- Tim Mathis
The Veracruz travel guide the internet needs, but was afraid to ask for.
On my first visit, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to fall in love with Veracruz, and I did.
After falling in love, I learned that the internet thinks she's industrial, polluted, and "the most dangerous place (for journalists) in the entire Western Hemisphere". Her neighbors are scared of her, and our friends think she's troubled.
But I'm here to say that internet, you don't know her! This post is here to throw down the gauntlet. Veracruz isn't (just) what you say she is.
I think that, beyond her trumped up and over-exaggerated flaws, Veracruz is a jungle-covered, ruins-dotted, cascade-carved, volcano-capped, rugged-but-accessible, culturally rich, super affordable adventure capitol, full of some of the warmest, friendliest people in the world.
And it's one of the best places in the world for a traveler to live out romantic Paul Theroux dreams and feel like a real backpacker - drifting around on cheap buses "discovering" incredible places, well-known to locals, that are somehow still off the beaten gringo path. It's Costa Rica, but cheaper, with better food. With all of the Totanac pyramids and giant stone cabezas, it has a nouveau Indiana Jones vibe. And somehow, it has the third highest peak in North America thrown in for good measure.
So if people are going to publish articles that subtly imply that every bad thing that happens to her is her own fault, I'm going to write the response: that Veracruz has way more good qualities than bad. I want to give my readers, and the English-speaking internet more generally, something that they inexplicably don't seem to have: a rundown of Veracruz's best features and an argument for why other people will love her too, if they just get to know her.
A brief explanation of structure
.For the sake of pragmatism, let's kill the cohesiveness of this piece and drop the relationship metaphor and talk concretely about what we're doing here.
What I hope to provide are snapshots of my favorite parts of the state - the concrete reasons Angel and I love Veracruz after spending a few months there. We've experienced these areas as people interested in the outdoors first and culture second, so our highlights will skew towards naturaleza. And I've tried to present things in a way that can guide travel planning, so this article is organized into regional groupings that could be explored enjoyably, roughly speaking, in about a week each.
You can get to a lot of these places by booking tours. If that's your thing, go for it - just please, please, please book with a local agency rather than paying someone who's based in the U.S. or Europe an exorbitant amount. You'll pay less. Mexico needs your money more than they do. Everyone wins.
Personally, our preferred travel style is via bus and local taxi, so I've also included the bus connections to catch to get to each of these areas.
International flights come in to Mexico City and Heroica Veracruz (the official name for the big port city on the Gulf Coast), and depending on where you're coming from, where you're going, and whether you are short on time or money, either can be a good option for accessing these spots. Mexico City almost always is the cheaper flight option, Veracruz almost always is the closest airport. For more detailed information, Rome2Rio.com is, in my opinion, the best online resource for planning bus travel details. For general information on getting around in Mexico, this is the best English language resource I've found, on Mexperience.com.
With that, let's jump right in to the places that we think will make you fall in love with Veracruz too, in no particular order.
1) Xalapa region, including Coatepec, Jalcomulco, and Xico
What it is: Coffee country, a pleasant climate, and outdoor opportunities. And I'll admit it - my favorite.
What to do there: Xalapa is a university town and the capitol of the state, and as such has museums, a nice arboretum, good food, and culture. But the best base for a traveler might be Coatepec, which is close by. It's one of the oldest colonial coffee towns in Mexico, home to a million really good cafes, some fantastic, cheap, beautiful hotels, romantic ambiance, and some of the warmest people we've encountered anywhere. It's a clean, safe town where you can go for a run, climb a tiny volcano right in the middle of town, and easily catch affordable tours or public transit to local highlights. Things you should really do from here include negotiating with a taxi to take you to El Descabezadero - an incredible, lightly visited "nace el rio" (birth of a river) where the Actopan originates by gushing out of the side of a cliff forming waterfalls and the type of clear, tropical pools you daydream about when you daydream about such things.
Xico is a smaller town within taxi distance with another spectacular waterfall (featured prominently in the film Romancing the Stone for all of you who remember the '80s or wish you did), a bullfighting museum, and a large bullfighting ring and culture.
The top recommendation for adventure is Jalcomulco, a nearby town in a beautiful canyon surrounded by mango farms and natural beauty. It's become an international, but off the beaten path, white water paddling and rafting center because of its location along the Rio Antigua, and functions as an all purpose adventure hub for locals. It is possible to rent mountain bikes, rappel down waterfalls, go canyoneering or hiking, or run a local trail race depending on what you're into. One of the craziest Airbnbs we've come across anywhere is there, in some guy's cave on the side of a cliff that you have to rope up and climb to in order to access. The town's full of that type of thing - dirtbags trying to scrape together a living doing what they love, and it feels like a real discovery for someone into the outdoors. It's like a Mexican Moab before Moab was Moab. If you go, get in contact with Ruta Verde. They speak English, and are internationally qualified paddling guides as well as experts in the local ecology, and can set you up with any type of outdoors outing you're interested in. (We're friends with them, but have no financial ties, in case you're wondering!)
