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In old Veracruz...ships, seafood, and marimba bands.

Sooner or later if you travel much in Mexico, you're bound to pass through Veracruz--the oldest colonial city on the Gulf of Mexico. near here, Hernan Cortes launched his conquest in 1519. The French army landed to install the illfated puppet emperor Maximilian in 1864. And twice (in 1847 and 1914) U.S. forces invaded and occupied the city.

Today, the republic's largest port bustles with foreign freighters, Mexico's naval armada, and fishing boats. We enjoy Veracruz for its unhurried pace, delicious seafood, and palpable history. Consider spending a night or two here, especially if you're bound for the archeological zone of Zempoala, about 25 miles northwest. The port city can also be included on a three-day or longer loop drive that passes through Jalapa, capital of the state of Veracruz, and culture-rich Puebla, capital of Puebla state (see map).

Some 265 miles east of Mexico City, Veracruz (population 500,000) was unaffected by the earthquakes of September 1985. Mexicana has daily 45-minute flights from Mexico City, and rental car agencies operate at the Veracruz airport. Winter brings relief from the tropical heat, but humidity is high year-round. The Mardi Gras celebration here (February 8 through 11 this year) doesn't rival the blowouts in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, but it is Mexico's most frenetic pre-Lenten carnival, with hotels booked months ahead. If you visit during January, you may see and hear dance groups practicing late into the night along the waterfront Malecon promenade.

Like New Orleans, Veracruz has a creole cuisine--an amalgam of Spanish and French styles--featuring local foods. Best known is the dish huachinango a la veracruzana--baked red snapper topped with a sauce of tomatoes, capers, olives, onions, and mild chilies.

For memorable dining, try one of the outdoor cafes facing the Plaza de Armas. Over the years, we've come to prefer Prendes for seafood. Good choices are red snapper, broiled robalo (snook), and pulpo en su tinta (octupus stewed in its own ink). While you eat, marimba bands keep up the Caribbean beat from noon to midnight (the standby is "Veracruz" by hometown composer Augustin Lara), and passing vendors tempt you with everything from coral jewelry to models of Spanish galleons.

For fresh shrimp or oysters, try one of the rustic restaurants on the lagoon at Mandinga, about 12 miles south of town.

Veracruzanos take their coffee as seriously as the English take their tea. Near the plaza, at Cafe la Parroquia on Independencia, locals linger over coffee brewed in century-old espresso machines. Ask for cafe con leche: a waiter will bring a glass and pour strong black coffee to the level you signal (tap the glass with the spoon), then top it off with scalding milk. A newer Cafe Parroquia is on the Malecon.

Historic sites. Overlooking the harbor, the Castillo de San Juan de Ulua was begun in 1528. Inside this cavernous stone fortress, you can imagine Spanish soldiers garbed in heavy leather armor sweating it out behind gun portals as buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake attacked. It's open daily except Mondays; there's a small admission fee.

The ruins of Zempoala make a good halfday outing. Founded around A.D. 1200 by the Totonac culture, Zempoala was later controlled by the Aztecs. Here, Cortes made a military alliance with the Totonacs that would doom the Aztec empire. Temples built of black ovoid stones are rimmed by fields of sugar cane.

Lodging. Hotels cater mostly to Mexican tourists. In town, they include the Colonial on the plaza, which has an indoor swimming pool. On the Malecon, the newly revamped Emporio has an outdoor pool and tennis courts.

South of town on the beach are the remodeled Torremar Resort, the comfortable Hotel playa Paraiso, and the venerable Hotel Mocambo with colonial-style rooms. Each has a restaurant and one or more outdoor pools. Rates run $42 and up for a double. Although gentle Gulf surf laps the sand, these beaches can't compare with those on the Caribbean.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Veracruz, Mexico
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jan 1, 1986
Words:660
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