|Fresh chicharron for sale in a Mexico City market
"Get ready to see a side of Mexico City you've never experienced," our friend Oskar smiled.
We were finishing spinach omelettes in the upstairs cafe at Pendulo bookstore in La Condesa, a chic neighborhood filled with restaurants and Airbnbs catering to digital nomads.
Now, with Oskar, whom we met in 2019 through the Global Greeters program, we squeezed into a crowded subway car with a connection to Mexico City's newest mode of transportation, the 6-mile-long Cablebus, a network of cable cars, designed not for sightseeing, but as public transportation for residents living in the hills above the city center.
|Mexico City's Cablebus
|Rooftop murals visible from the Cablebus
Riding in a car along students on their way home from school, we looked down on rooftops painted with colorful murals, part of a government project to improve the view for the residents of Iztapalapa, the city's poorest and most populous neighborhood.
Oskar pointed down to an abandoned airplane turned into a library. Checking out a book here would be the closest many kids would ever get to a real plane.
After a couple of hours on the Cablebus, we got off and walked through a market close to where Oskar, 25, lives with his parents and brother. We sampled fried pork skins called chicharron, the authentic version of what we know as pork rinds; drank pulque, a drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant; and bought flowers for his mother, America. The day ended around their dining room table where we shared bowls of her homemade pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, and a red gelatin dessert molded in the shape of hearts.
|Drinking pulque with Oskar
|America Sandoval and her special dessert
It was the perfect start to a 10-day trip, most of which my husband and I spent traveling by bus through the state of Veracruz in Mexico's gulf coast region.
Our time with Oskar and his family set the stage for exploring a side of Mexico not well-known to foreigners, but beloved by Mexicans. These areas are neither beach resorts, nor drug cartel-controlled border towns where crime and safety are major issues. Mexico for the Mexicans, became the theme as we headed off to several small towns called Pueblos Magicos, recognized not for their famous sites, but because they evoke a sense of traditional life.
|The state of Veracruz
As a destination, the state of Veracruz is overlooked by most travelers. There are better beaches and colonial architecture elsewhere. But for those who have explored other parts of the country, and are looking for something different, discoveries are waiting to be made. Unlike in resort areas such as Cancun, or colonial towns such as San Miguel de Allende, your travel companions are likely to be Mexican families and couples on weekend getaways rather than American travelers.
You won't find much English spoken. You will enjoy comfortable rides on first-class buses; a sense of safety due to lack of pick-pockets or hustlers; restaurant meals for around $25 for two; coffee drinks better than anything Starbucks can produce; and uncrowded museums.
Our first stop was Orizaba, a town of around 500,000 nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains in central Veracruz, four hours by first-class bus from Mexico City.
Flat, one-story buildings painted in bright colors line narrow streets leading to the historical center. Our Airbnb was unusual in that it was a complete and modern apartment in a newish three-story building with a sushi restaurant the top floor.
Next door was a mom-and-pop shop where the owners sold drinks and snacks though a slot in the door. I bought water there twice until I discovered we were around the corner from the local version of Costco filled with Mexicans pushing huge carts filled with diapers and soda.
|Veracruz State Art Museum
Our go-to morning stop for coffee and chilaquiles was the modern Cafe-Cafe Bistro with a QR code menu and tables an outdoor courtyard. Down the street was the Veracruz State Art Museum housed in a 16th century former monastery, hospital and women's prison.
