This article is from the March 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Next Time Choose Veracruz

By David Simmonds  

Just recently having read a great book, The Veracruz Blues, by Mark Winegardner, I knew where my next trip into Mexico had to be. The book mixes history and legend and tells the story, set in 1946, when major-league ballplayers, returning from the war and unhappy with the salary contracts offered by the team owners, went to Mexico to play – only to find out there were already major league caliber players in the Mexican League, the Negro League and Latino players who were banned from the majors in the United States. Jackie Robinson had not yet signed with the Dodgers.           

Anyway, it’s a great read, but more importantly it got me thinking about when exactly was the last time I had been to Veracruz? Like most gringo Mexico travelers, Veracruz had just not been in the loop for me for many years. It’s not really on the way to anywhere else, but it doesn’t have to be. As Mexican tourists have always known, this is a fascinating city, as is the entire state.           

The city has been integral to Mexico’s development from the beginning. The area was occupied by the Totonacs prior to the Spaniard arrival. This is where Hernan Cortéz first dropped anchor in his conquest of the New World. Actually, his first encounter was an island just offshore where he found the remains of human sacrifices (Islas de los Sacrificios). Most of us would interpret this as a sign to head back home and open up a wine and cheese shop, but not Cortéz. He, as an explorer and conqueror, pressed on. And the rest is, as they say, history.           

The large harbor at Veracruz became the Spaniards’ most important anchorage and the gateway for all who followed. But due to rampant malaria and yellow fever, it didn’t grow to be one of the country’s largest cities.  

A fort was built on another island just offshore, which was named San Juan de Ulúa, for fellow explorer Juan de Grijalva. The old fort still stands guard and can be visited daily, except Mondays, from 9:00 to 4:30. No longer an island, it can be reached by bus or taxi. I arrived when it opened and had the entire fort to myself. The visual contrasts of the old, gray fort walls and artifacts with the nearby behemoth oil tankers and cargo ships provide a moment of historical reflection on just how much life has changed over the centuries and whether or not it’s all been for the better.  

The fort has played an important role in Mexico’s history including serving as a prison that “housed” Benito Juarez from 1858-1861 and as a presidential residence for Venustiano Carranza in 1915. It now houses a small, but interesting, museum.           

The English, including the pirates John Hawkins and Francis Drake, arrived in port in 1567 to sell slaves in defiance of Spanish law. Most of the Brits were captured, but Drake and Hawkins escaped to plunder the Spanish fleets for years to come. 

Many battles have been fought in the city, including a bombardment from the fort upon the town by the Spaniards in the War for Independence, twice by the French and twice by the U.S. in 1847 and 1914. It now has the official title of “Four Times Heroic,” although by my count it should be five.  

Mexico’s first railway ran from Mexico City to Veracruz as it became one of Mexico’s wealthiest cities. Although there are still rail lines in place, passenger service is no longer in operation. The only two remaining passenger service routes in Mexico are in the Copper Canyon and from Guadalajara to Tequila. Hopefully, it will be restored in the future, once again providing a great way to see the country. 

The Caribbean Flavor

The city of Veracruz (the state is also Veracruz) has a well-deserved reputation as being one of Mexico’s liveliest locales, with more than a touch of island attitude on display. Laughter comes easily to the jorochos (what the city people are called) and fun appears to have a higher priority than work. I was immediately struck by the similarity I saw to Havana, Cuba, which I visited just over a year ago. In fact, the waterfront malecons of both cities were designed by the same American engineering firm, Pearson and Company.           

Upon arrival in the Veracruz airport you must take a taxi to get into the town center, about a twenty-minute ride, at a cost of $10US. My hotel reservation was at the Hotel Colonial, with a balcony room overlooking the zócalo, called the Plaza de Armas. Be warned if you want to replicate this plan. It was 11:00 pm and the action below was just warming up. The in-line outdoor cafes that fall on that side of the street are filled with locals and tourists drinking, yammering and listening to the live music of either marimbas, mariachis, pop or military bands, who wander from site to site, side by side.           

After a welcome dinner of fresh fish veracruzana style ($5.00US and excellent), a couple of cold Superiors (always excellent, no matter the cost), and a smorgasboard of music, I retreated to my second-story room, which was even louder than my table on the street. Fortunately, after years of traveling Mexico and having psychotically developed the need for open windows wherever I sleep, I have developed the ability to close my eyes and drift away, no matter the decibel level. For those not so gifted, (some would say brain-dead), you might consider an interior room or one facing a quieter street.           

