This part of the Gulf of Mexico has none of the azure brilliance of the Caribbean nor the deep blue of the Pacific, but instead glows with a more sensual beauty. The sand was a soft brown, like finely ground coffee mixed with sugar, raked into Zen perfection every morning. The water was slick in the distance. A line of pelicans, the same nutty brown as the trunks of the coconuts, dipped down low over the glossy sea. Tiny waves slid up the beach, then retreated, leaving deep purple stains behind. Puffy clouds foamed high above us. Under the deep shade of our umbrella-shaped straw palapa , life took on a molasses pace.
Later, we swam in the lukewarm water, bobbing up and down like corks. Popping up from a brief sojourn underwater, I was most surprised to find a fully dressed man quite close, standing armpit high in the water. He held up an ancient Polaroid camera as cheerfully as the walrus held up his fork before devouring the oysters. I admired the enterprising spirit that had brought him 70 feet out into the water, but I laughed and demurred at buying a picture. I still regret, quite keenly, that I said no.
The water had been so soothing that we had not noticed the approach of a black wedge of clouds nor the tiny whirlwinds that spat sand around our \o7 palapa\f7 . But once out of the blood-warm water, the wind made itself felt and we retreated to the beachside restaurant to wait out the storm. Rather than alarming, the storm was a thing of beauty. A white curtain materialized out of the black horizon and soon surrounded us with a haze of rain. Our hotel became even more a stationary ocean liner, the top floor an ideal place from which to view a line of rollers unfolding like a giant fan across the broad reaches of the bay. The storm left as suddenly as it had come. The air filled with the aroma of flowers; puddles shone in the roads.
After our nights on the \o7 zocalo \f7 and our days at the beach, we yearned to see yet another aspect of the region. The countryside beyond the city limits of Veracruz is stunning, all green fields and rivers with mountains in the distance. A woman in white splashed a mule across a shallow river. A cowboy galloped across a highway overpass. A pig reigned in every yard. For this is a land where the rhythms of life are dominated by sprouting seeds, watery marshes and the abundance of flowers and seafood.
Above the temperate foothills toward which we headed, the brash peaks of volcanoes thrust up into indigo skies. Their steep flanks roar with waterfalls, yet nurture mountain meadows with Jersey cows, green grass and thus wonderful fresh cheese. Citatepetl Volcano is almost 18,000 feet high, 4,000 feet higher than our own Mt. Whitney. In geologic terms, late Tertiary, it's a baby, and when clouds from the damp lowlands boil around its flanks, it's easy to see it as still being born.
The roads in the state of Veracruz are excellent. The \o7 cuota\f7 (toll) roads are empty superhighways, designed for the rich. The \o7 libre\f7 (free) roads are well-paved but sometimes crowded with trucks belching black or white smoke, depending on whether they are barreling downhill or crawling up. Framed by swirling fog, a child of 13 or so, wrapped in black and cobalt blue and holding a baby, stood by her teen-age husband, who had a machete tucked into a soft leather holster.
We left the main highway at the first sign for the town of Coatepec. The road turned out to be a back road but crews were out filling potholes after recent rains. The road threaded its way through a true rain forest. The jungle trees had a far distant canopy of smoky green, a mid-layer of air plants and orchids so abundant that it was hard to imagine that they are rare. And far below, in rows, the brilliance of coffee plants, with their clusters of berries, some lime green, others flushing coral red. Families of Indians moved silently through the groves, picking the ripe berries. The road kept climbing. Rivulets gushed down steep hillsides. Higher up, streams meandered across verdant meadows, where the grass carpet was as thick and bright as moss.