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 had passed since my last visit, and the march of time, the passage of NAFTA, and one’s tendency to romanticize the past made me wonder if the city I’d once embraced had changed. I knew inflation had boosted prices all over Mexico to near-American levels, and the city’s charming trolleys had been displaced by progress in 1981. Would la villa rica (“the grand city”), as it was originally called, still exist?
I experienced a doubt or two soon after leaving Heriberto Jara international airport. True, we had deplaned Casablanca-style, on an old-fashioned stairway instead of a ramp, but the road into town was lined with Burger King billboards—not an auspicious sign. On the south side of the city, the new Las Américas regional mall was packed, and when I reached downtown, I found that even the Plaza de Armas, Veracruz’s main public square, had been modernized: The canopies covering the shoeshine stands advertising KFC pollo frito.
The biggest change I discerned, however, was in the music. It was a Saturday night on the plaza, and every sidewalk table at the five restaurant bars along the strip known as Los Portales was occupied. But the traditional jarocho musicians—purveyors of the famous regional string-band-with-harp sound popularized by “La Bamba”—were nowhere to be seen. Instead, marimbas and mariachis had taken over. Several marimba bands toted their massive wooden xylophones from cafe to cafe, playing dulcet-toned arrangements of Mexican standards, but the group getting the most business was an ensemble of drugstore vaqueros from Sinaloa clad in garish blue uniforms and playing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—in Spanish, ranchera-style.
“A curse on the creeping monoculturalism,” I grumbled to myself. Then I settled down and cooled the back of my neck with a cold bottle of beer. Veracruz had changed, but so has almost every place on earth. Strip away the trappings of progress, and the people and their languorous way of life seemed much the way they had been for years. Anyway, to me, the beauty of Verzcruz is in simply being there, lolling around the plaza and strolling the streets.
If you grow tired of doing nothing, though, there are a few bona fide tourist diversions. The best-known site is San Juan de Ulúa, an old Spanish fort built on an island in the harbor. La Marigalante, a replica of a tall ship from the Spanish armada, is available for inspection at the end of the Malecón, which overlooks the fort. South of the Malecón, on the beach, is El Acuario de Veracruz, an aquarium that is the anchor of a new mall that draws huge crowds on weekends (aquarium admission is $4.95 for adults, $1.75 for children). Farther down the shoreline, by José Martí beach on Avenida Adolfo Ruíz Cortines, is La Casita Blanca (the Little White House), a museum that commemorates native son Agustín Lara, Mexico’s most distinguished twentieth-century composer.