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.
The Museo de la Ciudad (the city museum), on Zaragoza between Morales and Canal, has several interesting historical displays, including one hall with vibrant Carnaval costumes. The Instituto Veracruzano de Cultura, half a block away on Canal between Zaragoza and Gómez Farías, is the city’s only major facility exhibiting contemporary art. A store on the premises has the most reasonable prices in town for regional handicrafts. A personal observation here: Folk art in Veracruz is generally a disappointment. It translates mostly as cheesy shell-art creations sold in the stalls on the Malecón and in the Plaza de las Artesanías market across the street from the Instituto. I passed up a tempting blowfish lamp ($35) and settled instead for a mirror with a shell border ($5). If you rent a car, you can also explore nearby ruins or take day trips to the garden city of Xalapa, the coffee capital of Cordoba, and the Little Switzerland region of San Andrés Tuxtla and Lake Catemaco.
But what Veracruz lacks in cultural and shopping opportunities it more than makes up for in coffee shops. I realize I seem a bit obsessed with coffee, but it is truly a dietary and social staple of the city. The most famous coffee shops are the two Parroquias. My favorite is the original Café de la Parroquia, at Independencia 105 across the street from the cathedral and facing a corner of the plaza. I prefer this location not in spite of but because of the blinding fluorescent lights, the ceiling fans lazily turning overhead, and the echoing white tile walls; they all suggest a busy but agreeable bus terminal. At almost any time of day the tables are filled with elderly men in pleated guayabera shirts, dating couples, and families enjoying a meal together, serenaded by the omnipresent marimbas and catered to by the usual horde of vendors. The second location, Gran Café de la Parroquia, on the Malecón at Insurgentes Veracruzanos 340, is larger and attracts a sizable family clientele in the evening.
Both places serve breakfast, lunch, light dinners, and fresh-squeezed juices, but the main attraction is the java. The beans, grown in the state of Veracruz, are roasted on the premises and then ground and boiled down in huge Italian urns that resemble World War I German army helmets and transformed into a thick, tarry concentrate with a kick that won’t quit. Our waiter, scribbling figures on a paper napkin, figured that both Parroquias serve about 10,000 cups of this liquid rocket fuel every day.
The house specialty at the two Parroquias is the lechero, and the serving ritual is as important as the beverage itself. First, one hurrying, white-jacketed waiter brings out a glass with half an inch of that hot, thick, concentrated sludge on the bottom. When the customer is ready, he bangs his spoon on the side of the glass. Suddenly a pourer appears, bearing kettles of hot, sweet milk. With a flourish he cocks his elbow and pours a stream of milk into the glass, filling it precisely to the brim without spilling a drop.
If coffee is the official beverage of Veracruz, music is the perennial background sound. Bands stroll through restaurants and play on street corners all day. An open door provides a glimpse of teenage girls and boys practicing folkloric dances, stamping their heels in time to the music. Away from the plaza, the beat on the streets and in the salones de baile (“dance halls”) is salsa, at least according to the imprecise survey I conducted by driving through several neighborhoods with the car windows down. But while some of the sounds here may be contemporary, others are older than the city itself. On the Malecón one morning I stumbled upon four kids with primitive flutes and drums playing traditional music from the highlands of Mexico for spare change.
My last day in Veracruz, a Sunday, I resolved to spend in Mandinga, a quaint little fishing village on a lagoon about twelve miles south of town that attracts a trickle of visitors who want to sample rural Veracruz culture. Mandinga isn’t on the tourist maps, and if my father hadn’t told me about his visit there in the late fifties, I wouldn’t have known it existed.
Happily, Mandinga has changed little with the years. The waterfront view of the lagoon is tranquil, and the parade of vendors is nearly as constant as in downtown Veracruz, though their wares are somewhat more imaginative (the stuffed iguanas from Papantla that plays miniature harps or drums far surpass the stuffed toads sold elsewhere in Mexico).
Mandinga’s main attractions are the open-air palapas that sit at the water’s edge and serve fresh and inexpensive seafood. The oldest and largest of these, Casa Uscanga, modernized long ago with a sheet-metal roof, but otherwise it is pretty much the same. A boiled crab here costs about $1, and either an exceptionally fresh filet of snapper in garlic sauce or octopus in its ink runs around $5.50. Incidentally, the drinks can be killer: The local specialty cocktail is the torito, which is made using aguardiente (sugar-cane alcohol) flavored with peanuts, coconut, or guanábana, a tropical fruit.
But best of all, I found that Mandinga is still a hotbed of jarocho music. Unfortunately, my arrival coincided with a ferocious downpour that flooded the village, but eventually one group of strolling musicians materialized out of the rain, and in just a few minutes the singing harp and ukulele-size cuatro had woven a melody with the five-stringed jarana guitar, making me forget the weather and whisking me to that idyllic place where great music always takes you. I returned to the city content.
Yes, Veracruz has lost some of its individuality to modernization. In several stalls I saw T-shirts imprinted with the words “Mis abuelos fueron a Veracruz y solo me trajeron esta pinche playera” (“My grandparents went to Veracruz and all they brought me was this stinking T-shirt”). But as long as there are sidewalk cafes under Los Portales, coffee so strong the aroma gives you a rush, and jarocho music just down the road, I know the city I remember will be waiting for me when I return.
The big meal of the day is lunch, taken between two and four. Dinner, served from six to ten, is traditionally lighter.
Café de La Parroquia, Independencia 105 and on the Malecón at Insurgentes Veracruzanos 340. La Parroquia’s breakfast is a must: Try fresh papaya ($1.15), a large glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice ($1.85), tirado (scrambled eggs with black beans, $1.15), plus pan dulce (pastries and sweet breads), lecheros, and much more.
Fish Market Area, Avenida Landero y Cos and Avenida Serdán. There are numerous informal cafes in the market itself, where $1 buys a fresh shrimp cocktail. La Sirena is one of several simple restaurants clustered around the fish market. Don’t let the plastic tables and chairs here fool you; both the steamed pompano and the red snapper à la veracruzana (with tomato sauce, capers, and bay leaves) are exceptional (about $10 each). In the evening, La Sirena doubles as a salsa dance spot.
The three main hotel areas are near the Plaza de Armas, the harbor, or the beach. All listed are air-conditioned.
Direct dial 011-52-29 plus the local six-digit number.
Hotel Imperial, Lerdo 153, on the plaza (31-17-41). Best in-town choice. Recently restored, this historic 20-room boutique hotel with balconies overlooking the plaza is reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter hostelries. A 74-room addition with a rooftop pool should be finished by late 1995. Double about $90. Three-bedroom suite $140.
Hotel Veracruz, Avenida Independencia and Miguel Lerdo (31-22-33). A modern, full-service hotel with an art deco lobby, just off the plaza. Has 116 rooms, simply furnished. Double about $90.
Hotel Emporio, Insurgentes Veracruzanos 210, on the Paseo del Malecón (32-00-20). A 202-room high rise with color televisions, light colors, and wicker furnishings. Jacuzzis in many rooms. Double $90 and up.
Hotel Mocambo, Calzada Ruíz Cortines 4000, in Mocambo, six miles south of downtown (22-02-11). The 125 guest rooms of this beachfront hotel are nothing fancy, but the art deco-esque structures on the lushly tropical and immaculately landscaped grounds were inspired by Spain’s Alhambra. There is nice play equipment for the kids. The exercise machines at the health club, however, were in a state of disrepair. Double $93-$110.
Hotel Continental Plaza, Boulevard Adolfo Ruíz Cortines 3501 (89-05-05). This is the newest hotel in Veracruz, with 232 rooms, but its location adjacent to Las Américas mall, away from downtown, leaves something to be desired. Double about $120.
Rental cars run $65 to $95 a day, but you can easily get around by taxi or bus. Van service from the airport to the center of the city is about $9 per person. A cab from Veracruz’s main plaza to the Mandinga lagoon costs about $12 each way; agree on a price before getting in.