I must confess that as a young boy, I visited this place repeatedly with the eyes of an innocent tourist. And even though my memories recalled the humid landscapes of the rainforest, the fragrance of the spring water, and the invigorating regional mud masks, it would not be until years later when I returned to shoot the documentary Tochtlán: Magic, Nature and Religion, that I truly understood the charming land of sorcerers, witches, healers and shamans that give life (and death) to Catemaco, Veracruz.
White magic is practiced openly in most of the region of Los Tuxtlas as a mysterious blend of ancestral herbal concoctions, modern medicine, and yes, a melting pot of magic rituals gathered from different parts of the world, aged in a mixture of the pre-Hispanic past with a tinge of Catholicism. As unusual as it sounds, this formula has seduced both the most powerful Mexican politicians and international celebrities, as well as curious tourists who seek health, money, and love, or simply an enchanted amulet that purges and protects their spirit from negative vibes.
This is the façade that protects and supports the highest ranked sorcerer since 2014, Enrique Marthen Berdón (Brujo Mayor), who descended from a long line of sorcerers. Nonetheless, there is also a less noble side to this occult science—black magic.
We sensed the thin line that separates light from shadow when we visited our first witch’s altar, decorated with shamanic and Christian motifs, merging the presence of saints and demons with shady portraits and astral lines. Once inside, skepticism and rationality abandoned our bodies, the air thickened, and the atmosphere activated a sense of alertness. We were in the presence of hundreds of images, without any order, which punished us with intense feelings of misfortune, uncertainty, and agony that eventually knocked out our cameraman. (I would like to think that he fainted because he was dehydrated. Wasn’t he?)
Our filming adventure was merely beginning, and the team already showed hard blows to their logic and faith. That increased the next day when we met Don Hilario, a botanic master who months before “cured” us some amulets made of quartz with our birth dates engraved on them so that we’d be protected on our way to the Cave of the Devil (Cueva del Diablo).
We took a small boat through the Enchanted Lagoon with a guide who pointed out that the trees twisted over the body of water, interwoven with the mangrove, giving life to aberrant forms. Likewise, he told us, the lagoon was infinitely deep due to the energy that emanates from the portal of the cave on the unstable magnetic field that transpires the area. We disembarked on a hilly path, and he explained to us the different types of witchcraft that were practiced inside the cave: revenge, spoils, moorings, diseases, death …
The sound of a conch sounded in the distance (weird right?), so we rushed toward the cave’s entrance where the foul smell of guano from thousands of bats welcomed us. With small torches, we entered (with due respect) to witness all manner of offerings nestled in the rock formations of the enclosure. With the shrill sounds of machetes beating on the rocks, exaltations to Satan, and a goat’s head on a stake, we witnessed our own urban ignorance cowardice as my crewmates and I nodded subtly, hiding our genuine desire to return home as soon as possible.
The way back was downright depressing. Confused, crestfallen, and cold, we returned to the hotel to download the raw footage (we couldn’t watch it until two weeks later). We went to a temazcal session that night to detoxify from everything, and the laughter began to flow again. It was then that the director recalled that inside the structure, a pentagram decorated the upper vault … the laughter faded and sorrow returned to our minds.
On this wild journey, we understood that white and black magic feeds on augmented beliefs of inexplicable faith and that in Catemaco, there is a part of this universe that is stripped of reason, even to the sanest of people. As crazy as it sounds, experiencing that degree of vulnerability forced me to evaluate aspects of my life that needed some improvement. If you plan to go to Veracruz, do not forget to visit Catemaco. I invite you to rediscover and heal yourself and to put reason to the test.