Mexicans come to Orizaba on weekends to stroll though an open-air animal reserve along a six-mile walkway skirting the Orizaba River. Bridges link paved paths on both sides, making it easy to get up-close views of jaguars, monkeys, llamas and lions.
|Orizaba riverwalk and zoo
Near the riverwalk is the Orizaba's other main attraction, the Teleferico or cable-car transporting visitors to the top of a mountain with forested walking paths, and views of Pico de Orizaba, a snow-capped volcano that is the third -highest mountain in North America. Long lines form on weekends, but when we visited on a Monday, there was no wait.
|Gustave Eiffel's Iron Palace
Relaxing at a cafe is a popular pastime everywhere in the state of Veracruz, a major coffee producer. We sampled the local speciality, the Picardía Orizabeña, prepared with coffee liquor, condensed milk and espresso, while people-watching on the terrace of the Gran Cafe de Orizaba attached to the Palacio de Hierro or Iron Palace. Designed by Gustave Eiffel (architect of the Eiffel Tower in Paris), the art nouveau city hall was built from metal and wrought iron imported from Belgium in the 19th century when Orizaba was the state capital. Today the building houses several museums including a beer museum which dispenses free beer courtesy of Heineken International, owner of brewing plants in Mexico including one in Orizaba.
Four hours by bus from Orizaba is Xalapa, the current capital of the state of Veracruz, and the jumping off point for a visit to Coatepec (Hill of Snakes) and Xico, two Pueblo Magico towns in a premier coffee-producing region.
Quaint hotels, parks and shops line the streets of Coatepec, a short taxi ride from Xalapa. Organized tours cover visits to a coffee museum a few miles out of town but a better plan on a hot day is to cafe-hop about town, sampling cold concoctions. Among our favorites was a frappé (espresso, milk, crushed ice) spiked with Rompope, a Mexican eggnog-flavored liquor.
With a population of 800,000, Xalapa is a hectic university and government town, probably not the best choice for those with a car, but we found it a convenient base for exploring by cheap taxis. Our hotel, the Meson del Alferez Xalapa, was a former colonial mansion in a residential neighborhood until the town built up around it. Now it fronts on one of Xalapa's busiest streets where police use ear-splitting whistles to control traffic. Surprisingly, its rooms were quiet, protected by thick outside walls and an interior courtyard.
|Courtyard rooms at Meson del Alferez in Xalapa
|A cook makes tortillas at the Meson del Alferez
Sometimes spelled Jalapa, the city gave its name to the jalapeño chili pepper grown in the surrounding area. Built on hillsides, Xalapa is set up in a way that almost everything worth doing requires a walk up or down steep streets. Parque Juárez is Xalapa's main square. Ringed with snack kiosks and shoe-shine stands, it doubles as the town's terrace with views of the valley below.
|An Olmec colossal head dating from 900 BC
At the Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, the focus is on the main pre-Hispanic civilizations from the Gulf coast, with well-preserved artifacts displayed in galleries that descend the side of a lush hill. Noting that the museum was just two miles from downtown, we decided to walk. It took us an hour and half to wend through various neighborhoods to avoid hills and busy streets - well worth the effort, but once was enough. We took a $2.50 taxi back.
|Preparing a lechero
Locals love their morning lecheros, Mexico's most popular coffee drink similar to what we call a latte. Many cafes serve it, but we waited until we reached the city of Veracruz to sample it at the Gran Café de la Parroquia, a 215-year-old cafe near the waterfront.
With 40 mile-per-hour winds scrapping our plans for a walk, we took cover inside, and watched the ritual unfold. A waiter brings glasses filled a quarter of the way up with espresso. Then, with a tap of a spoon on the side of the glass, he signals the "milkman," another waiter who comes by with a kettle of hot milk. By pouring a stream high and slow, he creates a thick layer of foam on top.
"Going to Veracruz and not going to the Café de la Parroquia is like not having been to Veracruz," someone said.
Perhaps it was the Covid pandemic's effect on local businesses, but we couldn't find many reasons to spend much time in Veracruz. As attractions go, La Parroquia topped the list.
Safe travels: The U.S. State Department assigns various levels of caution for traveling in Mexico, depending on the state. It advises against travel in six states, including the state of Tamaulipas where four Americans were recently kidnapped and two killed. It recommends reconsidering travel to seven other states. Veracruz is one of 17 states where the department recommends exercising caution.