To get there: Catch a regional bus from Veracruz or Mexico City to Xalapa, then catch local transit to Coatepec (taxi or bus) or Jalcomulco.
2) Orizaba region, including Fortin de las Flores, Cordoba and Zongalica
What it is: A beautiful, historic colonial town with easy access to the local mountains and a strong trail running and climbing culture. By local (and internet) accounts, it has improved dramatically in recent years. Also kind of our favorite.
What to do there: Don't confuse the town with the mountain - it's actually not the standard or best jumping off point for climbing the famous peak (see more below if that's what you're looking for). But it is appropriately outdoorsy. On one side of town, you can climb a (small) mountain to a well-maintained eco park, while on the other you can walk right into a small national park. There are two climbing shops that can supply gear and direct you to the best local crag, and there are 1800 members of the local trail running Facebook group. (They're super friendly and welcome visitors to daily runs.) It's a developing scene and the local ultramarathon in March is on its third year, and it's one of the most interesting races in Mexico that will get you points for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. (The race is called the Ultra Maraton de las Altas Montanas if you want to check it out.) Bonus points because it also has a great coffee culture and a beer shop with selections from all over the world where you can get a decent IPA. Also bonus points because it's just a few hours by bus from Puebla - one of the coolest big cities in Mexico. If we ever move to Veracruz, it will probably be to Orizaba.
Zongalica is probably the most interesting side trip from Orizaba. Accessible by local bus, it's an indigenous community in the mountains with access to a massive cave that you can rappel into, and purportedly hiking trails. Cordoba is a larger city adjacent to Orizaba with all of the normal big city trappings (but from what we've heard less of Orizaba's charms). Fortin is a small town with a pretty square and a cool Bonsai museum. It's good for a rest day, but don't expect a lot of aventura there.
To get there: Take a big, nice bus directly from the airport or (more frequently) TAPO bus station in Mexico City, or from the main bus station in Veracruz. Or, if you fly into Mexico City, you can also catch a bus from the airport to Puebla, then a connecting bus from Puebla to Orizaba.
3) Catemaco and Las Tuxtlas
What it is: A lakeside outpost on the edge of real, dense, undeveloped jungle, and the northernmost tropical rainforest in the Americas. Parrots, monkeys, toucans, crocodiles (they don't usually bite, we're told) and actual, practicing shamans set the ambiance. A great place to have a quintessential international backpacker experience, and feel like you're somewhere totally weird, exotic, and beautiful that none of your gringo buddies even know exists.
What to do there: Some of that weird, exotic, and beautiful feeling is there by design, because Catemaco is a popular weekend trip for Mexicans. That means that there are a lot of local tour operators (i.e. cab drivers and boat captains who will take you to see the sites for a very reasonable price), which makes it an easy place to explore. It also is a place where it's easy to feel remote. The lake has a remarkably undeveloped vibe as a whole for as big and scenic as it is. It's the kind of place people hack out portions of jungle to create eco-communes, and you suspect the uber wealthy might have hidden compounds only accessible by helicopter or submarine. There's a rare opportunity to tent camp at one of the properties on the lake, and tours can get you out hiking, canyoneering, and rapelling down waterfalls. There's an annual trail race called Trail del Brujo, so there must be a lot of potential trail to explore, but we were advised against going out without a guide by locals because of safety concerns. Safer, it seems, is to explore the lake by boat, and if you brought a kayak it would be an amazing place for an extended paddle. Sit on tops are available for rent, and while they aren't the fastest or most comfortable, we found it hard to argue with the $3 per hour price tag.
Las Tuxtlas (the name of the region as a whole) is beautiful and generally undeveloped, and it's lined by beaches, rivers, and jungle. Easy day trips from Catemaco will get you to massive, spectacular Eyipantla Falls near the town of San Andres de Tuxtla, the biggest Totanac/Olmec Head ever found in Santiago de Tuxtla, and the beaches and mangroves of Sontecomapan, where you can catch a lancha (boat) to a beautiful beach on the Gulf.
To get there: Buses run directly from the Veracruz main station, and also from Xalapa. If you're in Catemaco trying to get to the other areas take local truck transport called a pirata, local bus transport, or a taxi.
Bonus! Tlacotalpan. Between Veracruz city and Catemaco is Tlacotalpan, a river town that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique colonial architecture. There's not a lot happening there in terms of tourist activities, and it's not on the main highway between destinations, but it's a gorgeous, unique Mexican town that's worth a visit if you have an extra day and you're headed to the Tuxtlas area. I haven't been, but I hear that the best time to visit is during the Candlemas festival at the end of January/early February, when the city really lights up. Literally. Buses run directly from Alvarado or from Veracruz.
4) Beaches and Ruins: Veracruz North
What it is: Mexico is covered in spectacular Mayan ruins, and Veracruz is no exception. If you want to see the best of them, it's generally agreed that Tajin is Veracruz's finest example. It's a major, well-preserved complex near the town of Papantla, in the northern part of the state.
