Things to Do in Veracruz
It’s easy to see why Xalapa, the capital city of the state of Veracruz, is fondly referred to as the San Francisco of Mexico. This colorful urban center has the same laid back charm and electric night life, with an equally youthful vibe. College students buzz through Xalapa’s hilly city streets aboard quick moving scooters, while well-heeled business men and women make their way to work through the bustling business district.
Dozens of popular cafes that line the streets of Xalapa, where, students, travelers and the city’s cultural elite brush elbows over steaming cups of strong brew. The country’s second-largest archaeological collection is housed in the city’s Museo de Antropologia and travelers say the grounds of this unique landmark are worth a visit. The collection of exhibits, which outlines the traditions and artwork of the Totonac and Huastec people, provide a comprehensive history for first-time visitors. Nearby Parque Ecologico Macuiltepetl, a tranquil 40-hectare park, is home to plenty of running trials and offers impressive views of the Xalapa skyline from atop an extinct volcano.
The so-called "Coffee Capital of Mexico," Coatepec is one of Veracruz’s most alluring pueblos mágicos (magic towns) where coffee, culture, and cloud forests combine. Situated at the foothills of the Cofre de Perote, Coatepec—once a sacred Aztec site now strewn with cafés and an impressive orchid garden—offers a quieter alternative to nearby Xalapa.
Created by a volcanic eruption millennia ago, Lake Catemaco (Laguna Catemaco) is best known for its non-native population of Stumptail Macaque monkeys. Take a boat to Monkey Island or get spiritual during the annual Witchcraft Festival, before using the lake as a jumping-off point for exploration of the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve.
One of the most enigmatic yet well-preserved archaeological ruins in the state of Veracruz, the UNESCO-recognized El Tajín is characterized by relief carvings, dozens of ball courts, and unique architectural features not found at other Mesoamerican sites. Highlights of this expansive complex include the 6-story Pyramid of the Niches, the Southern Ball Court, and the regular "Danza de los Voladores" performances.
During early morning hours the Malecon stretching between Veracruz and Boca del Rio fills with local runners jogging along the scenic path that wraps around the ocean’s edge. But by mid-afternoon, it’s travelers that flood the area known for its pre-colonial architecture and fine views of imposing naval ships. Stalls selling handmade crafts and traditional food line the area, and happy couples stroll the promenade eating ice cream cones on hot summer days while listening to musicians perform mariachi music in the streets.
The Malecon’s relaxing daytime vibe comes alive at night, when cool breezes bring locals back outdoors to enjoy refreshing drinks at the crowded tables of nearby cafes as traditional folk dancers and live musicians stage acts in the open air.
Wonder at the more than 250 native and international species, spread across 10 exhibitions and ranging from ethereal jellyfish to salt-water sharks and even penguins, at the Veracruz Aquarium (Acuario de Veracruz). Considered one of the largest aquariums in Latin America, it's focused on marine conservation and education.
San Juan de Ulua is a maze of historic fortresses and prison cells on a shadowy island overlooking the once-busy port of Veracruz. Constructed in 1956, the fort is home to a dark history that includes captured naval fleets, African slave trade and international treasure.
During the nineteenth century the imposing stone walls and deep dungeons of San Juan de Ulua served as a prison for Mexican political activists. The views from the old lookout tower make it a popular attraction, but a hidden chapel on the southwest side of the structure, massive treasure storage rooms and the dungeon of San Juan de Ulua, which housed the legendary bandit Chucho el Roto, are also worth a look.
At a cool elevation of 4,000 feet (1,220 meters), the Veracruz uplands have the perfect climate for growing Mexican coffee. At the Coatepec Coffee Museum, you can learn about some of the secrets behind Veracruz’s coffee, from its rich history in this part of Mexico to its production. Plus, you can taste coffee samples and take some local beans home with you.
While best known for vanilla production, proximity to the El Tajín ruins, and views of the striking Sierra Papanteca mountains, Papantla is also an attractive pueblo mágico (magic town) with a rich indigenous culture. Here, learn about the Totonac people at the Takilhsukut Theme Park and catch a live "Danza de los Voladores" performance.
Impressively preserved and brightly colored colonial architecture characterizes downtown Tlacotalpan, a UNESCO-recognized former river port city. Highlights include the whitewashed San Cristóbal Church, the salmon-pink Church of the Candelaria, and the striking riverside sunsets.
More Things to Do in Veracruz
One of Mexico’s lesser-visited archaeological ruins, Quiahuiztlán offers a quieter alternative to similar Totonac sites such as El Tajín or Cempoala. Highlights include commanding views over the Gulf of Mexico, numerous tombs, and the remains of both pyramids and a ball court.
Lively dance performances, roaming street vendors, and proximity to some of the city’s top attractions—such as salsa clubs, an 18th-century cathedral, and an imposing fortress—characterize the pedestrianized Veracruz Zócalo. Use the zócalo as a jumping-off point for further exploration of the city or relax in the café-filled arcades which line the square.
Cempoala—a name that means “the place of twenty waters”—is a set of ancient ruins in the heart of Ursulo Galvan that was once inhabited by the Totonac, Zapotec and Chinantecas people. This historic district’s name came from the aqueducts and irrigation systems that once flowed to the nearby gardens and fertile farmland. Travelers can explore the numerous temples that comprise the Zona Arqueologica de Cempoala, an archaeological site that includes a few landmarks that are not to be missed.
Templo las Caritas, the temple of charity, is a two-story structure decorated by hundreds of stucco skulls that pays homage to the god of death. Ornate murals and detailed clay faces, as well as a hall of hieroglyphs, make it a unique place for travelers to touch the ancient past. Templo del Sol, also known as the great pyramid, is similar to the Sun Temple in Tenochtitlan. It’s built on the same ground as the Templo Mayor and affords beautiful views of Cempoala.
Glimpse into Mexico’s complex past in historically rich La Antigua, thought to be one of the first Spanish towns in Mexico. Highlights include some of the country’s oldest surviving colonial buildings, such as the 16th-century home of Hernán Cortés and what’s thought to be the oldest church in the Americas, Ermita del Rosario.