tea sweetened with chagalapoli berry juice, another hint that our guide had told Reina about our excursion in the reserve.  Delicious and so thoughtful.  Not something you would ever get at a restaurant, ever.

Chocho flower still on the palm. 
Need to take away all these spines
Edible flower of the chocho palm.  Pink in the light of a colorful sunset.
To finish the ‘jungle’ tour, Alejandro connected us with Beto to visit one of the rivers that feeds Lake Catemaco.  We expected a boat with a loud outboard to pick us up.  To our surprise, a man showed up rowing a small light green boat.  We were to be taken up the calm river quietly.  Beto told us fishing was done that way on the lake.  Better for the environment.   

From river, back to lake
We saw a crocodile lazily sunning itself on the bank of the river.  Beto tried to show us snakes but none were found.  We heard, but couldn’t see, many other critters hiding in the floating hyacinths.  We didn’t make it upriver as far as intended.  At the end of the dry season, the river was too low to proceed to the usual turnaround point but it was still very interesting.  We made it back just before the afternoon winds picked up too much, making the lake uncomfortably roily and rocky. 

Type of water hyacinth with beautiful purple-lilac flowers
Peaceful, lush, green.  Home of crocodiles and birds
Ancient Civilization…

Large head about as tall as Mike.
Probably just a replica since it is outside the museum
In a previous post speaking about blacks in Mexico we mentioned large heads sculpted by the natives, probably the Olmecs.  They inhabited this area for over 3,000 years, worked the basalt quarries and created these weighty masterpieces (up to 20 tons).  About 17 of these heads have been discovered in this region.  One was found near the very top of a volcano a few miles from the lake.  Long before Christopher Columbus’ great, great, great, grandfather was born, these heads were being carved and many look like they could be Negroid or Nubian, harking back to a time when Africans were slaves in Mexico so one theory goes...

We traveled to Villahermosa to see them at the museum but it was closed for repairs so I can only show you a picture of the one at the entrance.

Witches and Wizards…

In 1970, late Mayor Gonzalo Aguirre, himself a brujo, organized a witchcraft convention in Catemaco to promote the town.  It offered black mass, row boat races, anthropological discourses and the presence of brujos, witchdoctors, shamans, and the likes.

Since then, Catemaco has become renown as an ‘asylum’ for mysticism and witchcraft.  This convention happens yearly beginning the first Thursday in March.  It is called either the Congreso Internacional de Brujos (International Congress of Wizards), or Ritos, Ceremonias y Artesanías Mágicas (Magical Rituals, Ceremonies and Handicrafts).  It is an occasion for soothsayers and assorted ‘medicine men’, witchdoctors and fortunetellers to sell their spells, magic potions or occult services, exploiting tourists.

Some say that due to its remoteness, this area relied on curanderos (healers) and brujos (sorcerers).  The surrounding jungle is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of medicinal plants.  Indigenous people today still rely on these plants for treatment of many ailments.  When we went to a very small tienda to purchase some locally made chagalapoli jam, we were offered many types of herbal medicines.  The movie Medicine Man (1992) with Sean Connery was filmed here as well as Apocalypto (2006) by Mel Gibson.  Many consider this area a Garden of Eden, the ancient Olmec’s Paradise Lost and the beginning of all creation.

Historically, brujos or shamans, wizards, warlocks, necromancers, or alternative healers, occupy a revered place in Mexican indigenous culture.  Aztecs, for example, classified almost 40 different types of healers.  Mexican presidents and governors still seek witchdoctors' guidance on public matters.

Cuban Santeria, Haitian Voodoo, and Catemaco Brujeria are closely related and promise enlightenment and a little devil worship.  In Catemaco, for many pesos, you can wipe out evil spirits.  The ‘cleaning’ price usually includes a raw egg, rose water sprinkles, and some fresh herbs.  Charms or amulets are extra.  A limpia (cleaning) can go for as little as $100 pesos ($5US) while more complex acts, such as curing illness or helping find your significant other, can cost anywhere between $8,000 and $10,000 pesos ($400-$500US).

There are also the chamanes or white witches.  They are the ‘deeply’ spiritual or mystic beings who, strangely, are nearly impossible to locate.  Snakebite healers (culebreros) are well known and herbal healers (yerberos) have many plants at their disposal.  Gypsies, locally known as hungaros are also found here.  They haggle to read you palm.  Finally, chaneques (goblins) frequent the many hill side caves… 

In the 1990’s, brujos were linked to murders and drug related events.  Locals preferred to ignore them.  Today’s tourists in Catemaco will be steered to the most expensive brujo by throngs of motor bikers.  Hum…

Locals even believe in burning the famous arrayan plant (type of myrtle), found growing only at the high altitudes around the volcanoes, for protection against the strong storms that mainly happen in late spring. 

Many weaver bird nests.  This one overlooking the lake by our dinner table.
Use of live fencing.  Great and attractive idea
Lush pastures all around the lake
Making a quick broom from greenery

Despite what you may believe in, Catemaco is a magical place, a small paradise nestled between volcanoes and lakes.  Worth a visit, especially if you get off the tourist paths.  The far end of Lake Catemaco is still very wild and peaceful, no vendors in sight. 

Upon leaving and after we had brought the car back down the steep driveway and were putting the bikes back on the car by the side of the main road, I found a four-inch bruja made of corn husks, local seeds, feathers and thorns, hung on the handlebars of my bike.  During the night, Reina left us that present.  What was her message?

This bruja now hangs in the car…  wildly dancing on her broom when we turn sharp corners or hit bumpy roads or topes (speed bumps).  Thank you, Reina we will always remember our time in Catemaco.

Our little bruja - luck charm?

Source:  Don Gringo

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