Vanlife diaries #60: Coatza, Catemaco, Xico & Coatepec, Veracruz to Huamantla, Tlaxcala Mexico
As we continue our journey north through Mexico, we spent this week exploring a new and surprisingly wonderful state, Veracruz. Long and slender, it occupies an enormous swathe of the Gulf Coast, while also containing some of the country’s densest jungle, best coffee regions, and even the highest snow-capped volcano, Pico de Orizaba. With a week up our sleeves, we were excited to discover some of this lesser-explored state!
Arriving on Saturday of last week, we spent our first night in Veracruz on the beach near Coatzacoalcos, often called Coatza by the locals.
It’s likely to be our last stop on the coast in Mexico, since our route over the coming weeks will cut inland, so we did our best to savour the sea breeze and palm trees from a great free camp right on the sand. The sunset over the ocean was the perfect farewell!
The town of Coatza was somewhat curious to me, a sparkling Malecon stretching alongside miles of city beach while many of the oceanfront businesses and buildings were in various states of disrepair.
The beautiful replicas of Olmec step pyramids and stone carvings set along the Malecon seemed at immediate odds with the somewhat dilapidated state of town, but we managed to find Cabo Grill, a fantastic seafood restaurant (not at all dilapidated and also not out of place in the ritzy northern beaches of Sydney) serving up inventive fish and shrimp tacos from the air conditioned comfort of our window-front table.
Our next destination in Veracruz was back in the jungle, this time on the beautiful and mysterious shores of Laguna Catemaco.
We intended to stay only 1 day, but upon arrival to our campsite at La Jungla, a family-operated jungle paradise with a large mineral-water pool, showers, and waterfront access for our kayak, we immediately extended.
The heat has been no joke in recent weeks, spiking each day above 40C/103F and we’ve struggled to keep cool in the van— nightly swims or cold showers have been our saving grace when staying at a proper campsite.
In addition to being very beautiful, Catemaco is also a very curious and mystical place with a deep connection to “the occult arts”.
For centuries, and still to this day, a local coven of sorcerers exist within the town and are said to have extraordinary knowledge of indigenous magic, including the use of medicinal herbs that abound in the region.
Once organised by a master sorcerer and now continued in his honour, an annual conference of witchcraft and black magic is held in Catemaco in early March, much to the displeasure of the Catholic Church— the rituals practiced here are an intriguing blend of pre-hispanic religion and Mexican Catholicism.
We didn’t get to experience any of the spiritual cleansings or other mystical practices on offer in Catemaco, but there’s admittedly a real energy to this jungle and it seems to me altogether likely that if witches were to congregate somewhere, this should be it.
We spent our time in Catemaco wandering through the dense jungle on long walks to admire the incredible bird life and paddling our kayak around the lagoon in search of monkeys, which were incredibly easy to locate.
As well as native spider monkeys and howler monkeys that we’ve seen throughout Chiapas and Veracruz, an island in the middle of Laguna Catemaco is home to an introduced population of old-world monkeys brought over from Thailand in the 1970s.
I was incredibly eager to see these monkeys— it was really what draw me to Catemaco in the first place— but was ultimately disappointed to see how they are being treated by tourists. The monkeys are wildly overweight, almost to the point of not being able to move, a result of being fed junk food by tourist boats.
We even watched a boat full of Mexican travellers pass a full bag of Lays potato chips to one of the spider monkeys on a neighbouring island, squealing as the monkey climbed aboard the boat to snatch the bag and drag it back into the tree.
It’s absolutely worth it to explore the lake by boat and even seek out the monkeys, but I implore future travellers to push back against this unfortunate trend of feeding junk food to wild animals. The effects are overwhelmingly negative and not at all the way we should be ethically or respectfully interacting with wildlife!
Coatepec, Xico & Xalapa, Veracruz
Driving 5.5hrs north through Veracruz, we arrived next to the state capital of Xalapa, where we intended to spend the next several days exploring the 2 surrounding Pueblo Mágicos of Coatepec and Xico.
Higher in elevation and with an immediately noticeable shift in climate, this is prime coffee region— Veracruz is one of Mexico’s largest coffee producers and, just as we’d taken an interest in the culture and history of tequila and mezcal on our travels previously, we were excited to learn more about coffee and taste some of the products here around Xalapa!
We spent a majority of our time in Coatepec, which proved an incredibly charming Pueblo Mágico with a bustling, Jacaranda-lined central plaza and an extensive selection of trendy cafes serving coffee grown in nearby orchards.
Our favourites among these were Oro Vivo, where the friendly barista brewed us 4 half-cups of espresso while talking us through the roasting process and taste profile of each, and Un Cafe Para Tus Muertos, a creative cafe serving a range of coffees, inventive drinks (like lemon-orangeade with espresso), and coffee cocktails.
