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Catemaco – fills your senses

Catemaco is a town famous for its witches – and for its legendary Virgin. Sound like an interesting place to visit?

This small town in southern Veracruz is the destination of pilgrims seeking help from the Virgen de Carmen,  symbolized by a very old and revered statue housed in the impressive Basilica.

It is also the destination of people seeking a cure or spell from a witch or a cleansing or healing from a shaman.

The strange thing is that the two streams converge at the Catholic church. Girls outside sell basil to the arriving worshippers. With these bouquets, the pilgrims enter the church and do a cleansing in front of the statue of the Virgin.

Situated on the shore of a lake with an island of monkeys, a nearby reserve with crocodiles roaming around, surrounded by lush jungle, Catemaco certainly is an alluring place to explore. The sweet aroma of crushed rose petals as you enter the church, the fresh lake air on your face as you sit in the main square, the delicious homemade coconut ice cream, the vendors calling out trying to sell tegogolos (what the heck are tegogolos anyway?) fill your senses.

And the air of mysticism titillates the imagination…

A Catemaco Witch?

New Year’s Eve in Veracruz

New Year’s Eve in Veracruz

Suddenly the explosions started and we all moved back startled. There were a few screams and then laughter. The ‘Viejo’ was burning! Adios 2011!

In Veracruz the end of the year is celebrated with a party (of course!) that includes a very interesting tradition that has been carried out for many generations. This year I was fortunate enough to share in the festivities.

The tradition involves saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming in the new one. This is done by making an ‘effigy’ of Don Farruko, affectionately known as ‘el Viejo’, the old man. He is a life size scarecrow-like figure that represents the passing year. On the front porches of the houses the families set out an extra chair to display their creations.

There is a song that everyone sings about the viejo. It doesn’t translate really well, but I’ll try…Alms for this poor old man, he has left a son for the New Year. Here is Don Farruko, he is dying of laughter, because at midnight, he will return to ashes… More verses are invented at the time but most aren’t fit for publication!

Since I love doing paper mache, I was nominated to make the head of the ‘Viejo’. I formed it completely out of paper. One of our little nieces helped out. When the head was ready, the rest of the family took over and made the body.  They stuffed a shirt & pants with paper – and FIRECRACKERS – to create an old man.

When he was ready, we proudly put him outside to sit on a chair and interact with the passers-by.

Then we all ate pozole…

As the hour of midnight drew close, we propped up Don Farruko in the middle of the road. The neighbours were doing the same. With a little gasoline and a match, suddenly the Viejo burst into flames. As the fire reached the many firecrackers, explosions started and body parts flew in all directions. We later found an arm of someone else’s old man in the ashes with our guy! We had chosen the cutest little girl to collect money from the family for the firecrackers. She did such a great job that we almost exploded the neighbourhood!

When the excitement died down, we all ate pozole again and chicken and spaghetti and ……

Happy New Year!!!

Last adventure in Chiapas… the Cave

Las Grutas de Rancho Nuevo

The nature park in the midst of a forest 10 kilometres from San Cristobal de las Casas is a wonderful place to explore. With all the pine trees, it smells like Christmas. Entering this park you hear happy voices ringing out and see many families playing and relaxing together. There are horses you can ride and a big slide, as well as many souvenir and food stands.

But the real excitement comes when you arrive at the entrance of the Grutas de Rancho Nuevo.This is an incredible cave that enters deep into the earth. There is a lit sidewalk that goes for 750 metres inside the cavern. There is a high ’ceiling’ and is fairly wide, so you don’t feel closed in. The grand stalactites and stalagmites form eerily beautiful sculptures. And the colours inside the cave are surprising. I expected grey and grey, but there are pinks, greens, blues and yellows. Under the lights, it’s like a rainbow is in there.

This cave was discovered in the mid 1940s and became a passion of one man. He explored it for over 50 years, taking many interesting pictures along the way, which are exhibited in the onsite museum. As of today, they have explored 10 kilometres and still haven’t reached the end or any exit. But the air is fresh inside, not dank, so it seems like there is fresh air entering from somewhere. I picture another entrance in a magical place like Misol-Ha. I can imagine the Mayans going through this ‘natural tunnel’ and ending in a sacred place where they would perform their mysterious rituals and ceremonies.

Legend has it that UFOs are often spotted around here. It occurred to me that maybe they can shrink themselves until they are very small so they can fit in any crack on the side of the wall of the cave. Maybe that’s why we didn’t see any…


More of Nature’s treasures in Chiapas

Agua Azul, Misol-Ha and Palenque

Where do I start? With the aquamarine water flowing serenely over smoothly molded rocks like topping over an ice-cream sundae? With the vibrant pulse of water cascading 30 metres over my head? Or with the startling beauty of Palenque?

