If witches and wizards have a spiritual home it may well be the Mexican town of Catemaco, a pretty place on the shore of Laguna Catemaco considered the centre of Mexico’s witchcraft and witch-doctor industry. Witchcraft traditions in this part of Mexico go back centuries, mixing ancient indigenous beliefs, Spanish medieval traditions and voodoo practices from West Africa, and in 1970 a local brujo (shaman) had the grand idea to host a witchcraft convention. The idea stuck and now every year hundreds of shamans, witches and healers from all over Mexico descend on Catemaco to perform a mass cleansing ceremony designed to rid them of the previous year’s negative energies.
Taking place at a suitably witching hour on Cerro Mono Blanco, a hill just outside of town, the occasion is less ooga-booga than it sounds – you should expect more Bewitched than The Blair Witch Project, with the event having become very commercial and conscious of the tourism that has sprung up around it. Floods of visitors head into town looking to grab a shamanic consultation and to eat, drink and be merry in a bizarre mix of otherworldly fervour and hedonistic indulgence.
At the ceremony itself there’s a stage featuring song and dance performances and stalls selling various amulets – just the place for that lucky rabbit’s foot you’ve always needed. Around the stage you’ll fi nd various shamans’ tents, where you can seek all manner of practices. For around 100 pesos you can probably get a limpia (cleansing) or a tarot reading. For a significantly larger investment you can get an audience with the lot – a black-magic ceremony. If you're looking for a spell or shamanic favour, the hours just after the event are regarded as especially auspicious, as it’s believed that the shamans are at their most powerful just after the mass purification.
ESSENTIALS Long-distance buses serving Catemaco are not at all regular, so consider travelling via San Andrés Tuxtla (12km to the west) or Acayucan (80km to the south). For a glimpse at Catemaco before you arrive, take a look at the movies Medicine Man and Apocalypto, which were both filmed here.
LOCAL ATTRACTIONS Laguna Catemaco contains several islands, including Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island), home to dozens of stump-tailed macaques originally from Thailand. On the northeast shore of the lake, in the remnant rainforest of Reserva Ecolólogica de Naciyaga, you can find a shamanic-style ‘spiritual cleansing’ or take a spa in mineral mud.
MORE INFO www.catemaco.info has good information about the town, including the festival.
This article was adapted from A Year of Festivals, our guide to the world's best parties.