So how to 'do' a big city like Veracruz in a few days? And why bother?
Well, you start where it all started. With the Totonacs and Hernán Cortés. And not just the town began here, the whole country of Mexico did. This is why to come here. To travel back in time, right to the beginning of Mexico's birth.
I organised a trip to Veracruz in February 2017 and came here with my husband and a group of Canadian friends who come to Playa del Carmen every year for the winter season. The first thing we did was to have a little stroll in the zócalo (the main square) where our hotel was situated and the following morning visited the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa. Both were built by Hernán Cortés, figuratively speaking.
One can truly see the beauty of the culture when you are in the squares of the towns — the life blood of the towns' day to day life.
We were hoping to spot couples twirl, spin and do a fancy two-step of the danzón, a Cuban dance popular in Veracruz, which they perform on the zócalo. We were not in luck as the town's square was preparing for the Carnival night instead. We then headed for our dinner to a restaurant under the arcades, to try the Veracruz sauce, spicy because of the use of jalapeños (whose name is derived from Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz State).
The marimba's buzzing sound can be heard wherever you go in Veracruz. The marimba came to the Americas from Africa, and was adopted both by indigenous and meztico musicians, playing regional folk 'sones' jarochos.
In the morning, after a splendid breakfast in the hotel (the choice was truly great), we set off by taxis to the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa.
The fort was built by the Spaniards in the 16th century, to defend their fleet (prior to that they moored the boats in La Antigua in the north). Our local guide explained to us that the Spanish Navy trapped here the English fleet of Sir John Hawkins and his distant cousin, Francis Drake, among other pirates.
My (British) husband tells me the story was a great deal more complicated (and exciting) than that. Hawkins deliberately sailed into the empty enemy harbour after a horrific storm, and the Spanish treasure fleet then arrived. Hawkins did a deal with the Spanish, but they behaved treacherously, and attempted to attack the small English fleet. The English escaped, with enormous losses, and the ruthless 22-year-old Drake sailed away with the treasure, leaving Hawkins to manage as best he could. Drake was to cause the Spanish a great deal more trouble in the coming years, but this piratical story of treachery and courage can be seen as the early birth of the Royal Navy. Read Herman's account if you want to know the whole story.
A portion of San Juan de Ulúa also served several times as the presidential palace, for example, housing Benito Juárez, who had earlier been imprisoned here. The fort also witnessed the War of Independence (1816-1821), the 'Pastry War' against the French (1837, so-called because it began when a French pastrycook in Mexico City complained to the French king that the Mexicans had looted his shop), The Mexican-American War (1847) and the Mexican Revolution (1914). Veracruz got the title 'Heroic City' four times!!!
In the 19th century, the fort was converted into a military prison. The guide showed us all the rooms and made us a bit depressed, really. A lot of prisoners were placed in one room with stone floors, no beds, no air, no mercy, just torture and slow death. Some prisoners were political (like Juárez), but the most famous was Jesús Arriaga, known as Chucho el Roto, the legendary 19th-century bandit.
After the tour we wanted some good coffee and lunch and we decided to try the famous Gran Café de La Parroquia on the malecón. We settled on sandwiches as you don't come here for food. If you order lechero, the waiter in a white jacket will bring an espresso measure at the bottom of the glass. If you tap your glass with a spoon, another waiter appears and pours milk from high above with extraordinary precision.
It is rather nice to hear all that spoon tapping (amid the marimba music, ha ha!) and apparently this tradition goes back to 1890. For its success they made a replica next to Gran Hotel Diligencia - Gran Café del Portal, and now even in Playa del Carmen (on the highway, opposite Centro Maya). My friend Cheryl even made a small video, just for fun.
There are three other tourist attractions at the malecón: the lanchas (small boats) to take you for a harbour tour, artisans shops and Tranvías Bus (the 'hop-on, hop-off bus').
We hopped on first. The city tour took an hour and we saw the city beaches, the modern hotel zone, the large commercial zone and some pretty colonial squares.
When Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, he founded a city here, which he named Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, referring to the "True Cross", because he landed on the Christian day of Good Friday, the day of the Crucifixion. He built a fortress here, to protect the boats against the pirates (mainly English and Dutch). And city walls for its protection (very little remains today of the walls). We did not spot the walls but we loved the many little colonial corners.
My favourite house was the white cottage where the poet Agustín Laralived. We were given an option to get off the bus here.
According to Totonac myth, at least 450 years ago there was a severe drought that brought hunger to the people. A ceremony was created to appease the gods and bring back the rains. The men climb the pole and then suspend themselves on ropes, twirling to the ground, hanging down. While you can see this dance all across Mexico now, Veracruz is now attributed as the origin of the flying men, the voladores.
I organised the trip in such a way that it coincided with the opening of the carnival. This traditional celebration dates back to colonial times, when Emperor Maximilian ruled the country. During the burning of the bad mood, which takes place on the first night in the main square, people, events and ideas are set on fire. We witnessed a small comedy show about Donald Trump on the zócalo stage and then they burnt his 'wall'. It burnt so quickly that I didn't manage to take a photo.
The children's parade traditionally opens the carnival and we watched it from our hotel. The adult parade strolls along the Manuel Avila Camacho Boulevard and on our bus tour we saw the preparation of the seating areas which went for kilometres along the boulevard.
Gran Hotel Diligencias is old and majestic and it made our stay. A stagecoach station was built within the city and this was where the 'diligencias' stopped, coaches carrying mail from Mexico City. Soon the need arose for a place where coachmen and passengers could spend the night, and in 1795 the first inn was constructed.
Each room had a view of the zócalo and a decent size of everything, including the fridge. We loved to have our nightcap drinks in the enormous and elegant hotel rooms.
On our last morning we took the harbour tour (it was too windy on our first day). The small boats called lanchas will take you for 100 pesos around the industrial harbour from the malecón. I find boat trips always a bit romantic, even in industrial harbours.
The statue of the Spanish emigrant in the malecón celebrates Veracruz' role as a disembarkation point for immigrants.
Today you will find here the usual mixture of the indigenous and Spanish blood. The natives, Totonacs, Huastecs and Otomí, have similar culture, religion and traditions to the Maya. I have noticed in the streets that they tend to be taller than the Maya.
We also found a mosaic version on a building downtown. Unofficial estimates put the total number of foreigners in Mexico today at 4 million. The immigrants from the US are in the lead, followed by Guatemala and Spain.
There are no pirates in town these days but they say the city is dangerous because of the mafia. We never felt any danger. Like with many other places, apply common sense and avoid the isolated parts of town at night. Generally speaking, in my experience so far, they leave the tourists alone.
Cempoala (Ruins) was a real step back in time. This is where you greet the locals in the Totonac language with 'Tuncuīlh'. Totonacs were defeated and enslaved by the Aztec armies in the 15th century and they decided to forge an alliance in 1519 with Hernán Cortés against the Aztecs. Cortés defeated Moctezuma and his empire with 8,000 Totonac soldiers. The rest is history.
In La Antigua (Towns & Villages, Hammocks) we saw La Ermita de Rosario (built in 1523) the oldest Spanish church in the Americas) and the custom house that Cortés built in the same year. Today it is 'eaten' by tree roots. Some friends from our group were taken by the fact that we were walking in the first steps of the future Mexico.
Veracruz typifies the Mexico that many travellers have raved about for years — friendly people, good food, lovely views. Whatever your reasons for traveling to Mexico, I would urge you to consider Veracruz.