The central Gulf coast is among the least-visited yet most distinct areas of Mexico. From Mexico City, you descend through the southern fringes of the Sierra Madre Oriental, past the country’s highest peaks, to a broad, hot and wet coastal plain. In this fertile tropical zone the earliest Mexican civilizations developed: Olmec culture dominated the southern half of the state from 1200 BC, while the civilization known as Classic Veracruz flourished between 250 and 900 AD at centres such as El Tajín. Today, Huastec and Totonac culture remains strong in the north. Cortés began his march on the Aztec capital from Veracruz, and the city remains, as it was throughout colonial history, one of the busiest ports in the country. Rich in agriculture – coffee, vanilla, tropical fruits and flowers grow everywhere – the Gulf coast is also endowed with large deposits of oil and natural gas.
The few non-Mexican tourists who find their way here are usually just passing through. In part, at least, this is because the area makes no particular effort to attract them; the weather can also be blamed – it rains more often and more heavily here than just about anywhere else. Yet even in the rainy season the torrential downpours are short-lived, and within a couple of hours of the rain starting, you can be back on the streets in bright sunshine. Though there are long, windswept beaches all down the Atlantic coast, they are less beautiful than their Pacific or Caribbean counterparts, while the larger coastal towns are primarily commercial centres, of little interest to the visitor.
That said, domestic tourism to the area is increasing rapidly, both to the beaches and, increasingly, for adventure tourism – climbing, whitewater-rafting, kayaking, canyoning and more – around the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre and the rivers that flow off it. Veracruz itself is one of the most welcoming of all Mexico’s cities; it’s too busy with its own affairs to create a separate life for visitors so you’re drawn instead into the steamy tropical port’s day-to-day workings, and its obsession with music. Less than an hour north lie La Antigua and Villa Rica, where Cortés established the first Spanish government on the American mainland, and Cempoala, ruined site of the first civilization he encountered. El Tajín, near the coast in the north of the state, is one of the most important archeological sites in the country, and Filo Bobos, only recently excavated, is also well worth a visit. The colonial cities in the mountains are also delightful: Xalapa, seat of the Veracruz state government, is the finest, with its balmy climate, beautiful highland setting and superb anthropology museum. This area, and the high mountains around Córdoba and Orizaba, are the playground of the adrenaline tourist too. To the south, Catemaco is a spell-binding lake set in an extinct volcanic crater, where you can see the last remaining tract of Gulf coast rainforest. The area is renowned as a meeting place for native brujos and curanderos, witches and healers.
The state also has some great food – not only local coffee, fruit and vanilla but also seafood. Huachinango a la Veracruzana (red snapper Veracruz-style) is served across the country, and is of course on every menu here. But there are many more exotic possibilities, from langoustines and prawns to jaiba, large local crab; look out for anything made with chile chipotle, a hot, dark-brown chile with a very distinctive (and delicious) flavour – chilpachole de jaiba is a sort of crab chowder that combines the two. Sweet tamales, too, are a speciality, and to wash it all down, the brewery at Orizaba produces some of the best beers in the country.Read More
El Baile de los Negritos
El Baile de los Negritos
Popular at festivals across the state of Veracruz, the frenetic Baile de los Negritos is a Totonac dance dating back to colonial times, when African slaves were imported to work on local plantations, often living and labouring alongside indígenas. Stories abound as to the origin of the dance: the most popular version has it that a female slave and her child escaped from a plantation near Papantla and lived in the dense jungle with local indigenous groups. After her child was poisoned by a snake bite, the mother, using African folk medicine, danced herself into a trance. The Totonacs around her found the spectacle highly amusing and, it is said, began to copy her in a spirit of mockery.
The costumes of the dance are influenced by colonial dress, and the dancers wear a snake motif around the waist. The dance is directed by a “Mayordomo”, the title given to plantation overseers in the colonial era. Good opportunities to see the dance are Corpus Christi (late May–June) in Papantla, or in Tlapacoyan at the Feast of Santiago (July 25), dedicated to the town’s patron saint, or the Day of the Assumption (Aug 15); at other times it’s held on a smaller scale in other village festivals in the area.