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Lose Your Heart and Maybe Your Pants in Veracruz

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

LATIN MEXICO
If you tell someone you’re going to Veracruz, they may ask, “What is the name of your ship?”
There’s no cruise to Vera. Veracruz is the Mexican state that borders the Gulf of Mexico. It isn’t the typical Mexican resort area and not easily accessible. Few natives speak English.

But don’t sweat those things. This affordable destination oozes with charm. Like the Latin beat of Danzon - the Tuesday evening social dancing in the zócalo (city square) - Veracruz has a rhythm of its own. Whether it is the pounding of the Pescado River or the surf at Boca del Rio’s beaches, the tantalizing music of Agustín Lara, the ruins of El Tajin or the World Heritage Site, Tlacotalpan (pronounced ta-lock-tal-pan), Veracruz reverberates with tradition and history.
The locals, Jarochos (ha-roe-shows), are friendly, fun-loving people.
 “We have music inside. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, locals will try to talk to you just to make you feel comfortable,” says our guide, Myra Luna.

True. Veracruz City’s Plaza de Armas (zócalo) is alive with smiling people and food, tchotchke and balloon vendors. Like most colonial Spanish cities, a Cathedral and Palacio de Gobierno frame it. On Sunday night, its illuminated buildings glow while white-suited pre-teen boys dance around fan waving, white lace-clad, young girls.
Once walled, the city is Mexico’s largest port. A 470-year-old, massive, coral-walled, Moorish-styled Castillo de San Juan de Úlua protected it from marauders like Sir Frances Drake and John Hawkins. It was also the backdrop for the chase scene in the movie, Romancing the Stone.

A ride past Boca del Rio reveals resorty stuff- sandy brown beaches, big hotels and nightclubs. But the Jarochos hang out at La Gran Café La Parroquia, near Marina Mercant. They sip java in a glass about 1/3 full and topped off with hot milk.
A slushy, fruit-filled sorbet-like concoction, nieves, is a very addictive favorite. In Veracruz City nieves hawkers shout “güera, güera” (sounds like waya waya) at passersby. It means white skin person.


EXPLORING

One day, we travel south to sleepy Tlacotalpan. It hasn’t changed since 1778. The zócalo’s Moorish-domed gazebo and English garden are a favorite napping spot for town pooches. Arches and white pillars adorn bright pink, gold and blue homes, a stunning contrast to the white church across the curved street. Nearby, a former lover’s lane, Spooking Island, freaked out passersby with love-making sounds. Once lights were installed, amour fizzled.
Speaking of lovers, Tlacotalpan native and songwriter, Agustín Lara, had nine, beautiful wives. In-between wives, he wrote 400 songs--You Belong to My Heart and rousing ones about Spain-Valencia, Madrid and Granada. The local bar, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” has Lara memorabilia plus many flavors of Toritos liqueur. Peanut is yummy.
North of Veracruz sits Zempoala (or Cempoala). This was Totonaca (toe-tun-nock-a) territory. The stucco and coral they used to cover pyramids and platforms glitter in the sunlight. Hernán Cortés thought it was a “city of silver.” So, he promised an end to Montezuma’s high tariffs and human sacrifice if the natives converted to Catholicism and joined forces against Montezuma.
In 1519 on Good Friday, Cortés tied down his ships and planted a cross here. He dubbed it Veracruz (true cross). Today, gnarled roots twine around his 22-room castle ruins in nearby Antigua. The church he built in 1523
still stands.

A few hours north sits El Tajin. Built between 300 and 900 A.D, 30,000 people once populated its 17 ballcourts, 168 palaces, pyramids and altars. Pirámide de los Nichos rises 656 feet. Niches -one for each for each day of the year- punctuate six receding tiers. No one knows their exact meaning.
Every hour, both outside the El Tajin complex and in the nearby Papantla, flutes and drumbeats signal the Papantla Fliers tribute to the gods. Five vibrantly costumed Totonacs climb a 118-foot pole. One fellow stays atop while the four others wind long leather strips around their bodies and fling themselves off the top. Dangling by their feet and looking like a human Maypole, they make 13 revolutions until slowly reaching the ground. It is dizzying.

ADVENTURE
But, my most memorable adventure is the 18km, 22-rapid Pescado River rafting adventure. Our guide, Arturo, launches our raft over a 25-foot cliff. My non-swimmer husband, Lou, turns pale. Another guy, Algo, sits in a kayak on the 10-foot cliff.
“If you are into kayaking, try water,” I say.
“I will. I am your safety boat,” he says and hurls himself off the cliff.
At the second rapid, the raft smashes into a four-foot-high rock. It sits at a 45-degree angle. Lou joins the fish.
Getting my six-foot-plus husband back into the raft is challenging. Arturo - almost a foot shorter and 100 lbs. lighter - tries. It doesn’t happen. Algo retrieves the oars and comes to the rescue. Meanwhile, the raft’s position shifted. The water now reaches my neck.

Lou is rescued but the craft is still stuck. We jump into the water, hang onto a rope and are towed feet first to some slippery rocks. The raft is righted.
Algo puts his kayak atop the raft. He, Arturo and I are now paddle control. The river flows through an orchid-walled canyon. Only the sound of water is audible. Spread-winged cormorants dry themselves on rocks. We pass fisherman, laundresses, rapids, kids frolicking in the water and a guy washing his horse. More rapids. Luckily, Algo and Arturo are adept.
After returning to camp, Lou comes out of the men’s bathroom, looks at me and says, “Are you wearing my pants?”
He is serious. If I were wearing his pants, they would be dragging on the ground. His pants have vanished.
Back home, I upload the pictures. Lou was wearing his pants when we began the paddle. Apparently, they left him during his fish visit. Fortunately, he was wearing a bathing suit. Otherwise, checking into the hotel could have been a problem.
Veracruz is such fun, we can’t wait to return. This time, Lou will bring some extra pants.

IF YOU GO
Visit the Mexican Tourism Office website: www.visitmexico.comBecause of crime in the area, the State Department has issued a travel advisory to exercise caution.

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