Veracruz: Mexico's Gateway

by Habeeb Salloum
Special to

Veracruz, Mexico -- “This is a vestige from my Indian ancestors. They created one of the first civilizations in the world and sadly the history of my people was erased by the bloody hands of Cortez, our conqueror,” explained Manuel Martinez, our scholarly Indian guide extraordinaire, who waved his hand across the ruins of Zempoala or Cempoala.

Immersed in this rich Mexican aboriginal history, his eyes seemed to glow as he explained how his history was ironically documented by the victors. Today, many archaeologists are questioning the conventional story of Mexico’s Indian civilizations written by the conquering Spaniards.

Once revered as an important centre of Totonacan Indian culture, the ruins are located near the city of Veracruz. After touring Zempoala’s pyramid and temples, we drove a short distance southward to the village of Antigua which, when it was established by Cortez in 1519, was called Villa Rica de la Vera. From this first European city established on the American mainland, Cortez set out on the trodden Indian route to Tenochtitlán (today’s Mexico City) and the conquest of Mexico.

Pointing to a small chapel, Manuel passionately remarked, “The bandit Cortez prayed here, before beginning his crusade to destroy the Indian civilization.” It was at this very location where Cortez prayed in a tiny church. Erected in 1529 it is considered the oldest Christian house of worship in North America. Later we toured the ruins of Cortez’s house which as it turned out was actually the first government office built on the American mainland, and then we departed to Veracruz.

Known as the gateway to Mexico where the country’s history began, Veracruz I discovered is one of the most festive Mexican cities. Its tropical port harbours a hedonistic atmosphere. As the capital of the state of Veracruz and one of Mexico’s virtually undiscovered vacation spots, it is refreshingly distinct and brazenly different from the Mexico known to foreign tourists.

Often described as a Caribbean gem waiting to be discovered, it is surrounded by the beauty of nature. 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, is dotted with archaeological sites and colonial cities. Many visitors describe Veracruz as a ‘garden paradise saturated with history’ and I agree.

Established in 1598, Veracruz immediately became Mexico’s chief port and, until 1760, was the only port in the country permitted to trade with Spain, the mother country. Untold tons of silver and the exotic products of the Far East which arrived from Acapulco, were loaded on galleons, made Spain the richest nation in Europe. The richness of the commerce attracted pirates and invaders like 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 a type of arrow) are fun-loving, lively and more ethnically mixed than other Mexican cities. Totonaca, Spanish, African and Caribbean blend into a warm and hospitable people. Giving colour to this mixture are sailors from the four corners of the world, strolling the downtown streets and enjoying the city’s all-inclusive festive atmosphere.

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 persons dance, popular throughout Mexico.

Prices are reasonable and in the last few decades Veracruz has been transformed into a modern resort. The town is very clean and many 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 past, the resort drew mostly Mexicans, but today it is attracting an ever-increasing number of foreign tourists, especially in late February through early March when the city transforms into carnival central where colourful costumes, spicey cuisine, dance and music are rolled into one.


photo: Mexico Tourism Board

If you go:

1) 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.

2) Small cars, fully insured with unlimited mileage, rent for about $60. per day. Beware! It is not easy to drive in Mexico - it seems that all drivers continually drive in and out of their lanes.

3) The official Mexican currency is the peso currently trading at about10.7 pesos to a US dollar. 4) Tip baggage handlers and bellboys $1.00 per suitcase; maids $1.00 per day and 50 cents tip for washroom attendants are usual.

5) Veracruz’s tourist facilities are excellent, the city is safe and the climate in the winter months is very agreeable.

6) 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.

Additional Sites

San Juan de Ulúa - a fortress built between 1468 - 1796 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, `Romance in 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.

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.

Further Information

In Canada contact the Mexican Tourism Board - 2 Bloor St. West, Suite 1502, Toronto, Ontario M4W 3E2. Tel: (416) 925 0704. Fax: (416) 925 6061. E-mail: Also Toll free number: 1-800-44 MEXICO. Web: or E-mail:

In the U.S.A. 375 Park Avenue, Floor 19, Suite 1905, New York, NY 10152, USA. Tel: (212) 308 2110. Fax: (212) 308 9060. E-mail:

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