The day started with an exciting drive through a switch backed, speed bump covered narrow mountain road. We passed through isolated mountain towns where people still turn to see who is passing by. The villages here are predominantly indigenous and we saw the clothing change to brightly embroidered cotton blouses topped with satin capes. They also use these capes as aprons. Pretty clever, huh?  I wonder if this ever occurred to Superman?

Over three hours we dropped 2000 metres. Instead of pine forests and corn fields, we were surrounded by banana trees and sugar cane. We stripped off a few layers of clothing and began to sweat. This was a treat after listening to our teeth chatter in the cold morning in San Cristobal.

Our first stop was Agua Azul. This is the site of a river that is the most unbelievable colour of aquamarine. As if the colour isn’t amazing enough, the river falls over huge worn boulders creating the most wonderful waterfalls. Usually when I think of waterfalls, words like powerful, crashing, force, come into my mind. But here I thought of soft, gentle, serene, and calm. It appeared like a layer cake with yummy frosting running down the sides!

I had the overwhelming urge to take off my shoes and feel the water between my toes – so I did. It felt like it looked and it was very soothing.

From here we continued on to Misol-Ha. I had never heard of this place, except that there was a waterfall there. I had no expectations, only that I thought I’d see something ‘pretty’. Well, this waterfall took my breath away! After walking only about 100 metres from the parking lot I was transported into a magical world where Mother Nature is both King and Queen! Like most waterfalls, there is a huge rock wall with water cascading over it, but here the rock face is concave, almost in the shape of a C, so that you can walk behind the waterfall and feel part of it. There are caves burrowing into the wall.

This marvel is surrounded by dense jungle smelling rich and pungent. Huge exotic rainforest trees such as mahogany and teak tower over. For the first time in my life,   I swung on a ‘natural’ rope like Tarzan swung on!

The energy here is incredible. It is alive with the memories of sacred rituals of the ancestors. I had the overwhelming desire to create my own and just stay there.

Palenque is an archaeological site that has always piqued my interest. Because it was hidden in the jungle, but also because it remained hidden for so long. I expected to feel a gut wrenching ‘wow’ at the first glimpse of the pyramids nestled in the wild dense brush. And this is exactly how I felt. The setting is so beautiful, that the pyramids and ruins are icing on the cake. What I didn’t expect to feel was the complete absence of energy there. This site is abandoned, even the ghosts are gone. It was interesting to see, but I enjoyed being in the jungle more than exploring the archaeological site.

This is what I love most about travelling, there are always surprises. Now that I travel using all my senses instead of just sight, everything is an adventure. Coming home through the dark mountain road the sky was magnificent. I saw constellations that I have never seen before. I felt like I could reach out a grab a star for a souvenir!

Celebrating the ‘Queen of Mexico’

El Dia de Guadalupe – The Day of Guadalupe

 December 12th is the Day of honouring Guadalupe. She is the Mexican version of mother Mary. The belief here is that she appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous man and her image was imprinted on his cloak. This happening cemented the Catholic religion inMexico.

I have seen processions on this day in other cities in previous years, but here inSan Cristobal the celebration goes on for almost a week

It is very beautiful as the people dress up in traditional costumes. The little kids are so cute. They are dressed up as little Juans or little Guadalupes and are taken to the church to be blessed. Their parents are so proud of them. You just have to show a droplet of interest and big smiles open up everywhere.

For the week before, processions and pilgrimages arrive. Some come here from other places and live like gypsies in the back of trucks. It’s like a weeklong party. The church dedicated to Guadalupe is on top of a hill with lots of stairs leading up to it. Everything is decorated beautifully with cut-out coloured paper banners, flowers and lights. At the base of the stairs there is a fair set up with carousels, ferris wheels, and dumb games that you can’t win at. And of course – many, many food booths. Saturday seems to be a night of beer as there were beer booths set up all over the walkway for about 8 blocks up to the church. Drinking in public doesn’t seem to be a problem here. So the parents have a few wet ones, while the little Juan Diegos, still in full costume, play the ripoff games at the fair.

Part of the celebration involves blowing off firecrackers in the street amongst all the people. They just shoot them off in the street indiscriminately. I learned this the hard way when suddenly I heard a sound like I’d been shot. I was only a few feet away from being ‘exploded’!

