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Veracruz, Mexico: a feast for the senses

Patricia Alisau

Veracruz is unlike any other city in Mexico, with a rhythm all its own. Salsa music, the cry of the street vendor, the bell of a trolley, and the comings and goings of sea vessels all blend together. Marimba bands play into the night and the air is seasoned with the sights and sounds of a sultry tropical port.

This Gulf coast town is steeped in history. It's Mexico's oldest and grandest port, site of the first Spanish expedition led by Hernán Cortés in 1519. It became Mexico's first European colony and was named Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (Rich Town of the True Cross). African slaves were brought in to work the fields and shipyards, and Cuban immigrants later flooded the city. Many locals say that their creole and mestizo descendants are responsible for Veracruz's special flavor.

It's probably the merriest and most musical city in Mexico. But these days, many tourists bypass Veracruz on their way to newer, glitzier resorts. They're unaware of its charming colonial buildings, seaport ambiance, cafés dripping with conviviality and the lively malecón (boardwalk), as traditional as it is beautiful. Veracruz is home to the best coffee in Mexico and famous for its huachinango a la veracruzana (red snapper resting in a sauce of fresh tomatoes and onions), or huachinango con salsa de mango , which graces the menus in some of the best restaurants in Mexico.

Most of the city's social life seems to revolve around its coffee houses, which have become institutions in themselves. Gran Café del Portal is the most famous — in service since 1835 — when Spanish immigrants opened it in a former monastery. The continuous clinking of spoons against glasses (there are no cups here) to summon a waiter for a refill echoes throughout the place from dawn till well after midnight when it shuts down.

The favored drink is the "lechero" (steaming hot milk poured into a few spoonfuls of strong coffee) or café con leche, as it's known elsewhere in Mexico. Roving bands of marimba minstrels are likely to break out with the spirited "La Bamba," a local song that rock star Ritchie Valens turned into a global hit in the 1950s. For a small fee, they'll play any song you pick from a list they pass around the tables. The Gran Café del Portal used to be called the Café de la Parroquia but a family feud prompted one branch of the family to open a rival coffee shop with the same name.

The original café then adopted the name Gran Café del Portal, which is what it had been called in the 1830s. Every president since Benito Juárez has been here and the coffee's formula is a well-guarded secret. According to one story, the clinking of glasses came about because a trolley car driver would ring his bell a block from the café to let the waiters know that he was coming. When the driver passed away, his casket was borne on the trolley and when it passed the café, the waiters and patrons clinked their glasses in his honor.

Come evening when the cool night air sets in, the main plaza just around the corner is the place for fiesta. The café-lined square draws musical groups from elsewhere than Veracruz, such as mariachis and accordion-playing norteños who roam from table to table playing songs. The congenial Jarochos (people from Veracruz) play dominos under shady trees or hawk boxes of Veracruz cigars. The Plaza de las Armas, as the square is called, is where the armies of invading foreign powers were quartered over the years. The Spanish, French and then the Americans in 1914 have all sent troops to occupy Veracruz.

At night, the danzón is in full swing in front of the Palacio Municipal where a band plays classic melodies for couples executing the elegant steps of this popular dance. In fact, Veracruz is credited with launching it. Brought to the city from Cuba in the 1870s by refugees fleeing a war-torn country, the danzón was one tradition they carried with them to their new home. The sons of the aristocrats who sneaked into poor neighborhoods at night were introduced to the dance. Eventually, it was adopted by Veracruz high society, but not without a great deal of resistance. Its sensuous movements were called scandalous, that is, compared to the stiff dances of the times. But it finally became the most popular dance of the city and then the country. Now it can be found in dance clubs throughout the Americas.

