Set in the crook of Mexico’s curve, the central Gulf coast is easily overlooked by tourists searching for the best sun-lounger and a fat piña colada. Yet, decadent opportunities await the adventurer in this tourist-industry wallflower where the locals aren’t talking economy when they say, ‘We are very rich.’
They are referring to their landscapes: deserted coastline lapping tranquilly, forests Swiss-cheesed with caves, and towering volcanoes propelling rivers and waterfalls. They are talking about their jostling, honking cities, like Xalapa with its anthropology museum and its urbane sensibilities or Veracruz whose atmosphere, thick with marimba, mariachi and danzón, and also humidity, enchants you like undulating Latin dance. Their wealth is their architecture: evocative colonial edifices, niched pyramids and even surrealist stairways spiraling skyward. The opulence of this region is their diversity: gorgeous skin shades from Europe, Africa and indigenous communities have melded together in the wake of Cortés’ conquest and destruction.
However, the people themselves, both generous and quick to laugh, prove most precious. Don’t be surprised to see strangers greet each other or to be offered a ride on the back of a moped. Though you might summit Mexico’s highest peak here, your most vivid memories could be of a grandmother you meet in a chaotic market who lets you try her mole from a 100-year-old family recipe, or stumbling into a village fiesta during traditionally costumed dances.
Whatever your endeavor, you’ll find that the richness of the central Gulf coast is to be encountered, not just served to you over ice with an umbrella…though you’ll savor it all the same.
The Olmecs, Mesoamerica’s earliest known civilization, built their first great center around 1200 BC at San Lorenzo in southern Veracruz state. In 900 BC the city was violently destroyed, but Olmec culture lingered for several centuries at Tres Zapotes. During the Classic period (AD 250−900) the Gulf coast developed another distinctive culture, known as the Classic Veracruz civilization. Its most important center was El Tajín, which was at its peak between AD 600 and 900. Classic Veracruz appears to have been particularly obsessed with the ball game, and its hallmark is a style of abstract carving featuring pairs of curved and interwoven parallel lines. In the Postclassic period the Totonacs established themselves in the region south of Tuxpan. North of Tuxpan, the Huastec civilization flourished from 800 to 1200. During this time, the warlike Toltecs also moved into the Gulf coast area. In the mid-15th century, the Aztecs overtook most of the Totonac and Huastec areas, exacting tributes of goods and sacrificial victims and subduing revolts.
When Cortés arrived in April 1519, he made Zempoala’s Totonacs his first allies against the Aztecs by vowing to protect them against reprisals. Cortés set up his first settlement, Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (Rich Town of the True Cross), and by 1523 all the Gulf coast was in Spanish hands. Forced slavery, newly introduced diseases and the ravages of war severely reduced indigenous populations.
Veracruz harbor became an essential trade and communications link with Spain and was vital for anyone trying to rule Mexico, but the climate, tropical diseases and pirate threats inhibited the growth of Spanish settlements.
Under dictator Porfirio Díaz, Mexico’s first railway (1872) linked Veracruz to Mexico City, stimulating industrial development. In 1901 oil was discovered in the Tampico area, and by the 1920s the region was producing a quarter of the world’s oil. In the 1980s the Gulf coast still held well over half of Mexico’s reserves and refining capacity. Today, the region is not as large a player as it used to be, but is still a significant contributor to Mexico’s oil economy.