Twirling a fat cigar between my fingers and sipping a cool drink, I leaned back, propped up my feet, and took in some of the sweetest music this side of heaven. After an absence of nearly a decade, I was back in Veracruz, the historic Mexican port city some 450 miles due south of Brownsville, hanging out in the main plaza, where all was right with the world. Upon my arrival less than an hour earlier, I had stopped in at Café de la Parroquia, the best coffee shop on earth, where the ingestion of caffeine is not some trend from Seattle but a refined and venerable tradition. Then I had crossed the city’s zocalo to commandeer a table at a sidewalk cafe, where I watched the last light of the day filter through the canopy of palms and jacarandas.
Vendors were everywhere. In the space of five minutes I was offered sewing needles, Chiclets, fresh gardenias, seashell-bordered Our Lady of Guadalupe retablos, Carnaval masks fashioned from palm leaves, and a shoeshine. For a few pesos, one man proposed to give me un toque—I would grasp two metal bars as he passed a mild electric current through them—the cheapest of cheap thrills. Two stunning transvestites in gaudy cocktail dresses wound their way through the tables, passing out leaflets for a travesti bar. If the vendors were too insistent, the wag of a finger halted further solicitation.
Well off the beaten path, Veracruz has few obvious tourist attractions. Its Gulf beaches pale next to those along Mexico’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Its golf courses are as unremarkable as its utilitarian modern architecture. The natives no hablan mucho inglés. It is hard to get to: Continental offers two-hour non-stop jet service from Houston four times a week; otherwise the trip is a turboprop puddle jumper from San Antonio or McAllen on Aerolitoral. The climate can be muggy and oppressive, the heat lingering into December and firing up to full force by March.
What Veracruz does have is character and the rare sense that it is somewhere far, far away. The oldest European city in North America, this metropolis of 450,000 dates its founding from the landing of Hernán Cortés in 1519. Ever since, it has been Mexico’s seaside window on the world. Here, in no particular order, are the things that—to me—make up the soul of the city. You hear music everywhere; even carpenters bang their hammers with a sense of rhythm. The Paseo del Malecón (Seawall), which starts by the municipal lighthouse, is one of the great strolling boulevards in Mexico. The seafood is exceptional. Veracruz’s Carnaval, replete with parades, carros alegóricos (floats), dance contests, and outrageous costumes, rivals Mardi Gras or any such festival north of Rio de Janeiro. Then there’s the coffee, the finest and strongest in Mexico. In short, imagine New Orleans, only a little steamier and maybe a bit seedier, but in all other respects as deliciously decadent. Both cities have seaports, old sections with narrow streets and cast-iron lampposts, breezy balconies, and an exuberant joie de vivre.
At least that was how I remembered Veracruz. Ten years