Veracruz, Mexico: A Cantina Tour
Prowling the Port: The Veracruz Tourists Never See
By Lydia Carey
“Café con pan, Café con pan,” Joyce says as she softly stomps her feet to a 2-1-1 beat in front of El CaSon. It’s oppressively hot and humid, and the old man on the front porch of the house has fallen asleep in his plastic chair listening to the music. Sun streaks through the palm tree canopy in the front yard. Welcome to Veracruz.
This house isn’t in any guide book or on any tourist map, but this is no regular tour of the port city of Veracruz. Joyce García, a Veracruz local and photographer, is taking me on a locals-only, back-alley tour of the city’s sights, smells and tastes… and this is only the first stop.
As she stomps out the basic steps to son jarocho, the region’s traditional music, the seven men that are sitting in the courtyard strum requintos – tiny wooden guitars – whining a call and response song through the heat of the afternoon.
El CaSon is a center for son jarocho founded by one of the genre’s most famous musicians – Gilberto Gutiérrez. The center hosts music classes for aspiring soneros and is a great place to catch a fandango– the traditional son jarocho parties where dancers, musicians and singers get together to make music, eat and drink.
Drinking like a Local
Every February in Veracruz, tourists flood the city center looking for nautical-themed seafood restaurants, handicrafts made out of shells, marimba bands and a good time at Mexico‘s biggest Carnaval.
But there is a different side of the centro histórico and tonight we are going on a tour of cantinas tucked into the city’s recesses where cold beer, a plate of limes and salt and lazy wall fans bring some life back into our overheated bodies.
The first stop is Santana’s bar. Its somewhat daunting, windowless door to the street guarantees that if you don’t know it’s there you’ll probably miss it. Even though the place is filled with smoke and locals – mostly men – no one bats an eye as two young women pass into Santana’s air-conditioned salon, sit down and order two 16-peso beers (about 1.20). In fact, when we return the next day to take advantage of the AC and internet, we’re already regulars.
Our next stop is Bar Titos, a bit further down Zaragoza street. Posters of half-naked women grace the walls. They have live salsa bands on the weekends and a couple of TVs for watching the game. The jukebox is playing and a couple is dancing to norteña music amid the bar’s plastic white tables and chairs when we move on to Bar Noche Buena on Arista street.
The late-night pachanga
The Noche Buena has classic swinging bar doors, wooden tables and chairs and archways on all sides of the room that open to the outside letting in a nice ocean breeze. Classic 1950s Mexican films are playing behind the bar and a cat named Alfonsa waddles among the tables begging for a rub.
A quick break to eat tacos de guisados and sweet tamales de elote at Los Gueros taco stand in front of Sanborns restaurant on the main plaza and we are off to La Pachanga.
La Pachanga (literally in Spanish “a wild party”) is Veracruz’s late-night locals hang out whose reality lives up to its name – a full-blown party of dancers, drunks, lovers and those on the prowl for love. We grab a beer and sit in the corner to watch the show as a cumbia band entertains the crowd with seductive beats. We aren’t in our chairs for very long before we join everyone else on the floor.
For all the beer we drank, we rouse ourselves early the next day – around 10 – and head to Samborcitos, on 16 de Septiembre street in Veracruz’s Huaca neighborhood. The restaurant has been a tradition in Veracruz for over 30 years and serves classic breakfast fare: picadas – flat thick tortillas with a smear of beans, salsa and cheese on top, and gordas – puffed dough that resembles tiny elephant ears made either savory or sweet, with the sweet version tasting slightly of licorice.
Back downtown after breakfast Joyce takes me to the PopulArte gallery on Mario Molina street that sells handmade crafts from all over the state. The shop is run by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism and goods are brought in from regional communities.
The artisans that sell there receive advanced fair-trade payments for their work. Beautiful hand woven blankets, cowskin chairs and handmade jewelry make the traditional artisan market (visible from the shop’s windows) with its mass-produced crafts and Veracruz souvenirs look like a cheesy imitation.
For lunch we hit David’s Tacos on Gómez Farías street in front of the local newspaper’s headquarters. An old street musician plays a harmonica and drum while singing and lunch-goers sit around on multi-colored plastic stools, dipping pork tacos into spicy cochinita pibil broth. David, the owner, is standing at the end of the stand, chopping a massive pile of chiles.
