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VIBRANT VERACRUZ : The Party Never Stops in This Bright, Giddy Seaport on the Gulf of Mexico

March 06, 1994|Lucretia Bingham | Lucretia Bingham is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles. Her last piece for "Traveling in Style" was "Pastoral Perfect," about southeastern Connecticut.

THE TEAL-GREEN SKIRTS OF THE FOLK DANCERS WHIRL AS madly as the multicolored pinwheels held high by the passing vendors. An Indian woman with long braided hair gapes in astonishment as a line of nearly bare showgirls wiggles on a raised stage. Another woman dances past with a Pepsi bottle balanced on her nose, while her daughter follows, selling gardenias. Seven different bands are playing seven different tunes in various corners of the square. Starlings whistle from the trees above, their trills looping up into the air. A strangely sweet cacophony rings in my senses, as stunningly loud as a nearby waterfall. A man chuckles and offers me an electric shock to calm my nerves, but I like the way I feel. . . .

It's just another night in Veracruz.

Veracruz, whose full name (which nobody seems to use) is Veracruz Llave, is a major Mexican seaport on the Gulf of Mexico, about 260 miles east of Mexico City. I first came here about a year and a half ago, on a brief vacation with two girlfriends, and though I had traveled reasonably widely elsewhere in Mexico, I had never before experienced anything quite like this. What I keep thinking of while I'm here (I returned last November) is the old travel brochure cliche, which describes exactly what I found: Every night is a fiesta.

Veracruz is much less Spanish in appearance than the cities of the Mexican highlands. True, there's the perfectly proportioned zocalo , or central plaza, and the requisite exquisite Spanish Baroque cathedral. Beyond these and a few blocks of buildings downtown, though, it's all rounded corners, triangular abutments, balconies festooned with voluptuous balustrades--and vivid colors everywhere. Though tropical, Veracruz is not a pastel city. Its facades are cobalt blue, Matisse green, shocking pink. One block-long school is purple with white trim.

My friends and I stayed at the perfect Veracruz hotel, the Emporio, which curves around a portion of the harbor. Our fifth-floor balcony wrapped around a corner and had a superb view, not just of the harbor but also of the harborside promenade, where all of Veracruz strolls at sunset--young couples, families, crowds of unattached young men and (separately) women, fortune-tellers, evangelists, balloon sellers, marimba bands. Joining the promenade, we became part of the show; foreign tourists are comparatively rare here, and the fact that we were three blond women traveling alone seemed to cause something of a sensation. (We were never harassed, though.)

Under a colonial colonnade, we saw an exhibition devoted to the history of Veracruz--a history largely of fevers and invasions. The city descends from the first real Spanish settlement in the Americas, founded by Hernando Cortes in 1519 under the name Villa Rica de Vera Cruz--the Rich Town of the True Cross. As Vera Cruz grew in wealth and power, becoming a major port for the shipment of goods (including tobacco, gold and silver) to and from Spain, it also became a favored target of Caribbean pirates. It burned down four times in the 17th Century alone. Later, it was seized by the French and invaded twice by U.S. forces.

The city also suffered epidemics of disease for centuries, spread partially by the immense population of mosquitoes living in its murky coastal waters and in the nearby jungle. Disease abated after World War II, when the port was modernized and stagnant backwaters were drained; Veracruz is no longer called "the city of the dead." But perhaps its double legacy of death and invasion helps account for its nonstop fiesta atmosphere. If tomorrow may not come, why not put on your party clothes? Why not dance the night away?

After our promenade, we settled down in one of the cafes that line one side of the zocalo , ordered margaritas and fresh shrimp drenched with lime and sat back to watch the show. A stream of vendors flowed past the cafe, selling candies, cigars, agates, shoeshines, hand-carved Spanish galleons, even our names carved in a grain of rice. A toddler hawked matches. A 10-year-old salesman yawned over his nuts and cigarettes. One man snapped the bottle-cap feet of his toy turtles down onto the plaza in a flamenco rhythm.

The colors swirled past, the combinations too glorious to imagine--a lone accordion player in violent blue; a woman in a dress as tight and bright as the skin of an orange; yellow crinolines peeping out from under lavender skirts; purple rhinestones glittering above tangerine bouffant. Vultures flapped down low over the square, the tips of their wings looking like black velvet gloves silhouetted against a magenta sky. Green neon light from a nearby bar shone down on a middle-aged couple, kissing as if nothing else mattered. Our own bar was golden with amber fixtures; the reflections from metallic balloons shone like rainbows in the dampness of our waiter's gold teeth.

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