Thursday, March 11, 2010

Celebrate Carnaval in Vera Cruz!

Bring on Carnaval! The two young girls above are all dressed up to enjoy Carnaval in Vera Cruz, the second stop on our 9-day tour of southern Mexico. Carnaval is celebrated in many Latin American countries, as well as New Orleans in the US where it is known at Mardi Gras. Carnaval is the blow-out party thrown just before Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent is the time for modesty, restraint, and giving things up, so Carnaval is the last chance to be sinful, outrageous, and generally have a good time. The name Carnaval comes from the Spanish word carne, which means meat, one of the items people typically forgo during Lent. People from all over Mexico flock to Vera Cruz for Carnaval because of the city's reputation for great fiestas. Our Caravan tour arrived just as the festivities were getting under way.

Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's highest mountain. Huge and perpetually snow-capped, 18,490 foot Pico de Orizaba tops the range of mountains paralleling the Gulf Coast about 110 miles inland, on the border between Puebla and Vera Cruz States. It stands so high that Cortes and his Conquistadores could see it from far out at sea as they first approached the Mexican coast. Orizaba appeared just as we reached the edge of Mexico's central plateau and prepared to drop far down the escarpment to the coastal plain. A dormant, but not extinct, volcano, Pico de Orizaba last erupted in 1687. However, it is known to have erupted 6 times before that during the early years of the Conquest. Called Iztactepetl, or White Mountain, by the Nahua-speaking indigenous people, it is the third highest mountain in North America. We were lucky to see it on a crystal-clear day on the plateau, because when we dropped steeply down the escarpment to the coastal plain, we were enveloped by thick clouds. As you can see in the pictures below, the clouds stayed with us all during our stay at Vera Cruz.

Hotel Diligencias provided a front-row seat for Carnaval. While in Vera Cruz, we stayed at the Hotel Diligencias, a luxury hotel overlooking the Zocalo, or central plaza. In the 17th Century, diligencias, or stage coaches, would drop their passengers within the high walls of the city, built to protect against the pirates then plaguing the area. Over time, the need arose to house the coachmen and their passengers and the Hotel Diligencias was built in 1795. The great Mexican composer Agustin Lara (1897-1970) wrote the song "Vera Cruz" while staying in the hotel. The balcony above the arched portales on the front of the hotel was a great spot to get the big picture of the action below.

From the Hotel Diligencias balcony, one can see the celebrants gather. Signs of globalization are found everywhere in Mexico. Here, Coca Cola shares a signpost with a poster declaring "Viva el Carnaval del Bicentenario!" The year 2010 is the Bicentennial of Mexico's War of Independence, and the Centennial of its Revolution. The hotel was far more luxurious than what Carole and I would normally choose, but it was tour company's choice so we just sat back and enjoyed it.

Checking out the action on the street. On a column at the hotel's entrance, a poster proclaims the schedule of bullfights, while across the street shoeshine stands conduct a brisk business. I decided to get my dusty shoes buffed while I people-watched in the Zocalo.

A shine by pantomime. This fellow gave me a fine shine while I used the perch of his chair to observe the activity swirling all around me. Although I attempted to communicate with him in Spanish, he never spoke a word. We conducted the entire transaction through hand gestures and pantomime. I have no idea whether he was deaf, or was indigenous and spoke no Spanish. We managed to communicate perfectly anyway.

People thronged streets closed off to auto traffic. Through the palm trees you can see the steeple of the Cathedral which stands along one side of the Zocalo.

A variety of mimes practiced their craft along the malecon (waterfront). This silver-painted fellow remained motionless until someone dropped money on the hat at his feet. Suddenly coming alive, he would draw his pistol and act the part of a very silent Old West cowboy. An appreciative customer watches from the harbor railing, while in the background cranes load ships at the docks across the water. Vera Cruz is more an active port city than a tourist town. It was founded in 1519 by Hernan Cortes after he had landed his Conquistadores, but before he had taken Mexico City and conquered the Aztecs. This makes Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (Cortes' original name) the very first city founded on the mainland of either of the American Continents, North or South, as well as the first colonial city in Mexico.

