When people think about Mexico for a vacation, they often think Cancun, Los Cabos or Puerto Vallarta. But when people who live in Mexico want to vacation, they head to Veracruz, one of Mexico’s undiscovered gems.
Veracruz is both the name for the oldest port town in Mexico (founded in 1519) and a long, thin state that snakes along the eastern Gulf coast. Its landscape and climate ranges from warm coastal beaches, deserts and jungles, to cool mountains and even permanently snow covered peaks. Perhaps more importantly, Veracruz doesn’t have the high prices and too many gringo tourists that other Mexican tourist areas have.
City Life Veracruz Style
Regardless of where you fly from, you’ll land in the city of Veracruz’s easily navigable Las Bajadas airport. A 20-minute taxi ride puts us into the heart of Veracruz at the Gran Hotel Diligencias (Grand Stagecoach Hotel) across from the Plaza de Armas, the city’s central plaza. If you prefer a beachside resort, you could stay at places like the Camino Real and the Fiesta American in Boca del Rio. These big beach hotels have beautiful swimming pools and all the usual amenities, but they lack the authentic cultural experience of being in the middle of the city.
At the Diligencias, our room faces Independence Avenue and offers lovely views of the central palm-lined plaza (or zocolo), the historic city hall and Our Lady of the Assumption cathedral (built in 1721). While the large, air conditioned rooms are whisper quiet, nearly any time of the day or night you can open the floor-to-ceiling glass doors overlooking the plaza and be greeted by a cacophony of sounds – voices singing, brass, drums, guitars, car horns and the calls of jungle birds. All day and late into the night, the plaza teems with life – dancers, children playing, old women chatting and lovers strolling beneath the lush palms, while vendors hawk jewelry, fine cigars, Mexican snacks, shoe shines and colorful embroidered clothing.
The hotel has recently undergone a complete restoration and features a grand marble reception area, 117 guest rooms and four suites, an onsite restaurant and bar, a second floor pool and a business center with Internet connection. It is also wonderfully centralized for exploring the city.
Cross the square and walk three or four blocks toward the port and you’ll find a mercado with dozens of vendors selling the usual beach tourist items – T-shirts, jewelry, embroidered items, Mexican sweets (dolces). Across the street, there’s a indoor market, Mercado de Artisians, that features similar items and some higher quality crafts.
Near the mercado is the not-to-be-missed landmark, the Gran Café de Parroquia. Order café lechero (coffee with hot milk) and some sweet breads. A waiter will bring a tall glass and pour in a couple of inches of rich, concentrated coffee. Clink your glass with a spoon to order the milk and the lechero (milk waiter) ceremoniously pours the hot, steamed milk, making a show of it by raising the pot two feet above the glass without spilling a drop
When you hear the chanting “Pasele guera” (“This way Blondie!”), you know you’ve arrived at the ice cream shops of Gutierrez Zamora Street. For $1.50, you can buy a generous cup in flavors like coconut, mango, Guanabana (a tropical fruit also known as soursop), chocolate or vanilla.
Across the waterfront, you’ll see San Juan de Ulúa, an impressive fort built in the 16th century to protect Veracruz from pirates. Hop a 10-minute cab ride to see this massive fortress made out of brain coral. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday 9-5 (entrance fee $4). Join a tour group (Spanish only) or tour the towering ramparts and narrow passageways on your own.
A cab or bus ride takes you to Boca del Rio, the next-door town where the beaches and beachside restaurants are located. Play along the beaches (they’re all public) or visit the Veracruz Aquarium, the largest in Latin America, with its nine dome-like freshwater and 16 saltwater tanks and impressive display of sharks.
If you’re hungry, Veracruz is a food lover’s delight. Fresh seafood cooked with interesting ingredients like papaya, chayote (a type of squash), chilies, tomatoes, avocadoes, parsley, thyme, garlic, marjoram, cilantro, bay, almonds, capers, olives and olive oil is the city’s culinary claim to fame.
Try La Estancia de Boca near the convention center or La Villa Rica on Mocambo, a stone’s throw from the Gulf. Both popular restaurants serve wonderfully fresh seafood – snook, conch, pompano, shrimp, crawfish, red snapper — in traditional Veracruz style.
Coffee and Waterfalls
We’re headed north to the villages of Xico (pronounced He-ko) and Coatepec (pronounced KO-tah-pec) to visit a coffee plantation and museum. You can take a bus or rent a car. Or hire a private driver through your hotel or a local travel agent (see sidebar).
On the road to Coatepec, we drive through hillsides filled with pines, bromeliads, Jacaranda and bird of paradise trees. Coatepec has been named one of the 26 “magical” villages for its unique culture and architecture. If you want to spend some time soaking up the local sights and flavors, the Posada Coatepec across from Our Lady of Guadalupe cathedral is a great place to hang your hat. Situated around a cool courtyard where people dine al fresco, the Posada offers 24 suites with all amenities.
The cool mountain air is perfect for growing shade grown Arabica coffee and El Café-tal, the coffee museum, is located just outside of town. It’s a working coffee plantation. If you visit in December or January, you can pick the red ripe coffee beans (called coffee cherries). During the hour tour (available in Spanish, English or French), you’ll learn about coffee growing, harvesting, roasting and drinking. The museum features a collection of old scales, coffee mills, roasters and a gift shop offering local coffee and coffee liqueurs and jewelry made from coffee beans. The tour ends with tasting various coffees.
A great lunch stop is Hacienda Simpizahua, a colonial hacienda turned inn and restaurant serving regional specialties such as trout and crayfish (langostinos). The hacienda is quiet and peaceful and offers rooms at reasonable rates ($48-86).
The scenery between Coatepec and the village of Xico is dramatic with verdant green mountains and soaring cliffs. In Xico, a little town filled with cobblestone streets and colonial houses with red tile roofs, we explore St. Mary Magdalene cathedral, a 16th century church near the town’s square. Every July, they line the streets with brightly painted “carpets” made from sawdust and parade a statue of Mary Magdalene through the streets. In a tiny museum tucked behind the church, you can see the 500+ parade dresses the ladies of the village have made for Mary.
We stop at a local vendor who makes liqueurs such as blackberry, orange and cream of coffee. You can sample and buy ($6 for a large bottle) these tasty liqueurs. Delicious homemade moles are also available.
We pass through rugged cloud forest. This area is home of the Texolo, Huehueyapan and Pextlan rivers that flow into the mighty La Antigua. The rivers and waterfalls make this the perfect area for nature lovers. Every autumn, so many hawks migrate here the locals call it the River of Raptors.
Off the paved road, we bump down a gravel track to Texolo Waterfall, an 250-foot cascade of water formed by the Matlacòbatl and Texolo Rivers. This important conservation wetland is protected by international treaty. As we cross a narrow swinging bridge, the remnant of a metal bridge crushed by an earthquake in the 1960s is a startling reminder of nature’s unpredictable power.
We continue down a path about 300 yards to Nun’s Waterfall. The water looks inviting, but there’s no swimming in the 40 foot deep pool. But the shade and lovely view provide an ideal setting for family picnics.
There are a number of eco-resorts in the area catering to tourists who want to bike, hike, rappel or raft the area’ s many rivers. The Aqua Bendita’s eight lush acres feature a meandering stream and large, centrally located swimming pool. The 18 casitas offer private baths, a sitting room and porches; some have spa rooms and kitchens. Like many resorts, Aqua Benedita offers pre-fixe meals.
White water rafting and rappelling
After breakfast, we head out for our rafting trip. After strapping into life vests and helmets, we get a brief safety talk and launch our six-person raft into the Rio Pescado’s (Fish River’s) first set of rapids. “Paddle,” shouts our guide, above the water’s roar. The little raft effortlessly slips through a deep wave and around a rock the size of a small car.
The Rio Pescado is wild enough to thrill rafters of any age and experience. The upper portion is for very experienced rafters; the middle section, which we opted for, is for adults and kids 10 and older; and the last section is great for families with little ones.
We check into Chichaki, an eco resort just outside the village of Jalmulco (pronounced Ha-cul-mul-ko). Chichaki, situated on the river, features 20 palapa-style cabins with traditional steeply-pitched palm frond roofs. The grounds offer a large, shallow pool, a play area for children and an open-air restaurant serving delicious regional dishes like chicken with pineapples.
Several of us pile into a van to go rappelling. We turn off the road and park in front of a daunting looking cliff. Our guide, Rafael, outfits us with climbing harnesses. The climb is steep and we stop frequently to catch our breath. Close to the top, we clip our carabineers to a nylon rope that snakes up the almost vertical path. We use tree limbs, rocks and the rope to haul ourselves up. Once there, we begin rappelling off the 300-foot drop.
When it’s my turn, I take a deep breath and lean back into the rope and begin walking down the cliff. We are “top roped,” a safety technique that gives the guide on the top and the guide on the bottom the ability to lower you down if anything happens and makes it impossible to actually fall off the cliff. As I descend, I find myself relaxing and lightly bouncing off the cliff face. Within no time, I’m on terra ferma and enjoying the hoots and applause of my fellow rappellers.
Over dinner that night at Chichaki, we swap tales of rafting and rappelling. Tomorrow we head for the Veracruz airport and flights home. We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of fascinating and authentic Vera Cruz. We all agree, we’ve had a perfect getaway in Veracruz. — by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
If you go
Airlines– a number of airlines serve Veracruz, including Mexicana, AeroMexico and Continental.
The easiest way to plan your Veracruz trip, especially into areas outside the city of Veracruz, is to let a local tour operator help. There’s no extra charge for their service and they can arrange everything from hotels and transportation to special tours and eco adventures.
JOA Travel Services
Juan Carlos Alonso
5085 NE 7th Street #406
Miami, FL 33126
Great Places To Stay
Gran Hotel Diligencias
Av. Independencia. No. 115, Col. Centro
52 (229) 923-0280
Aqua Bendita Hotel de Campo
Prolongación Vensustiano Carranza sin número
Xico, Veracruz, Mexico
01 (228) 813-1718
Hotel Chichaki Eco Resort
KM. 4.5 Jalcomulco, Apazapan Road
Apazapan, Veracruz, Mexico
01 (228) 812-8105/812-8106
Hidalgo No. 9, Esq. Aldama
Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico
(toll free) 01800 7126 256