|Isla Agaltepec is a mystery island located within Laguna Catemaco in the center of the Los Tuxtlas mountains in southeast
The name Agaltepec derives from the Pibil and Nahuatl languages and could mean Canoe Hill or Stone Canoe. Tourism
promoters call it Crocodile Island, because of the island's silhouette when seen from shore. Some locals, who probably
know what one looks like, call Isla Agaltepec the Dragon Island.
The island is a prominent landmark in the city of Catemaco from which it is separated by a 1300 feet wide channel. That
channel is also the deepest point (72 feet) of the generally shallow Laguna, and has given rise to myths that boats get
swallowed up in its waters.
|Isla Agaltepec is the largest island in Laguna Catemaco, occupies almost 21 acres, is
2461 feet long, and measures 492 feet at its widest point. A tall ridge, up to 98 feet
high runs the length of the island, and its fauna is miraculously intact, conserving more
than 1600 trees from 63 species.
The island is a favorite habitat of the Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) whose main
diet is the endemic water snail called "tegogolo" for which it competes with a dozen
divers who have reserved their snail patches around the shores of the island.
Directly across from the island, on the low cliffs of the Catemaco City shores, is the
small Tegal Cave in which allegedly the Virgin Mary appeared to a local fisherman. Nay
sayers claim this was an attempt by the christian church to divert worshippers of the
Nahua watergoddess Chalchiuhtlicue to something more catholic. And of course there
are those who claim the goddess was worshipped on the island.
During the busy tourist season, hundreds of boats carry passengers around Isla
Agaltepec on their way to the so called monkey islands further north in the Laguna.
But no one is allowed to set foot on Isla Agaltepec.
In 1988-89 two groups of critically endangered howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata)
were moved from nearby municipalities, where they were under pressure from
hunters and poachers, to Agaltepec Island. Since then the monkeys have multiplied to
about 100 specimens, and their howls are prominent when walking along the northern
shores of Catemaco City very early in the morning.
The island is federal Mexican property. At present, the University of Veracruz has a
concession to the island as a research reserve and visitors are prohibited.
|The first visitor to recognize the island's archaeological significance was Frans Blom, a Danish explorer who in 1925 said:
"We went to the island and saw that in ancient times, the island had been transformed into a sacred center. We found
terraces, staircases, mounds and plazas, and, thanks to the cattle, a tick paradise from hell"
A 17th century map indicates that Spanish settlers had contemplated erecting a defensive fort on the island. Their
successors grazed cattle on the island until a few decades ago.
In 1945, the Mexican archaeologist Juan Valenzuela asserted that beginning in the late 1800's, local German tobacco
planters began to loot the island of its treasures. According to local oldsters, looting of the island has continued to the
present. The most significant find apparently was a copper lip ring, one of the first known examples of the use of copper in
In 2002, the American Philip J. Arnold III undertook the first archaeological exploration of the site and postulated the first
unambiguous evidence for Postclassic (A.D. 1000-1521), but not earlier, occupation within the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas. He
describes an architectural complex whose configuration suggests a fortification and the later use of the island as a
residential site. A previous researcher estimates that the island housed possibly up to 1000 residents and was occupied at
least 500 years earlier..
|The deep channel between the island and the Catemaco shore
|I doubt that a colony of monkeys reserved for privileged primatologists is the optimum use of the island, but neither would be
a Catemaco Hilton. Catemaco City is desperately short of a nearby natural environment that would attract both locals and
tourists. Maintaining a troupe of free ranging monkeys, showcasing architectural remnants, nature trails, a boat dock and a
snack bar would be my choice.
|The "El Tegal" cave across from the island
|A Kite enjoying its snail
|Data from Philip J. Arnold's FAMSI study
|FAMSI 2002- Isla Agaltepec: Ocupaciones Posclásicas en las Montañas de Tuxtla, Veracruz, México
Robert S. Santley 2007 - The Prehistory of the Tuxtlas
Franz Blom - Mencion de Isla Agaltepec
catemaco.info - Islas de la Laguna de Catemaco
catemaco.info - Las Islas de Monos
Laguna Catemaco, Veracruz