Like siblings separated at birth, Xalapa and Veracruz share the same genes but have vastly different characters. Both were established in the earliest days of the Spanish conquest, Veracruz as a port and Xalapa as a way station en route to Mexico City. The former is coastal, hot and humid, home to the navy and a bustling maritime trade. It’s lively and rough around the edges. Xalapa (AKA Jalapa) has been called “the Athens of Mexico” and is home to an excellent symphony orchestra and several dozen private universities.
At 1460 meters (4790 feet) above sea level, Xalapa is prone to fog, rain, gray skies for days on end, and sudden burst of bright sunshine. In spite of its quixotic climate, this state capital is a little gem, and often overlooked by Mexico aficionados. Foreigners can study Mexican history, culture and language at the EEE (Escuela para Estudiantes Extranjeros) at la Universidad Veracruzana. That faculty is right in the center of historic downtown, where colonial and republican-era buildings line hilly, twisting cobblestone streets. Many of the university faculty buildings are south of downtown overlooking lovely green areas and with lakes, walking trails and an outdoor theater.
Situated within an exuberant ecosystem of subtropical forests, Xalapa is---for a city---green, green, green. Just a few of the many places where visitors and locals enjoy the outdoors are the lush Botanical Gardens, Parque de los Tecajetes (have breakfast at the restaurant of the same name overlooking the park), and Parque Natura, the latter with bike and running paths and great city views from a modern metal mirador (lookout). Parque Los Berros (“the watercress”) has little battery-operated cars for tiny children, pony rides, and sometimes young musicians playing for spare change.
The center of cultural activity is Parque Juarez, in the heart of the historical district. Surrounding the main plaza are the coral-hued municipal building, the sober brick-red-and-stone state government palace (with the requisite murals of Mexican history), a couple of art galleries and museums, and the pointy, picturesque cathedral. A few short blocks east, El Callejón del Diamante is a crooked alley that houses small traditional restaurants, cafes, and gift shops. Outside along the twisting uphill lane, vendors sell incense, pipes, gloves, and scarves.
The city of flowers, as Von Humboldt called Xalapa, has a budding arts scene as well as tropical greenery. The state uni has schools dedicated to fine arts, architecture, and music. Xalapa’s symphony orchestra is one of the best in the country and the city has a number of fine arts galleries. Located on either side of Parque Juarez, both the Pinacoteca Diego Rivera and El Agora have changing exhibits of fine art. The latter has cultural events and art flicks in the evenings, too. Next door to the Pinacoteca, the City Museum has some interesting interactive exhibits, although most of the signage is in Spanish only.
But Xalapa’s big claim to fame is its awesome Museum of Archaeology, second-best only to the one in Mexico City. Dedicated exclusively to Gulf Coast cultures, the well-designed museum also has gardens and outdoor spaces and an excellent bookstore and shop. The first salons are dedicated to the Olmec, Mexico’s mother culture. The first vestiges of this civilization were found at El Manatí and have been dated to 1600BC. Other Gulf Coast cultures are more often referred to according to their location within Tabasco and Veracruz states rather than by name, although Totonac and Huasteca groups are certainly represented.
Xalapa has a little bit of everything to offer travelers. It’s also the jumping off point for river rafting and canyoneering trips; Veracruz is one of Mexico’s wettest and wildest states. Outside they city of approximately 400,000 (plus a floating population of some 250,000 students) are charming small towns like Xico and Coatepec, which make excellent day or overnight trips and offer waterfalls, pretty scenery, and other outdoor activities.
Just don’t forget to pack creatively if you’re visiting Xalapa, including scarves and gloves. The weather can be warm, hot, humid, clear, sunny, gray, cloudy, rainy or foggy. It’s known as the city with four seasons every day.