The thing that has really moved us is the young people. Most of the processions are teens and young adults – mostly male – dressed in their Guadalupe – Reina de Mexico – shirts with bandanas on their heads and singing ‘The Guadalupana’ at full voice. When they get near the door of the church, many get on their knees and shuffle all the way to the front altar like that. These are not kids doing this to satisfy their parents; these are kids living their faith. Pretty amazing to see. We are accustomed to the pilgrimages & processions in Mexico being mostly older women, but that certainly isn’t the case here in Chiapas.

It is a day of excitement. Even the taxis and motorcycles dress up to honour Guadalupe. Aztec dancers join in to the mix and the Indigenous people are all in their finest clothing to participate as well. Catholicism and paganism are both very present in the religious celebrations.

I have been curious about a couple of things: Why are there processions arriving days before Dec 12th? Where do they come from – and where do they go afterwards? Why are they coming from different places? What’s happening?

Well, a Mexican lady kindly explained it all to me. It’s like a pilgrim exchange. Various groups walk from here to other cities and other states to visit their churches and the people from those communities come here. Then everyone returns to their own home church on Dec 12th. What is amazing is that they travel great distances – for example from San CristobaltoOaxaca- and toMexico City. Walking most of the way! With a lit torch that someone runs along the side of the truck with. On one occasion, it was a Chamula woman in her full sheepskin clothing! The people return with the clothes they left in, dirty, tired and often limping (many do the trek in bare feet.) A group of children went from here to Comitlan overnight. It is about 2 hours by car, but a lot more on foot. They walked partway and rode partway. The teens walked almost all the way.

All the participants that had travelled long distances returned – most between 3 and 4pm – to celebrate this special day inSan Cristobal. The center of town was full of people welcoming them home. Party time!!!

Los Lagos de Montebello & El Chiflon – Ecotour

Montebello Lakes & El Chiflon Waterfall

Another day of Adventure!  We left early in the morning only to be stopped shortly thereafter by an accident – one of the ‘collectivo’ buses (they are the minibuses – more like big vans) hit head on with a suburban. The whole town was there. Luckily the ambulances moved very quickly. Hopefully everyone was okay, the vehicles were pretty wrecked, and these vans are usually jam packed with about 20 people. With dampened spirits we continued on.

We passed lots of ejido communities. Ejidos are the Mexican version of communes. After the revolution the land was given to the campesinos to work for themselves instead of for the big rich guys. The land is mostly planted in corn. Each community has its own flavour. It seems like the ladies from one all wear blue shawls and in the next place, they all wear purple ones. I guess so they don’t forget where they belong…

We passed a fairly big city named Comitlan. The highway runs the whole length of the city – right  down  the middle for several miles. But instead of being divided with concrete, there were trees and flowering bushes livening up the lanes. Very pretty!  Soon we were immersed in thick pine forests. We visited the Lagos de Montebello – a famous chain of lakes. They are all different colours, emerald greens, turquoises, blues… Very beautiful. It was wonderful to be up in the pine forests and smell the crisp air. It was kind of drizzly for awhile, but warm. I talked with a group of students from Pueblo. They all wanted to go out on the lake in these homemade rafts but couldn’t convince the little business to give them a decent price, so they decided to spend their money on tacos. They loved that I spoke Spanish!

After we spent some time there, we loaded back up in the van and dropped down 2000 metres to see El Chiflon. This is a giant waterfall. The weather here was wonderful. We hiked straight up a mountain for a kilometre and all along you see portions of the waterfall. It is aqua coloured and very clean. But after you have climbed and sweated and think you might die, you turn a corner and see the most splendid sight -Bridal Veil Falls- really big, really high and really beautiful!!! I remember seeing this on TV and in books and being really impressed. I thought in real life it might not be so wonderful, but it is amazing. After taking a million photos, we walked back down, put on our swim suits and jumped in. We doused ourselves in the cold water and felt clean and not just physically. We baptised ourselves since we were so close to God!

These eco tours are so great, and really inexpensive. Today we went from 9am – 8:30pm and it cost 250 pesos each. That’s about $22 dollars! And they do a nice job, they give you enough time at each site to wander around and get the feel of the place instead of just snapping a few photos.

When we got back it was raining here but we went out and ate tamales of mole and chocolate atole – yummy! A perfect ending for a perfect day!


San Juan Chamula – a different reality

San Juan Chamula

We decided to visit a nearby Mayan village so we boarded a combi – a van that runs like a bus, but holds way less people and moves around much faster on the old cobblestone streets. It is cheaper than a taxi and generally more efficient than the buses. But it has its down side… After the driver jammed in 20 of us on 4 seats, we finally took off – only to stop 5 minutes later to fill up with gas. After that we went and filled up the tires with air. Good thing since we probably weighed 5 tons!