The afternoon finds us at the Veracruz fish market. The market is 10 minutes outside town and so we catch a “Costera” bus from the Plaza de la República. Joyce is right when she tells me on the bus we really should have gone in the morning. Most days by 3pm the market’s 20 or so seafood eateries are closing down and the fishmongers are packing up their wares, but mornings there are bustling and it’s one of the best places to get fresh seafood, on a plate or wrapped in butcher’s paper.
Wandering in Huaca
Back in the center of town we wander around the Huaca (pronounced Waka) neighborhood. It’s one of the oldest parts of the city and is famous as the former home to hundreds of pirates during colonial times and more recently to the Afro-Mexican singer Toña la Negra who interpreted the love songs of composer Agustín “el flaco” Lara – statues of the two of them dominate one of the neighborhood’s pedestrian walkways.
10 years ago, Huaca was one of the most dangerous parts of the city. Nowadays the danger has subsided, but the area is very working class and rundown. In 2008, the neighborhood was put on the World Monuments Fund watch because of its deteriorating condition.
It’s worth a visit just to see the rows of multicolor wooden houses built around 1870 for the port’s immigrant workers. The clapboard houses are reminiscent of slave quarters or the shotgun shacks of the U.S. rural south. The salt and humidity have all but destroyed many of them, but blocks still remain where homes face each other and create “patios,” or neighborhood courtyards, where locals hang laundry and sit in the evening to talk and play music.
We decide on El Torbellino on Esteban Morales street for dinner, but are so stuffed from the all day smorgasbord we can only finish off a shrimp cocktail and a plate of snail ceviche, both fresh and cool in Veracruz’s July heat.
In Search of a Good Cup of Coffee
The next day we decide to head up to Coatepec, a tiny town a little over 2 hours from Veracruz which serves some of the region’s best coffee, produced in the surrounding communities. Coatepec sits at an altitude of 3,937 feet making it much cooler than sea-level Veracruz and is full of tiny coffee shops and outdoor restaurants. Joyce says the town’s nickname is Chipi-chipi, the sound Spanish speakers make for the rain.
We visit Avelino’s cafe, located in front of the St. Jerónimo church, where owner Avelino Hernández tells us about his recent “conversations” with coffee and reads us a poem from his new book on the subject. We move on to the Resobado bakery with its wood-fired pastries and finally re-caffeinate at Cafetal Apan. By this time the sky, true to Coatepec’s reputation, is beginning to open up and a slight drizzle follows us as we make our way back to Veracruz on the bus.
The Final Fiesta
My last night in Veracruz ends how the trip began – Café con pan, Café con pan. Except this time, two and four dancers at a time stomp out the rhythm on a wooden stage at the Las Tradiciones restaurant in the Costa Verde neighborhood. Twenty or more son jarocho musicians accompany them on requintos, jaranas, a marimol and a donkey jawbone (the quijada) – whose teeth chatter to the beat.
We were invited to the fandango by a few musicians at El CaSon when we first arrived. As it turns out this particular restaurant has already hosted three fandangos since its opening several months ago and plans to continue on a regular basis.
Fandangos are not as common in the port as is in rural areas outside the city. Restaurant owner Djerassi Palomeros is true son fanatic and says he wants to bring the fandango back downtown.
The steady beat of the dancers’ stepping and the high-pitched singing of the soneros is deafening and exhilarating. As Joyce shoots photos of their rapid-fire footwork and I chow down on empanadas filled with ground beef and potatoes, the rain pounds on, flooding the streets of Veracruz and washing into the sea.
Casa de la música popular Veracruzano: El CaSon
corner of 1 de Mayo and Díaz Aragón
cell: (229) 229 6739
(in front of Los Portales)
Rest-Bar Noche Buena
Mariano Arista 803
(229) 932 5122
Mario Molina 100
16 de Septiembre 727
(229) 931 4388
Tacos de David
corner of Gómez Farías and Esteban Morales
(in front of Notiver)
Mercado la plaza del mar (Veracruz Fish Market)
corner of J.M. García and Fidel Velásquez
corner of Esteban Morales and Zaragoza
Mario Molina No. 23
(229) 931 9640
Mansión de los azulejos
(228) 816 3401
(228) 817 8888
Las Tradiciones Restaurante
Mar Mediterráneo 338
Lydia Carey is a full-time writer and translator living in Mexico City. Her work has been published Luxury Latin America and in Mexico’s English-language newspaper, The News and the New World Review. She writes a blog about life in Mexico City called Mexico City Streets.
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