Cattle ranches and farmland ate into the jungle, but not too much. The lush foliage still spreads, wide and dense, upon the remaining volcanic peaks. Mel Gibson chose it as a filming location for some of the scenes in 'Apocalypto'; Sean Connery used it as a backdrop for 'Medicine Man'. The Mexican government protect it, as part of the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve. UNESCO declared it a world heritage site. Out on the lake, there are islands where the macaque monkeys roam free; survivors of research labs. This is Catemaco and the city belongs to the witches.
There are always brujos in Catemaco. The High Council of Witches and Wizards resides there. Pilgrims, primarily from Mexico but increasingly from around the world, come here for healing, workshops or magical protection. The city has charms, in every sense of the word. Then, during the first Thursday and Friday in March, the city fills with magical practitioners of every hue. This is the Congreso Internacional de Brujos (International Gathering of Witches) and, during this festival, the sleepy city truly comes alive.
The fiesta erupts in parades, music and dancing. Healers, psychics, therapists and Pagan vendors line the shore. Everywhere the fine food, for which Catemaco is nationally famous, is on offer in abundance. The streets are filled with priests and priestesses in their finery. Olmec head-dresses rise, in full plumage, above the throng. This is a celebration, as much as a get-together.
The Annual Gathering of Witches is a light-hearted affair. You don't have to be a witch to be there. In fact, ordinary tourists are the ones filling the hotels and guesthouses, drawn by the party atmosphere and the wonderful sights on offer. A tarot reading here, an amulet there and participation in a cleansing ceremony are usually as far as the average visitor tends to go. For the real Pagans though, this is an opportunity to meet up with like-minded people, sharing knowledge and joining together for rituals. On the whole, it's both fun and empowering.
Catemaco has always been steeped in the mystical. It was once the stronghold of the Olmec people. Local legend has it that Catemaco was once the sacred center for the Olmec, hence its Pagan credentials start there. The festivals and practises now are simply a continuation of ways that have been here for 3,000 years. Colossal Stone Heads have been found in nearby San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán.
The area is also home to several tribes of Hungaros/Rromaní (gypsies). These people will be in Catemaco for the gathering, plying their traditional wares and services.
For more information about the witches of Catemaco, plus photographs, film and stories, please visit Catemaco Brujos.