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Nestled on the shores of the scenic lake that shares its name, Catemaco in eastern Mexico is an internationally recognized hub of magic and witchcraft. On the first Friday of March, the tiny town celebrates its annual witchcraft festival and attracts approximately 5,000 visitors from around the world. Yet with its unique culture, beautiful lakeside setting and numerous natural sights, the town is worth a visit at any time of the year.
In the 1970s, tourism to Catemaco spiked massively owing to the fame of Gonzalo Aguirre, a renowned sorcerer who lived and practiced in the region. During his lifetime, Aguirre performed rituals for politicians, actors, and business leaders. He also organized a witchcraft convention that brought together the country’s top shamans for a black mass.
After his death, the annual witchcraft conference became a regular fixture, and is now a three-day event held in March each year. The 13 most important witches in Catemaco, who are known as the “Brothers,” command considerable respect in the town. Over the years, the money flowing in from tourism has undoubtedly impacted on the witchcraft culture in the region. Sorcery is big business in Catemaco today, and many practitioners have calling cards, websites, and even agents.
Any local will tell you that there are plenty of charlatans mixed in with the shamans who have trained in a traditional form of magic. Taking part in a magical ritual can be a fascinating and unique experience, but visitors should make sure that they clarify how much they are going to pay in advance. There is general agreement in Catemaco that the most authentic witches are those that offer their services in exchange for voluntary donations, rather than expensive set fees.
In recent years, there has been a move towards more professionalized practices. Theatrical healers who light bonfires and perform animal sacrifices are still found, but there are many witches with more restrained operations. Some dress in white shirts and have offices resembling hospital clinics, with waiting areas and examination tables.
The most basic ritual offered by Catemaco’s witches is a limpia espiritual, or spiritual cleansing, a practice with pre-Hispanic roots that often incorporates prayers to Catholic saints. The ceremony usually involves a chicken egg, some sprigs of rosemary, and perfume. To cleanse a person, a witch brushes their head, legs, and torso with the plants while muttering a prayer. An egg is also rubbed across the body in a similar way before it is cracked into a glass of water.
The witch examines the contents of the glass and delivers advice or predictions based on what they see. This can relate to anything from relationships to money, and often includes a warning or two about jealous friends or bad habits. The rite is typically closed by prayers and the spraying of a generous amount of perfume.
As well as its spiritual dimension, Catemaco is the best town from which to explore the amazing Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve, a haven for wildlife containing kingfishers, parrots, iguanas, crocodiles, anteaters, and porcupines.
A boat trip around Lake Catemaco is the best way to close in on the main natural sights. A small colony of stump-tailed macaques lives on the tiny Isla de los Changos. The monkeys were moved to the habitat from Thailand in 1974. The larger Agaltepec Island contains larger and more active Mexican howler monkeys.
In addition to this diversity of plants and animals, many locals believe the rainforests of Los Tuxtlas to be inhabited by all sorts of magical creatures. Rumors swirl about naguales – powerful witches who are able to transform themselves into jaguars or pumas and prowl the forest at night. Some also report seeing chaneques – tiny, forest-dwelling sprites that guard the forest and frighten away intruders.
Catemaco has a variety of lodging options, but travelers should book well in advance if they plan to visit for the March witchcraft festival.
The Hotel Playa Cristal is a comfortable option with a great location on the shores of Lake Catemaco. The establishment has air-conditioned rooms, free wifi, and an outdoor swimming pool.
The Centro Ecoturístico Cabañas Encantadas, tucked into a forest on the shores of Lake Catemaco, offers cozy wooden chalets that are perfect for budget travelers.