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 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 (held in February) rival the best in the world, while the Festival Internacional Afrocaribeño, usually held in July or August, showcases dance, film, music and art from all over the Caribbean and Africa.

Brief 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.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Mexico features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

From ancient temples to hyper-modern skyscrapers, these are just a few of the world's most incredible architectural wonders. Whether you're looking to wander l…

01 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
12 cool places to visit in Mexico

12 cool places to visit in Mexico

Times remain tough for Mexico, but the truth is that there’s never been a better period to visit Latin America’s most diverse nation – most of the country…

16 Jan 2017 • Stephen Keeling insert_drive_file Article
The colours of Mexico captured in 14 pictures

The colours of Mexico captured in 14 pictures

Travel photographer Tim Draper has shot images for more than 20 Rough Guides guidebooks, visiting far-flung corners around the world. Here he shares some of h…

21 Jun 2016 • Tim Draper insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month