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.
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 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.
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.
The attractive zócalo is the heart of life in Veracruz in every sense – the place where everyone gathers, for morning coffee, lunch, afternoon strolls and at night. After dark, especially, it has an extraordinary energy, with tables set out under the portales, nonstop music and strolling crowds. The imposing Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Asunción, consecrated in 1721, dominates the square. Its most striking features are its solid, whitewashed exterior and tiled dome; inside, there’s little to see other than endless restoration works. On the plaza too is the elegant Palacio Municipal, one of the oldest in Mexico, originally built between 1609 and 1627, though it assumed its current form in the eighteenth century. The Fototeca de Veracruz, alongside, hosts beautifully presented photography exhibitions.
Veracruz offers up some fabulous food – the state’s coffee, fruit and vanilla are renowned, and the seafood is also superb. Huachinango a la Veracruzana (red snapper Veracruz-style) is served across the country, and is of course on every menu here; the Veracruzana sauce of tomato, chile, onions and olives can also spice up anything from steak to squid. Other local specialities include pulpos a la marinera (baby octopus), arroz a la tumbada (Veracruz-style rice, packed with seafood), empanadas de camaron (shrimp turnovers) and jaiba, a large local crab; look out too for anything made with chile chipotle, a hot, dark-brown chile with a very distinctive (and delicious) flavour – chilpachole de jaiba is a sort of crab chowder that combines the two. Sweet tamales, too, are a speciality, and to wash it all down, the brewery at Orizaba produces some of the best beers in the country. Stronger liquors include the mind-wiping toritos, made with fruits and blended with condensed milk and a tot of brandy.
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.
For all its antiquity, there’s not a great deal to see in LA ANTIGUA, site of the second Spanish settlement in Mexico (it’s often incorrectly described as the first – Villa Rica is further north). It is, however, a beautiful, cobbled tropical village, just 20km north of Veracruz on the banks of the Río La Antigua (or Río Huitzilapan). At weekends it makes a popular excursion for Veracruzanos, who picnic by the river and swim or take boat rides.
In the semi-ruined centre of the village stand some of the oldest surviving Spanish buildings in the country: on the plaza are the Edificio del Cabildo, built in 1523, which housed the first ayuntamiento (local government) established in Mexico, and the Casa de Cortés, a fairly crude stone construction, which, despite the name, was probably never lived in by Cortés and is now a ruin, undergoing restoration. Nearby is the tranquil Ermita del Rosario, the first Christian church built in New Spain, which also dates from the early sixteenth century, though it’s been altered and restored since.
On the riverbank stands a grand old tree – the Ceiba de la Noche Feliz – to which it is claimed that Cortés moored his ships. A pedestrian suspension bridge crosses the river near the tree, and on this stretch of the bank are lanchas offering river trips and a little row of restaurants with waterside terraces, the pick of which is Las Maravillas.
The first native city visited by the conquistadors, CEMPOALA (or Zempoala) quickly became their ally against the Aztecs. When Cortés arrived, the city, under the leadership of Chicomacatl (dubbed the “Fat Chief” by conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo), had been under Aztec control for little over fifty years. Its people, who numbered some 25,000 to 30,000, had already rebelled more than once and were only too happy to stop paying their tribute once they believed that the Spaniards could protect them. This they did, although the inhabitants must have begun to have second thoughts when Cortés ordered the idols of their deities to be smashed and replaced with crosses and Christian altars.
The ruins, though nowhere near as dramatic as El Tajín further north, make for an absorbing detour and take no more than an hour to explore. They date mostly from the Aztec period, and although the buildings have lost their decorative facings and thatched sanctuaries, they constitute one of the most complete surviving examples of an Aztec ceremonial centre – albeit in an atypical tropical setting and on a very small scale. The double-stairway pyramids, grouped around a central plaza, must have resembled miniature versions of those at Tenochtitlán. Apart from the main, cleared site, consisting of the Templo Mayor, the Gran Pirámide and the Templo de las Chimeneas, there are lesser ruins scattered throughout, and around, the modern village. Look out in particular for the circular Templo de Ehecatl (Temple of the Wind God) on the opposite side of the main road through the village.
Around 15km north of Cardel, the sleepy village of Villa Rica was the first permanent Spanish settlement in New Spain. Established by Cortés in 1519, it was abandoned in 1524 for La Antigua, and only foundations remain today, close to the normally deserted beach. Just beyond, an exceptionally scenic area of steep, green hills is home to Mexico’s only nuclear plant, on the coast at Laguna Verde.’s only nuclear plant, on the coast at Laguna Verde.
