Villa Rica de la Veracruz was the first town founded by the Spanish in Mexico, a few days after Cortés’s arrival on Good Friday, 1519. Though today’s city occupies the area of coast where he first came ashore, made camp and encountered Aztec emissaries, the earliest development – little more than a wooden stockade – was in fact established some way to the north before being moved to La Antigua and finally arriving at its present site in 1589. The modern city is very much the heir of the original; still the largest port on the Gulf coast, its history reflects every major event from the Conquest onwards. “Veracruz”, states author Paul Theroux, “is known as the ‘heroic city’. It is a poignant description: in Mexico a hero is nearly always a corpse.”
Your first, and lasting, impression of Veracruz, however, will not be of its historical significance but of its present-day vitality. Its dynamic zócalo, pleasant waterfront location and relative absence of tourists make the city one of the most enjoyable places in the Republic in which simply to sit back and observe – or join – the daily round. This is especially true in the evenings, when the tables under the portales of the plaza fill up and the drinking and the marimba music begin, to go on most of the night. Marimba – a distinctively Latin-Caribbean sound based around a giant wooden xylophone – is the local sound, but at peak times there are also mariachi and norteño bands and individual crooners all striving to be heard over each other. When the municipal band strikes up from the middle of the square, confusion is total. Veracruz’s riotous nine-day Carnaval celebrations rival the best in the hemisphere, while the Festival Internacional Afrocaribeño, usually held in July or August, showcases dance and music performances from all over the Caribbean and Africa, film showings and art exhibitions.
Though tranquil enough today, the port’s past has been a series of “invasions, punitive missions and local military defeats…humiliation as history”. The problems started even before the Conquest was complete, when Pánfilo Narváez landed here on his ill-fated mission to bring Cortés back under the control of the governor of Cuba, and continued intermittently for the next four hundred years. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Veracruz and the Spanish galleons that used the port were preyed on constantly by the English, Dutch and French. In the War of Independence the Spanish made their final stand here, holding the fortress of San Juan Ulúa for four years after the country had been lost. In 1838 the French occupied the city, in what was later dubbed “The Pastry War”, demanding compensation for French property and citizens who had suffered in the years following Independence; in 1847 US troops took Veracruz, and from here marched on to capture the capital. In January 1862 the French, supported by Spanish and English forces that soon withdrew, invaded on the pretext of forcing Mexico to pay her foreign debt, but ended up staying five years and setting up the unfortunate Maximilian as emperor. Finally, in 1914, US marines were back, occupying the city to protect American interests during the Revolution. These are the “Cuatro Veces Heroica” of the city’s official title, and form the bulk of the history displayed in the museums here.Read More
Tours, boat trips and watersports
Tours, boat trips and watersports
City tours mostly depart from the malecón, where you‘ll find the traditional tranvías – buses done up to look like old trolley-cars – along with various rival tour buses. They leave every half-hour or so for a 45–60 minute tour of the old town (M$50, children M$30); the price includes a drink (a powerful torito for adults) and it’s especially fun at night, when the tranvías are lit up. There are also bus tours down to Boca del Río (same price) and boat trips around the harbour (M$80). All of these are more frequent at weekends and in high season, and busier in the late afternoon and evening.
There are plenty of other opportunities to take to the water in Veracruz. Asdic (t229/935-9417), which runs the harbour tours, also offers evening sailings in its disco catamaran; and from a base on the beach by Plaza Acuario it sails around the Isla de los Sacrificios (now a nature reserve) to Cancuncito, a semi-submerged sandbar in the bay where you can disembark and swim. Banana boats and jet-skis are also available here.
There’s remarkably good diving at pretty good rates on a large number of little-visited reefs and beaches within the Parque Nacional Sistema Arrecifal Veracruzano. To see marine life in the Gulf of Mexico at close quarters, head for one of the city’s dive shops: Mundo Submarino (t229/980-6374, wwww.mundosubmarino.com.mx), Ávila Camacho 3549, a couple of blocks north of Ruíz Cortines; Tridente (t229/260-5272, e[email protected]), Ávila Camacho 353, a block or so north of the Royalty hotel; or Scubaver (t229/932-3994, wwww.scubaver.net), Hernandez y Hernandez 563, near the Mar y Tierra hotel. Veracruz Adventures, Ávila Camacho 681-A by the Hotel Novomar (t229/931-5358, wwww.veracruzadventures.com) also offers diving, as well as snorkel trips and kayaks for rent.
For more adventurous tours further afield, above all whitewater-rafting (mostly at Jalcomulco), but also canyoning, rappelling and the like: operators include Amphibian (Lerdo 117, in the Hotel Colonial, t229/931-0997, wwww.amphibianveracruz.com); Mexico Verde (Ruíz Cortines 4300, in the Crowne Plaza hotel, t01-800/362-8800, wwww.mexicoverde.com); and Aventura Extrema (Sanchez Tagle 973, t229/202-6557, wwww.aventuraextrema.com.mx).