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Jul 11, 2004, 7:57 AM

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'Vivo En Tampico' Part 3. Downtown

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The civic life of Tampico is found in the downtown area and revolves around the two large squares.Plaza de Libertad features fine old New Orleans style buildings - their freshly blacked balconies of the finest English cast-iron - that hearken to Tampico's colonial past. This plaza has manicured gardens, in which promenading families, shoe-shine boys and the occasional tourist enjoy the sun atop an underground car-park. It is surrounded by the buildings of civic life (including the beautiful old post-office and telegraph office) and structures that have been given a new lease of life as hotels and restaurants.

On one corner stands a famed building, until recently the bar in which 'Dobbs' and 'Curtin' slugged out their cheating employer in John Huston's classic film version of 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre'.

Downtown Tampico, although not particularly tranquil, has signs of fomer glories and busier days. There are many derelict buildings on quieter side-streets and, at the crest of the hill of 20th of November Street, stand two large former hotel buildings. The rooms from these places must have had grand views over the basin of the Rio Panuco towards the flatlands of Veracruz. They stand, today, mystifyingly empty and hollow.

Herein lies the contradiction. Industrial cities, with docks and flaring oil refineries and noisome markets, are not meant to be favoured tourist destinations. Indeed, I recall seeing an entry in a youth-traveller-market tourist guide that suggested that the only thing one could, do if washed up in Tampico, was to leave. The infrastructure to serve tourism is all but absent. English is not widely spoken, for example, and tourist attractions appear to be thin on the ground.

On the other side of the market - the by Mercado Juarez, adjacent to Plaza de Libertad - is the Tampico knows one is close by the sight and smell of seedy cantinas and seedier prostitutes who tongue-click a welcoming signal from shadowed doorways. Even without such 'colour', the docks announce their presence at 08.00 every morning when the pre-work tranquility is broken by the sonourous moan of the dock siren - announcing the start of the work day like a minaret gathering the faithful. The main docks downtown are, perhaps, not as well used as in days of yore and the time of the original Customs House - a fine old building of beautifully refurbished English red brick, it is now used as display space for exhibitions.

A Word About a Unique Local Snack - 'Tampico Dock Fence Sandwiches'
Like all stevedores in the world, hired hands were enlisted on a daily basis at the Tampico docks - before the advent of containerisation and the move to the new ocean terminal of Altamira. The men waiting to be hired would form a line outside the dock gates and adjacent to the tall fence ('la barda') surrounding the harbour compound. Food sellers pitched up to feed these men and a particular type of sandwich, heavy on the meat and pork-fat, came to be made and sold there 'una Torta de la Barda''a Sandwich of the Fence'. The original and best tortas are still to be found adjacent to la barda (such as at places like 'Tortas YoYa' with it's few battered plastic tables and chairs) but many other places sell them too as the type has become generic. The stalls now boast permanent rooves, electricity and water but still offer, jokingly, 'tortas con polvo'.

More soon about Downtown


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