We’re not sure why Mexico’s Veracruz state isn’t on the radar for more American tourists. It seems to have everything: interesting archeological sites, rich colonial and post-colonial history, nearby beaches, old forts, amazing music, and fantastic food. It’s one of the most popular regions destinations for Mexican tourists.
We chose Veracruz is relatively close to Mexico City (a 5 hour bus ride). We’d read about the music of the city of Veracruz, as well as the lively café culture, deeply influenced by Cuban immigrants who came in the 30’s and 40’s. Veracruz has a Caribbean climate and pace. The palm trees, outdoor cafe life, seafood cafes, active port, architecture, and relatively slow pace are distinct from many other parts of Mexico we’ve been in.
The center of evening activity is the Zócalo (main square). Starting around 5:00, the warm night air begins to fill with a range of different genres of Mexican music, from the marimba players (music of Oaxaca and Chiapas), Jorocho (a local folk music played with a harp and two guitars from which the hit “La Bamba” originated), Mariachi, Son (brought by Cuban immigrants), conjuntos, small groups with an accordion, drummer, and one or two guitarists, sing norteño-style corridos, popular throughout northern Mexico and California, and even a brass marching band one evening. We heard Tropical – a blend of Caribbean and a slow cumbia rhythm. There were Ranchera singers – a mournful torch song style that usually laments the loss of a love. As is typical in Mexico, the musicians each dress in their traditional style. Around the edges of the zócalo, cigar vendors set up little carts displaying a wide arrange of “puros” (cigars of all sizes) and indigenous women spread blankets and then stack them with blouses, shawls and other crafts for sale.
On weekends, in the center of the zócalo, a band plays Cuban Son, a waltz-like music, while people danced in the style of danzón. This type of music, popular in Cuba for over 100 years, seems to be the city’s heartbeat. Dancing in the plaza were couples of all ages, dominated by older men in white jackets and hats, gently holding their partners in what can only be described as a stately waltz from the waist up, accented by a Caribbean hip wiggle. In another square a few blocks away, there was more music and dancing, and in a third square, an open air Cuban café filled the night with son. (We stayed at the Hotel Colonial, its entrance is on the zocalo, right in the music hub.)
Veracruz is also known for its fort at the entrance to the harbor. We visited during a short break in one day’s rainy deluge (a break that was a bit shorter than our visit). Veracruz has been invaded by France, Dutch pirates, and the United States. In 1846, during the Mexican American war, and once again in 1914, for no apparent reason, the United States invaded Veracruz. The Mexicans say the later USA invasion was in retaliation for the arrest of two unruly sailors on leave (although the Mexican Police released them the next day with an apology). The USA says that it was because the rebels were receiving supplies from European governments thru the port – and the Monroe Doctrine theoretically gives “us” the license to stop European intervention in this region. We were not surprised to learn more about our country’s proud history of invading others.
We used Veracruz as a base to explore the region. We first visited Zempoala, the site of Cortes’ first contact with the Totonacs. Founded around 1200, Zempoala was intermittently in conflict with the Aztecs. The Totonacs have the dubious distinction of allying themselves with Cortes against the Aztecs. Through their contact with the Spanish, they were ultimately decimated by smallpox, against which they had no immunity.
Temples here were built of small black river stones are rimmed by fields of sugar cane. One of the most interesting features of Zempoala is a circular area bordered by a low wall of stones. The site was huge – and other than a military group on some sort of exercise, we were alone at the ruins. Just outside the perimeter were two other large temples in a lesser-restored state. Throughout the area were mounds that were said to contain additional temples – waiting to be excavated.
About an hour south of Veracruz is Tlacotalpan, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This town, after a series of disastrous fires, had been rebuilt and came of age during the Porfiriato 1881-1910. The railroad bypassed Tlacotalpan – and the city then was all but forgotten until the 1980s. The effect is striking, as the entire city is a snapshot of what a Mexico village would have looked like 100 years ago. The one and two story neoclassic buildings are painted intense shades of green, pink, lavender, purple, violet, blue, turquoise, terra cotta, and yellow– no boring whites. Contrasted with the riot of color was the town’s tranquility. The streets are wide, the entire city generally devoid of traffic. While the town has been trying to promote Tlacotalpan as a tourist destination, we were just about the only ones there. There were no tacky tourist shops selling mass-produced trinkets, in fact, there were just about no shops at all!
Our main destination in the area, other then the city of Veracruz, was the ruins of El Tajin. En route we spent a day at the state capital of Xalapa (aka Jalapa), up in the mountains, about 2 hours from Veracruz. It’s a big city – packed with colleges – and a fantastic museum that covers the coastal pre-Columbian cultures, including the Olmecs and Totonacs. We arrived midday on the 20th of November, which may not mean a lot to Americans. We were also clueless as to the significance of the date and couldn’t figure out why every bus said they could not take us downtown. As we trudged into town and hit roadblocks, all was revealed; our arrival perfectly coincided with a HUGE parade that celebrated the Mexican Revolution. We enjoyed the seemingly endless school groups, marching bands, women in typical Veracruz costumes, seniors, and on and on.
Xalapa is busy, but oddly lacking in bars. It’s likely that Salt Lake City has more. But we weren’t there to drink – we were there only to see the Archeology Museum, said to be the second largest in Mexico. The linear design/layout was helpful, but what was most amazing was the superb collection of Olmec heads, sculpture, and artifacts.
From Xalapa, we took a long, slow bus to Papantla, a small town near the ruins of El Tajin. Papantla is on the side of a mountain, and we were charmed by the town square, small markets around it, and restaurants overlooking the zocolo. It was a great base for visiting the ruins.
El Tajin is an amazing site. It was a huge regional center by 100 AD for a civilization related to the Huastecs. From 300 to 1100 AD, pyramids and ballcourts were built over a large area. For unknown reasons, the city was abandoned by 1150 AD, and was later settled by the Totonacs, whose descendants still live in the area. The site includes the impressive Pyramid of the Niches a well-preserved pyramid second only in size to Teotihuacan near Mexico City. Several of the ballcourts have well preserved murals (bas reliefs) depicting the religious ceremonies associated with the ball games (including the sacrificed winners ascending to the gods). There were few visitors when we visited the ruins, and we spent several hours marveling at the sophistication of the builders of the area. The site has been the focus of a huge effort at reconstruction and preservation. While it’s not well-known amongst American tourists, it’s clearly on the Mexican tourist circuit. The plaza at the entrance gate has dozens of stalls, shops, restaurants, and a pole for performances by Voladores (flying men). Sadly, we missed the performance.
Hotel Colonial, Veracruz – www.hcolonial.com.mx – You cannot get a better location! The rooms were quiet (except for a noisy hvac system) and the staff was helpful. Mon-Fri there’s coffee and cookies.
Papantla: Hotel Tajin – There are two recommended hotels in Papantla. This one was a block from the zócalo and was nice. There was no water from the hot tap in the morning which they fixed after a phone call to the front desk. We wondered if they turn it off at nite?
Xalapa: Hotel Meson del Alférez – A nice, quiet hotel, close to the zocalo.
Mexico City: Hotel Catedral – As usual, we used Hotel Catedral, just off the Zocalo behind the Catedral. This is a slightly upscale but reasonably priced hotel. The hotel offers potable water and proximity to the subway, nice restaurants, and the important sites.