The capital of the state of Veracruz, XALAPA is a big city, remarkably attractive despite its relative modernity and traffic-laden streets. Set in countryside of sometimes breathtaking beauty, sprawling across a hillside below the volcanic peak of the Cofre de Perote (4282m), it enjoys views to the snowcapped Pico de Orizaba and a warm, damp climate that encourages rich, jungly vegetation. In addition to these natural advantages, Xalapa has been promoted by its civic leaders as a cultural centre, with a classical and traditional music festival in June, an international jazz gathering in August and a major literary festival in September, as well as many lesser events year round. Home, too, of the University of Veracruz and the exceptional Museo de Antropología, it’s a lively place, enjoyable even if you simply hang out in one of the many cafés in the centre of town, sip the locally grown coffee and watch life pass by. For adrenaline junkies and lovers of nature there’s much more, though, as Xalapa is also close to numerous rivers: as they crash down from the high sierra to the coast, these create numerous spectacular waterfalls and some of Mexico’s finest opportunities for whitewater rafting and kayaking.
Work is ongoing at the Filo Bobos archeological project, some 15km from Tlapacoyan, where you can explore two of the several pre-Hispanic sites identified along the Río Bobos valley, El Cuajilote and Vega de la Peña. Both are worth visiting as much for the beauty of their locations, the birdlife and the serenity, as for the ruins themselves. No one yet knows for certain who occupied the Filo Bobos sites. Signs of a fertility cult suggest a Huastec influence, yet the other sculptures found are more Totonac in style, and the earliest buildings at El Cuajilote, which may date as far back as 1000 BC, are decidedly Olmec. Archeologists speculate that Filo Bobos was the centre of an as yet unknown Mesoamerican civilization, which provided an important trade link between the Gulf coast, its environs and the central valleys.
Beyond question Xalapa’s outstanding sight, the Museo de Antropología is a brilliant museum with arguably the best archeological collection in the country after that in Mexico City. Remarkable in both scope and quality, it makes for a wonderful introduction to the various pre-Hispanic cultures of the Gulf coast. The vast building itself is also magnificent, flowing down the hillside in a series of concrete and marble steps. Start your visit at the top of the hill, where the first halls deal with the Olmecs. There are several of the celebrated colossal stone heads, a vast array of other statuary and some beautiful masks; among the most impressive is the Señor de las Limas, a greenstone sculpture of a priest holding a sleeping or dead baby. Later cultures are represented mainly through their pottery – lifelike human and animal figurines especially – and there are also displays on the architecture of the major sites, including part of a reconstructed temple. Finally, with the Totonac and Huastec culture come more giant stone statues. Labels are in Spanish only, though there are a few English information sheets.
JALCOMULCO is the prime spot in Veracruz for whitewater rafting and other adventure sports including kayaking, canyoning, rappelling, zipwires, horseriding and mountain biking. The village – gradually becoming something of an eco-resort, though still catatonic midweek – is about 25km southeast of Coatepec, on the banks of the Río Antigua (also known as the Río de los Pescados). Coming from Xalapa, you descend from the highlands into a steamy and impressive valley where the river runs through a series of rapids of varying intensity.
A dozen or more adventure tour operators have bases in and around Jalcomulco, the majority of them on the riverbank some way out of town. Most offer all-inclusive packages including accommodation, meals and activities, so there’s a lot to be said for booking in advance. These are some of the best:
Xalapa is renowned for its parks and their wonderful tropical flora. A couple of fine potential picnic spots are within walking distance of the centre. The Parque Los Tecajetes, ten minutes’ walk west of the zócalo along María Ávila Camacho, is a pristine public park with lush vegetation and plenty of shaded seating areas. South of the zócalo, Herrera leads steeply down towards the Paseo de los Lagos, where walkways lead around a series of small, artificial lakes edged by parkland; popular with runners in the morning and strolling families later on. In the north of the city, the entrance to the woody Parque Ecológico Macuiltépec is close to the Anthropological Museum.
At 1590m, the easily climbable Macuiltépec is the highest of the hills on which the town is built, and from its mirador you might catch a glimpse of the Gulf. There are panoramic views of the city even if you don’t make it to the peak, and it also has a small Museo de la Fauna with a reptile house and aviary. Finally, on the edge of the city on the old road to Coatepec, about 3.5km from the centre, the Jardín Botánico Francisco Clavijero boasts an impressive collection of plants native to the state.
TLAPACOYAN, some 70km north of Xalapa en route to the coast at Nautla, is a centre for rafting and river adventures, bounded to the south by the Río Bobos and to the north by the Río María de la Torre. A sizeable but unspoilt and friendly place, and a centre of citrus-fruit production, Tlapacoyan is surrounded by forested hills and pre-Colombian ruins, most important of which are the massive, little-known sites of Filo Bobos.
Most of the rafting takes place near El Encanto, about 5km from the centre of Tlapacoyan off the Nautla road. There’s a waterfall here, and spectacular river views enjoyed by a cluster of rafting camps. Good ones to try are: