Veracruz, Mexico – May 1999
What happened this past week in Veracruz? Glad you asked!
We were celebrating the 480th birthday of the city on April 22nd. I told you this city was a real old timer. Hernán Cortés is credited with founding the city on April 19th in the year 1519.
So why do we celebrate the birthday on the 22nd and not the 19th ? I give up, who knows why? Haven’t been able to get a straight answer yet….
There were various celebrations courtesy of the municipal administration. However, nothing really big was planned.
Now on to this months topic……….
SET THE CONTROLS FOR “PRE-HISPANIC”
Bet you have never seen a T-shirt that said, “Where the hell is Quiahuiztlan ?” Don’t worry….read on and find out where it is.
First some free advice:
Why? Ok, first things first. The highways are not well marked, have no shoulders and are narrow. Many trucks and buses use these roads and will take right of way SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY ARE BIGGER THAN YOU ARE!
Remember what many people say about driving on secondary highways in Mexico at night: It is not a case of “IF” you are going to have an accident, it is a case of “WHEN” you are going to.
That takes care of (a), now on towards (b) and (c).
It is a severe offence in the eyes of the Mexican judicial system to remove or even attempt to remove anything from an archeological zone. Even if you find something that might be considered “pre-hispanic” in an unmarked area, do not try to take it with you. Leave it where it is!
So you want to go retro? In Veracruz, you can go back as far as you want because it was here that modern Mexico began (the cradle of the conquest and all the nastiness that went with it).
Not retro enough? Day trips here can take you to places where civilizations prospered long before the Spanish put sails to the winds and decided to “go a-conquering”.
Don’t confuse the city of modern day Veracruz (please don’t spell it Vera Cruz like many do) with “La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz” (translated as “the rich city of the true cross”), which is a natural harbor about 40 minutes drive north.
Take a walk on the beach where Hernán Cortés and the Spanish Conquistadors took refuge in a natural harbor. Cortés later burned the ships under his command here in an effort to subdue any thoughts of homesickness his boys might have.
Now this is where it gets interesting….recent discoveries point to him having ordered one or two vessels to be dismembered and the wood was used to build a sailors’ quarters and Catholic church and yes, you can walk right up to the spot and take a good look around.
Best news is it’s all free! In fact many of the attractions here are free or insanely cheap! (Unfortunately it cost the indigenous people so much)!
Both Quiahuiztlan and La Villa Rica de la Veracruz are close to Veracruz. Take the Federal Highway #180 north (follow the Cardel-Nautla signs). About five miles or so past the Zempoala – the locals refer to it as Cempoala (say it like “Sem-pwal-ahh) – archeological site you will see what looks like a tall cliff to your left (it is tall enough that you won’t miss it) with what appear to be a multitude of “scratches” on the cliff face.
You have found the place called Quiahuiztlan (key-ah-wheez-tlahn) and it is very close to La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. These “scratches” give an appearance of rain. Hence the name, Quiahuiztlan, which is “place of the constant rain” in the Náhuatl (no kidding, it is pronounced like “now-a-what”) language. Watch for a small sign which signals a left urn to a bumpy, dirt road that snakes its way up to the site.
Quiahuiztlan is an excellent choice for a full-on “day trip”. The site is accessible from 9-5 (ok more like 9:30 till whenever they toss you out, but don’t try to sneak in early as there are watchmen) and is USUALLY CLOSED ON MONDAYS. (And in this case closed means closed).
This site is still being unearthed and has some areas that are off limits to visitors. Remember that off limits means “if you don’t act goofy and you show respect and interest in the work of the archeologists you just might get lucky and get a personal tour of the off limits area”. Keep this in mind and respect the area and work in progress. Don’t just go wandering off and ignore the signs.
There are no services at the site and washroom facilities are extremely rustic. Plan before you go. Try to plan your trip on a day where the weather will be overcast as it can get real hot here with very high humidity (don’t even think about going when it is raining).
Hats are a must and try to wear comfortable but sturdy shoes or hiking boots.
Watch out for the notorious “garrapatas” or ticks lurking in the grass and around dead wood and such. These guys burrow under your flesh and carry the risk of infections just like North American ticks.
I know because I had to have one surgically removed (I still keep it in a bottle and I will show you the scar, but that’s another story) and yes, this is the place where I got it.
The Mexican Government employees that administer the site and the archeologists that are working there can give you tons of details (mostly in Spanish but many of the younger students working there like to practice their English). Here are the basics:
What is the attraction of Quiahuiztlan? Well, for starters it is still relatively unknown to most tourists (a lot of Mexican tourists even overlook its importance and that is a shame).
Most people will opt for a trip to El Tajin (an older more developed and popular site about 2 hours north of Quiahuiztlan and pronounced “El Tah-heen) or the Cempoala or “Zempoala” site which is slightly closer to Veracruz, but just not as mystical as Quiahuiztlan in my opinion. To compare Cempoala to Quiahuiztlan really proves the rule that “up around the next bend there might be something more interesting”.
In Quiahuiztlan you can see history being unearthed before your eyes as it is an active dig site for archeologists. There are rarely any crowds (here 20 people would be a crowd).
When you are through getting your boots dirty, you can head up the highway a short ways and turn to the right to head on another bumpy, dirt road to the tiny village of La Villa Rica de la Veracruz and wash the dust off in the Gulf of Mexico.
There is a small cantina with tasty cold beer (ask for a Caguama “Kah-gwa-mah” as this is slang for a big bottle that measures about a quart and you will have worked up a thirst). The owners usually have 2 or 3 talking parrots to entertain you (or you can entertain them, you can never
really know with parrots). From the shore you can walk to the area where Cortés ordered the burning of the ships and built the barracks and church.
If you are lucky enough to have someone from the area as a guide, ask them about the trail that leads to the look-out area. It is about a half mile walk (easy going) and take your camera.
A word about “guides”. Try to hire them through a travel service or a local expedition service. I can recommend Mr. Paciano Benitez for “culturalecotourismbirdwatching” (pronounced “cultural- ecotourism- birdwatching” just checking to ee if you are awake). Paciano is a bilingual guide and very knowledgeable about the flora, fauna and history of the region. Check out his services.
Plus, I sometimes surf with him and if you hire him he won’t be able to go surfing and I will get more waves heh, heh.
If he shows up in a red Jeep, make sure he has checked the ignition system, if he hasn’t, bring a spare distributor cap (hey, this is real world advice here). Really, he is a gentleman and sincerely interested in the well being of his clients and he has many connections and friends to help him get things done for you.
This month we headed north. Next month we will head 60 miles south to Tlacotalpan (“Tah-lack-oh-tahl-pan”, try to say it fast) in the Cuenca de Papaloapan (good luck pronouncing this one; it took me a few tries to get it). Seafood is on the menu and architecture is on the
agenda (if the editors of this service let me tell you about it)!
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.
This is the tropics and you take the good with the bad. “La Hora Mexicana” is widely practiced with a religious fervor. Guests, friends and such, will arrive late (but only late by your standards), service will be a might inconsistent (you’re travelling right, so what’s the hurry?).
Don’t worry as you will be assured by locals that things will happen “durante del transcurso del dia” which means “whenever I feel like it and please do not preoccupy yourself with such trivial details just enjoy yourself and let me look after it” (this is a rough yet sincerely accurate translation).
A word to the wise: Machismo or “macho attitude” reigns supreme in this patriarchal society and foreign ladies especially will receive all the attention they can handle. Forewarned!
By the way, I am an ex – 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”).