The first time we went to Xalapa, in was in search of the ideal Mexican river to navigate. We not only found a beautiful area with excellent whitewater recreation potential, but we found a beautiful, hospitably and fascinating city as well. Xalapa (Jalapa) de Enriquez, Veracruz, Mexico. Home of the Jalapeno pepper. Capital City for the Mexican state of Veracruz. Center of culture and education for a huge region, crossroads of history for the last 2000 years.
Before the Spanish, what is now Xalapa was known as Malcuitepetl, or 5 hills in the ancient Aztec Nahuatl language. The first Spanish toehold on the American continents was less than 100 miles from what is now modern Xalapa, and due to the excellent climate and strategic location, Xalapa became the first Municipio chartered by the King of Spain in the new world. Xalapa was on the direct route from the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). It lay directly abreast the route that Hernan Cortez and his Spanish conquistadores took in their eventual defeat of the Aztecs. Xalapa was in the main route of advance by US forces in 1846 during the US invasion of Mexico. Xalapa was in the path of French invaders in 1862 on their way to a temporary but ultimately critical defeat at the battle of Puebla on May 5 of that year. (image is view of Pico Orizaba from Xalapa, click to enlarge)
Xalapa and the state of Veracruz was also the home and political base for Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The troops that accompanied him to the battle for San Antonio de Bexar, which he won by storming the defenses at the catholic mission that became known as the battle of the Alamo, came from Xalapa, Cordoba, and Orizaba. Batallon de tres Villas.
Today's Xalapa is a crossroads of civilization and progress. It has all the attributes of a modern metropolis, home of the state government of Veracruz, the state University of 70,000 students. Aspects of Xalapa remind one of Austin Texas or Sacramento California. Xalapa has the credit of having been civilized at least for the last 1500 years. A center of trade, commerce, government and education.
Though bustling and metropolitan in every way, Xalapa’s rugged topography lends itself to be divided up into distinct colonias, small valleys and watersheds that geographically divide the city. Getting around in town can be time consuming; to get to the next colonia over, you basically have to drive down valley and then go up another valley. There a few major arteries that confluence in the central downtown area. A new freeway, with overpasses and limited access, Paso de los Presidentes, has improved access, but if you drive in Xalapa, expect traffic jams.
We stayed at a private residence in Colonia Reforma, which is close to downtown, the University, and Los Lagos. Even though we were in the middle of a city of around one million souls, at night we were far from the sounds of major thoroughfares, and could sleep with windows open with being disturbed. At least until it began to get light, when the roosters began to crow and the dogs bark, same as in every small village in Mexico. Soon the city wakes up, and the natural gas delivery trucks would begin their daily rounds, with a loudspeaker playing lively cumbia music, the helpers riding in the back of the truck, tapping time on the tanks with their wrenches and the driver announcing “ gaassss, etc”.
Daily life in Xalapa can be as simple or complicated as you want. There is a Sam’s Club, Wal Mart and Chedraui, the regional retail giant. On the surface these look very much like their Americal counterparts, but as you delve into the myriad food products, you begin to notice the differences. You’ll find 3 different types of avocados, one with edible skin. Edible fruit from the giant Pitahalla cactus. Guayaba, guanabana, maricuya, mamey. Even if you can pronounce them. Chedraui promises to beat Wal Mart prices on every item, and it is refreshing to find an outfit that beats the Waltons at their own game.
However, to drive to one of these retail behemoths takes 1. A car 2. A lot of time 3. A lot of patience. In Xalapa, the concept of the neighborhood merchant is alive and well. Within 5 minutes walk of our residence, we found several small grocery and miscellaneous stores, where one could find most necessities as well as many luxuries. The small store at the corner had a couple types of lunch meat, bread, mile, paper products, candy and snacks, a variety of liquors including Havana Club, cigs, beer, sodas etc. Half a block over was purveyor of fresh fruits, vegetables, and cut chickens. Another half block was a small grocery that had a better selection of beer. Another block we found a Laundromat where the kind lady washed and folded 25 pounds of our dirty clothing for less than $5. Expand your walking radius to 10 minutes and find business and school supplies, copying, shoe repair, internet service, video arcade with the latest games, juice stands, taco stands, family restaurants with $3 blue plate specials, etc. Even as Xalapa has grown over the years (centuries), you can still find everything you need, and go everywhere you need to go, on foot.
In addition to natural gas delivers direct to the house, where the vendor and his helpers swap tanks for you, there a number of other convenient products that you can purchase from roving vendors during the day. Strap an igloo cooler to the back of your motorbike and you are an instant tortilla vendor. Instead of driving/walking to the neighborhood tortilleria and waiting in line to get them while they are hot and fresh, you just listen for the distinctive pattern of the tortilla vendor tooting the horn of his motorbike. He goes slow because you are a regular, he knows to pause in front of your house as you hustle to the kerb for your daily 1/2 kilo.
Xalapa may be the best geographically located city on the planet. It lies at 19 deg N latitude, at 4000 feet, in a volcanic foothill. Its 60 miles downhill to the gulf of Mexico, rich with seafood. It 18,000 pls feet volcanic highlands not only comb moisture out of tropical sea breezes but also have a glacier cap that charges the aquifers. The variety of available locally grown food products within an hours drive from Xalapa is absolutely impressive.
to be continued
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