Hit the Beach?

Warm weather, on the coast, sub-tropical Mexico…sounds like your first day should be on the beach, slowly and methodically acclimating to your immersion back into the magical land. Unfortunately, for all of its many attractions, the beaches right around and in Veracruz city are not terribly enticing. The town is a big port with big ships, and this tends to foul the water for a stretch. The sand on the neighboring beaches is mostly hard-packed and brownish, the surf choppy and in February, a little cold. Not a bikini, jewelry vendor or time-share huckster in sight. Time to strap on the Tevas and explore the town.           

Most of the sights in the central can be reached on foot. The main focus is the aforementioned Plaza de Armas where you can find one of the best tourist offices I have seen in the country. It is located on the ground floor of the stately Palacio Municipal, constructed in 1627. In front of the building is a bandstand where military band performances are held two nights a week. The several outdoor cafes along the north side are very European in ambience, reflecting the Spanish roots evident throughout the city. The main cathedral is also located on the plaza, although modest in comparison to those in many other cities.           

The Plaza is one of Mexico’s oldest and most attractive and probably the most fun and interesting. If you want some solitude and reflection, get there early in the morning, as the activity builds throughout the day, ending when they wrap it up around 3:00 am. 

I eventually moved to the Hotel Imperial, a couple of doors down from the Colonial. And although more expensive, it’s a great hotel. Built in 1794, the lobby is Old World and stunning, with an old-fashioned stained-glass elevator, an attentive doorman, and framed photos that chronicle the many dignitaries it has hosted over the years. Most of the balcony rooms in front are multi-room suites furnished with beautiful antiques. I highly recommend a stay in one of these for a special occasion or a self-indulgent fling. The more affordable standard rooms, where I stayed, are likewise very comfortable and quiet. It is one of my favorite hotels in Mexico.           

A block from the plaza is the Paseo de Malec\n, extending about two miles south along the Gulf of Mexico. A walk along the sidewalk will afford a view of fishing boats, international cargo liners, Navy ships and tour boats all sharing water space. Across the bay you can see the fort, looking tiny and misplaced amid modern-day Veracruz. At the corner of Blvd. Camacho and the Malec\n are some statues honoring the men who have been sacrificed to the sea and those who defended the city against the Americans in 1914, who briefly occupied Veracruz to stop arms from being delivered to the dictator Victoriana Huerta by the Germans.           

Nearby is the Faro (lighthouse) Carranza named for native son Venustiano Carranza, president of Mexico from 1917 to 1920, when he was assassinated. The building now houses various military offices as well as the Museo Histórico de la Revolución, in honor of the revolutionary Carranza. The 1917 Mexican constitution was drafted here by Carranza and others. A large statue of him stands out front, looking out to sea.           

A couple of miles down the Malecón sits the Acuario Veracruz, Mexico’s finest aquarium consuming some 10,000 square meters. It is worth a couple hours of your time to view the salt and fresh water tanks showcasing an amazing assortment of fish and reptiles. The national restaurant chain VIP’s, which is better than you might expect, is on site if you get hungry.           

A little farther south you will find the home of another Veracruz city native, the great composer Augustín Lara. His most famous work, Veracruz, penned in 1936, is now the de facto anthem of the city and state. The beauty of the song often brings its listeners to tears, punctuating the sentimentality and soulful nature of the people in this region. The house is which he lived is now a museum, housing his trademark white piano as well as other memorabilia from his illustrious and beloved career. It is at Av. Adolfo Ruiz Cortines and Blvd. Manuel Avila Camacho.           

For the best historical museum, which provides better understand the city and its past, visit the Museo de la Ciudad at Av. Zaragoza 397, between Canal and E. Morales. The 19th century mansion focuses on the people and the history of Veracruz. There is a room dedicated to the yearly celebration known world-wide as Carnaval, as well as exhibits explaining contemporary customs. Of particular interest to me is the African room that features the arrival of the slaves brought by the Spaniards in the 16th century. 

Another interesting page from history is featured at the Bastión de San Diego, one of the few remaining pieces of the system of stone walls and forts that the Spaniards had erected around the city in the 17th century. On display are the “jewels of the fishermen,” a collection of 64 pre-Columbian and colonial artifacts that were found in a sunken ship by a fisherman. In 1976 the government “liberated” the priceless pieces from him and placed them in the museum. 

