Veracruz, Mexico – July 2000
Sorry it has been a little while since the last dispatch from here in Veracruz. We are now into the rainy season along with soaring temperatures and humidity. Something to remember when visiting the city of Veracruz is to be sure to leave enough time in your schedule (make it a “flexible tropical” schedule) to take in a few day trips off the beaten path. I am real fan of finding out what is around the next corner, and here in Veracruz you are never disappointed. Surprised, shocked and/or amazed perhaps, but never disappointed.
A day trip to Tlacotalpan (pronounced “tlahh-koh-tahl-pahn”) will certainly leave you surprised. This is an old town with a long history. Tlacotalpan actually means “half land” in NÃ¡huatl (pronounced “nah-wat” the letter “L” is silent) and the area surrounding it was first spied by those dreaded Spanish conquistadors in 1518. I told you it was old!
First things first. If you are travelling from Veracruz (the city) or points north, you can take that dreaded (my opinion only) stretch of tarmac called the Mex 180 Coast Highway (see my previous articles regarding this highway and my love/hate relationship with it and yes, I would love to hear your comments and stories about it) south through Alvarado (an interesting fishing port city with very good seafood restaurants near the docks) past the toll booth (that will be 25 pesos please for cars and motorcycles) and watch for your right turn for Highway 175. This turn is clearly marked and is one of the only decent highway interchanges on the entire coast highway (sorry, but after you have lived here a little while you get really excited about stuff like that).
Now the interesting stuff begins. As you continue along you will come to a rather large and high bridge which offers one of the best views in the entire state. You can get a wonderful panoramic view (or picture if you are so equipped) of the entire Papaloapan river basin (la cuenca de Papaloapan). It is a good idea to make a quick (be careful and make it safe) stop to take it all in. Simply put your emergency flashers on and raise the hood if you plan on being awhile.
Follow Highway 175 until the toll booth (yes, that’s another 25 pesos) and simply continue straight along until you come to Tlacotalpan. Now, you might be asking yourself, “What is so great about this place, I can get decent seafood anywhere in Veracruz”? Yes, you can get decent seafood anywhere in Veracruz, but it isn’t everyday that you can visit a small, tropical town which is a virtual “living museum” and recognized by UNESCO. There is an amazing rediscovery happening here by the locals and you can easily join in. The residents of Tlacotalpan (“TlacotalpeÃ±os”) have deep roots stretching from Spanish Creoles, Cubanos, and the Mexican Mestizo (mix of Native and Spanish).
Don’t be alarmed if one or two of the townsfolk hanging out near the bars offer to recite some of the local poetry. The day I arrived with my photographer friend we were treated to a colorful rendition of a poem describing the antics of a honeymooning couple and you can guess the rest… These orations are wonderful if you speak Spanish and understand some of the double entendres which are used throughout Mexico. If you don’t speak Spanish, have someone in your group interpret it for you…and just watch the expression on their face! Good fun for the price of a beer or two and you’ll make a friend for life.
Tlacotalpan is still an important fishing port and you can stroll along the waterfront beside the Papaloapan river or venture off into the town plaza called “Zarragoza Park”. There is a very good little bakery conveniently located in front of the main bus stop just off of the square. The selection is limited, but very tasty!
The great thing about Tlacotalpan is the lack of pressure on tourists. There is none of the madness like the parking lot at Teotehuacan outside of Mexico City and what is now starting to creep into places like El Tajin in the north of Veracruz state. You can walk until you’re thirsty, imbibe until you are sated, sing until you are hoarse, you can do pretty much anything you want and the locals are more than happy to share in your happiness or simply observe. It is true that the TlacotalpeÃ±os feel good when you are having a good time. Many of the residents are well versed in the history of their town and very proud and willing to tell you some of the details.
