I woke up in Veracruz City on the second to last day of 2016 having no idea I’d be going to bed that night in a jungle. Our hostel owner at the Oyster Hostel in Veracruz moonlights as a tour guide and is passionate about the many offerings of the dynamic state of Veracruz, especially the region of Los Tuxtlas around Laguna Catemaco which was our destination that day, compliments of his comfy mini-SUV.
We spent much of the day in the car, winding through the rural countryside of Veracruz on our journey to Catemaco, making pit stops along the way at a famous Cuban-style cigar factory, and a humongous waterfall. The people-watching was as good as it gets.
There was “animal watching” too, unfortunately. I witnessed a group of turkeys standing in the rain along the road, very malnourished and somehow given up on life as their owner tried to hawk them to passing cars. That was depressing.
But Catemaco wasn’t. We had no idea what to expect, which is somehow the best of ways to approach a new place. After arriving, we spent the rest of the late afternoon exploring Laguna Catemaco on a boat owned by a friend of our hostel owner.
From land, the scale of the lake was impossible to recognize, as the lakeshore was lined by trees. But when we actually got on the lake, I was overtaken by the size. We sped along on the boat so quickly that the bumps of waves we hit started to feel like concrete speed bumps that sent us flying, over and over again.
We explored every corner of the lake, from a lakeshore stop for volcanic mud face masks offered by the wife of our boat guide outside the vacation home of the owner of the cigar factory,
to the sunset stop to drink water from a hole along the lake where naturally carbonated water comes up from the earth,
and finally, a pause in our boat to roll along the small waves of the lake for a few minutes and watch the monkeys on a small island.
My favorite moment was turning the boat to the west and darting off into the sunset, as the least bashful of the monkeys watched us disappear while peeling a banana another boat had thrown at him.
We went to bed that night in one of the two guest rooms off of a coffee shop.
I showered with no hot water and went to sleep hoping the thousands of birds that populated the trees along the shore wouldn’t wake us up too early. Luckily, I woke up surprisingly refreshed the next morning, the last day of 2016, and enjoyed talking to the other guests over breakfast. They asked what our plan was for the day, and I told him we were exploring the Reserva Ecológica de Nanciyaga, which is supposedly the most visited fee-based attraction in the region of Los Tuxtlas. In other words, there weren’t many other options.
The reserve’s name, Nanciyaga, comes from the Nahuatl language and means “at the end of the Nance trees.” I did some research on the area, and the discontinuous rainforest belt of Middle America reaches its northernmost extent on the mainland in southeastern Mexico. Apparently, the forest in this region is not a rainforest, though, and is instead considered to be a moist forest. Hmmm…clear as mud, I suppose.
We easily found a taxi to drive us the beautiful four-mile stretch along the lake to the reserve, the same route we had taken by boat yesterday.
I was apprehensive about what we would find at the nature reserve, bracing myself for potential encounters with caged, unhappy animals, which happens sometimes when groups market themselves as sanctuaries to increase tourism.
When we arrived we were the only ones in sight other than the nice woman at the wooden ticket booth. I don’t remember how much we paid to get in, but it was around five dollars each, and maybe even less. After paying, the woman waved us toward a young man carrying a tall stick, who turned out to be our volunteer guide. Instead of letting us wander around on our own and get ourselves into trouble, this young gentleman took us up and down the winding dirt paths and through a history of the ancient Olmec culture, and a bit of a background on the wildlife that call the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve home.
The ecological park is a self-sustaining property made up of ten acres along lake Catemaco including a mineral spring (Nipapaqui natural hot tub), a tiny lagoon for swimming, small bungalows that accommodate overnight guests, and a wonderful open-air restaurant serving three meals a day to guests, but closing at sunset for those not staying on the property.
Really, though, there was so much more to the property than expected, which we discovered through our sweet young guide. We stopped along the dirt path as we encountered random replicas of Olmec sculptures he used as talking points. Highlights of the property included the temazcal (sweat lodge), which is actually functioning, and group treatments are scheduled throughout the month.
