Carnival in Veracruz

Having never witnessed a mardi gras or carnival celebration before, we decided it was time.  So, Charlie and I set off to visit Veracruz on the eastern coast of Mexico, which is touted to be the third largest such celebration after Rio and New Orleans.  We arrived on Friday afternoon and found the main plaza or “zócalo” filled with celebrants, police and barricades.  With our hotel right on the square, we needed to scurry around people and food stands to get our suitcases into the hotel.  We only learned later that the queen of Carnival would be crowned there that night, causing the intense security.  That evening, we stumbled upon the queen’s parade walking to the “zócalo”.  Hawkers selling carnival masks, food items, bottles of bubble soap, and glow in the dark toys walked past our seats before the parade started making the evening very festive and interesting.  Also, the Mexican families on either side of us gave us some helpful tips about seeing Veracruz and enjoying Carnival. 

However, the queen’s parade was only a teaser to the big event – the grand parade, which marches up and down the main boulevard along the coast six times during Carnival.  Grandstands fill the sides of the streets for miles as people from all over the world gather to see the parade.  A seat in the grandstands can be purchased for only 50 pesos (about $3.50).  With our hands stamped and tickets in hand, we were ready to find our seats and settle in for the evening.  Behind us was a group of Canadian kids, who were drinking from the biggest beer bottles I had ever seen.  Beside us and in front of us were Mexicans enjoying the festivities.  The parade, which starts at 6:00pm at one end of the route, took about an hour to get to our location.  But, finally, we started hearing police sirens off in the distance signaling the start of the parade.  Speaking of security, all of the Carnival events were heavily protected by the police — some in full riot gear, others just carrying wooden batons.  We did notice some rowdiness due to all the beer consumption, but nothing that got out of hand. 

The parade itself was a combination of floats with scantily clad women, marching bands and neighborhood dance groups – all wearing colorful costumes.  And boy, could they dance.  I have reached the conclusion that every person from Veracruz is born dancing.  There were thousands of men (and hundreds of women) salsa-ing down the street and all of them seemed to know what they were doing!   The parade heads from south to north one time; then the next (since all of the floats are at one end) from north to south.  I expect that by the 6th time down the street the dancers’ feet are pretty tired! 

Nights during Carnival go into the wee hours of the morning.  One evening we were sitting in the café in front of our hotel at 12:30am and every table was full and venders were busy walking among the tables selling peanuts/seeds, Cuban cigars, clothing, cheese, toys – you name it, it was being sold there.  All of the commotion added to the allure of the evening.  We have found the Mexican people to be very industrious.  They work hard at whatever jobs they have.  However, work can be hard to find here, so many Mexicans sell whatever they can to earn money. 

In addition to the parades, many other events were scheduled for Carnival week.  For example, one evening we went to a small square in the downtown area of Veracruz to listen to an orchestra and watch people dance the danzón.  The danzón originated in Cuba and was brought over by refugees to Veracruz in the 1870s.  It was magical to watch these mainly older couples crowding into the square to dance.  At least once during each song, all of the couples would stop at the same time, and stand waiting for a minute or so, and then, as if on cue, they would all start dancing again.  Charlie and I were helped with some of the dance steps by an elderly gentleman standing near us.  Some of the men wear straw hats with feathers which added to the color of the evening.  Another night we attended a musical extravaganza where a Mexican rock group called “Elefante” performed.  One last musical note is that the well-known song “La Bamba” has its roots in Veracruz.  Every other song that we heard being played throughout the city seemed to be “La Bamba”. 

Besides Carnival, Veracruz is touted as having the best food in Mexico.  To find out, we headed down the coast to Boca del Rio, where some of the best seafood can be found.  There we sampled various dishes, such as red snapper simmered in tomatoes, onions, garlic, green olives and capers; and shrimp wrapped in cheese and bacon.  They were good!  Coffeehouses are a center of social life in the city, and their specialty is “lechero”, which is hot coffee in a glass (not a cup) with hot milk poured in at great heights – the higher the better to create foam.  To request a refill, customers clink the sides of their glasses with their spoons. This clinking can be heard from the early morning to late at night. 

On a historical note, Veracruz is best known for its port on the Gulf of Mexico.  Because of its strategic location, the city was invaded four times during its history – once by Spain, once by France, and twice by the United States (in 1847 during the Mexican-American War, and again in 1914).  Also, Cortez landed only about 20 miles north of the present day city.  Close to downtown is a historically important fort, which we visited.  It was first built in the 16th century to protect the city against pirates and later used by the Spaniards to protect against invasion by other countries.  In the 19th century, the fort was converted to a military prison.  Today you can still see the narrow stone passageways which lead to a series of dungeons with walls 24-feet thick in some places.  Benito Juárez, who later became President of Mexico, was a political prisoner there. 

Our visit to Veracruz ended on Monday afternoon, but there were still two days left of celebrating for those staying on.  On Ash Wednesday, there is a symbolic burial of “Juan Carnaval” to end the partying and begin the supposed privations of Lent.  We really enjoyed our trip and look forward to returning to the State of Veracruz to see some of the other sites north and south of the city.

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One Response to “Carnival in Veracruz”

  1. Shane Says:

    Great write-up, guys! We debated about driving over to Veracruz for the festivities but we didn’t think we be able to get a hotel room and I was feeling too old to party all night and drive back the next day. We opted to see some smaller and closer festivities in Huejotzingo, but Veracruz would have been better by far.

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