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To the edge of a blue lake in an ancient volcanic crater, jade jungle hills fall. Bird song echoes through the canopies, through the folds of the earth. And through these Tuxtla mountains still roam the spirits of the Olmec ancestors.


This area was the homeland of the mother civilization of all of Mexico, the Olmecs, known for the colossal heads they carved of stone. Catemaco, on the shores of the lake bearing the same name, is the main village of the Tuxtlas region. Along its waterfront promenade are a number of good restaurants offering regional foods (including fresh-water eel) and souvenirs.


Lake Catemaco has a maximum width of 10 kilometers, and can be explored by boat. Tours visit the shrine “El Tegal,” where the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared; Isla de los Macacos (Monkey Island); Isla de las Garzas (Heron Island) and the Reserva Ecológica Nanciyaga, (Nanciyaga Ecological Reserve) where “The Medicine Man,” starring Sean Connery, was filmed. Playa Hermosa and Playa Azul are beaches near Catemaco town where one can swim in the refreshing waters.


The Reserva Ecológica Nanciyaga has over 250 species of birds, both local and migratory, and crocodiles. Over a hundred species of bromeliads and diverse medicinal plants grow in these forests. This makes the Catemaco region an important center for natural medicine. Every March, on the first Friday, “brujos” (shamans) meet for a yearly convention.


Nanciyaga has eco-friendly cabins, campsites and a natural foods restaurant. The spa offers mud and herbal baths and temazcales (sweat baths). One can also hike and kayak here.


Near Catemaco is the spectacular 50-foot Eyipantla Waterfall. A 200-step staircase leads to the pool at its base. Another excursion is to Laguna Encantada—the Enchanted Lagoon. Oddly, when it rains, the water level goes down; when it is dry, its waters rise.


San Andrés Tuxtla, 13 kilometers from Catemaco, has narrow, winding streets lined with colonial buildings. One can visit the Te Amo cigar factory and learn how cigars are rolled by hand.


Santiago Tuxtla, another colonial town, is a further 15 kilometers on. In the central plaza is the largest Olmec head ever found, weighing in at over 40 tons. The Museo Tuxtleco facing the park offers exhibits on local history and lore, shamanism and an Olmec head.


Indeed, this is the heart of the Olmec homeland. A dirt road goes to one of the most important sites, Tres Zapotes, which is largely unexcavated. Here there is a museum with yet another Olmec head and several stela, including the largest one ever found, and fragments with the oldest Long Count calendar date, equivalent to 31 B.C. Not too far away are three more sites: San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, Laguna de los Cerros and Cerro de las Mesas.


A journey into Los Tuxtlas is a journey into the mystical origins of Mexico, which survive in its deep mountains and its sapphire waters. This is a place of healing, for the spirit, mind and the body.

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