Often overlooked by tourists to the country, the coastal state of Veracruz has a wealth of hidden gems for you to discover, with charming colonial towns and awe-inspiring archaeological sites tucked away amongst breathtakingly beautiful landscapes.
Lying alongside the glimmering Gulf of Mexico, it was here in Veracruz that the Spanish founded their first settlements and attempted to conquer the Aztecs. There are lots of interesting historical sights and cultural landmarks to be found in picturesque towns such as Tlacotalpan and La Antigua, while the mesmerizing Mesoamerican ruins at La Tajin count amongst the most impressive in the country.
Map of Veracruz, Mexico
Click to enlarge
With the towering snowcapped Orizaba also on show – Mexico’s highest mountain – and beautiful beaches along the Gulf for you to check out; Veracruz has a lot to offer.
Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, the laidback town of Coatepec is a lovely place to visit that is known for one thing and one thing only – coffee. Surrounded by endless farms, coffee plantations, and cloud forests, the town has long produced some of the best coffee in the country, with ‘La Vereda’ and ‘Bola de Oro’ being among the most popular.
As such, no visit to Coatepec can ever be complete without trying at least a couple of its famous brews, and there are loads of places around town where you can grab a cup or two.
While its coffee is undeniably delicious, Coatepec actually has much more to offer. The center of town is full of magnificent old colonial buildings, and lots of restaurants and bars sell traditional local fare. The best time of year to visit is in September when the whole town springs to life to celebrate San Jeronimo, its patron saint.
Nowadays a small, sleepy fishing village, it was at Villa Rica that Hernan Cortes, the famous Spanish explorer, established the first European settlement in the Americas north of Panama, all the way back in 1519. Meaning ‘Rich Village,’ Villa Rica was named after all the gold the Spanish found in the area.
While the dusty remains of some buildings constructed by Cortes can still be seen in town, within five years of its founding, the town had been relocated to what is now the bustling port city of Veracruz. Since then, time and history have passed Villa Rica by, and most people now visit for its lovely beach and laidback vibe.
Designated as one of Mexico’s pueblos magicos – or magical towns – by the country’s tourism board, Orizaba is a delight to visit, with historical sights, cultural attractions, and breathtaking nature all on offer. Set in a scenic spot in a valley high in the mountains, Orizaba is very attractive, with lovely parks surrounding its colonial center and a lazy river meandering through town.
Besides a brilliant art museum boasting a large collection of Diego Rivera paintings, the undoubted highlight is the majestic art nouveau architecture of the Iron Palace that was built by Gustave Eiffel himself.
The town also has lots of great cafes and restaurants scattered here and there, with plenty of delicious local fare for you to try out. While visiting Orizaba, be sure to take an exhilarating cable car ride to the top of Cerro Borrego, which offers up fantastic views of the town below and the awe-inspiring Pico de Orizaba – the country’s highest mountain.
Home to the crumbling ruins of several vast fortresses, squares, and temples, the Mesoamerican archaeological site of Cempoala is fascinating to wander around, and history lovers will delight at the elegant architecture. Founded around 1,500 years before the arrival of the Spanish, Cempoala was once a significant settlement; around 25-30,000 people would have lived there, and it was even the capital of Totonocapan for a while.
Defeated by Aztec armies in the 15th century, Cempoala slowly declined, so all we can see today are the remains of a once flourishing city. The most impressive on show are the Templo del Sol – or Great Pyramid – and the interesting designs and ornamentation found on the sides of El Pimiento and Templo Las Caritas.
Located at the heart of the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas – a mountainous belt that lies right next to the Gulf of Mexico – the glistening Lago de Catemaco is a great place to head if you want to kick back and relax. There are lots of pristine beaches and fun watersports for you to check out.
Ringed by gently rolling hills, the large freshwater lake is perfect for swimming in; many people take boat trips out to the small, isolated islands that dot its waters, with some of them home to different species of monkey.
It is well worth staying a few days at the sleepy lakeside town of Catemaco, as the area surrounding the lake has lots of beautiful rivers, waterfalls, and mountains for you to check out, and there is some fantastic birdwatching to be had.
The second oldest Spanish settlement in the country, La Antigua was founded by Hernan Cortes all the way back in 1525. The crumbling, vine-covered ‘Casa de Cortes’ that dates to his time is now one of the town’s main attractions. A very peaceful and pleasant place to spend some time, La Antigua’s cobbled streets are fantastic for getting lost in, and stopping off at one of the excellent seafood restaurants is simply a must.
The other main sight in town is the Ermita del Rosario church, which is widely considered to be the oldest Spanish-built structure in the Americas. Other than that, there is not all that much to do in La Antigua besides taking a relaxing cruise down the Rio Antigua and lazily watch the world go by.
Tucked away in the highlands in the interior of the state, Xalapa, the capital city of Veracruz, has a vivacious and youthful feel to it, thanks to its large student population. Its universities have long had a profound influence on the city, and its arts and culture scene is thriving due to its many theaters, museums, and bookshops.
Nightlife is great to experience in Xalapa too, with lots of trendy bars and nightclubs for you to check out. Besides the lovely colonial architecture on show in the center of town, the main attraction is the wonderful anthropological museum that hosts a huge collection of Mesoamerican artifacts.
Lying on the north bank of the Rio Papaloapan, Tlacotalpan is full of beautiful, colonial-era architecture; it is not without reason that it is also known as the ‘Pearl of the Papaloapan.’ Once an important river port, riches flowed into Tlacotalpan and funded the building of all the magnificent buildings we see before us today.
Painted in an eclectic mix of blues, pinks, yellows, and oranges, the colonial buildings are beautiful to behold, with life in the peaceful town revolving around its two main plazas of Parque Hidalgo and Plaza Zaragoza. As there is not all that much to do in Tlacotalpan, it’s best to just bask in the ambiance and wander around town, taking in all the fantastic sights.
Known as ‘Puerto’ to locals, the bustling city of Veracruz is home to Mexico’s largest and most important port; as such, it has long attracted people to its shores. Due to this, the city exhibits a dazzling array of different cultures. This intoxicating mix is best experienced through its cuisine and music scene, which showcases indigenous, Spanish, and Afro-Cuban influences.
Famed for its pounding nightlife, Veracruz is loads of fun to visit. February is a particularly good time to stop by as its raucous carnival celebrations bring the city to a standstill. Founded by the Spanish all the way back in the early 16th century, Veracruz has some lovely colonial-era architecture on show, with its two historic forts amongst its many highlights. Ambling peacefully along its harborside boardwalk is a great way to take in the sights and sounds of the city.
The breathtaking and expansive ruins of El Tajin are among the most well-preserved and impressive in Mesoamerica, and no visit to Veracruz can ever be complete without exploring the amazing archaeological site. Once one of the largest cities in the region, El Tajin flourished for centuries, with palaces, ball courts, and temples springing up – until the city’s fortunes waned around the year 1200.
Wandering around the crumbling ruins that tower over you is a mesmerizing experience as you follow in the footsteps of the people who once lived here; the vast Pyramid of the Niches is the undoubted highlight. For history lovers interested in learning more about El Tajin and its many beautiful buildings, it is a good idea to hire a tour guide who can explain all the elegant designs and motifs you come across.