By MARK CHESNUT Contributing Writer
Located less than four hours by first-class bus from Mexico City and about 90 minutes from the city of Veracruz, Xalapa was founded in 1313 when four indigenous villages united. Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes arrived in 1519, but the town didn’t play a major role in the Spanish colonial empire until the 18th century, and in 1791 King Carlos IV of Spain declared it a town. Today, it’s a hub for higher education and culture and serves as an ideal base for exploring nearby towns and natural attractions.
It’s easy for visitors to immerse themselves in Xalapa’s historic ambiance while wandering its hilly, winding streets. Unlike many Mexican cities, Xalapa has no central “zocalo” (public square), but it’s graced with multiple verdant parks and impressive architecture. Its cathedral, built in 1641 and modified in 1772, has an oddly sloped floor that requires visitors to walk slightly uphill to get to the altar (whether that’s the result of geographic shifting or psychologically manipulative architectural design is unclear). Nearby, soaring araucaria trees brought from Chile cast shade over Parque Juarez, a beautifully terraced park built in 1892.
By far, the biggest single attraction in Xalapa is the Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa (Xalapa Anthropology Museum), the second most important facility of its kind in all of Mexico, after Mexico City’s immense Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology). Like its counterpart, the Xalapa facility consists of a strikingly contemporary edifice that houses an extensive collection of centuries-old, pre-Hispanic artifacts — in this case, largely from the Olmec and Totonac civilizations.
This part of Veracruz state is also known for its local flavors; it’s one of Mexico’s three main coffee-growing regions and is also home to its own version of mole (Puebla’s mole poblano sauce may get more press, but Xalapa’s mole verde is a delight for the senses, too). What’s surprising, however, is that the destination doesn’t make a bigger deal, from a tourism perspective, of its role as the birthplace of the world-famous jalapeno pepper (“jalapeno” is also what you call someone from Xalapa).
It seems like the destination is ripe — if you’ll pardon the awful pun — for an entrepreneurial type to sweep in and set up jalapeno-themed restaurants, foodie tours, tastings, cooking classes, and shops laden with spicy ephemera. Until then, it’s up to travelers to find their own ways to sample and celebrate the locally grown product. We enjoyed tasty jalapeno dishes at Tierra Luna, a cultural center and restaurant that hosts guest chefs and varying menus throughout the year.
Day Trips From Xalapa
Xalapa is a convenient gateway for side trips to several interesting towns and naturally beautiful attractions — most notably, two designated Pueblos Magicos (Mexico’s “Magical Towns” is a program that recognizes smaller towns around Mexico with historic and/or cultural importance). Both destinations — Coatepec and Xico — are close enough for a quick day trip, but may be worth considering for overnight stays, as well.
The town of Coatepec, which is less than 30 minutes by car from Xalapa, has a charming downtown area with lots of arts and crafts shops, and travelers can also visit coffee plantations and even an orchid museum. The town’s centerpiece is the colorful San Jeronimo Church, which was built between 1684 and 1743 and features architectural elements meant to evoke serpentine curves (in a nod to the town’s name, a Nahuatl word that translates roughly to “snake hill”).
Just a few minutes beyond Coatepec is Xico, a colonial town that attracts both nature and culture lovers. A must-see here is the Museo del Danzante Xiqueno— the Museum of the Xiqueno Dancer, which refers to local residents who dress in colorful costumes to dance through the town during the annual patron saint festival, which takes place (during non-pandemic times) in the month of July.
About 10 minutes by car from downtown Xico, in the surrounding countryside, lie the region’s much-photographed natural attractions: the Texolo and La Monja waterfalls. I felt a bit like I was entering Jurassic Park as I crossed a narrow footbridge and descended a sometimes-steep trail through lush vegetation to view the gorgeous Texolo waterfall, which soars nearly 80 feet high. La Monja falls is more easily accessible along a more even trail, and provides wonderful photo opportunities, too.
Another noteworthy day trip from Xalapa is Hacienda El Lencero, a former hacienda that dates to 1525 and is named for a soldier who traveled with Hernan Cortes. Set in the eponymous town of El Lencero, the property is beautifully maintained, with authentic furnishings and colorful gardens.
My traveling partner and I learned a valuable lesson after visits to the waterfalls and the hacienda, however: If you’re headed outside the city of Xalapa or the nearby towns and are not taking a guided tour, be sure to arrange for a driver to provide return transportation. We ended up having to walk a couple of miles in both cases since taxis aren’t easily found outside the heavily populated areas.
We actually didn’t mind the inconvenience, though; the region’s supremely comfortable climate and beautiful scenery make it a pleasure to walk and wander, even if it’s unplanned.
Veracruz Secretary of Tourism