Squatting on the western shore of the enchanting Lago de Catemaco, and by tradition a centre of native witchcraft, CATEMACO is a picturesque spot to break your journey before the long leg south, with an impressive backdrop of volcanic mountains. The lake and nearby marshland and lagoons are a haven for wildlife, supporting large colonies of water birds, including herons, cormorants, wintering ospreys and dozens of other resident and migratory species. The town itself isn’t particularly attractive, with slapdash development stretching five blocks or so back from the waterfront, but there’s plenty to do on and around the lake. Veracruzanos arrive in force at weekends and holidays, when the main strip can get pretty busy; at other times the place can be dead, and many of the facilities shut.

Lago de Catemaco

A boat trip around the lake is one of the highlights of southern Veracruz. You’re unlikely to escape the attentions of the lancha operators as you approach the lakefront: they all offer similar ninety-minute trips to the lake’s main sights and some of its beaches. On the tiny Isla de los Changos there are stump-tailed macaques (monkeys native to Thailand), introduced here by Veracruz University in 1974 – they look bored stiff in their restricted habitat. In 1988, endangered Mexican howler monkeys were introduced to the much larger Agaltepec Island; these are far more active and aggressive. You are almost guaranteed to see a huge variety of birds too – herons, egrets, cormorants and shags, as well as more exotic kingfishers and ospreys.

Morelet’s crocodiles, a relatively small species (up to 3m long), live in the lake too, nesting on the far bank. They’re well fed and, apparently, never attack. Certainly plenty of people swim in the lake: stick to the main beaches and close to others if you feel uneasy. Playa Espagoya is just a short walk beyond the eastern edge of town, with Playa Hermosa and Playa Azul not much further beyond.