24 hours in Veracruz

The city of Veracruz is the kind of raggedy place that makes you want to find an old man in a white linen suit, his bartender, and a veteran jarana player at a bar so that they can invite you in for a shot of rum and tell you about the port’s glory days. For a minute, at the right time in the zocalo, we get a taste of what we imagined Veracruz to be like. We were told Cuba via Mexico. We were itching to hear the harp and zapateado dancing of Son Jarocho. Veracruz was where Cortez first landed in Mexico, it was the gateway for trade during the colonial period, it’s where people say Africa, the Caribbean, and Mexico meet. At sunset the colonial buildings shine in magenta and pale yellow, the marimba players alternate with the mariachis, hand-holding couples walk through the isle of cigar vendors, and the very occasional breeze shakes the palm tree leaves. Then you turn the corner.

There’s a church under construction and from the hotel pool we can see the construction workers on the roof staring at us with their hands in their pants. Look up from the streets and you can see through the facades of abandoned buildings. It’s grimy and the humidity of mid June isn’t helping how sticky we feel. We order crab tostadas in the plaza and they come out covered in mayonnaise. We decide that mayonnaise, along with hair gel, needs to be confiscated from the Mexican economy. A vendor is at our table trying to sell us bootleg colones and slap-on watches. One taxi driver tells us that he wants the old Veracruz, when young people had morals, when it looked like La Habana. Another taxi driver tells us the Boca Del Rio suburb has the best of Veracruz: casinos, Fiesta Inn, malls, and this new American franchise called eestarbucks. “It’s a cafe, do you know it?” We can’t find any Son Jarocho music playing on a Tuesday, and it’s too damn hot to keep trying. Sometimes traveling is like this.

The trick in a city like this is to let go of romantic expectations, ask as many people as you can about where to eat and what to do, and resign to finding what you find. Here’s our advice:

Cincopa WordPress plugin

1. Don’t come in mid June.

2. If you do come in the sweltering hot summer, splurge on a hotel with a pool overlooking the zocalo. You’ll feel like a major gringa/o sitting in a floaty with your rum and pineapple juice, but it’s the only way to survive the heat.

3. Get a lechero at Cafe El Portal. The food here is average, but this is a classic place to try the lechero, a glass of strong coffee that’s filled with milk from a kettle brought over to your table. We thought the guy behind us was being an asshole, but apparently you are supposed to get the waiter’s attention by clinking your spoon to your glass here. Slightly off the zocalo, this cafe doesn’t look like it has changed since the 1920’s.

4. Head to Mandinga for lunch. This lagoon surrounded by a few seafood restaurants is sleepy on the weekdays but apparently the place to eat with local families and listen to live music on the weekends. We went to restaurant Mariscos Uscanga and had arroz a la tumbada, a soupy rice with several different kinds of shellfish. Ladies, be sure to take a peak at the kitchen here, you’ll be in for a nice surprise.

5. While most people go to the Veracruz aquarium (one of the best in Latina America), we went to the fish market called la pescaria. It’s nothing spectacular, but a good way to familiarize yourself with the gulf fish that appear on local menus like mojarra, peto and robalo.

6. Get a fish a la veracruzana. In this dish we found the culinary meeting of the old and new world that we hoped to find in Veracruz. Throughout our time in Mexico City we were lucky enough to be accompanied by our friend Oscar who determinately pointed out the origins of each dish we ate. Frying things in oil came from the Spanish. Tacos al pastor from Lebanese immigrants. If Oscar was sitting with us as we devoured our fish, he would have told us that while most of us associate tomatoes with Italy, tomatoes were originally cultivated by the Maya. He would have also pointed out that the red snapper is from the gulf of Mexico, and that the remaining essential ingredients to la Veracruzana, bayleaf, olives, capers and cilantro, were brought by the Spanish. If you do one thing in Veracruz eat this.

The 411:
-Cafe El Portal: Independencia 1187, Centro
Hotel Diligencias
-More on Mandinga here
-To get to the Pescaria ask your taxi driver (around $3 USD)
-We intended to go to Boca del Rio for pescado a la veracruzana, but our taxi driver insisted on taking us to “Palapas de Mariscos, Mauricio”. It’s off the beaten path for sure, and definitely not on the beach, but a bit cheaper.


2 Responses to “24 hours in Veracruz”

  1. Toni Casal
    June 28, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    Thanks to you and Oscar for the food history lesson. I had just looked up al pastor on wikipedia last week, and found similar info. In Oax there are tacos arabes and we were trying to figure out what that meant. So much to learn about the history of foods and the fabulous results when cultures come together in the kitchen. Yummy

    • admin
      June 29, 2011 at 3:25 am #

      Thanks Toni!