The state of Veracruz is truly one of Mexico’s hidden gems. While Mexico’s Gulf Coast destinations are not quite the tourist magnets of their cousins on Mexico’s Pacific Coast or the Mayan Riviera of Quintana Roo with their multitude of ready-made tourist resorts, Veracruz is one Gulf Coast state that is worth a visit - especially for those that want to see a completely different side of Mexico, get off the beaten track, and be pleasantly surprised by the destination’s rich cultural, geographical, and historical diversity.
Veracruz’s history began with its indigenous populations the Olmec (the first known civilization in the current Veracruz territory which settled in the Coatzacoalcos River region over 3,500 years ago), Huastecs, and the Totonacs. In fact, the famous Olmec head of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is one of Mexico’s most enduring ancient symbols (so much so that you’ll find replicas in miniature at virtually any airport gift shop). With its obvious African features, this ancient relic raises many questions about who really first “discovered” the new world.
Veracruz state has a plethora of magical ruins and historical sites. These include Cempoala, El Zapotal, Castillo de Teayo, Las Higueras, Pánuco, Quiahuiztlán, Tres Zapotes as well as the famous San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán and El Tajín.
The Totonacs were the first people to have contact with the Spanish when Hernán Cortés floated to the coastline just north of where the port at Veracruz city sits currently and Veracruz is considered the birthplace of the modern Mexican race – the “mestizo” - as it is where the Spaniards first mixed with the indigenous population. It later became home to the majority of Mexico’s afro-Mexican population, as Veracruz is where Mexican territory most directly touched the Caribbean slave trade. It is this history that gives the state of Veracruz its distinct personality… not to mention its distinctive Caribbean-influenced cuisine and festive atmosphere!
Veracruz’s Spanish colonial era was marked by the settlement or expansion of several cities laying along the trade route between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz that today offer fantastic glimpse into the history of the era. Xalapa, Orizaba, and Córdoba all possess considerable colonial charisma and are recommended for travelers looking to immerse themselves in the real Mexico.
And then there’s the port city of Veracruz itself, the state’s capital and major cultural and historical attraction – a different sort of Mexican costal city that offers an abundance of museums, colonial architecture, festivals, and some of Mexico’s most effusive and friendly folks - a city not to be missed.
Don’t forget the town of Poza Rica, which not only serves as a gateway to the archeological site El Tajín about 10 miles north but to the Costa Esmeralda and the town Tecolutla which boast some of the Gulf Coast’s most spectacular beaches.
The state of Veracruz also offers much for nature lovers. Geographically, the state has a diverse climate that changes, dramatically, from one region to another. The coast and south of the state offer hot, tropical weather while the Pico de Orizaba at 5,610 m (18,405.5 ft) above sea level is downright cold. The northern parts of the state have areas that are quite temperate.
As you might imagine, the state offers much in the way of ecotourism including its many rivers such as the city of Boca del Río’s jungly Río Jamapa. The state has some 40 rivers to explore as well as over a dozen beautiful valleys.
Visitors to the area can also walk the state’s 430 miles of shoreline and try to count the 182 different species of butterflies that can be found in the area.
Off the shores of Veracruz are 17 reefs, some forming small islands above the sea. The reefs link with the reefs off the states of Campeche and Yucatán.
Veracruz also has one of the richest varieties of wildlife in the western hemisphere. The state has a large population of endemic insects and birds. Because of their number of endemic birds, Veracruz is part of Birdlife International’s Endemic Bird Area (EBA) project.
From the snow capped mountains of Pico de Orizaba to the jungles of the tropical south, from the lively Caribbean flavor of the port city of Veracruz and its huge Carnival celebration (the largest outside of Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans’s Mardi Gras) to its many hidden historical delights, like the town of Papantla, as well as some of Mexico’s most unique colonial cities, the state of Veracruz, Mexico really has something for everyone in setting that, thankfully, is not over-touristed… which, of course, is part of its charm.