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Visit to Veracruz, Mexico

Posted August 1, 2009 3:11 am (about 3851 days ago)

Even though I know of no direct connection to Veracruz for my family, after much thought on different regions of Mexico I finally decided to go there. One reason was its reputation as a heavily-Caribbean influenced region with noticeable African roots, as well as broader cosmopolitan feel due its role as a key port city for hundreds of years. In fact, it was the primary port for the Spanish empire. There’s quite a bit of history here, including piracy, attacks by the United States, and pre-Colombian traditions.

Logistics
I spent time setting up some context as our backgrounds, including gender, ethnicity, sexual-orientation, and physical appearance can impact our travel experiences. As a broad-shouldered, brown-skinned man of color, I can go most places without worrying about being sexually harassed or assaulted, unlike a petite woman. On the flipside, I may have to be more wary of the police and be aware that I may be seen as threatening. I had some specific goals in mind for this trip, but I’m sure I share some of the same feelings as many first-time, relatively monolingual visitors, regardless of background. I don’t normally write about these things, but as relatively few Americans have visited Veracruz I thought I’d throw out some advice.

In terms of actually getting to Veracruz, be patient! All of my flights both to and from were late and I noticed that a good number of other flights were as well. For example, one of my flights arrived an hour late for my connection, which ended up being delayed for three hours, so I still made it. I found the info screens to be unreliable at times so I had to use my poor Spanish quite a bit to figure out what was going on, but people were always helpful. One time I had a six hour lay over, but was waiting in the wrong terminal. Thankfully my flight was 45 minutes late and an airport worker called for a shuttle to pick me up.

As with any travel, pack only what you need and do some research in advance. Trips like these are always more beneficial and enjoyable when you go with some familiarity. Granted, there isn’t a whole lot of information out there about Veracruz, compared to other areas of Mexico, but there’s definitely no excuse to not at least become familiar with the highlights.

The weather in Veracruz is extremely hot and humid during the summer months so dress appropriately and bring an umbrella due to the rain. Sunscreen is definitely recommended, but anything you forget at home you can probably buy as Veracruz is a fair-sized city topping 500,000 people. The airport is super small and you definitely won’t get lost. Cabs are waiting outside, but you have to buy a ticket before leaving the building. You just hand the teller your address and he tells you how much. Simply hand your ticket to the driver and you’re off! (On another note, when it’s time to leave, be sure to eat in advance. Once you pass security, there’s only one small bar with a minimal menu.)

Getting around isn’t terribly hard, even if you speak no Spanish. You’ll quickly recognize landmarks as the main places for visitors are fairly concentrated. For example, simply saying “the aquarium” (in Spanish of course) to a cab driver will get you near a bunch of sights and restaurants. People are very helpful and someone is bound to speak a bit of English. You won’t stay lost for long! Cabs are cheap, buses are cheaper, and walking the cheapest of course. Of course all three have their advantages, depending on what the situation calls for. Always have key addresses and contact info with you when asking for help.

If you’re calling people, make sure you know in advance how to dial the numbers. Early on I had trouble contacting people as I didn’t know the codes for different cell phones when using the payphone. It’s probably worth looking into getting international service for your cell phone as well. I initially had no intentions of using mine, but as I began to meet people it proved to be invaluable in making plans.

Regarding food, I remembered the rule of only drinking bottled drinks, but I broke that rule several times and never got sick. I tried to be mindful of where I ate as well. I just had to trust my gut on if the place looked clean or of the food looked like it had been sitting out for awhile. I ate at several small restaurants with no problems. Ironically, about the only time my stomach acted up was after eating at a mid-level Italian restaurant. A friend threw up after eating at a “nice” restaurant as well. It’s all a crapshoot I suppose, but again, after a week of eating at both urban and rural restaurants, I was fine.

Regarding safety, there are definitely some sketchy areas and I definitely felt more free to explore as I could “blend in.” I spent some time out with White Americans and we got stares at times, but I never felt unsafe. People merely seemed to be curious as there aren’t a lot of foreign tourists in Veracruz. Still, if I was a woman walking by myself or older, there are some places I wouldn’t have gone. I didn’t feel like Veracruz was particularly unsafe, it’s another big city so it has its good and bad areas. As far as I could tell, the main tourist areas are fairly safe and there are lots of people around, unless you’re wandering around at 4 in the morning. Furthermore, there are hoardes of police and military patrolling, complete with automatic weapons and dogs. That may or may not make you feel safer, but you’ll probably get used to it. Does crime happen? Yes, but again, I didn’t feel under siege, nor did anyone I spoke with, who were mostly locals. Again, you have to keep your wits about you! If you see a young cop with a machine gun looking nervous as he guards a building or a group of guys sizing you up, it may be a good idea to walk down a different street. 

Regarding lodging, I literally spent hours before I left the States, trying to figure out where to stay. I didn’t know anyone who had visited before. I knew some people who were from Veracruz, but they didn’t know anything as they stayed with family. I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money to be isolated from the locals, yet I didn’t want to end up in a roach motel with no air conditioning, which in this humid summer weather was no mere luxury. I almost ended up at a Holiday Inn, but fortunately I came across this place and they happened to have one room left. Although it’s a Spanish-language school they allowed me to simply lodge there.

For my needs, this place was perfect. It was spartan, yet safe, clean, and the staff was super-friendly. Rooms were private, complete with bathrooms and air conditioning. The owners, Eric and Linda, who are American, were very helpful, as were all of the staff. Interestingly enough, although most of the staff has a pretty good handle of English, they almost exclusively speak Spanish in an effort to help acclimate foreigners to Mexico. However, even for those who knew no Spanish, it was easy to feel welcome as English was far from banned, and again, everyone was really friendly. Additionally, breakfast and lunch were included, as well as a few excursions. Both the food and the trips reflected local culture and history. The school/house is located near the aquarium, one of Veracruz’s main sites, which is surrounded by a number of good restaurants and bars, and is within spitting distance of the beach. The downtown area was a short bus or cab ride away, or about a 30 minute walk. I met some great people here and would definitely consider staying again.

For my next entry, I’ll discuss some of the touristy areas, as well as my efforts to learn more about the Afro-Mexican history and culture of Veracruz.

Shout outs and thank yous: Cesar Campechano, Cesar Barragan, Evelyn and Luis, JM, Eric, Linda, Kyle, Chris, Alli, Tamica, John, Jasmine

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