Things to Do in Veracruz
The town of Papantla is located deep in the heart of the Totonacapan region about three hours north of Veracruz City. This quiet haven is famous for its impressive views of the majestic Sierra Papanteca range, sweet indigenous vanilla, Totonac people and the popular El Tajin ruins.
Enjoy breakfast at one of the local cafes before taking to the streets in search of the eleven murals painted by Mexican masters like Teodoro Cano Garcia—a student of Diego Rivera. One of the most famous of these is located in the Church of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion. The city is also known for its numerous museums, but travelers agree the unique Museo de las Mascaras, which contains more than 300 masks from around the country, is definitely worth a visit.
Perhaps the most well-preserved pre-Hispanic ruins in the state of Veracruz, El Tajin is rich with Mexican history and mythology from the infamous Totonac people.
Archeologists believe this once thriving town was occupied as early as the year 800. Its fertile grounds are divided into three distinct areas that include open plazas, natural greenery and iconic pyramids, including the famous Pyramid of the Niches. This popular landmark was built at approximately the same time as the well-known Chichen Itza in the Mayan Region. Its rocky steps lead to a peak that’s home to incredible views and a holy temple where Totonacs once worshiped.
El Tajin Ruins are numerous, and while the World Heritage Site is interesting to wander alone, expert guides are available for travelers looking to learn even more about the history, culture and traditions of the Totonac from a resident expert.
Catemaco Lake, or Laguna Catemaco, is a natural wonderland for travelers who love the outdoors. Whether it’s joining one of the thousands of fishermen casting lines into the 22-meter-deep waters, or hiring a boat to explore the surrounding sites, Catemaco is a still undeveloped Mecca perfect for spending a sunny afternoon.
This rustic freshwater lake in south central Veracruz was formed by a natural lava flow from the nearby San Marin Tuxtla volcano. Its chilly waters and the fertile foothills that surround it offer plenty of options for outdoor exploring. Travelers can hire a local boat and paddle into the depths of the lake before washing ashore Monkey Island, where playful primates swing freely between towering emerald green trees. Or they can head to nearby Nanciyaga Ecological Reserve for a refreshing swim in the peaceful lagoon, followed by relaxing mud massages and a dip in the hot springs.
During early morning hours the Malecon stretching between Veracruz and Boca del Rio fills with local runners jogging along the scenic path that wraps around the ocean’s edge. But by mid-afternoon, it’s travelers that flood the area known for its pre-colonial architecture and fine views of imposing naval ships. Stalls selling handmade crafts and traditional food line the area, and happy couples stroll the promenade eating ice cream cones on hot summer days while listening to musicians perform mariachi music in the streets.
The Malecon’s relaxing daytime vibe comes alive at night, when cool breezes bring locals back outdoors to enjoy refreshing drinks at the crowded tables of nearby cafes as traditional folk dancers and live musicians stage acts in the open air.
San Juan de Ulua is a maze of historic fortresses and prison cells on a shadowy island overlooking the once-busy port of Veracruz. Constructed in 1956, the fort is home to a dark history that includes captured naval fleets, African slave trade and international treasure.
During the nineteenth century the imposing stone walls and deep dungeons of San Juan de Ulua served as a prison for Mexican political activists. The views from the old lookout tower make it a popular attraction, but a hidden chapel on the southwest side of the structure, massive treasure storage rooms and the dungeon of San Juan de Ulua, which housed the legendary bandit Chucho el Roto, are also worth a look.
Wonder at the more than 250 native and international species, spread across 10 exhibitions and ranging from ethereal jellyfish to salt-water sharks and even penguins, at the Veracruz Aquarium (Acuario de Veracruz). Considered one of the largest aquariums in Latin America, it's focused on marine conservation and education.
It’s easy to see why Xalapa, the capital city of the state of Veracruz, is fondly referred to as the San Francisco of Mexico. This colorful urban center has the same laid back charm and electric night life, with an equally youthful vibe. College students buzz through Xalapa’s hilly city streets aboard quick moving scooters, while well-heeled business men and women make their way to work through the bustling business district.
Dozens of popular cafes that line the streets of Xalapa, where, students, travelers and the city’s cultural elite brush elbows over steaming cups of strong brew. The country’s second-largest archaeological collection is housed in the city’s Museo de Antropologia and travelers say the grounds of this unique landmark are worth a visit. The collection of exhibits, which outlines the traditions and artwork of the Totonac and Huastec people, provide a comprehensive history for first-time visitors. Nearby Parque Ecologico Macuiltepetl, a tranquil 40-hectare park, is home to plenty of running trials and offers impressive views of the Xalapa skyline from atop an extinct volcano.
