Travel to Los Tuxtlas
Popping out of a lonely green corridor splitting the mountainous forest, I stopped to gaze down the highway. “What kind of enchanted land have I entered?” I wondered aloud.
To the right, unpopulated sandy, subtropical beaches shimmered toward the horizon. To the left, the thick forest ebbed and prairie-like pasture covered the hills rumbling toward the sea. Los Tuxtlas Mountains crowd southeastern Mexico, north of the Yucatan. They are a range of low volcanoes that span in elevation from sea-level on the Bay of Campeche to over 1,700 meters, in the most northerly tropical rain forest on earth. This region embraces the Olmec culture.
Being the home of the Olmecs is mysterious enough, but the countryside, vegetation and black-earth odors enhance the puzzle of this lost civilization. The geological features—from beach to crater to steep-walled canyons in a humid, tropical climate—create an astounding diversity of micro-climates and terrain.
Over 3,000 plant species and 550-plus bird species thrive in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas. Laguna Catemaco, seven miles long, four wide and 98 feet deep at its maximums is formed from the calderas of extinct volcanoes.
Mexican Highway 185, a narrow, two-lane road, snakes through Los Tuxtlas’ low-lying mountains. Two autopistas, or toll roads, completely bypass the region, keeping the land isolated and relatively unspoiled.
The tourist, adventurer or explorer, with effort, can find unknown Olmec ruins, artifacts and sculptures hidden in the jungle. Thankfully, numerous little-known tourist sites and archeological digs nearby dissuade the unprepared visitor from emulating Indiana Jones and taking on the terrain in search of the next major archeological find.
A poorly marked road circles Volcán San Martin and Reserva de la Biosfera de Los Tuxtlas and runs along the coast. It’s a day’s ride, if sightseeing, devoid of five-star luxury, but brimming over with nature’s raw beauty. A lucky few enjoy that circular exploration once. The really lucky drive it several times and stretch stops at different sections into longer ventures to absorb the unadvertised sites, such as a rocky island colored white from nesting birds, and drink in the lifestyle of Old Mexico.
Catemaco anchors the Los Tuxtlas region. Surrounded on three sides by tropical jungle, the picturesque town nestles beside the mysteriously inviting Catemaco Lagoon. Among other lakeside attractions, tour boats visit an island inhabited by monkeys and includes the Reserva Ecológica Nanciyaga, (Nanciyaga Ecological Reserve) where “The Medicine Man,” starring Sean Connery, and “Apocalypto,” directed by Mel Gibson, were filmed.
Catemaco, Veracruz Mexico
Although a few larger towns dot the region, Catemaco is an excellent base from which to explore Los Tuxtlas. The town offers numerous accommodations and restaurants, with fresh fish straight from the lake and seafood from the ocean less than thirty miles away. Catemaco is the center of brujas, or witches, in Mexico, and is internationally known by those interested in the mystical side of life. Paranormal shops, medicine men, and fortune tellers are sprinkled throughout the town. The Festival of Witches, a lighthearted celebration, occurs during March.
On the serious side, many believe the magic and supernatural atmosphere hearkens back to pre-historic Olmec celebrations. Medicinal plants grow in these forests, and bubbling springs and waterfalls add to the other-world ambiance. In isolated villages, one can find respected men we’d term herbalists or root doctors.
A tourist map is available at most hotels. My 30-mile driving error taught me to use it as a general guide, not for specific highway directions. The smaller roads twist and turn and don’t always correspond to the geographical features on the tourist map.
Moving northeast toward the village of Sontecomapan, the potholed lane is a jolting experience the first 10 miles. A careful driver can navigate the road, avoiding the basket-sized scoops. However, the country scenery of giant trees and lush two foot-high pasture grass proved too eye catching. I slowed down, hit half the potholes, and enjoyed the countryside which beckoned, “Stop and enjoy a picnic.”
The map indicates villages’ dotting the next 40 miles, but the settlements are off the road and unseen. A lone driver is in splendid isolation. Just when glimpses of the bay show between branches and the road reaches perfection, it’s time to slow to a crawl. Mountain jungle crowds the lane. Tropical vegetation permeates the air and fills your lungs as you bump over three miles of stone road. A turn left heads into Reserva de la Biosfera de Los Tuxtlas.
Passing the Reserve, the bumping continues for a short distance, and the road becomes smooth again. Dirt roads to the right lead to little beach villages set several hundred yards in from the sand. The first fishing village I visited was Balzapote, and I had the coast to myself. The wild ocean reminded me more of west coast Mexico than the Caribbean or Gulf shores. It’s as if God had jammed America’s Great Smoky Mountains against the ocean, 1,500 miles south.
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