Leaving Veracruz to the south, Hwy-180 traverses a long expanse of plain, a country of broad river deltas and salty lagoons, for nearly 150km, until it hits the hills of the volcanic Sierra Tuxtla, known as “La Suiza Veracruzana” (the Switzerland of Veracruz), home to the townships of Santiago Tuxtla and San Andrés Tuxtla. Although plainly named by someone who’d never been to Switzerland, this beautiful country of rolling green hills makes a welcome change from the flat plains, and the cooler climate is an infinite relief. The idyllic Lago de Catemaco around which the last expanse of Gulf coast rainforest is preserved, makes a rewarding place to break the journey south, with plenty of opportunities to explore the nearby mountains and coast. Beyond the Tuxtla mountains, low, flat, dull country leads all the way to Villahermosa.
Historically, the region’s great claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Mexico’s first civilization, the Olmecs. Here lies the Volcán de San Martín, where the Olmecs believed the earth to have been created; they built a replica “creation mountain” at their city, La Venta, on the border with Tabasco. Their second major city, at Tres Zapotes, near Santiago Tuxtla, is now little more than a mound in a maize field. For most modern Mexicans, however, this part of southern Veracruz, especially around Lago de Catemaco, is best known as the “Tierra de los Brujos” (land of the witches/wizards).Read More
TLACOTALPAN is a beautiful, languid town on the north bank of the broad Río Papaloapan. An important port and railhead in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it now has just six hundred permanent inhabitants, but its elegant colonial architecture has led to its being declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. At the weekend it can be packed with locals, who come here to eat at the riverside restaurants, fish, swim or take boat rides on the river, browse the artesanía shops and hang out in the bars and cafés on the plaza. Come on a weekday afternoon and you’ll find the place all but deserted.
Among Mexicans, Tlacotalpan is best known as the place where musician and composer Agustín Lara (1900–70), whose works have been interpreted by the likes of Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo, spent his early childhood. Two museums and a cultural centre honour the man, but unless you’re a huge fan they’re not worth the admission – the true pleasure here is simply to wander the streets, admiring the architecture (many of the buildings are labelled with their history) and soaking up the steamy, tropical atmosphere. On the zócalo, the Plaza Zaragoza, are two magnificent churches and a florid, wrought-iron bandstand; Enriquez and Miguel Chazaro, parallel streets heading west from here, are lined with magnificent colonnaded houses. The most enjoyable of the town’s few sights is the Museo Salvador Ferrando, on Alegre on the Plaza Hidalgo. Named after one of the town’s most respected painters, it’s a fine old house containing an Old Curiosity Shop of paintings, antique furniture, historical artefacts and junk, around which you’re given a lightning conducted tour in Spanish.
Día de la Candelaria
(Feb 2). The final day of a week-long fiesta, complete with dances, boat races and bulls let loose in the streets, in Tlacotalpan. Colourful fiesta in Jaltipán, near Acayucán, which includes the dance of La Malinche (Cortés’s Indian interpreter and mistress, who is said to have been born here).
(the week before Lent; variable Feb–March) is celebrated all over the region, most riotously in Veracruz.
Congreso de Brujos
(first Fri in March). Shamans, witches, wizards and healers from across Mexico attend purification rituals and celebrations in and around Catemaco, amid a festival that attracts plenty of visitors.
Fiestas de San José
(March 18–19). In Naranjos, between Tuxpán and Tampico, a fiesta with many traditional dances. In Espinal, a Totonac village on the Río Tecolutla, not far from El Tajín and Papantla, you can witness the spectacular voladores.
(Holy Week). Re-creations of the Passion are widespread in this area. You can witness them in Papantla, where you’ll also see the voladores; in Coatzintla, a Totonac village nearby; in Cotaxtla, between Veracruz and Córdoba; and in Otatitlán. Naolinco, a beautiful village near Xalapa, stages a mock Crucifixion on Good Friday. Also celebrations in Catemaco and in the port of Alvarado – a ribald Fish Fiesta following the spirit of the Veracruz Carnaval.
Feria de las Flores
(late April or early May). Flower festival in Fortín de las Flores.
Feria del Cafe
(first two weeks of May). Coatepec celebrates the local crop.
(variable; the Thurs after Trinity Sun). The start of a major four-day festival in Papantla with regular performances by the voladores.
Día de San Juan
(June 24). Celebrated with dancing in Santiago Tuxtla, and in Martinez de la Torre, near Tlapacoyan, where the voladores perform.
Día de la Virgen del Carmen
(July 15–16). A massive pilgrimage to Catemaco, accompanied by a fiesta which spills over into the following day. At the same time, Xico has a week-long celebration of Mary Magdalene.
Día de Santiago
(July 25). Celebrated with fiestas in Santiago Tuxtla and Coatzintla; each lasts several days. In Tlapacoyan you can see the bizarre Baile de los Negritos.
Day of Assumption
(Aug 15). Widely celebrated, particularly in Tlapacoyan, where you can see El Baile de los Negritos, and with a week-long festival in Tuxpán that includes dancing and the voladores.
(Sept 15–16). Celebrated everywhere.
(last week of Sept). Big celebrations in Coatepec.
Fiesta de la Virgen del Rosario
(Oct 7). In La Antigua the patroness of fishermen is honoured with processions of canoes on the river, while Alvarado, outside Veracruz, enjoys a fiesta filling the first two weeks of the month.
Día de los Muertos
(Day of the Dead; Nov 2). Observed everywhere.
Dia del Niño Perdido
(Dec 7). Huge candle-lit processions in Tuxpán.
Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe
(Dec 12). Widely observed, especially in Huatusco, Cotaxtla, and Amatlán de los Reyes, near Córdoba.
(Dec 25). Celebrated everywhere. There’s a very famous festival in Santiago Tuxtla that lasts until Twelfth Night (Jan 6).