The danzón takes place every night at 8 p.m. in one of two downtown plazas. Several schools of danzón are trying to make sure that the tradition is kept alive. A classic stroll at sundown is along the malecón, which stretches for miles along the Gulf of Mexico to the outlying suburbs. Families, lovers, and joggers, refreshed by the cool night breeze, tread their way along the sidewalks until deep night sets in. Small, colorful market stalls crowd one end of it near downtown, displaying imported Chinese knickknacks, exotic stuffed iguanas, coral necklaces, shells fashioned into boxes, ashtrays, earrings, combs, shark teeth, model ships in-a-bottle, baskets and the ubiquitous t-shirt. One of the city's most famous sons is Agustín Lara, whose home has been turned into a museum bearing the mementos of his life and times. A beloved songwriter and singer to all Mexicans, Lara launched his career playing the piano in brothels and later became a bullfighter. News clips, caricatures and a replica of the radio studio where he hosted " La Hora Azul" ("The Blue Hour") are among the items on display. Ever the charmer, Lara had seven wives, one of whom was Mexican screen goddess María "La Doña" Félix, for whom he wrote his famous song, "María Bonita." Ever the gentleman, when he and Félix were about to break up, he married her to "make an honest woman of her" even though they had been living together for years. The Casa Museo Agustín Lara is located in Boca del Río on the outskirts of Veracruz.

The city's newest family attraction is the spectacular Veracruz Aquarium, built in 1992 — the largest in Latin America. Barracudas, nurse sharks, giant manta rays, sea turtles and prehistoric pejelagartos, a cross between an alligator and fish, inhabit a giant tank along with nearly 2,000 other species from the Gulf of Mexico. It also serves as a marine research center.

The weather-beaten Fort of San Juan Ulua bears testimony to the dark days of piracy and the Spanish Inquisition. It was first built as a castle in the 1500s but the danger of attack from foreign powers prompted the Spanish authorities to begin fortifying it in 1635. It was finished in 1707 and also served as a prison. Narrow stone-lined passageways lead to a labyrinth of dungeons with walls 24 feet thick in some places. The cells became darker and hotter depending on the gravity of the crime. A few of the most dreaded dungeons were nicknamed "Heaven," "Purgatory" and "Hell."

Among the famous inmates were Benito Juárez (before he was exiled to Louisiana), Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, a 19th-century writer who fell out of favor with Emperor Agustín Iturbide, and "Chucho el Roto," a Robin Hood-style bandit from the 1700s who stole from the rich to give to the poor. The fortress is being repainted its original yellow color to protect the stone from erosion.

Catemaco

While the city of Veracruz is festive, the town of Catemaco a few hours away is steeped in spiritual healing. It's the lair of sorcerers and witches who practice both white and black magic. A well-publicized annual convention in March draws practitioners from all over the country. In the course of a day, a visitor can be purified by a shaman, cleansed by a sorcerer and find one's direction in life in a steamy temazcal.

Besides the sorcerers, the pride and joy of the town is its crater lake, which is like a small gem in the midst of the Las Tuxtlas biosphere, which encompasses Catemaco. The lake formed in an extinct volcano and is strikingly beautiful against the undulating Sierra Madre, a mountain chain which runs through Mexico and all of Central America.

Every city tour includes a boat ride to see its leading attraction — a colony of baboons inhabiting a deserted island. Children selling peanuts and bananas swarm around sightseers as they get ready to board the covered pangas. Other vendors hawk tiny figures of drunken monkeys.

The lake has a dozen small isles, which attract Mexico's native howler monkey and white and black herons, the latter dubbed "diving ducks" by the locals. The boat captain warns us not to feed the howlers because these monkeys, at least, are to remain self-sufficient and forage for their own food. The baboons were brought from Thailand several decades ago as part of a wildlife experiment sponsored by a local university. The funding ran out and the primates were left to fend for themselves. Survivors that they were, they learned to eat water lilies and dive for fish.

The jefe or chief of the baboons is the first to appear from the trees when a boat approaches. Notoriously in a bad mood, he will try to scare it away by baring his teeth, leaping into the boat, or showing his back. However, once the visitors start tossing bananas his way, he's too busy eating to pay much attention to them.

Nanciyaga

Nanciyaga, which can be visited by boat or car, is a nine-acre ecological park carved out of the jungle further down the rim of the lake.

Sean Connery filmed "Medicine Man" here, and the fiberglass trees built for the set are still in place. The entrance looks like a flea market with stalls selling charms, oils and potions for whatever ails you. They claim to attract lovers, good health, money and fame, cure impotency, liver problems and the evil eye, among other uses. If these don't do the trick, a nearby table is spread with crystals, amulets and amber jewelry, all geared toward dispelling bad vibrations. This is a place for spiritual cleansing.

