Although I had been assured that it was not difficult to find last minute accommodations during Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo holiday, upon arriving in Veracruz I was informed that every single hotel room in and around the Zocalo was sold out. Initially, I was surprised, since Veracruz is hardly a prime tourist destination; as Mexico’s largest port, its Malecon runs past cargo and military ships rather than gorgeous beaches and the city offers very little in the way of museums or other attractions. But I hadn’t figured on the Zocalo, the city’s central plaza, being such a cultural mecca.
Even in the middle of the day, the tree-filled Zocalo was a feast for the eyes. On one side of the square, worshipers stopped into Virgen de la Asuncion Cathedral for quick devotions; on another, people streamed in and out of the brilliant white Municipal Palace, the oldest city government building in Mexico. Waiters stood in pedestrian-only streets choked with dining tables, enticing passers-by with promises of discounts and fresh seafood, while a string of dance troupes performed on a portable stage in the plaza. Phoning around, I’d found a hotel room a mile away, but that simply wouldn’t do; I had to stay on the Zocalo. I went from hotel to hotel, begging and pleading, until the Hotel Colonial let me have a room that had been removed from the inventory because the TV didn’t work.
I checked in, showered, changed clothes, and hurried back to the Zocalo as the sun was setting. Colored lights gradually blinked on, illuminating the arches around the square in shades of turquoise, gold and orange. Kiosks were unfolded, revealing glittering jewelry under spotlights, hand-rolled cigars, and traditional white Veracruz shirts and dresses, while scores of vendors wove through the crowd offering everything from homemade pastries to tooled leather goods. In the center of the square, dance couples dressed in their finest evening wear patiently waited for the orchestra to finish tuning their instruments. Suddenly, a hush, and an instant later dancers were performing intricate steps of the “danzon” as the band struck up traditional Veracruzian “Son Jarocho” music. The danzon, which was brought over to the Veracruz area of Mexico by Cuban refugees in the 1870’s, was originally performed only by the lower classes but it eventually gained acceptance within all levels of society and today is so well loved that several local dance schools sponsor events dedicated to keeping the tradition alive.
Dinner and dancing were followed by a visit to one of the city’s famous coffee houses, Gran Cafe del Portal, located across the street from the Zocalo and considered to be the center of social life in Veracruz. Waiters in tuxedo-like uniforms wound between tables carrying two giant steel pots from which they made “lechero.” At the slightest signal from a customer, they partially filled small drinking glasses with espresso from the first pot, topping it off with milk from the second, raising the pot high in the air as they poured so that the milk became frothy.
I sat beneath an arched portico covering the sidewalk, enjoying music drifting from the square mingled with the sound of glasses being clinked with spoons, a signal from customers that they needed a refill. This tradition evolved because a trolley driver used to ring his bell when he was a block away from the Gran Cafe del Portal to let the waiters know he was coming. When the driver died his casket was borne on his trolley and when it passed the cafe, customers and waiters clinked glasses in his honor.
Can’t see the above slide show of Veracruz, Mexico? Click here.
Over the next few days in Veracruz I walked the broad seaside Malecon, browsed the crafts market, perused the downtown retail center, checked out the few available museums, and wandered through tranquil parks, but the Zocalo drew me back time and time again, for it was here that I was best able to experience the rich cultural tapestry of Veracruz.