Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lost in Veracruz

There are basically three kinds of travelers -- the planners, the non-planners, and the ones who sit in the middle somewhere, sometimes with a plan and sometimes with nothing at all. Personally, I like not having an agenda. All I really need is a good map. Get to a new place, ask around, and go by local recommendation.

There's just something I really enjoy about dipping into the unknown, being completely awed by who I meet and what I discover, and the sense of accomplishment I derive from it. If you've traveled with me before, you are aware that getting lost is an unexpected, yet an essential, part of the itinerary. However, having grown out of the backpacker 20's lifestyle, but mostly being married to a planner, I do a little planning so as not to toy with hubby's blood pressure.

This weekend, we took a road trip east to Veracruz state. Not a well-touristed region for several reasons, the main one being that Veracruz state is the wealthiest in natural resources -- oil and produce -- so there's no reason to tout it as a region of tourism despite it being one of the most amazing states, in my opinion. There's lush vegetation of bananas, citrus, coffee, and vanilla, biodiversity, a coastline, a seafood cuisine, and Mexico's tallest volcano. Can you believe that's all in one state?? It's like the Hawaii of Mexico (okay, a HUGE leap of the imagination, and change the color of the water from blue to brown)

Before leaving, I reserved the hotels and compiled a list of things to see, but I was really leaving this trip open to whatever Veracruz had to offer. One thing I forgot to do was take a good look at our geography. I knew we had to cross through the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range to reach our destination, the Emerald Coast, but who expects the shaded parts of the map to be so rigorous? Let's just say a topographical map of Veracruz would have been nice (this is probably true for many a place in Mexico). Fortunately, we borrowed a friend's GPS to navigate the mountains and warn us of 180 degree curves in the road, but GPS only goes so far in unfamiliar terrain. For example, GPS misled us into this rocky road and, literally, up a creek. :) I definitely thought this was more funny, being the passenger and not the driver. Did I mention that we got here after I convinced Nick to take a local road instead of the big highway?

One of the things we went looking for in Veracruz state were the French bread and cheese shops still remaining from the time when the French colonized the area. We stopped in San Rafael, inquired with the nice man who ran the bar El Casino off the plaza, but he seemed to know more about the local drunks than the pan frances we were in search of.

While we didn't find the shops we were looking for, we did get our hands on a dusty bottle of wine from our new friend at El Casino, who, by the way, really enjoys posting pictures of naked women on his walls.

Another exciting, though very difficult place to find, was Parque Xanath, a family-run, ecological park outside of Papantla, Veracruz and recommended to me by John Todd Jr. (who keeps the best English language website on Veracruz). It took us over an hour to find and at least five misdirections, but the owner, José Luis Hernandez, keeps an immaculate museum of old photos and provides a guided tour on the history of vanilla, other indigenous plants, and information on the Totonac culture.

Señor Ignacio, a Totonac, lives on-site and gives tourists a glimpse of indigenous life.

I don't travel on a shoestring or by pure whim anymore, and I plan a little more than I used to i.e. to drive in the daytime to avoid driving off a cliff, but I found that I still LOVE getting lost. It's the most thrilling part of traveling! I get to meet the unexpected, discover new things, learn new routes, and exercise my new language abilities. Traveling lost is not for everybody, especially if you like to check off the sites, but if it's your goal to be absorbed by your surroundings, I think it's the only way to go.

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