Los Tuxtlas was once inhabited by the Olmec civilization, even in the years after Christ, which refutes most theories that the Olmecs preceded the Maya culture, which dominated this particular era. The name Nanciyaga means "first one" in the Olmec language and was the name of the first-born princess of an Olmecan chieftain.

The park's signature piece is a small replica of what's called the Las Tuxtlas statuette, which represents the fusion of the bird and jaguar, sacred animals of the Olmecs. The original, which was made of jade, is found in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Other charming replicas spread along the walkways include the chaneques and yolbatanes, or playful elves, in which the local indigenous community still believes. They are said to carry off objects left carelessly lying around by visitors.

Nanciyaga is tailor-made for birdwatchers with grebes, cormorants, gray-tailed grackles and a variety of herons within spotting distance. According to William Schaldach, a U.S. ornithologist living in Catemaco, the Tuxtlas region is the most bio-diverse in Mexico. "There are over 570 bird species," he said. A facial with mud gathered from the mineral springs in the park is part of the tour. It turns green in a few minutes but the trick is to leave it on and let it do its work while visiting the rest of the reserve. This ancient beauty ritual was much in use by ladies of the old tribes, who inhabited the area before the arrival of the Spaniards.

At the end of the tour, visitors rinse off the mud with spring water mixed with patchouli leaves. The mud also has medicinal properties and is still used for certain cures along with the medicinal plants found in the area.

An Olmec figure of a shaman in meditation, appropriately enough, graces a clearing where a white-robed shaman does indeed conduct cleansing rituals with flowers, oils and fresh, green leaves. The original Olmec piece is in a Denver museum, again leaving only a replica as memory.

Nearby is the revered temazcal, an igloo-like structure much akin in concept to the sweat lodge used by American Indians. Visitors slather their bodies with mud and immerse themselves in the fragrant smells of sacred woods and herbs mixed with steam while a guide leads them on a journey of self-discovery. The end result is supposed to be clarity of vision of one's path in life.

For those who wish to linger longer in this jungle retreat, the folks at Nanciyaga have ten cabañas for rent. Named after the ancient names for birds and butterflies, they have no phones or TV, use a communal bathroom/shower area, but have a stunning view of the lake, a tiny terrace, hammock, and lots of silence and privacy. There's even a honeymoon suite. Those in need of further cleansing can seek out a brujo, or sorcerer, in town. Catemaco has about a dozen of them, in different degrees of maturity, and the art is passed down from generation to generation. Just ask around to find one. They usually use home-brewed aromatic oils, a hands-on approach, and bizarre movements, surrounded by myriad-lit candles and pictures of the saints. All promise consultations "with the utmost discretion."

Santiago Tuxtla

Santiago Tuxtla, a small town about 15 minutes by road north of Catemaco, is a small sanctuary for extraordinary Olmec/Totonac finds - some more than 2,000 years old. A giant Olmec head, similar to those found in La Venta, Tabasco, sits under a roof in the main square. The museum, a few blocks away, is filled with more artifacts. There's another big head with crossed eyes, a sign of divinity to the Olmecs, and also Totonac sculptures of women who died in childbirth and were elevated to the status of goddesses, according to their beliefs.

Visitors are led to "Negro," an elongated Olmec stone altarpiece, and told to touch its third eye to "view" the color of their aura. Unlike Nanciyaga, these pieces are the originals. None of them have been carried abroad. Nanciyaga charges an entrance fee of 20 pesos a person, making this one of Mexico's best bargains. A purification ritual by the park shaman costs 80 pesos a person, higher for individual healings. (A brujo in town charges up to 800 pesos for a limpia). The cabañas cost 400 pesos for a single or double and 500 for a family unit. Kayaking and a tour of the park are included. The temazcal costs 2,700 pesos for a group of two to 15 persons or individuals can join a group for 200 pesos extra.

El Se?or de Las Limas, Veracruz.

Travel Tips

When to visit:

The ideal time for a trip is November through April, when the rains and the hottest, humid weather are over.

How to get there:

From Mexico City, the port of Veracruz is easily reached via Aeroméxico or Mexicana, which have several flights a day.
By road or luxury bus, the trip takes about five hours.
A separate bus must be taken to Catemaco from Veracruz City; the trip lasts about two hours.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Patricia Alisau © 2008
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