PAPANTLA, 227km from Veracruz, is the most attractive town on the route north, straggling over an outcrop of low, jungly hills. Even so, if it weren’t for the proximity of El Tajín, few people would consider staying here. In addition to being one of the most important centres of the Mexican vanilla industry – the sweet, sticky odour frequently hangs over the place, and vanilla products are on sale everywhere – Papantla is also one of the last surviving strongholds of Totonac culture. You’ll see Totonacs, barefoot and in loose white robes in the markets, and can regularly witness the amazing dance-spectacle of the Voladores de Papantla.
On the edge of the zócalo, the huge Mural Cultural Totonaca depicts the clash between modern and traditional life, with sculpted images of Totonac gods, myths and the pyramids of El Tajín alongside oil rigs and farm machinery (the tourist office has a leaflet describing this in detail). It’s best appreciated in the evening, when floodlights pick out the relief and the zócalo itself is wildly animated; especially at weekends, when there’s often live music and dancing. On the terrace above the mural stands the solid Catedral de la Asunción, beyond which you can climb to the Volador monument, a giant statue affording tremendous views of the town.
Although the full significance of the dance of the voladores has been lost over time, it has survived much as the earliest chroniclers reported it, largely because the Spanish thought of it as a sport rather than a pagan rite. It involves five men: a leader who provides acoustics on flute and drum, and four performers. They represent the five earthly directions – the four cardinal points and straight up, from earth to heaven. After a few preliminaries, the five climb to a small platform atop a pole, where the leader resumes playing and directs prayers for the fertility of the land in every direction. Meanwhile, the dancers tie ropes, coiled tightly around the top of the pole, to their waists and at a signal fling themselves head-first into space. As they spiral down in increasing circles the leader continues to play, and to spin, on his platform, until the four hit the ground (hopefully landing on their feet, having righted themselves at the last minute). In all, they make thirteen revolutions each, symbolizing the 52-year cycle of the Aztec calendar.
At Papantla (performances in front of the cathedral Fri, Sat & Sun 10.30am–7pm) and El Tajín (regular performances outside the entrance to the ruins starting at 11am), the ritual has become primarily a tourist spectacle, as the permanent metal poles attest. In local villages there is still more ceremony attached, particularly in the selection of a sufficiently tall tree to act as the pole, and its temporary erection in the place where the dance is to be performed. Note that performances are nominally free, though if you catch one of the regular shows in Papantla or El Tajín you’ll be expected to make a donation.
With numerous substantial structures spread over an extensive site, EL TAJÍN is by far the most important and impressive archeological site on the Gulf coast. It divides broadly into two areas: Tajín Viejo, which centres on the amazing Pirámide de los Nichos, and Tajín Chico, a group of official residential buildings belonging to the city’s ruling class built on an artificial terrace. The site museum, by the entrance, has a model of the site worth examining before you venture in, along with a collection of the more delicate stonework salvaged from the ruins, notably murals and columns, bits of pottery and statues – displays are primarily labelled in Spanish, but there are a few English explanations.
The principal architecture at El Tajín dates from the Classic period (300–900 AD); the city declined in the early Post-Classic (900–1100 AD), and by the time of the Conquest it had been forgotten. Our knowledge comes entirely from archeological enquiries made since the accidental discovery of the site in 1785 – El Tajín remains one of the most enigmatic of all of Mexico’s ancient cities. No one even knows who built it: some claim it was the Huastecs, others the Totonacs. Most archeologists prefer not to speculate too wildly, instead calling the civilization Classic Veracruz. You’ll notice many of its hallmarks at El Tajín, including niches in temple walls and complex ornamental motifs known as “scrolls”. Classic Veracruz influence was widespread, and is strongly felt at Teotihuacán,to the extent that some believe that city may have been built by Veracruzanos.
From the site entrance, a track leads through a small group of buildings to the Plaza del Arroyo, the city marketplace, and into the heart of Tajín Viejo. Around the plaza are several ball-courts, the most prominent of which is the South Court, or Juego de Pelota Sur; it looks like a wide avenue between two small pyramids. Seventeen such courts are known here, and more possibly lie unexcavated; it’s thought that the game took on a greater importance here than at any other known site. The superb bas-relief sculptures that cover the walls of the South Court include portrayals of a decapitated player, and another about to be stabbed with a ritual knife by fellow players, with Death waiting to his left. Such bas-reliefs are a constant feature of the site, adorning many of the ball-courts and buildings, with more stacked in the museum.
