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Veracruz, founded in 1519, is one of the oldest cities established by the Spanish in Mexico. But instead of a 16th-century atmosphere, Veracruz instead has the feeling of a belle epoque town of the late 19th century, where gentleman and ladies linger over a cup of coffee in the cafes surrounding the town’s heartbeat — the “zocalo,” or municipal square, called Plaza de Armas.
When I visited Veracruz during the first week of January, there were few Americans or foreign visitors of any kind in town. Tourism in Veracruz is low-key and seems to be directed at the domestic Mexican traveler. It’s a university city, and there seemed to be a distinct LGBT-friendly atmosphere.
Most visitors will first fly into Mexico City, where they’ll pick up a connecting flight for the roughly one-hour flight to Veracruz. Another option is to drive six hours east from Mexico City.
Most visitors will want to book a hotel in the historic district around the zocalo, or on the “malecon,” or waterfront promenade. Veracruz’s malecon is more industrial than scenic; choosing a zocalo hotel will put your clients right in the middle of the action. Here, they’ll find a lively scene throughout the day, with live marimba music and vendors hawking everything from cologne to Cuban cigars. Scores of “jarochos” — the name for the inhabitants of Veracruz — will be enjoying meals and drinks at a wide selection of outdoor cafes sheltered among the “portales,” or arches surrounding the square.
Veracruz produces some of the best coffee in Mexico, and jarochos have a love affair with coffee. Most take it “lechero” style, which is strong coffee served in a glass rather than a cup. The waiter will pour a measure of black coffee in the glass and then follow that with hot milk, poured from a silver pitcher. Gran Cafe del Portal is one of the best and oldest cafes in the city, dating back to 1929. If a second cup of coffee is in order, your clients can make like a jarocho and clink their spoon against the glass — no one will think they’re rude. Clients sitting down at a cafe in the zocalo will most likely be approached by one vendor after another. A simple shake of the head “no” is usually enough to discourage them.
On Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, women dress to impress, and men wearing white “guayaberas” (a type of shirt popular in the Caribbean) and trousers assemble in the zocalo to enjoy Veracruz’s famous dance, the danzon, which was imported from Cuba in the 19th century. The waltz-like dance has come to represent Veracruz’s caught-in-time atmosphere. Danzon isn’t confined to inhabitants of the city; anyone can join in and give it a whirl.
A celebratory atmosphere in the zocalo can sometimes continue late into the night. If street noise is going to be an issue with your clients, book them a room on one of the quieter top floors of their hotel. Two of the better zocalo hotels are Hotel Veracruz Centro Historico and Gran Hotel Diligencias, which is currently being renovated. A great hotel on the malecon is Emporio Veracruz.
The Mercado de Artesanias (craft market) on the malecon offers lots of options for purchasing souvenirs, Veracruz coffee and authentic guayaberas. The Mercado de Pescaderia (fish market) is just 10 minutes outside of town (a $2 dollar taxi ride), and travelers can explore a selection of stalls piled high with the catch of the day. Twenty or so small restaurants serve fresh seafood at reasonable prices here. The signature dish for Veracruz is huachinango a la Veracruzana, or red snapper smothered in tomatoes, chilies, onions, olives and capers.
Major attractions include the 16th-century Fort at San Juan de Ulua, the city museum and Acuario de Veracruz, the city’s aquarium. Veracruz is also famous for its spirited Carnival, which takes place during the nine days leading up to Ash Wednesday and is similar to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.
If your clients are looking for a wealth of distractions, Veracruz might not be right for them. But travelers looking to step back in time can celebrate this city, which is unlike any other.