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 in Mexico. 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 on the rise, both to the beaches and, increasingly, for adventure tourism – whitewater rafting, kayaking, canyoning, climbing 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; too busy with its own affairs to create a separate life for visitors, the steamy tropical port draws you instead into the rhythms of its daily life, and its obsession with music. Less than an hour north lie La Antigua and Villa Rica, where Cortés established the first Spanish settlements 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 spellbinding 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.