The unique Pirámide de los Nichos, one of the last to be built here, is the most famous building at El Tajín, and indeed one of the most remarkable of all Mexican ruins. It rises to a height of about 20m in six receding tiers, each face punctuated with regularly spaced niches; up the front a steep stairway climbs to a platform on which the temple originally stood. If you tally up the niches, including those hidden by the stairs and those, partly destroyed, around the base of the temple, there are 365 in all. Their exact purpose is unknown, but clearly they were more than mere decoration: theories include each holding some offering or sacrifice, one for each day of the year, or that they symbolized caves to the underworld – the dwellings of the earth god. Originally they were painted black, with the pyramid in red, to enhance the impression of depth. Niches are also present on other buildings at the site, some bearing the attributes of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, El Tajín’s most depicted god.
Around the plaza in front of the pyramid stand all the other important buildings of Tajín Viejo. Opposite is Monumento 3, a similar pyramid without niches, and behind it Monumento 23, a strange steep-sided bulk, one of the last structures to be built here. To the right of the Pirámide de los Nichos, Monumento 2, a low temple, squats at the base of Monumento 5, a beautiful truncated pyramid with a high decorative pediment broken by a broad staircase; on the left, Monumento 4 is one of the oldest at El Tajín, and only partly restored.
From the back of Monumento 4 the path continues past the Juego de Pelota Norte, with its worn relief sculptures, onto the levelled terrace of Tajín Chico, home of the city’s elite. From here, you get a great overview of Tajín Viejo. Only parts of the buildings survive, making a rather confusing whole. Edificio C and the adjoining Edificio B are the most impressive remains: Edificio C has stone friezes running around its three storeys, giving the illusion of niches. In this case, they were purely decorative, an effect that would have been heightened by a brightly coloured stucco finish. It also has the remains of a concrete roof – originally a huge single slab of poured cement, unique in ancient Mexico. Edificio A had a covered interior, and you can still see the entrance covered by a false arch of the type common in Maya buildings.
Estructura I (aka Edificio de las Pinturas) is distinguished by a palapa roof protecting its elaborate decoration, including relief carvings and delicately painted murals. Such luxurious decor suggests that this was probably the residence of some major political or religious figure. On the hill above Tajín Chico stood the Edificio de las Columnas, which must have dominated the entire city. El Tajín’s most famous ruler, 13 Rabbit, lived here; bas-reliefs on columns recorded his exploits, and some of these are now on show in the museum.
From the terrace of Tajín Chico you can walk down the stone path to the Gran Greca complex, also known as Xicalcoliuhqui, whose spiral walls contain two ball-courts and more pyramids. It has been only partially cleared of jungle, but you can stroll along the walled edges to get a sense of its vast size. Built towards the end of the city’s life, it is regarded as a sign of growing crisis, Tajín’s rulers becoming increasingly obsessed with monumental projects in order to maintain control over a disenchanted populace.
Popular at festivals across the state of Veracruz, the frenetic Baile de los Negritos is a Totonac dance dating back to colonial times, when African slaves were imported to work on local plantations, often living and labouring alongside indígenas. Stories abound as to the origin of the dance: the most popular version has it that a female slave and her child escaped from a plantation near Papantla and lived in the dense jungle with local indigenous groups. After her child was poisoned by a snake bite, the mother, using African folk medicine, danced herself into a trance. The Totonacs around her found the spectacle highly amusing and, it is said, began to copy her in a spirit of mockery.
Good opportunities to see the dance are Corpus Christi (late May–June) in Papantla, or in Tlapacoyan at the Feast of Santiago (July 25) or the Day of the Assumption (Aug 15); it’s frequently performed on a smaller scale at other village festivals in the area.
Leaving Veracruz to the south, Hwy-180 traverses a long expanse of plain, a country of broad river deltas and salty lagoons where the river port of Tlacotalpan oozes elegant decay. Some 150km south of Veracruz, the volcanic hills of the Sierra Tuxtla are home to the townships of Santiago Tuxtla and San Andrés Tuxtla. This beautiful region of rolling green hills, known as “La Suiza Veracruzana” (the Switzerland of Veracruz, plainly named by someone who’d never been to Switzerland), makes a welcome change from the flat plains, and the cooler climate is an infinite relief. The idyllic Lago de Catemaco, around which the last expanse of Gulf coast rainforest is preserved, makes a rewarding place to break the journey south, with plenty of opportunities to explore the nearby mountains and coast. Beyond the Tuxtla mountains, low, flat, dull country leads all the way to Villahermosa.
