Unlike other Mexican cities, Veracruz follows its own rhythm.
The Son Jarocho, the shouting of merchants, the ringing of trams and the typical harbour noises interweave to form a soundscape that does not fade away until deep into the night. “Solo Veracruz es bello” – only Veracruz is beautiful, is the credo of the self-confident inhabitants, regardless of the often unbearable climate, which is a steaming heat over Mexico’s oldest and most important port for most of the year.
Here the Spanish dominance over the mainland of the New World began and ended. It was here that Cortés burned his ships and it was only long after the Mexicans declared their independence that the last Spanish ships left the port they once called “Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz” (rich city of the true cross). Today, the descendants of African slaves and Cuban immigrants who were displaced to Veracruz during colonial times, or who settled here as war refugees, still live here. According to many locals, this special cultural mix is responsible for the unique atmosphere of the city.
The Danzón, a dance that emerged from the Danza of the French colonies, was brought to Mexico by Cubans at the turn of the last century, where it quickly became popular, especially in Veracruz, and has remained so to this day. While it was reserved for the white upper class in Cuba, the popularity of the Danzón in Mexico is also based on the fact that – for the duration of the dance – class barriers are lifted.
Many tourists leave Vercruz on their way to the synthetic tourist resorts and miss the old-fashioned charm of the colonial neighborhoods as well as the diverse musical and gastronomic traditions that have brought forth some of the country’s best restaurants and oldest coffee houses. One of the latter is the “Gran Café del Portal”, founded in 1835 as “Café de la Parroquia”, which was renamed because of a family feud that led to the opening of a competing company of the same name. From early in the morning until late in the evening, it is filled with the sound of spoons beaten at the drinking glasses, which signals the waiters to refill.
Among the historical attractions from darker times is the Spanish fortress of the Fuerte San Juan de Ulua, whose cannons were supposed to protect Veracruz against pirate attacks. The castle, built in the 16th century, was fortified between 1635 and 1707 and served as a prison for a long time. Long and narrow corridors led into dark dungeons, whose cells became darker and stuffier depending on the level of crime committed by those imprisoned there. Some of them have macabre nicknames like “heaven”, “purgatory” or simply “hell”. Among the most prominent ex-inmates were Benito Juárez (before his exile to Louisiana), Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, a 19th century writer disgraced by “Emperor” Agustín Iturbide, and Jesús Arriaga alias “Chucho el Roto”, a Robin Hood-style bandit imprisoned in the fort at the end of the 19th century.
One of Veracruz’s newest attractions is undoubtedly the Acuario de Veracruz, designed by a Japanese architect in 1992. The largest of its kind in Latin America, it is home to barracudas, sharks, manta rays and sea turtles as well as 2000 other species of marine life from the Gulf of Mexico. It also serves as a research centre.