These collectivos are an interesting ride. You are transported into a different time and place. No one speaks Spanish. It is all Tzotzil, a Mayan dialect. And no one wears ‘regular’ clothes, they all wear sheep! All of the females, even the little girls, wear beautifully embroidered satin like blouses with wool skirts. But the wool skirts are WOOL skirts. Not felt, but black sheepskins draped around them, held up with a big woven sash. The men usually use regular jeans and shirts, sometimes with a black sheepskin vest. They always wear white sheepskins for special occasions.

Entering the Church – entering a different dimension

The church in San Juan Chamula is famous for being very different. And different it is. Although technically a Catholic church, there are no masses, no pews and no priest. In place of a priest, there are shamans who offer their services. The church is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and there are many figures of other saints lining the walls. Each saint has its own area full of candles that people have lit and placed before them. The floor is covered in pine needles. It is illegal to take pictures inside. If you do, you will go to jail.

We entered the church and immediately were overwhelmed by the energy there. It was full of candles, copal and small groups of people attending their offerings. As we were absorbed in the environment, we both burst into tears. We experienced a huge cleansing. Not of the mind but completely spiritual. We sat in the pine needles and just let the experience guide us.

 The Chamulas set up personal offerings in this church – both to ask for help and to give thanks. The offerings consist of 42 candles set on the floor in rows. The colours seem to have an importance, all though most are white. A member of the family or one of the shamans lead the ritual. When all the candles are lit, everyone drink shots of coca cola and sugar cane alcohol. They also sprinkle these on the candles.  If the offering is to give thanks for a specific thing, it culminates in the sacrifice of a chicken. They do a cleansing of their bodies holding the chicken as though it were sage. When all the family has had their turn, the chicken’s neck is broken. As a chicken has a lot of value to them, this is an important offering. They later take it home and cook it. Although this is very strange to us, it doesn’t feel strange there. Their faith is so genuine that we were profoundly moved to share this experience with them.

 We visited the San Juan Chamula Church again a week later but the energy was completely different. There was a big altar set up honouring Guadalupe (the Mexican Mother Mary).  Because it was the days of honouring her, the church had more of a ‘religious’ feel, rather than a connecting with spirit feel like before. 

 During the day there were processions arriving at the church. Most of the processions comprise of a decorated truck (or sometimes floats) full of people, followed by people walking and accompanied by someone running with a torch. Generally the runners are  Mexican youth. But this day the runner was a Tzotil woman in her traditional wool clothing. When the procession arrived at the church, the participants entered on their knees, inching slowly forward on the pine covered floor until they reached the Virgen of Guadalupe altar. There they stayed for a long time.

There were a few families making their offerings and giving gratitude but most were sitting on the floor and talking or looking at the Guadalupe altar. In this church, they drink cane alcohol as a means of raising their vibration. But today it seemed some were drinking to drink. There was a group of men sitting on chairs talking about their sheep and drinking. This church is a community, it is not a church like those we have been exposed to.

Wandering down the streets of the town, we browsed and bought a few wool items, then ate a fresh chicken roasted on carbon. As we were relaxing, a large group of men dressed in white sheepskins and straw cowboy hats passed by. They all had clubs and cell phones. These were the police. They were followed by another large group dressed in sheepskin as well, but with bandanas on their heads and leather sandals. (the auxiliary?) In the midst of all of these, was one lone guy in black sheepskin. This has the same significance in Spanish, maybe also in Tzotzil?

 San Juan Chamula is autonomous. They have their own laws and own police force. Mexican police have no authority there. They walked to the church as a procession and soon we heard more fireworks and the music got louder.

 The kids in this town have been taught to beg for pesos. But some have been taught really well how to sell. One little girl came up to me and wanted to give me a bracelet. She went on and on that I was rejecting her, wasn’t the weaving good enough, etc. Look, that lady accepted the bracelet her friend made, wasn’t she good enough…  but it is all memorized, some of them don’t speak more than the few necessary words in Spanish. But she was using pretty advanced psychology on me!

I now have a lot of  bracelets….

Canon del Sumidero and Chiapas del Corzo

Tuesday, Dec 6

We went on our first adventure! An eco-tour to the Canyon ‘Sumidero’ (Canon del Sumidero).

 The canyon walls are over 1000 metres in places! We saw 5 crocodiles! I always dreamed of seeing them in their natural habitat and today that dream came true. I even spotted one that no one else saw.

Thank God for laser surgery :).