A few miles farther down the coast is the town of Boca del Río. Along the way you will find a few larger resort hotels and American-style shopping centers. The most appealing of these resorts is the Hotel Mocambo, not because it is the newest, but because it is not. This is luxury in the old Mexican style, in contrast to the nearby Fiesta Americana and Holiday Inn. The terraced gardens, three swimming pools, and seaside location offer a nice diversion from the center city, but don’t think you are going to a less-crowded Cancún or Ixtapa. The beaches here just don’t compare to Mexico’s finest. 

Boca del Río is a nice, riverside village specializing in seafood cafés. The most popular of these is Pardino’s, which many Veracruz families frequent for long afternoon feasts. I had a fine afternoon there sampling several preparations of shrimp and interacting with the ever-friendly jarochos, who insisted on sending over cervezas to the gringo writer who, not wanting to offend the locals, happily accepted. 

Carnaval 

In New Orleans they call it Mardi Gras – in Latin America it is Carnaval. The two largest celebrations in Mexico take place in Mazatl<n and Veracruz. The nine-day party begins the previous Tuesday before Ash Wednesday each year, either in February or March. People come from all over the country to participate in the marathon blow-out. Ornate floats parade along the streets with masquerade balls filling the halls. And always, there is the music and dancing. The harder you party, the more you repel the bad juju that surely will confront you the coming year. On the morning of Ash Wednesday the festivities end when the partiers sober up and head off to church where they have ash marks slapped on their foreheads, marking the first day of Lent.           

Now, if this sounds like your kind of vacation, make your reservations far in advance and expect to pay twice the price for a room. I happened to be leaving town the Tuesday morning that kicks off the week, and the hotels had jacked their price lists overnight. Organized fun, evidently, doesn’t come cheap. With the lone exceptions of baseball games and mud-wrestling, I avoid crowds whenever possible.           

One thing you can always count on in Veracruz is an abundance of good, cheap seafood. The Gulf of Mexico is one of the fish-richest in the world and the city is filled with seafood restaurants. The red, tomato-based veracruzana sauce served on fresh fish has become well-known throughout the country and a plate can be bought for $5 or less at numerous cafés. Another signature food item for the city is coffee, with Gran CafJ de la Parroquia setting the standard. Actually, there are now two locations located a block apart on Insurgentes, facing the harbor. With bustling white-jacketed waiters rushing from table to table you might think that only the wealthy would patronize these establishments. But, it is frequented by all classes of locals as well as tourists. The menu is diverse and they are open from 6:00 am to midnight. I like the fact that you can order anything on the menu, even at breakfast. I had a huge bowl of their delicious house soup one morning that fueled me for the entire day of street walking. I don’t think that anything on the menu was over $10US, and that was for a complete steak meal.           

But, what most everyone orders is the coffee, although you should know the ritual associated with this simple act. After sitting at my table for a couple of minutes I noticed that people were continuously clanging their spoons against their glasses, at which time a waiter would hustle over to their table. I’m thinking, “these folks are a bit rude and impatient, but what the hell…if that’s the custom I’ll follow their lead.” So, I timidly give my glass a couple of raps so I could order my food. Right away a waiter appears, with the facial expression more commonly associated with George W. when he doesn’t have his teleprompter. About then a nice lady at the next table leaned over to explain to me that it is the custom to clang the glass after one waiter has poured your coffee glass with a couple inches of the potent blend and you are ready for the waiter with steaming hot milk to fill it the rest of the way. I ordered a beer and a sandwich.           

Just off the plaza is a very similar place called Café de Portal, with a menu which is much more extensive. They don’t do quite the volume as Parroquia, but the food is equally as good and the noise level much subdued.            

For nighttime amusement, besides hanging out on the plaza (your best choice) and the adjoining sidewalk cafés, you might try the bar at the Hotel Emporio on the Malecón for some live music and a bar filled with upwardly mobile locals.  Or try the bar at Sanborn’s, located on the ground floor of the over-priced, modern Hotel Calinda, facing the plaza.           

There is much more to the state of Veracruz worth your attention. Pre-Columbian ruins, eco-trips, tropical rain forest, Mexico’s highest mountain – are all within a day’s drive. I will cover southern Veracruz, where the Hollywood films Romancing the Stone and Medicine Man were filmed, in the May issue of The Mexico File.