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Shamans & Shysters: Unpicking the Witc

Strung out along the photogenic shores of Lake Catemaco, circled by looming hills born of long-extinct volcanoes, and fringed by one of Mexico’s last remaining tracts of rainforest, the sleepy backwater town of Catemaco feels like its own little corner of the earth. Emerging from the air-conditioned cocoon of an ADO coach into what must be Mexico’s prettiest bus station, the low afternoon sun reflected thickly in the surface of the lake, it’s not hard to understand why Catemaco has become the epicentre of Mexican witchcraft, sorcery, and shamanism.

The natural setting, the isolation, and – if you believe certain of the locals – the area’s potent supernatural properties have proved the perfect breeding ground for a unique brand of folk magic: a strange brew of indigenous paganism with Catholic ritualism and occult iconography.

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Each March, Catemaco comes alive as hundreds of sorcerers, shamans and witches from across Mexico descend on White Monkey Hill, a mountain overlooking the lake, to perform a mass spiritual cleansing ceremony. Far from an ancient rite, though, this event first took place in 1970, the initiative of the town’s brujo mayor (great sorcerer) Gonzalo Aguirre. It was Aguirre who turned Catemaco’s witchcraft tradition – until then a quiet local enterprise centred largely on traditional herbalist practices – into a tourist attraction.

His own origin story reflects Catemaco’s emergence from obscurity into Mexico’s collective consciousness. Beginning his career as the driver of the former brujo mayor , Aguirre eventually assumed the position himself and attained a degree of celebrity, performing televised rituals for presidents and actors. This brought travellers and money to Catemaco, but it also spawned a new generation of brujos keen to cash in on the town’s freshly expanded reputation.

Some in Catemaco will tell you that the witchcraft practised in the town has taken on a sinister edge in recent decades. Some of the rituals carried out at the yearly mass cleansings on White Monkey Hill, such as the sacrificing of chickens and goats, are common to pre-colonial paganism across Mexico. Others, like the burning of giant inverted pentagrams, chants invoking the Devil, and other Crowleyesque borrowings from the canon of modern Western occultism, bear little relation to Catemaco’s heritage of ‘white witchcraft’. This development is not limited to the annual mass gatherings. Throughout the year, visitors can enlist the services of the town’s brujos for spiritual cleansing, herbal medicinal treatments, and fortune telling. Rather more sinister are the black magic practices, often centred around revenge and involving pins, dolls, toads, and satanic invocations. Many brujos will cheerfully offer both – provided, of course, that the price is right.