In the sultry climate of Veracruz, the best time to be outdoors is at night, when the air vibrates to the African-inspired rhythms of the ubiquitous musica tropical. And as you explore the waterfront or check out the nightlife around the main plaza, what better way to keep yourself going than with mouthwatering cold snacks — licuados (fruit shakes), paletas (frozen fruit bars), and countless kinds of helado (ice cream)?
Since its founding by the conquistador, Hernán Cortés, in 1519, Veracruz has been Mexico’s main eastern port and a major gastronomic crossroads. Olive oil and a panoply of Mediterranean herbs and spices arrived from the Old World to add new layers of flavor to native Central American ingredients, such as corn, chilies, and different kinds of bean.
The local Totonac people were the first to cure vanilla beans for culinary use. Later arrivals included pineapples, sugarcane, peanuts, and the banana’s savory cousin, the plantain.
Today, this varied legacy is evident all around you. Puff pastry turnovers, called bolovanes, filled with a choice of crabmeat, tuna, or pineapple, tempt you from stalls along large thoroughfares.
In the morning, freshly boiled shrimps straight from the docks set your taste buds dancing. Sample tamales wrapped in banana leaves, fried tortitas made from plantain dough filled with black beans, or thick corn tortillas, called picaditas, topped with salsa and cheese. And for a drink that packs a punch, try a toro — a milkshake laced with the local aguardiente, a potent sugarcane liquor.
Veracruz and the surrounding area are paradise for lovers of tropical fruit. Whether eaten fresh or enjoyed in the form of cold helados, paletas, or licuados, the fruits include many that are familiar — mangoes, coconuts, papayas (or pawpaws), and pineapples. Others may be a new experience:
- Above the size of a grapefruit, the cherimoya has a segmented green skin and succulent white flesh. The flavor is fragrant, with hints of strawberry. If you eat a cherimoya fresh, beware of the large black pits.
- The guanábana (or soursop) is recognizable by its spiky green skin. The creamy white flesh is often pulped and used in licuados or helados.
- The pink or orange flesh of the mamey has a sweet pumpkin-like flavor. Try it fresh, with a little lime juice squeezed over it.
- A favorite in licuados, the zapote blanco looks a bit like a large plum. The flavor of its yellowish-white flesh is often compared to a combination of peaches and vanilla.
When to go: The hot, humid climate makes fall and winter the best times to visit.
Carnaval, the city’s major celebration, is held during the week before Lent. If traveling in summer, try for July’s Festival Internacional Afrocaribeño, a two-week celebration of African music and dance in the Americas.
Planning: Spend an afternoon in the town of Boca del Río, south of Veracruz. Its seaside restaurants offer the region’s best fish and shellfish, some flavored with the local herb, acuyo.
Take a day to visit Papantla, north of the city, to see the pre-Hispanic site of El Tajín, buy vanilla beans, and watch the astonishing dance of the voladores (flyers), in which four men attached by ropes to a pole fly through the air.
This piece originally appeared in National Geographic’s Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe.