This article is from the March 2002 The Mexico File
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Veracruz South, A Road Less Traveled
by David Simmonds
The state of Veracruz may be Mexico’s most interesting and diverse, from the glacier-covered peak of Pico de Orizaba at over 16,000 feet (North America’s third highest peak) to the steamy tropical forest of the Los Tuxtlas region in the southern part of the state – this state has it all. If you can’t find something to like in Veracruz you might as well go on home, turn on Oprah and start preparing your will. (And don’t forget a little something for your favorite newsletter while you’re at it.)
After a few days in Veracruz city I rented a red VW bug (why are the rentals always red?) and headed south on coastal highway 180, wide-eyed and alert in anticipation of a day spent breathing diesel fumes, slowly proceeding at a two-lane crawl. But once I cleared the city traffic there were few cars on the road. The terrain here is mostly a flat and hot, sparsely populated coastal plain, spotted with lakes and rivers.
At about 50 miles south of Veracruz city a sign will direct you to a road on the right, Hwy 175, heading six miles to the very unique town of Tlacotalpan, sitting hard against the wide Rio Papaloapan. The rather small town of 15,000 was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998, an unusual occurrence for a town most people have never heard of, much less visited. The designation, I would soon discover, is well-deserved.
Tlacotalpan was founded in the mid-16th century, but because of several fires the town you see today was primarily built in the late 1800’s. In the very early years, many imports from Spain and Cuba were off-loaded here from the ships that navigated the wide river. After a quick walk around town you will declare that you have never seen a town in Mexico that looks, and feels, like Tlacotalpan. The somewhat wide residential streets that emanate from the main zocaló are lined with mostly single-story homes painted in very intense, colorful shades of pink, purple, lime green, blue, yellow, and a few other colors not usually seen in neighborhoods where children live. It’s like walking through an M&M factory after a few tequila shooters. You think maybe Timothy Leary landed here at one time and became the urban planner.
But instead of being a wild, raucous party town befitting one that paints itself like a carnival, what you have is the most sedate, peaceful burg you can imagine, where milk is still delivered by a guy riding a burro and late night festivities are…well, there are none.
I spent an entire afternoon just walking the streets, waiting for the sun to break through the clouds so I could take the photos you see in this article. But far from being tedious and uneventful, it proved to be one of the most enjoyable days I have spent in recent years. Although the residents aren’t over-the-top friendly, I was invited into a couple of houses where I was shown some beautiful furnishings one would not expect to find in a town with no major industry and a total of two hotels. In the two days I stayed, I saw a total of three other gringos, all of whom avoided each other with obvious intent.
Agustin Lara, the famous Mexican musician and poet, was born here in 1897. Some of his well-known compositions included “Granada,” “Maria Bonita,” and “Farolita.” Most of his legendary music was written from 1930 to 1939 and many of his songs were prominent in the golden era of Mexico film. He toured Europe with great success in the 1950’s. Among the popular singers who performed his songs are Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Dezi Arnaz, and Lola Beltran. And Placido Domingo recorded an entire album of Lara compositions, “Por Amor.” The Tobias Carbajal Rivera Bar and Museum houses some of Lara’s personal objects.
Except for taking some good photos, there are not a lot of things to do in town. You can rent a boat to cruise the river or visit a few buildings of interest. The main zocaló is Zaragoza Park with its Moorish kiosk. There is the Salvador Fernando Museum with some interesting photos of historical importance and the Culture House where the local residents are given instruction on how to make various crafts of Veracruz.
The slow life of Tlacotalpan rules for 355 days a year – until January 31st, the start of the Candelaria Festival. The feria (fair) lasts until February 10 as people come from all over to sing, dance, drink or just watch. Since there are only two hotels, many of the locals open up their homes to the visitors for temporary quarters. Many parades highlight the festival and the open-air market expands its size with vendors from all of Veracruz.
There is also a Tlacotalpan version of “The Running of the Bulls” during the festival. The homeowners construct bamboo fences to protect their property and the bulls are left to wander the streets with a little direction from a few vaqueros. Evidentally, some bulls get a little cranky and cause some serious damage to both people and property. Given that the local drink is a liquor called Toritos de Cacahuates (made from peanuts), it’s probably a good idea to watch the bulls from a roof-top, or from a room at the town’s best hotel, the Hotel Doña LaLa. The hotel is in a 70 year-old building with 34 comfortable rooms and a truly great restaurant. I had a cream of spinach soup with shrimp that ranks as one of the best I’ve eaten anywhere. A prime filet steak, thick and tender, will run you about $10US, and the service is top-notch. My meals here were far better than any I had in the much larger and cosmopolitan Veracruz city.
Back on Highway 180 you head south toward the area known as Los Tuxtlas – and in about 45 minutes you will arrive at the small town of Santiago Tuxtlas, where the terrain is now very green and hilly. The countryside produces beans, sugar cane, maize, bananas, tobacco and cattle. This is very pretty country, some of Mexico’s finest. You have now entered the ancient home of the Olmecs as evidenced by the very large Olmec head planted firmly in the main square. It is the largest head found to date, and somewhat unique in that it is the only one with its eyes closed. The Tuxteco Museum a few blocks away houses more Olmec artifacts, some quite remarkable.
Another more recent traveler’s attraction is the main square itself and the circular Hotel Castellanos on the north side of the square, both of which can be seen in 1984’s Romancing the Stone, the romping adventure starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito. The story in the movie takes place in Colombia, but the filming location was Santiago Tuxtla and the surrounding jungles. I rented the movie after I returned to San Diego, having not seen it since its release. What happened to Kathleen in the following years? She seemed to have aged rapidly, making one wonder if the Mexico trip took a considerable toll. Actually, I think I read that she developed a very painful arthritic condition that nearly ended her career.
The Hotel Castellanos seems out of place in this ancient area, but the rooms are well-priced and the views of the hills from the upper floors are gorgeous. Again, I didn’t see another gringo for the day and one-half that I was there, which suited me just fine.
Just a few more miles down the road is San Andres Tuxtla, a much larger town of about 100,000. There is a variety of hotels here along with stores, banks and other services you might require. The views of the hills and the nearby dormant San Martin volcano provide a visual goldmine, and if you have a car, as I did, there are numerous dirt roads to take off on – just to see where they go. I ended up about five miles back in the hills in a small village with people looking at me like I must be lost. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky this time, as I did find my way back with no problems. Some of the best stories result from being somewhere, knowing not how you got there or how to return to where you started.
Another 15 minutes down the highway brings you to the land of the Brujos, the witch doctors. Yes, Mexico has a large population of brujo devotees, and Catemaco is their Mecca. Every year in early March they hold a convention drawing witches and witch believers from far and wide. I wasn’t fortunate enough to attend the gathering, but I only imagine how I might be changed had I done so. I could have had these bum knees rejuvenated, my sinful ways cleansed from my soul, and purged the anxiety and stress I feel when confronted with a deadline. Nowhere else can you get all of that in a tropical setting on the shores of a beautiful lake (Salt Lake City is not tropical).
I may sound a little cynical about the witch cult, but actually I find them no goofier than most of the world’s other belief systems, and the witches seem to have a better sense of humor. The convention is certainly a boon to the local economy.
Besides the entertainment value in brujoville, the town is located on Mexico’s third largest lake, Laguna Catemaco. Surrounded by green volcanic hills, the lake is about 10 miles long, six miles wide and contains several islands. Numerous streams empty into the lake and the region is home to some 550 migratory and local birds. Besides witch seekers, Catemaco’s residents get a lot of bird watchers as tourists, which could really produce an interesting party if they all descended on the town during the same week.
The town itself has a nice, familiar feel to it. Besides the occasional witch hustler, the main tourist industry is down by the lake, where boats are lined up available to explore the waters. The premier attraction is Isla de los Changos (Monkey Island). The University of Veracruz brought a load of mandrill baboons from Thailand to study them, and this is now their home. The Tuxtlas region at one time was home to many native monkeys, but many have now disappeared. The howler monkey can still be seen with a sharp eye and heard with a near deaf ear. Catemaco was once known for serving monkey meat in its restaurants (changocon), but if you see it advertised these days it is most likely goat.
The lake itself is a beautiful body of water, although if you want to swim in it I suggest going to a beach on the side away from town for cleaner water. White egrets feed along its shores amidst water lilies and white and blue heron are in regular attendance. I saw a large flock of wild parrots darting from tree to tree. This is a wild and beautiful area of Mexico that everyone should see.
Just a few miles from town is Nanciyaga, a tropical rain forest that is now in private ownership housing an eco-retreat, of sorts. It’s a shame to see it turned into a commercial venture, but, in truth, it saves it from the slash and burn farming that has claimed so much of the forest. The park is known as the Ecological and Educational Project Nanciyaga and you have actually probably seen it on the silver screen. Hollywood descended in the early 90’s to film Medicine Man here, the movie starring Sean Connery. Much of the set has been preserved, as well as a few fake trees that were built out of plastic. I guess they couldn’t find the perfect tree in the forest so they built their own, which I find pretty weird.
Anyway, the rest of the property is really quite nice. There are very rustic open-air cabins to rent over the water and a simple outdoor restaurant with some surprisingly good food. Interspersed throughout the grounds are reproductions of magnificent artifacts found in the region, most of which have been pirated out to museums in the U.S. and Europe. Lurking about is the resident shaman, Benito. I had the pleasure of meeting Benito and he seemed just like a regular guy to me – but what do I know about shamans? I declined his services, but now I kind of wish I had asked him to fix my tennis elbow and bless me with the stamina of a twenty-year-old.
You can also take a mud bath with aromatic plants in a mineral water spring, or go for the temazcal (ritual steam bath), which seems a little redundant in a rain forest. Other services include prehispanic ceramic workshops, an interactive theater, and an on-site chiropractor trained in France. There is an open-air theater that purports to have excellent sound and has hosted the Symphonic Orchestra of Xalapa.
Now, this may sound a little Disney World to you, but it actually all works surprisingly well. When I return, I’ll definitely plan on a few days in one of the cabins with my wife. And maybe get to know Benito a little better.