What to do there: You could complete an amazing archaeological trip by bus by hitting Tajin, then heading back down the coast to Quiahuiztlan, another spectacular ruins which is also conveniently located a pleasant walk away from Villa Rica, a stunning, sleepy beach town and the site of the first Spanish landing in the Americas. And then you could finish out the route with a stop at Zempoala, another important site located an easy trip from Playa Chachalacas - a completely underrated beach town dotted with cheap, beautiful resorts and surrounded by miles of massive sand dunes that are great for running, hiking, four wheeling, and feeling like you're on the moon.
We didn't go there so I can't vouch, but you can also easily access La Antigua along this route - one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Mexico, and a purportedly interesting place to hang out for an afternoon.
To get there: Direct buses go from Veracruz or Xalapa to Papantla. That's straightforward. Getting to the other spots is a little more tricky, but Cardel is your key hub and transfer point. Quiahuiztlan/Villa Rica is along the same bus route that you'll take between Veracruz and Papantla. If you're headed north, you have to ask the driver to let you off after Cardel in Villa Rica and walk in (about a kilometer, I believe). If you're headed south, you have to ask them to let you off before Cardel in Villa Rica. Cardel is also your key for both Zempoala (also spelled Cempoala) and Chachalacas. There are bus transfers to both places there. It's not much of a tourist town beyond the bus station, so plan lodging elsewhere.
5) Pico de Orizaba
What it is: the third highest peak in North America, and the highest in Mexico at 18,490 ft.
What to do there: While not to be treated lightly (people die there every year), Pico de Orizaba is a technically straightforward climb by the most common route, so it is great place to climb your first high mountain. It's also a great place to dink around at lower elevations hiking, biking, canyoneering or climbing.
This is a little out of scope, because most of these peaks aren't in Veracruz, but they're close by. And anyway, whatever - this would be awesome. A classic mountaineering trip to Mexico involves ascents of La Malinche, Nevado de Toluca, Itza/Popo, and Orizaba - all of which are over 14,000 feet, relatively straightforward climbs, and are clustered within a few hours of Mexico City. Some people tag them all in two weeks for what must be an incredible way to experience the country. We've only been to Malinche and Nevado de Toluca. You should do more.
There are two Mexican climbing organizations with great reputations that can get you up one or all of these peaks, including guiding and covering transport, or they'll just rent you gear and give you beta if that's what you want. One is Servimont, and the other is Nomada. Both organize other activities in the mountains beyond just climbing, so if you want some other kind of curated outdoor adventure they are great, local options.
Getting there: If you just want to climb Pico de Orizaba, transportation is straightforward. You can catch a bus from the Mexico City TAPO bus station to the most common starting point, in the town of Tlachichuca, and head up from there. If you want to do the others independently, it's probably best to rent a car. Personally, if I were going to do it, I'd just book a tour because the transport logistics are complicated enough to cause headaches, and I'm not an experienced alpinist.
5) Heroica Veracruz
What it is: Your most intuitive hub for all of this. A great city with a mix of colonial Spanish, Caribbean, and traditional Mexican influences. It has a faded glory vibe, and it's the kind of place you'll find hotels for $20 a few blocks from the historic center with no hot water and and old linens, but which are cleaned twice a day meticulously and run with pride by super hospitable locals. $40 will get you a nice room by the beach. $70 will get you the best hotel in the center with a view of the cathedral. $10 will get you a meal and a beer at one of the best restaurants in the city. It's a cool, historic port city, packed with culture, music, and good food, with the type of relaxed vibe that comes along naturally with high levels of heat and humidity. The closest equivalent I've experienced is Nassau in the Bahamas, or New Orleans in the U.S. Shabby-chic places dripping with sweat, culture, and friendliness.
What to do there: Honestly, we usually just hang out, eat good food, drink cheap beer, and wander between the Zocalo (the big square in the center of the city by the Cathedral) and the Malecon (the walkway along the water a few blocks away) people watching and enjoying the ambiance. I've heard Boca del Rio is the best beach area in the city (it's south), and the fortress at San Juan de Ulua just outside of downtown is an amazing place to visit. In the Zocalo you'll find tour operators offering urban options. There's a decent-sized marathon there if that's your thing and you plan way ahead. It's also an amazing place to drop a few extra dollars on that aforementioned nice hotel: a room with a view in the beautiful, historic places lining the Zocalo will cost you about the same as a Holiday Inn off of I-75 in Georgia, and you'll feel like a freaking international celebrity for the night.
Getting there: Direct flights arrive from Houston. We've found that it's generally cheaper to fly into Mexico City and bus to Veracruz (about a 6 hour ride) than to fly there directly from the US. Depends on where else you're headed and how much time you've got.
Okay internet, that's it. Have I made my case? I love Veracruz, and there's a good chance you will too. She's beautiful and kind and has so many good qualities, and you will love her too if you give her a chance.
And, if you're seriously interested in visiting, and want more info, feel free to leave a comment here or shoot me a message!
Also, if you enjoyed the post, check out my books for more things I've written about the outdoors, travel and the meaning of life.