402km (249 miles) E of Mexico City; 279km (173 miles) E of Puebla; 102km (63 miles) SE of Xalapa

Veracruz has a reputation as a town with a rich history but little to show for it. True enough, since much of that history involved sackings by pirates; heavy bombardment by three different foreign powers (including once with the French in the wonderfully named French Pastry War); and epidemics of malaria, yellow fever, and cholera. One may not want to preserve such a history, even when those same events didn't destroy the city. For this reason, and for the character of the natives, Veracruz (unlike Puebla) is better suited to cafegoers than museumgoers. With the exception of the old fort of San Juan de Ulúa and perhaps the aquarium, the museums can be missed. Come here for the feel of the Tropics, the balmy air, and the carefree attitude of the locals.

Veracruz brings to mind other Gulf and Caribbean port cities -- part New Orleans, part Maracaibo. Things such as schedules are managed rather loosely, even by Mexican standards. You won't find punctuality and order here. Instead, you relax: You get your coffee in the morning at the Café de la Parroquia, you stroll down the malecón (boardwalk), you take in the party scene at the zócalo (town square) at night. It's a simple life. The city attracts a lot of Mexicans, who come here to take a break from the social constraints of their hometowns. In many parts of Mexico, for instance, a woman walking into a bar by herself would be frowned upon; not here.

Music is important to Veracruz. Specific to the port city are marimba, danzonera, and comparsa (carnavalesque) music. Just south of the city begins the Jarocha region of the state, whose music is rhythmic, with sexually suggestive lyrics that depend on double meanings. This is the home of "La Bamba," popularized by Ritchie Valens. In the northern part of the state is the Huasteca region. Its music, the huapango huasteco, involves a violin, a couple of strumming guitars, and harmonized singing.

Cortez first landed a bit north of where the port is now, and his name for the place gives you an idea of what was on his mind: Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz ("Rich town of the true cross"). In colonial times, the Spanish galleons sailed for Spain from here, loaded with silver and gold. Pirates repeatedly attacked, and on one occasion, captured the city. The citizens defended themselves, constructing a wall around the old town and a massive fort, San Juan de Ulúa. The walls are gone now, but the fort remains.