Where Mexico Begins
If you are in the city of Veracruz, follow the real history of the very beginning of Spanish Mexico, and the Pirates of the Caribbean, on this one-day trip to the north of Veracruz. My recommendation is to see first Cempoala, the ancient city ruins of the Totonacs, for a glimpse of pre-Spanish Mexico, followed by a visit to La Antigua, from where Hernán Cortés launched his conquest.
The ancient ruins are an hour's drive from Veracruz, north along highway 180. On the way, look out for the volcano Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's highest mountain (5,636m 18,491ft). The Totonac people were the first to receive Europeans on the American mainland. By the 16th century they had been enslaved by the Aztecs and they made a pact with Hernán Cortés to defeat them jointly. The rest is history. One peculiarity of the remaining ruins is that the buildings have a totally different look from the squared stones of the Maya ruins as they were built from round river boulders. Watch out for the three mysterious ceremonial rings.
La Antigua (Hammocks)
On the way back from Cempoala, stop in this sleepy town on the river Huitzilapan. It is regarded as the first real Spanish town in Mexico. This was one of Hernán Cortés's first stops on the coast and he built a port for his boats in nearby Veracruz. Let yourself step back a few centuries. Visit the ruins of the house that Hernán Cortés built in 1525 to use as a customs house. So much time has passed since that it is completely entwined with tree roots today. Don't miss the tiny walled Chapel of the Rosary, which is considered to be the oldest in the Americas (built in 1523).
For lunch I strongly recommend the riverside seafood restaurant in town, Las Delicias Marinas. The food is delicious and you will get some musical entertainment as well (live marimba). You could also opt for a boat ride along the river. The river's name, Hummingbird in translation, indicates that you could be in for a treat of some great bird-spotting.