Immediately north of Veracruz lie the oldest Spanish settlements in Mexico, and the sites of the indigenous towns which became Cortes’ first allies. A short stretch of toll highway takes you as far as Cardel, a busy little town and handy place to change buses or visit the bank, at the junction of the coastal highway and the road up to Xalapa. La Antigua lies 2km off this road. Beyond Cardel there’s very little to stop for in the long coastal stretch (about 4hr on the bus) to Papantla. At Nautla, 153km from Veracruz, you pass the largest town en route to Papantla, surrounded by coconut groves, at the heart of the so-called “Costa Esmeralda”. There are hotels, some of them pretty fancy, trailer parks and campsites all the way up here, but most are just metres from the highway, which runs close to the shore. The grey sand is frequently desolate and windswept, and it’s not really a place you’d want to stay.