"You are entering the city where our country's history began." Manuel, our guide, remarked as we entered Veracruz, the gateway to Mexico. Soon we were driving along the waterfront in this most festive of Mexican cities with a hedonistic tropical port atmosphere. Today, the capital of the state of Veracruz, it is one of Mexico's virtually undiscovered vacation spots. Refreshingly distinct and brazenly different from the Mexico known to foreign tourists, it has been depicted as a Caribbean gem waiting to be discovered.
Its astonishing natural beauty, fascinating history and genuinely hospitable inhabitants make it an attractive resort, surrounded by the beauty of nature. Few places in the world can match the state of Veracruz in terms of diversity. The fertile-sea-of-green landscape rising from brownish-sandy beaches to the rugged
Sierra Madre Mountains, with their
cloud forests and ice-capped volcanoes, are dotted with archaeological sites and colonial cities. Many call it a 'garden paradise saturated with history.'
The city of Veracruz was established in 1598 and immediately became Mexico's chief port and, until 1760, was the only port in the country permitted to trade with Spain, the mother country. Its original inhabitants, the Indians, pirates, exiled rulers, fortune-seeking settlers, as well as silver, gold, slaves, invasions and plunder - beginning with Cortez - made the city a linchpin in Mexican history.
Untold tons of silver and the exotic products of the Far East, arriving overland from Acapulco, then loaded on galleons, made Spain the richest nation in Europe. The wealth produced by the commerce attracted pirates and invaders. The port suffered three foreign invasions - one French and two American - and many pirate attacks, featuring the English pirate John Hawkins and the French pirate Laurent de Gaff.
Today, this oldest and largest port in the country and the fifth largest container port in the world, located 345 km (214 mi) east of Mexico City, remains one of the country's main doors to the outside world. For 400 years Veracruz has had a distinctive Caribbean-a-la-Mexico atmosphere. Here, in one of the world's steamiest ports Caribbean and Spanish lifestyles intermingle with a Mexican flair.
The city's 1.2 million inhabitants, known as jaroches (from Jara, the Spanish word for a type of arrow, once derogatory but now respectable, are fun-loving, lively and more ethnically mixed than other Mexican cities. Totonaca, Spanish, African and Caribbean blend into a warm and hospitable people.
This aura of fun and joy saturates the seafront boulevard and the Zócalo - the throbbing heart of Veracruz. Here, on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, it's party time. Marimba and Mariachi bands serenade couples on benches and diners under portals enjoying the best seafood in Mexico. The people thoroughly enjoy themselves, dancing to the tunes of the musicians. Veracruz is the home of La Bamba, a song dating back to the 17th century, and the danzón - a two person dance, popular throughout Mexico.
Prices in the city are the most reasonable in the whole of Mexico and in the last few decades Veracruz has been transformed into a modern resort. The town is very clean and many of its historic buildings have been restored. Along the seafront, a forward-looking governor, Dante Delgado in the late 1980s and early 1990s, built a wide attractive boulevard edged by brownish sands on one side and on the other modern hotels, eye-catching villas, shopping malls, and
the best aquarium in Latin America. In the evenings, it is always so crowded with people that a visitor can truly ask, "Where is the water?"
In the past, the resort drew mostly Mexicans, but today it is attracting an ever-increasing number of foreign tourists, especially in late February - early March when the city, for one and a half weeks, holds the second largest carnival in the world. The Carnival's colourful people, food, dancing, music and pageantry tell the story of the city's turbulent history. The destroyed Indian civilizations and Cortez and his Conquistadors now blend together to attract visitors and inhabitants alike.
Facts About Veracruz and Mexico
Other Sites in Veracruz:
- Eco-tourism is becoming very important in the state of Veracruz. Its rain forests are the same as those of Costa Rica and they are criss-crossed by rivers. Tour companies offer camping, fishing, jungle hikes, and both canoeing and rafting and other river sports.
- The official Mexican currency is the peso currently trading at about 13.6 pesos to a US dollar.
- Veracruz's tourist facilities are excellent, the city is safe and the climate in the winter months is very agreeable.
- The Veracruz cuisine has inherited the pre-Hispanic Indian, Arab influenced Spanish, French and African foods, then given a regional touch. Above all, its kitchen is noted for its tasty seafood. A good place to spend some time is Café de la Portal - known for its atmosphere and excellent coffee.
- Excursions From Veracruz: A good tour company in Veracruz is Vip Tours. The most important of their excursions are: City Tour - visit to the historic sites and the Aquarium; Antigua and Zempoala Tour - an excursion to the historic town of La Antigua and the archaeological zone of Zempoala; Tajin and Papantla Tour - visit the fabulous installations of Papantla, an important vanilla producer, then Tajin, the most impressive ceremonial Centre of the Totonaca culture.
- Tip baggage handlers and bellboys $1.00 per suitcase; maids $1.00 per day and 50 cents tip for washroom attendants are usual.
- When you leave Mexico there is a 'Departure Tax' of about $18.00.
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
- San Juan de Ulúa - a fortress built between 1530 - 1779 of white coral, cemented together by crushed oyster shells; it fended off many pirate attacks and was later used as a prison. In 1915, it became a presidential residence and subsequently became a museum. The movie, "Romancing the Stone" was filmed within its walls.
- Bastion of Santiago - the last survivor of the nine bastions in the ancient walls of Veracruz, it is now a museum housing fishermen's treasures.
- Faro Venustiano Carranza - a former lighthouse that is one of the most beautiful buildings in Veracruz - now housing a museum.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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