Veracruz, a party for the senses. Multi-colored skirts lift and twirl as the dancers spin to the accompanying music that fills the night air. The evening is filled with jasmine blossoms riding on mist; droplets of water from waves warm with Caribbean rhythms.
A breeze snakes over moonlight sands. It is accompanied by fragrances from islands far away. Intertwined with the air are notes spilling like drops of water from the doorway of a nightclub. Inside drums, trumpets, guitars and piano are played by ancient musicians to accompany their equally enthusiastic audience as they dance the “Dancon” A normal weekend evening in Vera Cruz, where time has stopped.
The music is Cuban, played by six expatriate musicians in a nightclub, or traditional Mexican to accompany the “Dancon,” a mannered, stylistic, semi-samba. The dancers are unselfconscious; dancing young and old with the sheer joy and exuberance of movement. Move further along the square and there is a military brass band. It is as if you are living in a house full of teen-agers with varying musical tastes. As you walk from block to block, the music changes, nut never stops. It is a seamless carpet of changing sounds; a paisley quilt of dance.
The Veracruzanos are a people that celebrate themselves. The seaport, 260 miles from Mexico City, is a destination and escape for the crowds and pollution of the capitol and the occasional tourist, the “norteamericano.”
The Zocalo, a classic Mexican square, centers the nightlife of restaurants, cotton candy vendors, natural herbalists, bands, fortune tellers—the entire spectrum of a culture that enjoys walking on warm Fall evenings, rather than watching MTV at home. This is traditional Mexico; a city that invites to in to share rather than exploit you as a tourist.
Walk a block from the Zocalo, near the Cathedral, and have a coffee at the “Gran Café de Parroquia.” This landmark is white tile room, punctuated with white-coated waiters who place clear glass cups in front of diners. The customer will “clink” the side of their cup to signal the desire for milk and a small boy will appear and arch a stream of warm milk into the center of strong black coffee from an alarming height with unbelievable velocity and accuracy. The room is dominated by two giant chrome and copper coffee urns, topped by two gleaming metal birds.
As you walk from the café to the zocalo, you can encounter a young naval cadet, ablaze in a starched whiteness with gold braid, standing under a streetlight, talking to a young woman in an emerald green suit. The circle of light embraces the couple in Pirates of Penzance splendor. They are engaged in each other, and oblivious to the stimulation around them. The sailor and his girl are blind and deaf to the sights and sounds cacophonous around them. She takes his arm, on the side without the sword, and they begin their walk.
Veracruz is a pedestrian city. Walking isn’t a convenience, it’s a way of life. The Malecon, is the traditional oceanfront walk. These offer the two basic after dinner venues, and the evenings entertainment. For a few pesos, you can have your name etched into a grain of rice and sold as an amulet or just sit on white, lace iron benches flanked by swaying coconut palms, and contemplate the dark water on moonlit nights. This is a postcard from the 1950’s, both visually and temporally. This is not the instant gratification of the Internet; turn off your cell phones and beepers, they won’t work here—or they shouldn’t. Progress can be a pariah, and Veracruz has not be tainted.
The beaches are not as clean as they should be, the city is far from manicured, but there is a gentleness and tranquillity that shouldn’t be missed. During the warm tropical days, you can relax on the soft brown sands and swim in the inviting gentle body-temperature waters. In California we live in the land of environmental monitoring, grown accustomed to listening with half an ear to potential beach closures. The water is not exactly the azure clarity of the traditional islands of the Caribbean, nor the deep royal blue of the Pacific, and there seems to be a noticeable slick on the horizon. For more enticing, exotic beaches visit the shop Tridente, that offers trips to some of the 22 off-shore coral reefs, islands and clean beaches. Here the few tourists in Veracruz, become non-existent. The world is yours alone.
I wouldn’t visit Veracruz for the hotels or the food. It is not a city that requires you to do specific sites, nor events—but it is the being there that finds you walking slower and listening more.
Restaurants in Veracruz are nothing special; the sit down, white-tablecloth variety are nothing special, rather the best in town are in the Mercado Hidalgo, the city’s central market. The second floor is filled with competing food stalls. Here the fish is always fresh, and best prepared as “Veracruzana”, a mixture of garlic, tomato, olive, chile and spices. The market is populated with live chickens, fresh vegetables, and endless rows of “pescas y camarones.”
The major tourist site is the fort, the Castillo de San Juan de Uluia, which guards the harbor. This was the site of the climactic scene of “Romancing the Stone.” This was perhaps the forts most notable accomplishment. As a fort, it was a singular failure. Invading forces would invariably land somewhere up or down the coast, capture the city, cut off the fort and wait. This was a well proven strategy employed by Caribbean pirates, the French and even twice by US forces.
If you grow tired of walking and absolutely have to see the sights, and perhaps prefer to explore a more exotic landscape, take a cab and drive to Coatepec, a Spanish Colonial town, high in the mountains surrounding Veracruz. Surrounding Veracruz the mountainside is full of lush greenery, dancing to the peaks of surrounding volcanoes, where waterfalls slam down into the streams feeding Veracruz. Here the air here is fat with the smell of roasting coffees. The houses are the colors of spice. The air is cooler, crisper and Veracruz seems a world away.
When visiting Veracruz, “seeing” or “doing” is not the goal; rather it is “being” in a relaxed 1950 small Mexican coastal city. If it were not for an extravagance of color and music, you might even be an extra in a Black and White silent movie. Relax and enjoy it, perhaps even dance.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Mexicana and Aeromexico have several flights daily through Mexico City, Continental flies direct from Houston.
Accommodations: Mar y Tierra 10 minutes from the zucola, at the beach-front mid priced tel 52-29/32-02-60 or the Royalty, close to the center, friendly staff tel 52-29/36-14-90
Seedy—but the best location–Hotel Imperial, Located in the center of the zocolo, balconies overlooking the endless parade of locals and tourists on weekend nights, one of the oldest, most beautiful elevators in Mexico. Architecture lovely, but rooms smell like a combination of insecticide, mildew and mold in a cocktail shaker of air-conditioning. Rooms approx. $40/night. Miguel Lerdo 157. Tel 011-52-29-32-12-04
Eating: Gran Café de Parroquia, Independencia 105 (6AM-1AM)
Information: Helpful tourist office (at the square) 52-29/32-19-99 (9AM-9PM)