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Mexico Travel - Veracruz
( Originally Published 1939 - Presented For Historical Purpose )
IT IS THROUGH THE PORT OF VERACRUZ THAT MOST TOURists going to Mexico by water receive their introduction to the country, and unfortunately, like the introduction to the automobile traveler at Nuevo Laredo, the impression is rather disappointing. Nobody could very well call Veracruz an attractive city, with its extreme heat and generally unclean appearance. Most of the hotels are, at best, fair, and all in all, the city has little to offer. However, if you happen to be stuck there for a few hours, there are certain suggestions I can offer which might help to alleviate the tedium somewhat, and if it is your first view of Mexico, it is possible that you will not be bored at all! But please don't judge the rest of the country by it.
Practically the only significant sight in Veracruz is the old FORTRESS OF SAN JUAN DE ULUA. This fortress, standing on an island at the harbor mouth, was built in 1565 and was used as a political and general prison until 1914, when the American invasion of Veracruz took place.
The old fortress is easily reached by one of the launches near the customhouse. The average rate is 4 or 5 pesos an hour, and an hour is ample for a visit to the castle. It is now in use as a naval repair shop, and your guide will very probably make an attempt to show you the various machines. If you have never seen a repair shop before, you will be interested. Otherwise, I suggest that you hurry past and go on to the fortress.
The great courtyard of the fortress is known as La Plaza. Here, facing the courtyard, is the palace where Carranza lived from 1914 to 1917. The palace has now been converted to other uses, and when I was there last, part of it was being used as a naval hospital. Although Mexico declared its independence in 1811, the fortress of San Juan de Ulua was not given up by the Spaniards until 1825, an event which is commemorated by pictures now hanging on the wall of the room used as a hospital ward.
The most interesting part of San Juan de Ulua is the PRISON, which stands on a piece of land separated from the main body of the fortress by a moat. The moat is now dammed at either end, but in former times, when it was open to the sea, it used to be infested with sharks, and at high tide the sea water would flood many of the cells.
The bridge across the moat is new. It used to be a drawbridge, and when the bridge was up, the sharks in the moat and around the wall were a better protection than any high wall could be. The stories told about prison life here are gruesome beyond belief. Each prisoner was allowed only two hours a day in the sun, and a ten-year sentence was considered equivalent to a sen tence of death. One can still see the timbers where the prisoners were spread-eagled and flogged. It is easy to understand why many prisoners preferred the sharks.
Your guide will probably take you to the roof of the prison and show you a shaft, leading down to the water, which was the scene of the most horrible tortures. In the old days, whenever the prisoners showed signs of becoming unruly, they would be hauled up to the roof and forced to witness a most sadistic ceremony. A ringleader would be selected from the group to serve as a test case and lowered on a rope down the shaft until his body was half under water. A little while later, he would be pulled up again, with only one half of him remaining -the other half had been fed to the waiting sharks.
From the roof you will see, in the distance, the little ISLAND OF SACRIFICES, so named because human sacrifices are actually supposed to have been carried on there at the time that Cortes and his men were in Veracruz awaiting permission to go to Mexico City.
There is little else to see in Veracruz. There is a tiny old building called EL SANTO CRISTO, once used as a church, and reputed to be the first building erected by Cortes in Mexico, but this is of no other interest whatever and is worth only a glance.
If you are interested in taking a drive around the city, you will have little difficulty in finding a suitable means of conveyance, for in Veracruz there are taxis in abundance. The rates are pasted on the windows over the right-hand back seat. At the time of writing, these rates were 2 pesos per hour on weekdays and 3 pesos per hour on Sundays and holidays.
It may amuse you to drive out t0 the BEACH OF VILLA DEL MAR. To get there, you will have to drive right along the beach itself, and since the beach is rather narrow, you may find that frequently your outside wheel is running right in the ocean.
The only other interesting spectacle you may see is perhaps a group of buzzards picking up the garbage from the streets and draping themselves around the garbage carts, which are thoughtfully left open for their convenience.
What to Do in Veracruz
Villa del Mar is about the best beach in Veracruz. The beach itself is far from attractive, and looks more like hard-packed mud than light, fine sand. Notwithstanding the evil reputation of Veracruz harbor for sharks, the bathing at the beach seems to be quite safe.
The most popular refreshment ground is under the arcade of the Rexes Hotel. In former days this was church property, but now it is one of the famous rallying places for cool drinks and a chat. Here you will probably be pestered to death by vendors, beggars, and particularly bootblacks. There are so many itinerant bootblacks in Mexico that it almost seems as though half the population makes its money by shining the shoes of the other half.
If you have to stay in Veracruz, you might try the Hotel Diligencia. However, the difference between the best hotels and the poorest is so slight that it does not matter much where you stay.
If you are in Veracruz for lunch or dinner, be sure to eat HUACHINANGO. This is the local name for the fish we know as the red snapper, one of the pleasantest dishes you could possibly find anywhere around the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea. You should have it fried in brown paper. When you remove the paper, the skin comes off with it, leaving the firm, white meat ready for the next step, which is to spread it rapidly with butter. After it has been seasoned to taste with pepper, it is ready to be eaten.
If you are a fisherman, you may enjoy tarpon fishing off Veracruz. They tell some incredible stories of the size of the fish sometimes caught there.
For evening entertainment in Veracruz, there is the Siboney Cabaret, open from 8 P.M. to 6 A.M. Since this is not a particularly high-class establishment, ladies would do well to come armed with escorts.
What to Buy in Veracruz
I found nothing in Veracruz which could not be bought to better advantage somewhere else. There are no local specialties, and anything else that you could buy there can be found in greater profusion in the markets of Mexico City, and in my opinion, at cheaper prices.
Don't be too gullible about the "bargains" the souvenir vendors propose to sell you. They make a practice of trying to "catch the tourist on the way in" before he has become accustomed to Mexican prices.