The lively port city of Veracruz, 345 km (214 mi) east of Mexico City, might not be the city that never sleeps, but it is a city that gets barely any rest. People listen to music in the squares until late at night, then sip coffee in the sidewalk cafés early the next morning. The exuberance of jarochos, as the city's residents are known, does not falter even in the broiling midday heat.
In 1519 Cortés landed in La Antigua, a slip of a place on the Río Huitzilapan some 25 km (16 mi) north, but it was Veracruz that became the major gateway for the Spanish settlement of Mexico. Its name, also given to many other communities throughout Latin America, means "true cross." Pirates frequently attacked the steamy coastal city, and their battles to intercept Spanish goods add a swashbuckling edge to the history of the oldest port in the Americas. The Spanish brought thousands of African slaves to Veracruz; later, Cuban immigrants flooded the town.
Today Veracruz is still one of the most important ports in Mexico, and you'll immediately sense its extroverted character. Huge cargo ships, ocean liners, and fishing vessels crowd its harbor, and the waterfront Paseo del Malecón is always buzzing with strolling couples and sailors with a few hours to kill. In the evening at the zócalo, the sound of marimbas floats through the air.
The city is actually two towns: the historic port of Veracruz and the fishing village of Boca del Río. These communities have fused into one, linked by 10 km (6 mi) of businesses geared toward tourists. The hotels in Veracruz have more charm, but those in Boca del Río, especially along the beaches near Playa Mocambo, have sun and sand. A visit to one of the seafood restaurants in Boca del Río is a must.