There are (in my opinion) two very interesting things about Tlacotalpan. First, it was the hometown of one of Mexico’s greatest composers, Augustin Lara. Lara’s work includes the tunes “Brazil”, “Granada”, and “Perdida”. He is revered throughout Mexico and just off the waterfront there is a museum honoring his work. It is worth a look see. Secondly, the architecture is really interesting. There is a fascinating mix of colonial, neo-classic, and art-deco buildings unlike anywhere else in Mexico.
I mentioned earlier that Tlacotalpan is recognized by UNESCO. The recognition is due to the layout of the town and its architecture. Follow this link to read more about the how and why of UNESCO’s interest in Tlacotalpan. The fact is that once you see it with your own eyes, you’ll understand how unique it is, not only in Mexico but throughout the world.
The photos accompanying this article were taken in black and white as a school exercise by one of my students, Joaquin Obieta. Joaquin is completing his high school home study program and he took the pictures for his Intro to Black and White Photography course. We spent a few hours wandering around the town. I imagine that is the whole point of a trip to Tlacotalpan, you can spend a few hours just wandering around, yet you can absorb so much! If you get tired you can rest in one of the rocking chairs that are hand crafted here and probably the most comfortable tropical style furniture you will find.
I found a great article on the internet that can tell you all about the Candelaria Fiesta. It is very complete and worth a read if you are planning on taking it in. Be advised that hotel rooms are few and far between and fill up very fast in Tlacotalpan.
If you are driving during the rainy season from June to October (this is the season that is after the “north wind season” which is from November to May and we only really have the two seasons) be careful as the Papaloapan river can rise very fast and flooding of Highway #175 is a distinct possibility. It usually drains off in a few hours or so but can be rather interesting when you are caught in the middle of it! The Coast Highway Mex #180 is actually half decent in this area and doesn’t flood out like in parts north of the city of Veracruz.
The drive from Veracruz to Tlacotalpan at a leisurely pace (what other kind is there) is around an hour and well worth it with some great views of the coast especially near Alvarado.
The Mexican port city of Veracruz lies at 19’12″N and 96’08″W (latitude and longitude for those retentive types who really want to know where in the world they are). It is smack dab in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico, and tropical in climate and attitude.
Life here is a real mixture….old and new, humble and “in your face”, laid back and “full on party time”. Take what you want and don’t pass judgement on the unknown or untried.
Veracruz operates on Central Time (a bit of an oxymoron as only the buses and planes really operate on time).
What am I talking about? Well, for starters, the siesta is still held in high regard here (and you may bow at its altar in a fetal position everyday after lunch).
Most small businesses and municipal offices will be closed between 2 and 5pm (or so) and sometimes a bank will run out of money and ask for depositors to come forward so you can make a withdrawal (don’t roll your eyes, it happens especially around the 15th and 30th of the month as this is the traditional pay day).
The prices will change in some stores when the owner hears your “Gringo Spanish” (this can actually lead to the honorable practice of haggling over the price and don’t knock it till you’ve tried it and don’t be afraid to give it a go).
The taxi driver will try to overcharge you when he sees your Birkenstocks. The local transit police will try to shake you down for the “mordida” the infamous bribe that fixes things.
DO NOT EVER CONFUSE THE LOCAL TRANSIT POLICE OR AUXILLIARY POLICE WITH THE MEXICAN HIGHWAY PATROL “FEDERALES” AS THIS IS A SERIOUS BREACH OF COOL AND CAN HAVE CONSEQUENCES YOU WILL TELL YOUR GRANDCHILDREN ABOUT.
By the way, I am an ex â€“ patriot Canadian (northern Ontario, Toronto, Ottawa) who is married to a local lady named Alma (who is a mighty fine dentist and orthodontist thanks for asking).
I’ve been living and working here full-time for more than 5 years now. I first “experienced” Veracruz in 1978. (Time flies when you’re chasing lizards).
I am not an expert on Mexico or travel in general but I am an avid practitioner of common sense, and hope I can help you enjoy Veracruz from my humble and extremely subjective point of view (that should take care of the critics and if not I have a Black Belt in the art of “Siesta”).