This popular gathering spot near in the port state of Veracruz is a hot bed for culture, nightlife, entertainment, song and dance. Both travelers and locals gather inside the lively cafes that line the bustling sidewalks of this town center. Musicians playing Cuban-inspired music gather to perform while traditional dancers take to the streets for impromptu performances.
Stalls selling local food and souvenirs, as well as bars serving strong drinks and restaurants dishing Mexican cuisine make this car-free area perfect for curious pedestrians looking to explore. Colonial architecture lines the square, which fills with locals after dusk and on weekends. Travelers love the salsa clubs in close proximity but agree that there’s plenty of dancing in the streets of this Zocala, too.
Considered by many to be the first true Spanish town in all of Mexico, La Antigua is the home of Hernan Cortes, who led the expedition that ended the Aztec Empire. His house, which was built in 1523, draws travelers from across the globe who seek a window into Mexico’s incredible—and sometimes bloody—past. Today, Cortes’s home, built of coral and stone, is wrapped thick with vines and overgrown with tree roots.
In addition to Cortes’s family home, the oldest church in the Americas, as well as Edificio del Cabildo—which held the first city council—are both located in La Antigua. Travelers can walk through what remains of the Cavalry Lancers’ garrison, where ready troops were once stationed to defend the town, or explore the Spanish colonial architecture hidden in the landscape of this sleepy town.
These ancient ruins of the Totonac people line the lower volcanic slopes near the Gulf of Mexico and have not been occupied since the 16th century. Cortez, the Spanish conquistador, arrived on these rocky shores and wandered through the open plazas and religious temples that still dot the hillside.
Crumbling tombs and game courts peak out over the Gulf of Mexico, offering travelers a chance to capture truly unique photographs—especially from atop the nearby peak. This steep mountain pass is a bit of a challenge, but affords incredible views of this historic site and the scenic Gulf. Despite its beauty and historic significance, few travelers actually make the trek to Quiahuiztlan, which means crowds are thin, making ruins easy to navigate.
More Things to Do in Veracruz
Coatepec, also known as the serpent mountain, is one of the most sacred places in Aztec mythology. It’s believed that the iconic Mexican tribe came upon this mystical town on their way to Central Mexico, and made it their home for more than 30 years.
The Aztecs built an impressive temple on a hilltop here to pay homage to the god Huitzilopochtli. The structure was so loved that when the tribe finally completed their journey to Tenochtitlan, they built a replica of the Coatepec temple at the new site.
In addition to its prominent place is Aztec history, Coatepec has a major role in contemporary culture, too. The town is referred to by some as Mexico’s capital of coffee, because the nation’s most popular brews: Bola de Oro and Le Vereda, come from this municipality.
At a cool elevation of 4,000 feet, the Veracruz uplands have the perfect climate for growing Mexican coffee. Largely unknown to much of the world because of limited exports, the coffee that’s found in the Veracruz hills is rich in flavor, mildly acidic and unforgettably smooth. Here at the Coatepec Coffee Museum, guests will learn about some of the secrets behind the Veracruz coffee, from its rich history in this part of Mexico to its production.
When visiting as part of a guided tour, hop in an off-road, 4x4 vehicle to tour the working plantation, stopping en route to sip samples of locally grown coffee and espresso. The museum itself explains the process of everything found growing nearby and is a shrine of coffee knowledge that any coffee drinker will enjoy.
Cempoala—a name that means “the place of twenty waters”—is a set of ancient ruins in the heart of Ursulo Galvan that was once inhabited by the Totonac, Zapotec and Chinantecas people. This historic district’s name came from the aqueducts and irrigation systems that once flowed to the nearby gardens and fertile farmland. Travelers can explore the numerous temples that comprise the Zona Arqueologica de Cempoala, an archaeological site that includes a few landmarks that are not to be missed.
Templo las Caritas, the temple of charity, is a two-story structure decorated by hundreds of stucco skulls that pays homage to the god of death. Ornate murals and detailed clay faces, as well as a hall of hieroglyphs, make it a unique place for travelers to touch the ancient past. Templo del Sol, also known as the great pyramid, is similar to the Sun Temple in Tenochtitlan. It’s built on the same ground as the Templo Mayor and affords beautiful views of Cempoala.
Brightly colored houses with Spanish tiled roofs line the streets of Tlacotalpan, a lively city and river port near the Gulf of Mexico. The architecture, culture, history and tradition of this popular place have made it a destination for visitors looking to experience real Mexico.
Whether it’s taking a scenic boat ride along the Papaloapan River, exploring the neoclassical architecture of the town, or spending an afternoon at Zaragoza Square before enjoying a traditional dinner by the water, Tlacotalpan is ripe with entertainment options. Visitors should be sure to stop by the iconic Church of the Candelaria and Hidalgo Park, as well as the local hub of old-world history, the Agustin Lara House of Culture.