Veracruz is both a state in Mexico and the name of that state's largest city. The city of Veracruz (called either Puerto de Veracruz or Veracruz Ciudad to distinguish it from the state) is the country's primary seaport on the Gulf of Mexico, about 200 miles from Mexico City. It is about two days' (or one very long day) drive from the Texas border, and has a subtropical climate with plenty of jungle and banana trees, although it does get cold in the inland mountains, with perpetual snow in the higher elevations. Veracruz's state capital is Jalapa, which also is home to the best music school in the country. The state has a population of about 6.7 million, and an area of 71,000 square kilometers (slightly smaller than South Carolina).
Many say that Veracruz is very much like the Mexico of the past, in that it is exotic, it is not Americanized, and yet it is very affordable. Still, Veracruz is one of the most modern states of Mexico, and one of the most economically productive. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was much French, German, and Spanish immigration into Veracruz state, and in earlier years there was an influx of people from Africa because of its importance as a port in the slave trade. All of this makes Veracruz a very ethnically and culturally diverse area.
The port city of Veracruz is very Caribbean in style; not only the food is reflective of exotic locations like Trinidad or Brazil, but it also shows in the local music scene -- street bands performing with steel drums, for example. It is also home to the Naval Academy of Mexico, which means many Mexican sailors can be seen in town, as well as sailors from other visiting countries. Other sights in Veracruz include the Veracruz Aquarium, the Santiago Bulwark (home to the History Museum of Veracruz), the Museum of the Revolution, and the city's historic cathedral. However, Veracruz is known more for its lively culture than its museums; in that respect it has been favorably compared to pre-Castro Havana with its sidewalk cafes and European influence. In fact, there are a fair number of Cuban immigrants in Veracruz.
Much as in Brazil or in cities in the Caribbean, Veracruz is known for its Carnival, complete with music, dances, and parades. Year-round, Veracruz is known as a destination for fans of latin music, and many of the different styles from throughout Latin America have not only flourished here individually, but have intermingled to form new styles of music. Most famously, the pop hit "La Bamba" was adopted from a local Veracruz musical style known as "son jarocho." It is not unusual to walk through a city square and hear five different musical genres from various cafes!
Of course, being a port city, Puerta de Veracruz is also known for its seafood. The local style is fish "á la Veracruzana," which is fish filet in a tasty creole-style sauce -- this "salsa Veracruzana" is also popular throughout the rest of Mexico. The coasts of Veracruz are home to many aquatic treats, including snapper, grouper, oysters, shrimp, and crab. Other specialties include a shredded seafood hash known as salpicón, and arroz a la tumbada, (a rice dish with not only the seafood elements of fish, shrimp, conch, crab, and octopus, but also spicy chiles). Veracruz is also known for a chile chipotle (which they call chile seco), which is used in sauces or is mixed with mayonnaise to make a dip for shrimp or crab.
In Prehispanic times the Olmec, Huastec, and Totonac cultures developed in the area currently known as Veracruz. They are conserved in a number of archaeological sites throughout the area.
In 1518 the Veracruz area was the site where the Spanish conquest of Mexico began. The expedition of Juan de Grijalva explored the coastal areas of what are now Veracruz and Tabasco. Later that year, Hernan Cortez landed at Chalchihuecan, and in April of 1519, he founded what is now the oldest Spanish city in North America, which became known in 1599 as "Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz" (Rich Village of the True Cross), now known as Veracruz. Later the Spanish also founded "Villa de Santiesteban del Puerto" (Pánuco) in the north of Veracruz state, and "Villa del Espiritu Santo" (Coatzacoalcos) in the south. The Spanish made Veracruz a primary port for the transfer of people and goods to and from Spain. Other important Spanish cities in the Veracruz area were Orizoba and Córdoba.
After the Mexican War of Independence, it was in Córdoba that the treaty between Mexico and Spain was signed, acknowledging Mexico as an independent nation. Later, in 1823, in the city of Veracruz itself, Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana proclaimed his Plan de Casamata. This proclamation declared that Santa Ana did not recognize Agustin de Iturbide as emperor of an independent Mexico, leading to the Mexican republic. After the ratification of the Constitution of 1824, the first president of the Mexican Republic was General Guadalupe Victoria, who had also been the first governor of Veracruz state after the revolution.
In 1838 Veracruz was where the French first attacked when invading Mexico in the so-called French Pastry War. It was also a primary target during the US-Mexican War of the 1840's, and after it fell it was an important shipping destination for war materials to supply the US troops. And during the War of Reform of 1858-60, Benito Juarez established the federal government headquarters in Veracruz, and approved various liberal judicial reforms which still form the political nature of Mexican government.
Emperor Maximilian, the Habsburg, entered Mexico at Veracruz in 1864 when he came to establish the Second Mexican Empire. His body left at the same port three years later, when his armies were defeated and the Republic was reestablished. Years later, Veracruz once again became the seat of a new Mexican federal government after the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Today, despite being modernized, Veracruz is a relatively quiet and laid-back area of Mexico. While it was once a busy destination for cruise ships, whose passengers would then take the train to Mexico City, the advent of air travel has slowed the rush of foreign tourists to Veracruz. These days the train usually brings Mexicans from Mexico City to the coast instead.
Since it is neither a metropolitan city like Mexico City or a border city like Tijuana, tourists who speak only English will have a more difficult time in Veracruz than in the popular resort cities (like Acapulco). Still, Veracruz has much to offer to travellers, whether they are looking for music, food, or just rest and relaxation.