We saw a humungous iguana sunning itself on top of a leafy branch stretched over the river and numerous blue herons and a lot of carrion eaters – a variety of vulture. The people that live near call them the official river cleanup crew.

The canyon is incredible. It was nominated in 2009 as one of the 7 new natural wonders of the world.


There is this unbelievable  ‘Christmas tree’  formation made of rock, fungus, flower, plants and magic. It hangs off the the walls of the canyon and fine water sprays over it all . It was like something from another planet. So cool! 

The river that we were on is damned and the power plant supplies 25% of Mexico’s power, as well as a big part of Guatemala’s power needs.

We went 35 kilometres in a boat with about 8 other people. Everyone was in awe. The sad thing is that this river is 750 km long and passes through some big cities and accumulates a lot of garbage – mostly plastic bottles. They are constantly cleaning it but can’t keep up with it all. But feeling the clean moist air on our faces made up for the dirty spots. 

After the canyon adventure,  we stopped at the oldest town in Chiapas, called Chiapas del Corzo. There is a stone fountain and adobe church built in the 1550s. The town is built around a humungous tree.  Oh, the stories it could tell…

We were only there for an hour so we quickly jumped in a taxi and went to a nearby archaeological site. It is where they found the oldest tomb in Mexico- and in the midde of Mayan country – it had a burial mask of an Olmeca! With 3000 jade stones and many other gem stones as well.  I’ll have to research where they took the treasures to, it would be very interesting to see them. They found the oldest example of hieroglyphics inMesoamerica at this site as well.

A wonderful day – our faces hurt from smiling so much!

San Cristobal de las Casas – first impressions

Imagine a place, so high in the mountains that you can almost touch heaven. And caverns so deep you feel the heat of Mother Earth’s core. This is Chiapas. A land of contrasts and startling beauty. And I get to explore it!!!

San Cristobal de las Casas was recently declared a Magic town by the Mexican government. And it really is magical. It is a city alive with history and yet modern at the same time. It is a young city – the average age is 20. Every corner has an ancient church surrounded with beautiful squares where people connect and share their daily lives. There are 86,000 people here but it has the friendliness and relaxed atmosphere of a small town. We have walked for many hours and have not yet discovered an area that we wouldn’t be delighted to live in. Exploring over the next few weeks will be so fun! 

the Cathedral

Today we showed up at a church square just in time to join a school presentation of dance & music & singing. The kids were doing traditional dance with fancy costumes – but they did it with humourous twist. Lots of flirting and fun.  Teens are the same everywhere; it was fun to watch them act just like they would at home.

The tourists here  are almost all  from Europe, mostly from France, Italy or Germany. The Chiapan people are really short so the foreigners stand out. Even I am tall here! You seldom hear English. Many young hippy kids come here and it appears that lots of them they stay. They appear in the standard dresscode of dreadlocks or partially shaved heads and ratty clothing, and many tote guitars or other instruments.

The main square

A high percentage of the  population is Indigenous and many speak dialects rather than Spanish. We bought a blouse from an older lady today who couldn’t speak or understand Spanish and she couldn’t count money. The illiteracy rate is very high here especially in the smaller communities. The primary schools are now bilingual, teaching both dialects and Spanish. Generally the children speak more Spanish than their parents do. The people in the small towns are lucky to complete primary school. There is still a lot of poverty and discrimination. Although it is against the state law for children to work, the municipality here gives the parents permission for their kids to work.   So there are kids that can barely walk selling souvenirs all over centro. Doesn’t make much sense to me.


Colourful vendors

We bought a pair of shoes for a snotty-nosed munchkin who was walking around in the cold with barefeet. She was scared but after I put a shoe on her little flat foot, she timidly stuck out her other one. The shoes fit her, and she gave me a shy little smile. I guess she must be six because she was missing her two front teeth. Later on we saw her running around happily in her new shoes!

Little salesmen

Many of the girls that are around 6-14 have baby brothers or sisters on their backs. The older ones have their own babies. The boys often have at least one younger sibling in tow. Plus they all pack lots of merchandise to sell. They are strong with great survival skills, which they need for their world here. We are busy feeling sorry for them but these salesman kids  run around laughing and skipping and enjoying themselves. They have a freedom that our kids will never know. But they won’t have much opportunity to live a different life than their parents do, mostly because of the lack of education. Who knows what is best?

Welcome to my world!

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but at least it didn’t die of boredom!

I love to explore, experience and expand my world, both inside and out, by travelling to new and interesting places. I am excited to share my adventures with you. I hope you enjoy the ride….

Sue Granados