Otatitlán, Veracruz
Home of "El Cristo Negro"
A Tropical Paradise

Photos and Text by John Todd, Jr.

One day one of my neighbors told me her father was very ill. He was living in Otatitlán, Veracruz.She didn´t have a car and one day she asked me if I could give her a ride to Otatitlán on Saturday to see her father. "There´s an inexpensive hotel there where you can spend the night, and we can come back Sunday", she said.

She said, "I think you´ll find it interesting. Not many foreign tourists go there."

It was the justification I needed to make the trip.

Where is Otatitlán?
Otatitlán is a very old town on the upper end of the Papaloapan River that empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Alvarado. It´s about 2 hours south of Veracruz, close to Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, just barely inside the state of Veracruz.

Otatitlan Map
How to Get to Otatitlán
On the Papaloapan River
You can get there by road or take a small ferry boat for the short ride across the river.

Originally it was a ceremonial center for the pochtecas, or the travelling merchants, during the time of the Aztecs.

Gary Jennings, in his book, "Aztec" tells the story of the final days of the Aztec empire from the point of view of a pochteca. It´s a good book about the days before and during the Conquest of Mexico.

After a flood upriver in 1597, a large crucifix floated down and stopped in front of where the little dock is today. The crucifix was black, as if it had been burned.

The townspeople saw it as a divine sign that the area had been blessed, and began construction on a huge church about 3 miles from the river, safe from future floods.
Lety Pina
Piña Fresca
Refreshments for the Road
On Saturday, the traffic going out of town was rather heavy, as people slowed to cross the railroad tracks.

Just after the railroad crossing, there is a man selling fresh coconuts, and cold fresh pineapple juice on ice.

We stopped and bought two juices to go, each in a little plastic bag with a straw.

Just past Tierra Blanca, I put on "Una gota fría", a tape of cumbias by Carlos Vives.

Driving past the many green sugar cane fields, it began to feel like we were in far away tropical Colombia.
Path to the Ferry
The Ferry
About two hours later, we arrived at the Papaloapan River, and took a left towards Cosamoalpan and Alvarado.

A few miles down river, there was a handwritten sign, and an arrow that pointed to the river: "Otatitlán".

It had been raining early in the day. The river had risen, but was on its way down. We decided to "rough it" and take the ferry.

After parking the car, we followed the wooden trail made of heavy railroad ties towards the palm thatched shelter to the dock.
Ferry Shrine
A few moments later, the ferry arrived, and we climbed aboard. We were the only passengers for the short ride across the river.

The Opposite Shore
The trip was smooth, and the water was calm.

Soon we were on the opposite shore.

The people in this area of Mexico are very spiritual.

It seems like there are these little statues at important places along the roads to protect people.

This one was barely noticeable, and was only about 4 inches high. It was probably there to welcome people to Otatitlán.
A Bici-Taxi
"You´ll like the taxi service here", my friend said.

I looked around and remarked, "I don´t see any taxis around here."

"Over there", she said.

She pointed to several bicycles attached to a small buggy with a cover on it.

"Do you think that guy can carry two adults?", I asked.

"Just watch. He does it every day. It´s his job."

We climbed aboard the bici-taxi, and off we went. Our driver puffed a little, but the concrete road through the palm and banana tree lined streets was smooth and flat.

As we pedalled towards town, I realized that I had left my car on the other side of the river.
Little Restaurants
We were far from civilization, gently bouncing through a pleasant green tropical world surrounded by sugar cane fields, where it looked like time moved a lot slower.

Arriving in Otatitlán
From a distance, we began to see the gold dome of the cathedral.

As we got closer, there were little restaurants with small groups of families at the tables on the sidewalk to catch the slight breeze from the river.

At mid day life is normally busy on the plaza.

By now it looked like it was winding down as people went home for lunch and a siesta.

Others stopped for a leisurely lunch with friends or family at one of the small restaurants along the main street into town.
A Magnificent Cathedral
La Catedral
We rounded the corner, and got to the plaza.

The Cathedral is huge and dominates the whole area.

It was hard to believe that here in this remote area I was looking at a building that began construction in 1597.

Unlike most of the religious centers in Mexico, Otatitlán didn´t have the throngs of people or a thriving market nearby.

I kind of liked it that way.
Touches of Civilization
Right At Home
Her father´s house was on the plaza, and we were greeted with handshakes and abrazos by her father and his family.

I was made to feel right at home.

After resting up a bit, I could see the family wanted to visit.I was curious and wanted to take a walk around the plaza in front of the house.

"Let me send Germán with you. He knows his way around town."

"Be sure to be back in an hour. It will be time to eat lunch," they said as we left.
Shoe Shine Stand
A Quiet Afternoon
We strolled around the quiet plaza.

Not much going on.

A man selling ice cream cones had stopped in the middle of the street to serve a boy on a bicycle, not very concerned about traffic.

There was none.

Quite a change from the busy streets of Veracruz.
Outdoor Restaurant
Signs of Life
Off to one side of the large church, there were some signs of life.

A bici-taxi driver had parked for a lunch break at a street restaurant next to a booth selling souvenirs and religious relics.

Across from the restaurant were some shady tropical almond trees, where some local men were hanging out sipping refreshments, probably spiked with a little something.

That was about the only activity on the plaza at that time of day.

Hotel Don Pepe
El Hotel Don Pepe
El Hotel Don Pepe
After lunch, the family sent Germán with me to check into the Hotel Don Pepe, just around the corner from the plaza.

