If you take the direct route – the excellent Hwy-150 – from Mexico City to Veracruz, you’ll bypass every major town en route; if you’re driving yourself, note that the tolls along this stretch of road are extremely high (about M$450). For those pressed for time, the fast highway is a blessing – Veracruz and the coast are very much the outstanding attractions – but the cities in the mountains merit a stop if you have the time. Regardless of how fast you go or what form of transport you take, the journey is one of the most beautiful in Mexico: as Ixtaccíhuatl gradually disappears behind you, the snow on the Pico de Orizaba comes into view, and the plains of corn and maguey in the west are supplanted on the eastern slopes by woods of pine and cypress, and by green fields dotted with contented cows out to pasture.
It’s worth noting, however, that this is the rainiest area of the country, and while the damp brings bounties in terms of great coffee and a luxuriance of flowers, downpours can become a problem. Particularly irritating – especially in October and November – is what the locals call chipichipi, a persistent fine drizzle caused by warm airstreams from the Gulf hitting cooler air as they reach the eastern face of the sierra. Drivers should also watch out for the fog that frequently cloaks the higher sections of this road.Read More
The first major town en route, midway between Puebla and Veracruz, Orizaba is an industrial city and a major brewing centre: giant Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma produces some of the best beer in the republic, including globally famous brands Sol and Dos Equis – ask at the tourist office for details of tours. Despite the industry, the historic centre remains compact and attractive; because the old city was built up against a hill, development has spread in one direction only, so the centro historico is right on the edge of town, with more modern development sprawling to the east and south. There’s not a great deal to see, but it makes an enjoyable short break or overnight stop.
The Parque Castillo, at Colón and Madero, marks the centre of the old town. Here you’ll find the Catedral de San Miguel and the Palacio de Hierro, which houses not only the helpful tourist office (t272/728-9136), but also a tiny one-room Museo de Cerveza and, upstairs, a small Museo Arqueologico. Between them these won’t detain you for more than twenty minutes, but the building itself is well worth a look, an extraordinary nineteenth-century iron structure, prefabricated in Belgium. West of the plaza, Colón continues towards the looming Cerro del Borrego, atop which a vast Mexican flag flies and from where, if you brave the stiff climb, there are fabulous views of the city. Along the way, Colón crosses the Río Orizaba, where an attractive riverside walk winds beneath the city’s many bridges. Colón continues past the Palacio Municipal before ending at the Alameda, a shady park beneath the Cerro. There’s just one other significant sight in the city, the Museo de Arte, whose 36 works by Diego Rivera constitute one of Mexico’s finest collections of this iconic artist. Housed alongside other Mexican art from colonial to contemporary in a fine colonial building, they make this the most worthwhile visit in the city. Unfortunately it’s a long way out – over a dozen blocks east of the centre on Av Oriente 4 at Calle 25 Sur.
It’s a short local bus ride from Fortín to Córdoba, and indeed these days the two places are barely separate – linked along the road by a continuous string of superstores and factories. At the centre of the area’s coffee trade, Córdoba is a busy modern city built around an attractive colonial centre. Founded in 1618 by thirty Spanish families – and so also known as the “City of the Thirty Knights” – its main claim to fame is that in 1821 the last Spanish viceroy, Juan O’Donoju, signed the Treaty of Córdoba with General Iturbide here, formally giving Mexico independence. The signing took place in the Palacio de los Condes de Zevallos, now known as the Portal de Zevallos, on the northern edge of the central Plaza 21 de Mayo.
There’s not a great deal specifically to seek out in Córdoba: the animated zócalo is the main focus, surrounded by arcaded portales, many of which, including the famous Porta de Zevallos, are given over to handicraft shops and cafés, where you can sit and sample Córdoban coffee or julep, a rum and mint cocktail. The twin-towered Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, facing the Palacio Municpal across the plaza, is one of the most richly adorned religious buildings in the state – started in 1621, it contains a revered image of the Virgin Mary to the right of the altar. Nearby, on Calle 3 half a block off the zócalo between avenidas 3 and 5, is the Museo de la Ciudad. Housed in a beautiful colonial building with gorgeous mountain views from its upper storey, the museum’s exhibits (labelled in Spanish only) encompass some thirty centuries of local history, from Olmec and Totonac ceramics and sculpture, through Independence, to mementos of the Mexico ’68 Olympics.