Outside of town, we visited the excellent Bola de Oro finca (coffee farm) to learn more about the process. Surprisingly offered in English, we enjoyed a 2.5hr tour of the coffee orchards, production facility, and a professional tasting with a highly knowledgeable chemical engineer whose passion for coffee shown through at every stage.
This part of Veracruz lies within the so-called coffee belt, a tropical region whose slightly humid climate is ideal for propagation of the coffee plant.
It takes 6 years for a seedling to grow into a plant large enough to produce “coffee cherries”, which are processed into coffee beans, but much of the work during this time is handled by Mother Nature— there’s little need to water or tend to the plants, as the rain, dew and humidity, and surrounding plants all support the process naturally.
Once the coffee plant has matured, it produces deep red “cherries” that are carefully selected and hand-picked (a masterful skill that has yet to be replaced by a machine). Several processes later, the coffee cherry is stripped of its skin, fermented, and dried, leaving behind the “seed”
The seed then also undergoes a de-husking process to yield “green coffee”, essentially an un-roasted coffee bean, which is of course then roasted according to the preference of the finca and ground for use in a variety of coffee-brewing devices.
Established in 2018, Bola de Oro houses a museum of 20th century coffee-making equipment and it’s truly fascinating to understand the process from orchard to cup!
I’m not a coffee drinker, but not because I don’t enjoy the taste (really because I don’t like the caffeine), so I drank more coffee this week than in the last year combined— but what a treat it was to have the freshest, richest coffee here in Veracruz!
San Juan del Monte, Veracruz
Our last stop in Veracruz was a high camp in the protected pine forests of San Juan del Monte, where the temp dropped some 20 degrees and the air was impossibly fresh.
From the sweltering Gulf of Mexico beaches to the lush jungle to the culturally rich coffee region and now to the high elevation forests, Veracruz has proven incredibly diverse and full of magic. All that’s left is to climb Mexicos highest volcano, Pico de Orizaba— a return trip I’m already planning in my head (spoiler alert: it’s happening December 2023)!
En route to Mexico City, we travelled through one of Mexico’s smallest and most off-the-tourist-radar states, Tlaxcala. With no advance planning and very little idea of what to expect, I fell back on what was all but guaranteed to be a great stop: the Pueblo Mágico of Huamantla.
For those who’ve not read my previous posts, “magic towns” have received special recognition from the Mexican government for preserving local culture and history, so they are ALWAYS beautiful, clean, and fascinating places to visit— when in doubt, Pueblo Mágico.
True to form, Huamantla was a charming little town and we spent the day wandering through sunny Parque Benito Juárez, snapping photos of the vibrant yellow exterior of Parroquia de San Luis Obispo, nibbling delicious tacos árabes at Saborío Taquería, and indulging in several large glasses of pulque at Matlalcueye (just 40p for 500ml!).
If you missed the previous occasions where I’ve sung the praises of pulque, let me fill you in. Pulque is among the most delicious Aztec contributions to modern Mexican cuisine, a fermented agave sap drink considered to be the ancient precursor to tequila (which is made from the piña or heart of the agave plant), but that more closely resembles a mix of beer and kombucha— slightly thick, lightly effervescent, and extremely low in alcohol.
Pulque sugars ferment in a matter of hours, meaning the beverage has a remarkably short shelf life and a penchant for spoiling (read: always fresh and endemic to central Mexico!). Indeed, it has been a staple of not only local cuisine for thousands of years but also an important part of pre-Hispanic culture dating back at far as 200CE. Since its origin, pulque was considered a sacred beverage, “the nectar of the gods”, only to be drank by high priests and emperors— or as the final rite of those about to be sacrificed.
With the fall of the Aztec empire and the arrival of the Spanish, pulque was rebranded as a common man’s drink and much of the mystique and sanctity surrounding its fermentation was lost as the total number of pulquerias in all of Mexico fell to double digits. But in recent decades, pulque has experienced a grand revival— young generations of Mexicans are once again embracing this sacred beverage and there are trendy pulquerías throughout central Mexico that serve both natural and fruit-mixed (curado) versions of pulque.
Although you can sometimes find pulque in other parts of the country, like Guadalajara or Oaxaca, it’s far less common, so being back in Central Mexico, for us, was all about the pulque. And what a treat it was!
Where we stayed this week
- Boondocking on the beach near Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz (free; 23 Apr)
- Camping at La Jungla on Laguna Catemaco, Veracruz (400p for 2 nights; 24-25 Apr)
- Parking out front of Cervecería Brújula in Xalapa, Veracruz (free; 26 Apr)
- Street parking in Xico, Veracruz (free; 27 Apr)
- Camping in the pine forest of San Juan del Monte, Veracruz (free; 28 Apr)
- Hotel Azucena in Huamantla, Tlaxcala (650p; 29 Apr)