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The zócalo is the social hub, where locals hang out in the cafes chatting with friends while the marimbas, Jarocha bands, and mariachis make a lively scene, playing well into the night. Bordering the zócalo are the cathedral and the Palacio Municipal (City Hall). There always seems to be some kind of performance on the square: exhibitions of danzón, clown acts, band concerts, and comedy sketches.

One block east is the Plaza de la República, a long plaza where you'll find the post office, the old Customs house, and the civil registry, all built around the turn of the 19th century. On the north side is the old train station, Estación de Ferrocarriles, with its remarkable yellow-and-blue tile facade. From the east side of this plaza, you can board a bus to Veracruz's most famous tourist attraction, the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa. Around the corner from the south side of the plaza is the malecón (boardwalk), where you can take a boat ride or have coffee at the city's most popular gathering spot, El Café de la Parroquia.

Turibus(www.turibus.com.mx) runs sightseeing buses around the downtown area and then south along the shore past the hotel zone, all the way to the township of Boca del Rio. Explanations are given in several languages, including English. You buy a ticket on board the bus (120 pesos), which entitles you to get off at any of the 20 stops and catch any later bus that same day. Schedules and hours of operation vary depending on the season. You can get details from the tourism office.

Excursions -- Popular day-trip destinations include La Antigua; the Totonac ruins at Zempoala; Xalapa, the state capital and home of an excellent anthropology museum; and the archaeological site at El Tajín. For prices and reservations, contact VIP Tours (tel. 229/922-3315 or -1918) or Centro de Reservaciones de Veracruz (tel. 229/935-6422).

Music, Dance & Carnaval

Hang out in the zócalo, and you'll be serenaded with danzonera, marimba, Jarocha, mariachi, and norteño music playing to a large crowd of Veracruzanos who've stopped to drink and chat with friends. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, a band plays in front of the Palacio Municipal for couples dancing the danzón. It's a stately affair: They alternate between dancing perfectly erect in a slow rumbalike fashion and promenading arm in arm while the women wave their fans. The danzón came to Veracruz from Cuba in the 1890s; today you won't often see it elsewhere.

If you would like to see more styles of traditional dance, inquire at the tourism office in the zócalo about performances by the Ballet Tradiciones de México. Several times throughout the year, the company appears at the Teatro Clavijero (tel. 229/931-0574 or 229/932-6693 for reservations). Tickets cost 50 to 80 pesos. The shows are fun and colorful.

In the week before Ash Wednesday, Veracruz explodes with Carnaval, one of the best in Mexico. By local tradition, Carnaval begins with the ritual burning of "ill humor" and ends with the funeral of "Juan Carnaval." Visitors flood in from all over the country, packing the streets and hotels.

Carros alegóricos (floats) are made with true Mexican flair -- bright colors, papier-mâché figures, flowers, and live entertainment. Groups from neighboring villages dance in peacock- and pheasant-feathered headdresses. Draculas, drag queens, and women in sparkling dresses fill the streets. The parades follow Bulevar Avila Camacho; most of the other activities center in the zócalo and begin around noon, lasting well into the night.

On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the longest and most lavish of the Carnaval parades takes place on the malecón. Parades on Monday and Tuesday are scaled-down versions of the Sunday parade (ask at the tourist office about these routes); by Wednesday, it's all over.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.