They knew Doña Paty, the owner, and she gave me the best room, which wasn´t bad. It had air conditioning and was fine.

The siesta was good, too, and afterwards I went back to the house and watched TV with the family and visited until it was time to turn in. In small towns they turn in early.

Breakfast the next day at the hotel was good. The black beans had a special flavor like they had added chicharrones and longaniza, a kind of sausage.

I almost asked for a second helping on the beans.
My guides
Germán, My Guide
My Tour Guide
The afternoon before, Germán had told me he wanted to give me a guided tour of the church.

I hadn´t expected to find him to be waiting outside the hotel.

I guess Doña Paty called him when I was finishing breakfast.

On the way, Germán explained to me besides being a very old church, it was a place where people came hoping to find a solution to personal problems that seemed to have no solution.

He believed in the power and love of the Cristo Negro.
Church Bell Tower
Church Bell Tower
A Visit to the Church
Things had quieted down after Sunday mass.

It would be a good time to see more of the Black Christ of Otatitlán.

When I am new in town, I try to be a little anonymous, so we went in the side entrance.

It didn´t make any difference, because the few people there were more intent on their own reasons for being there.

They just kind of ignored us as we walked around looking at the statues.

The inside of the church looked freshly painted and clean.

And, it was peaceful, too.
Side Entrance
Side Entrance
The Altar with the Black Christ
The Story of the Black Christ
The Story of El Cristo Negro
On one wall, Germán showed me the painting of how the large crucifix had floated down to the docks of Otatitlán in 1597, and how the people took it as a divine sign that it was a special town.

In 1931, during the second phase of the Cristero Rebellion, the governor of the State of Veracruz ordered the original crucifix to be decapitated and burned.

But the statue was made of nacastle wood which did not burn easily.

The people of Otatitlán carved another head which was used until 1951, when the original was found and returned.

It was placed in a glass case in one corner of the church.

More about the Cristeros. >>>
Profanation in 1931
The Original Head
The Arrival in 1597
Profanation in 1931

A Closer Look at the Altar
A Closer Look at the Altar
Meanwhile, my attention turned towards the front of the church.

It looked like there was a stairway behind the altar where people could get closer to the Cristo Negro.

Germán and I waited until the people ahead of me finished and went to take a closer look.

Most people wanted to touch the velvet garment, and some had left special little pins for a personal request.

You can almost feel a certain strength of the faith of the people who are looking for solutions to some very serious problems that are far beyond their own abilities to solve.

Judging by the numbers of people who ask for divine intercession, it is a faith that seems to produce miracles for many people.
Little Things Pinned to the Hem
Personal Testimonials
A Personal Request
The Head
After coming down from the altar, I wanted to get a closer look at the original head of the crucifix.

The people consider it to have a special power and have left votive candles after saying their prayers.

When taking pictures in churches or anywhere I always try to be respectful and unobtrusive.

You can see the suffering on the faces of many people, and it´s not polite to interfere in their special moments.

Germán told me that some have come from far away, intent on their request.

Others have even walked several days on foot out of devotion to their special request.

Protected by Angels
Time to Go
Germán told me lunch would be ready soon, and I was getting a little hungry, too.

It was also getting late, so it was time to head back to his house.

When I visit religious shrines I like to buy a souvenir to take home.

So, we stopped at the booth in front attended by a very old lady, and selected a small version of the Cristo Negro from among the many things to buy.
Fresh pozole
Lunch is Ready
Today it was pozole, a dish that I think originated in Southern Mexico.

It is mostly pozole corn with a lot of other things like tender morsels of pork. It can also be made with seafood, or chicken.

There are side ingredients, according to your own taste, like finely sliced lettuce, diced radishes, fresh avocado slices, oregano, onions, fresh lime, tostadas, and of course, chile sauce.

This time it was the potent red "chile de árbol".

There was a choice of ice cold Coke or a refresco de sabores. Each was ice cold.
The Fixings for pozole
It was good!
To the Dock
Checkout Time
After lunch, I reluctantly headed back to the Hotel Don Pepe to pick up my things and check out. Doña Paty asked me when I was coming back.

"You should be here for the fiesta time when the town really fills up.""Here we celebrate the Day of the Holy Cross and the Señor de Otatitlán from April 29 to May 3."

"It´s very exciting because we have a procession that starts with floating the Cristo Negro on a special raft down the Papaloapan River from the bridge up river down to our dock."
Back on the Ferry
The Annual Procession on the River
"A lot of people like to follow in their own boats."

"Each year, we see the miracle repeated, when the river current carries his raft, all on its own, back to the dock in front of our town, and brings us another year of good fortune."

"Then everyone on shore follows the procession as it continues on to our church."

I thanked Doña Paty for her invitation, and I thought to myself how nice Otatitlán is on a quiet tropical Sunday afternoon.
Back to Civilization
"I Thought You´d Like Otatitlán"
She thanked me for staying at her hotel, and wished me a speedy return.

On the way back to the river in the bici taxi, I thanked my neighbor for having invited me to this quiet little forgotten town on the river. She said with a wide smile,

"I thought you´d like Otatitlán."

Looking across the river where my car was parked, I had some twinges of regret, having to leave this little town and go back to civilization.

Then I thought, it´s only about 2 hours from Veracruz, and I can always come back. Maybe next time, I will come back to see the river procession. It will be an good excuse to be with my friends again.

At the same time, I wondered if anyone would believe me that a place like Otatitlán still exists on earth.