Historically, the region’s great claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Mexico’s first civilization, the Olmecs. Here lies the Volcán de San Martín, where the Olmecs believed the earth to have been created; they built a replica “creation mountain” at their city, La Venta, on the border with Tabasco. Their second major city, at Tres Zapotes near Santiago Tuxtla, is now little more than a mound in a maize field. For most modern Mexicans, however, this part of southern Veracruz, especially around Lago de Catemaco, is best known as the Tierra de los Brujos (land of the witches/wizards).
Squatting on the western shore of the enchanting Lago de Catemaco, and by tradition a centre of native witchcraft, CATEMACO is a picturesque spot – perfect to break up a journey if you’re heading south – with an impressive backdrop of volcanic mountains. The lake and nearby marshland and lagoons are a haven for wildlife, supporting large colonies of water birds, including herons, cormorants, wintering ospreys and dozens of other resident and migratory species. The town itself isn’t particularly attractive, with slapdash development stretching five blocks or so back from the waterfront, but there’s plenty to do on and around the lake. Veracruzanos arrive in force at weekends and holidays, when the main strip can get pretty busy; at other times the place can be dead, and many of the facilities shut.
A boat trip around the lake is one of the highlights of southern Veracruz. You’re unlikely to escape the attentions of the lancha operators as you approach the lakefront: they all offer similar ninety-minute trips to the lake’s main sights and some of its beaches. On the tiny Isla de los Changos there are stump-tailed macaques (monkeys native to Thailand), introduced here by Veracruz University in 1974 – they look bored stiff in their restricted habitat. In 1988, endangered Mexican howler monkeys were introduced to the much larger Agaltepec Island; these are far more active and aggressive. You are almost guaranteed to see a huge variety of birds too – herons, egrets, cormorants and shags, as well as more exotic kingfishers and ospreys.
Morelet’s crocodiles, a relatively small species (up to 3m long), live in the lake too, nesting on the far bank. They’re well fed and, apparently, never attack. Certainly plenty of people swim in the lake: stick to the main beaches and close to others if you feel uneasy. Playa Espagoya is just a short walk beyond the eastern edge of town, with Playa Hermosa and Playa Azul not much further beyond.
Every March a gathering of brujos takes place on Cerro Mono Blanco (White Monkey Hill), just north of Catemaco town. Mexico has thousands of witches, warlocks, shamans, herbalists, seers, healers, psychics and fortune-tellers, whose belief system blends Catholicism with ancient rites and practices. The thirteen brujos of Catemaco, who call themselves “the Brothers”, are acknowledged as the high priests of the trade.
These days, shamanism is big business in Catemaco. Many brujos have websites and toll-free numbers over which they sell long-distance spells, and in town you’ll be pestered by their agents. By no means all of those claiming shamanistic powers are the real thing, so if you do want a consultation take advice from people locally, and be sure to know what you’re getting and how much you’ll be paying for it. The rituals can be fascinating – but they can also be theatrical flim-flam, designed to empty your wallet rather than expand your consciousness.
TLACOTALPAN is a beautiful, languid town on the north bank of the broad Río Papaloapan. An important port and railhead in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it now has just six hundred permanent inhabitants, but its elegant colonial architecture has led to its being declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. At the weekend it can be packed with locals, who come here to eat at the riverside restaurants, fish, swim or take boat rides on the river, browse the artesanía shops and hang out in the bars and cafés on the plaza. Come on a weekday afternoon and you’ll find the place all but deserted.
Among Mexicans, Tlacotalpan is known as the place where musician and composer Agustín Lara (1900–70), whose works have been interpreted by the likes of Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo, spent his early childhood. Two museums and a cultural centre honour the man, but unless you’re a huge fan they’re not worth the admission – the true pleasure here is simply to wander the streets, admiring the architecture (many of the buildings are labelled with their history) and soaking up the steamy, tropical atmosphere. On the Plaza Zaragoza are two magnificent churches and a florid, wrought-iron bandstand; Enriquez and Miguel Chazaro, parallel streets heading west from here, are lined with magnificent colonnaded houses. A market occupies a wonderful nineteenth-century building on the waterfront, just east of the centre.
For ten days starting on January 31, Tlacotalpan is inundated with thousands of visitors as it celebrates its famous Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria. Processions, bull runs, dance and music take over the town, especially for the first three days, culminating on February 2, when the image of the Virgin processes downstream accompanied by a mass of assorted riverboats.