If I were to be angling for clicks I would be far better off writing about the Yucatan or Oaxaca. Still, being a fan of off-the-beaten-path places, I can’t help but share my impressions of this wonderful authentic slice of Mexico.
If you’re a curious traveler who enjoys exploring somewhere a bit different, then Veracruz might be just your jam!
I loved visiting this Mexican state that’s blissfully free of tourist crowds, letting you discover for yourself some places many people have never heard of.
What to expect
While researching Veracruz you may come across some information that may not inspire you to pack your bags right away.
But don’t let this throw you off.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: it’s true that Veracruz is a rainier and more humid part of Mexico.
Hugging the Gulf of Mexico, Veracruz is very much exposed to the elements, with the rainy season lasting longer than in, say, the Yucatan. And if you’re unlucky, you may have a rainy day or two even during the dry season.
But there are two sides to this coin. I’m told that since the climate is not 100% optimal, Veracruz just isn’t where most of the resorts were built, which kept a lid on tourism development. So if you travel just for the experience of getting to know a country, then this may in fact be music to your ears.
It’s also said the beaches aren’t as beautiful as in the Yucatan or Pacific Coast. There is a truth to this as the sand tends to be darker and the waters not as still or glittering as on the Caribbean side. If you’re coming to Mexico just for beaches then this isn’t the obvious place, though there are luckily some exceptions to this rule if you’d still like to add a dash of beach time. (I much enjoyed the beaches north of Catemaco.)
Besides this, Veracruz is not so concerned with tourism, basically doing its own thing. Expect to need some Spanish knowledge or some patience translating things on your phone. Unlike other regions, I saw English menus or signs only sparingly.
I wouldn’t maybe recommend Veracruz if it’s your first-ever time in Mexico or if you are looking for a perfect resort-focused Mexican holiday. However, domestic tourism does ensure there’s a decent amount of travel infrastructure and plenty of accommodation.
If you give Veracruz a chance, it’s sure to surprise you. It’s home to some lovely but overlooked pueblos magicos, thundering waterfalls, gentle coffee country, epic ancient ruins (bafflingly devoid of crowds) and cities where local life continues undisturbed.
Destinations in Veracruz
My first stop in Veracruz was the epic archeological site of El Tajin, which comprises dozens of temples and other structures built by a mysterious civilization sometime before the Aztecs.
Even though this site is easily on par with the likes of Palenque or Chichen Itza, I found hardly anyone there, offering a remarkable chance to explore a city of this stature in complete peace.
On my weekday visit to El Tajin, there were at most a dozen other visitors, which is difficult to imagine at the more popular Pre-Columbian sites in Mexico.
It turns out you can still explore big ancient ruins in Mexico while feeling like Indiana Jones! Visiting this impressive site and hearing only the tropical birds from the surrounding forest is rather magical and almost worth going this way out for in itself.
To get to El Tajin I took a coach bus from Mexico City’s northern terminal to Poza Rica, where I stayed the night.
I should say that Poza Rica is not a particularly beautiful city. This industrial oil town lacks any sort of heritage architecture, and you can even see small oil derricks pumping up petroleum in some of the residential areas.
It’s not exactly what you’d post on Instagram, but even ugly places can have a different kind of appeal. I found it interesting enough for a stopover, just to see what this regular Mexican city looks like.
El Tajin can be easily reached by local bus from the local bus station (which is not the coach terminal). I stayed at Hostería Poza Rica, which is an accommodation hardly worth mentioning, though it offers decent cabin-sized rooms and clean facilities fit for a budget stay.
I chose Poza Rica as it seemed nearest to El Tajin and easiest for a stopover, though most guides recommend the smaller town of Papantla. This is where you can also witness the Danza de los Voladores — a traditional acrobatic dance.
Oddly enough, there were hardly any accommodation options on Booking.com for Papantla, despite there being quite a few hotels, so this may be one of those places where it’s better to show up in person. Poza Rica was fine for just one night, but if you plan to stay longer, you may wish to go to Papantla instead.
My next stop is the capital of Veracruz and the namesake of the famous Jalapeño Pepper (Jalapeño meaning “from Xalapa”).
This mid-city size is built on several hills, so instead of being on a tight grid, it has many windy streets to explore. It’s a little busy and traffic-choked in some places, though it’s also home to several beautiful green parks where you can get some fresh air. I found it a welcoming and authentic city to be based in for a few nights.
I stayed at the Posada Del Cafeto, a lovely boutique hotel with a garden courtyard that I found to be very reasonably priced.
From the hotel you can explore the parks, such as Los Tecajetes Park, and the lakeside area of Los Lagos which becomes very lively at night. Thanks to being right in the middle of Mexican coffee country, there are many specialty cafes in Xalapa where you can try some excellent local brews.
The Anthropological Museum
The number one attraction in Xalapa by far is the Anthropological Museum. It is simply phenomenal and exceeded all my expectations.
It covers several different pre-Colombian civilizations, including the ancient Olmecs, who were notable for the giant head statues they produced.
In what it covers this museum is the second-best in Mexico only after the larger anthropological museum in Mexico City, but visiting both is definitely not redundant as they each have very different collections.
All the signs are in Spanish only, so be sure to ask for the English audio tour if you can’t read Spanish.
The pueblo magico of Xico
Xalapa makes for a nice base to visit nearby villages.
I especially loved visiting Xico, which is known for its coffee production as well as its own unique take on the dish called mole, made famous by Oaxaca and Puebla but having a different version of it here.
A 45-minute hike (or quick taxi ride) from Xico will take you to the Texolo waterfall. During the dry season when I visited, it gave just a narrow burst of water, but locals showed me photos of it being an absolutely thundering waterfall during the wetter times of the year. In any case, the pools are perfect for cooling down in, and the location inside a canyon is very scenic.
My third and final stop in Veracruz was the ancient volcanic crater lake of Catemaco. When looking for information online you’ll quickly learn it’s the ‘lake of the witches’, as certain spiritual rituals are performed here, mostly as a kind of tourist attraction.
Not being particularly interested in this myself, I should say that I didn’t notice this aspect at all, simply enjoying Catemaco for the lake views, the jungles, and the nearby beaches.
Catemaco is home to the northernmost patch of tropical rainforest in the Americas. Even though you’re at the same latitude as the dry and temperate Puebla state, the climate in Catemaco is much more akin to somewhere like Costa Rica or Chiapas state near Guatemala.
The air is humid and you’ll be sure to see some tropical birds flying around, such as the multi-colored Scarlet Macaws as well as Montezuma oropendolas, which make a strange gurgling song and create big nests that hang from the tree branches.
The whole area is definitely a bit of a hidden gem!
Since I was at the end of a long and tiring trip in Mexico, I chose to relax at Catemaco Lake and stay for six nights in three different spots.
I stayed for one night in Catemaco Town, which is the largest and liveliest settlement. It’s worth staying here if you want to have ample choice in cafes and restaurants and want to be right near the docks from where you can take boat tours. Several restaurants are built on stilts in the water, giving you great sunset views of the lake.
I also stayed a couple of nights at La Cabaña Del Lago in the hamlet of La Victoria south of town. There isn’t much to do here except some kayaking on the lake or taking walks along the lakeshore, but I loved my accommodation, which is family-run and serves homecooked meals. Having a gorgeous view of the lake from my balcony just let me rest and do (almost) nothing for a few days.
Finally, I stayed at Cabañas Ixaya in the hamlet of Dos Amates north of the lake. This settlement is quite basic, having only one or two small general stores, and one lady who serves tortas on her porch until early evening. There are no restaurants or anything in the way of tourist infrastructure here, but I loved staying in this quiet town surrounded by nature. From here it was easy to get to Sontecomapan, a town from where you can take a boat trip via the Sontecomapan Lagoon to the northern beaches.
They say Veracruz State doesn’t have beaches that are as beautiful as on the Pacific or Caribbean coast. It’s true that if you’re looking for perfect white- or yellow-sand beaches with crystal-clear waters, you may have less luck here. But that doesn’t mean that nice beaches don’t exist! Several can be found north of Catemaco, including Playa Escondida and Barra De Sontecomapan. The boat ride there is extremely scenic.
You can see these places (and more) in my vlog from Catemaco:
There are some islands inside the Catemaco Lake where you can spot some monkeys, though I wasn’t particularly motivated to do this when I learned the monkeys were introduced here from Thailand and are being overfed by tourists (a 1-star review on Google literally states “the monkeys are fat”).
For a better nature experience, it’s worth booking a bird-watching trip or guided hike in the Reserva de la Biosfera Los Tuxtlas. A great day trip is to visit Eyipantla Falls, which is a 30-minute drive west of Catemaco Town.
I found Catemaco a wonderfully calming and unspoiled place, home to only some small-scale (mostly domestic) tourism. While having just a few true attractions, it makes for a great destination and can be a great waypoint if you happen to be traveling onward to the Yucatan or Chiapas.
Finally, visiting the city named Heroica Veracruz is one of my travel ideas that was left on the cutting room floor. If I hadn’t run out of time, I’d have visited it as well!
While not primarily a tourist destination, several locals told me about the lively atmosphere in Veracruz City is worth a visit. The city also piqued my interest because it played such a big role throughout Mexican history. If you read the history section of your Mexico travel guide, you’ll surely see Veracruz mentioned constantly.
This is partly because the colonization of Mexico started here, with Cortez landing at a beach a little north of Veracruz City. It was from there that Mexico was gradually conquered. Secondly, being the only deep water port on the Gulf Coast, Veracruz became incredibly strategic to Mexico.
So strategic, in fact, that whenever Mexico had any sort of conflict with another power, their first move would be to blockade or invade Veracruz City. Whether it’s the Brits, the Dutch, the French, or the Americans, they all butted heads with Mexico in- or around Veracruz City, so I was intrigued to visit with all this history in mind.
Alas, I had reached the end of my trip, so it was back to Mexico City for me. But I was glad to have spent time in Veracruz State, which proved to be such a pleasant surprise.
Now you know some of the best places to visit in Veracruz…
There is very little hype for this part of Mexico online, which is precisely why you may want to give it a go.
You may hear statements about the weather or beaches that are technically true, but they hide the fact that Veracruz also has many absolutely wonderful places to visit.
Don’t let its (lack of) reputation discourage you and see it for yourself!
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