As a theatre person, I loved their outdoor amphitheater. And then, of course, I was shocked-but-not-shocked at the wall of printed photos of guests in mud baths, mixed with pictures of celebrities. Apparently, parts of Medicine Man (1992) with Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco, and Apocalypto (2006) with Mel Gibson were filmed here. The owner, a woman, is happily pictured in a photo with Mel Gibson.
After enjoying the photo wall, we entered the wooden structure and found ourselves in a small but clean and lovely open-air salon.
My friend enjoyed a mud face treatment, while I purchased the dried mud and some patchouli soap to take home. Folklore claims a princess used to cross over from a neighboring island to use the mud in this region to beautify herself. I took that as a strong hint I should be doing the same.
Once my friend’s face was thoroughly green from this miracle mud, we left the salon to discover rows upon rows of tied leaves laid out for us to select from. I was bewildered, as everything was in Spanish, so it was becoming a bit hard to keep up with all the surprises. I followed my friend’s lead, green face and all, as he picked up a leaf and dipped it into a bucket of water. To my surprise, the leaves were watertight, and the water was carbonated. I took a gulp from my leaf cup: the water had a familiar taste, and I wondered if they pulled it from the same hole we had drunk from the evening before. This was the first time, and possibly the last, I had drunk from a leaf. So far, so good. I was thoroughly charmed by our jungle adventure.
But the surprises didn’t end there. The handy leaf cup maker, a nice young woman, asked if we wanted to have a “White Magic” treatment. I wasn’t aware of this at the time but later discovered from the mother of great friends of mine near Mexicali, Mexico, that this region of Veracruz was famous, or perhaps infamous, for its traditions of magic. My friend and I decided to participate together, and we spent a thoroughly unusual but surprisingly pleasant five minutes being swept with leaves as our white magic doctor chanted and prayed around us. At the end of the ceremony, he presented us with a clay ceramic face on a ribbon to wear around our necks, that he had blessed for us to ward off the spirits. I keep it in my purse. I figure I need all the help I can get.
Our adventure continued alongside an algae-filled lagoon inhabited by more than a few crocodiles and turtles, with a fence separating us humans from these prehistoric-looking characters. They were as still as statues.
And the turtles perched along the long wooden logs looked like a cartoon.
Along with these guys, the area is apparently known for rich birdlife, including toucans and parrots, which we saw from a distance.
In 2003, a few Howler monkeys were reintroduced in the reserve which apparently did well. We saw a large iguana and babies. And we didn’t see any unhappy animals. I was relieved.
Our tour wound down, and our guide showed my friend where to wash off his mask.
Bowls of fresh patchouli leaves adorned the sinks, and our guide smiled and encouraged me to use them as my soap.
I loved them: the fiber seemed to scrub my hands clean and left a wonderful scent. We tipped our guide nicely as he handed me back my soap and mud that he’d carried, and we bid each other goodbye, at which point we were let loose in this little paradise! I was thrilled. It was lunchtime, and lunch at the open-air restaurant seemed like a perfect idea.
We talked to a chef who managed the dessert bar, and she showed us some of the traditional cakes that they offer, tempting us to leave some room for later.
We enjoyed a thoroughly relaxing, delicious lunch on the lakeshore, a beautiful piñata blowing in the wind above us.
After lunch, we made our way back up the winding dirt paths to the wooden ticket booths and asked the woman to call us a taxi. While we waited, we chatted with the volunteer guides waiting for the next visitors to arrive. They were local students and all very proud to be a part of the reserve.
The visit couldn’t have gone better. I’ve promised myself I will return, and next time I will stay at the reserve. Full of good energy, happy people, and happy animals, this is the type of place I want to go to remind myself how much there is to appreciate in life, despite our everyday stresses and challenges.
And until my return, I luckily have quite a store of mud mask to tide me over. I put it on and pretend to be the princess of Catemaco.
For more information on Nanciyaga, visit this helpful website apparently maintained by an American ex-patriot not affiliated with the reserve.