VILLA RICA DE LA VERACRUZ was the first town founded by the Spanish in Mexico, a few days after Cortés’ 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 (see Villa Rica) 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 late into the evening. 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, film, music and art from all over the Caribbean and Africa.
Though tranquil enough today, the port’s past has been, as Paul Theroux wrote, a series of “invasions, punitive missions and local military defeats… humiliation as history”. 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.