Huge puppets provided another form of entertainment on the malecon. Action, color, and music were everywhere we turned. Vera Cruz does know how to party! The port is not only a very active center of trade, but has a long history as the point of entry for foreign invaders. Cortes was followed by the French in the famous "Pastry War" of 1838 when they seized the port to compel reimbursement for a pastry shop looted in a riot. Next, the United States invaded through Vera Cruz during the Mexican -American War of 1846-48, and ended by stealing half of Mexico's territory. In 1862, the French seized Vera Cruz again in the Franco-Mexican War when they attempted to install an Austrian Duke as Emperor. Finally, US forces invaded here in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution to enforce an arms embargo. In spite of all this, the people of Vera Cruz remain warm and hospitable to foreigners like us.

This magnificent building dominates the end of the malecon. The building is named after Venustiano Carranza, one of the victorious Revolutionary generals who became president of Mexico. Next to the building, the city set up one of several huge stages located in various places around El Centro for the variety of simultaneous musical performances.

One of the unscheduled, informal musical events. Small bands of musicians roamed the area, looking for anyone desiring their own personal performance. The fellow on the right in the sunglasses was apparently the one who "payed the piper, and called the tune."

Still another set of musicians provokes an impromptu dance. This marimba group played such a hot tune that the woman above jumped up and got into a vigorous dance routine. Depite her size, she had some pretty graceful moves.

And speaking of dancers... Another band was suddenly joined by this masked transvestite on stilts who completely stole the show. Just one of Carnaval's many amazing sights as we wandered the streets of Vera Cruz.

"Flores, señor?" A flower seller offered me what appear to be lilies, as a group of women across the alley watch to see if he makes a sale. I had my hands full with my camera, so I had to decline.

Mother, daughter, and peanut seller. Each of the three women above adopted a different attitude toward my photography. The white haired abuela maintained a dignified, disinterested stance. Her daughter, in the middle, gave me an impish, gap-toothed grin. The peanut seller was more interested in finding a buyer for her wares than posing for a foreigner.

Dance troupe family portrait. When the father of this little group noticed me setting up for a photo, he corraled his son and made up him stand up straight. He couldn't do much with his wife and daughter, who were absorbed in a costume adjustment, or his other son who was busy teasing his sister. The clothes the children are wearing are the traditional costume of the people in the Vera Cruz area.

"Ticket, please..." This haunted house ride was graced with the scariest ticket taker I've ever encountered. If this is what one encounters on the outside, I shudder to think what might be hidden inside, ready to leap out at the unwary.

Wheeeeeee! This little girl whooped with joy as she whirled by on the Whirly-gig ride. Kids nearly always make the best subjects for photography, but they are very fast and you have to be quick or lucky.

Ready to go in the Zocalo. Most of the Zocalo was covered by a giant stage, various booths, and masses people sitting in chairs and tables outside restaurants. Here, you can see the stage behind the red umbrellas. Looming over everything is the Cathedral, called Our Lady of the Assumption. The original site contained a chapel built in the 17th Century. The steeples and dome were added in 1795 and the structure was completed between 1807-09. However, the church didn't achieve Cathedral status until 1963.

And still more dancing! Vera Cruz is famous for its fiesta dancing. As I wandered the streets, many were dancing to rock music at the zocalo. I turned the corner and found a youthful crowd gyrating to a Mexican hip hop group. Around still another corner, I ran into this large group of older folks performing a very graceful samba. I loved Carnaval's incredible medley of sounds, sights, and experiences.

And still more music! When one dance troupe took a break, this group picked up the beat. ¡Viva Carnaval en Vera Cruz!

Back at our hotel, we found another treat. Caravan Tours set up an after-dinner show for us, featuring these gorgeous young Vera Cruz student/models. After the show, I joked to Mauricio that I finally understood why he took the job of Caravan Tour Director--so he could spend time with these beauties. He grinned and answered "you see how I sacrifice myself for you every day?"

I hope you have enjoyed this visit to the Vera Cruz Carnaval. If you'd like to leave a comment, you can use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Great photos and enjoyable to read the dialogue

  2. Jim-

    Great job!!

    We are starting to research the Vera Cruz state. More specifically- Xalapa as a place to move to. We were checking out Lake Chapala for the longest time. But, it seems like the violence is beginning to take on a life of its own. Xalapa strikes me as being more conducive to our needs with the higher amounts of rainfall. I was wondering if you had the opportunity to visit the Xalapa or Coatepec area while you were in Vera Cruz.

    Thanks again for all of your help!


  3. Hey Jim, it will be nice if you can complement your site visits with MAPS so people can have an idea where those places are, I know if you convine it with google somehow it can be done, just like when you visit a search for a store in google, but other than that , you look more like a historian, your hobbie is very impresive, i wish I can live there.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim