If you’re the type of person who daydreams about:
it might be worth thinking about New Caledonia.
I’m not sure if you can do those things there, but it seems like you probably could.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a small group of islands and islets in Melanesia - forming a roughly equilateral triangle with Australia and New Zealand, where it is the Northeasterrnmost point. It’s not that far from Vanuatu, if that helps.
If you aren’t already there, it’s almost definitely a long way from where you are. We booked an AirBnB on a woman’s catamaran in the main harbor in the capitol, and she told us that a lot of people arrive by boat and fly home, ditching their vessels because it’s too much trouble to get them back to Europe or the United States or wherever they’ve drifted in from.
It's pretty sleepy, but it still does a healthy tourist trade with English speakers and people from mainland China and Japan. The main group of foreigners, though, are French. The proper official name is Nouvelle Caledonie, because since 1853 the French have put themselves in charge of things. Along with a lot of blue water, the islands have one of the richest nickel deposits in the world, and the white people there taking it are primarily francophones.
Originally though, it was a Melanesian paradise - Kanak, specifically. People have been there for 3000 years, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. They still make up 40 percent of the population, and their culture is alive and quite visible all over the islands. As is the case everywhere I’ve ever been in the Pacific, they seem to exist in a uneasy detente with their colonizers. Just before we arrived in November 2018, there was a national referendum on whether or not to remain a French colony. Kanak flags were flying everywhere, and only 56% voted to stay.
I didn't know any of that before we arrived, and our own trip to the country happened mostly on a whim. We were looking for flights between the South and North Island of New Zealand, where we were traveling from our home in the US, and noticed a cheap flight to a place called “Noumea”. We Googled it, found out it was the capital of a country we’d never thought much about, and decided “what the hey”.
We were only there for a week, and I’m by no means an expert, or even a novice, but we did dig around enough to function something like scouts for others out there who might be interested in paying a visit.
What's it like?
The country felt, to me, as much like Latin America as anywhere else I’ve been - clearly colonial, clearly possessing a strong native culture. There’s a significant amount of wealth disparity, but poverty - while present - doesn’t appear to be the defining characteristic of the population. In the Capitol, Noumea, there are plenty of upscale neighborhoods and tourist businesses, while the Cathedral’s paint is slightly peeling, neighborhoods are dotted with grafitti’d empty warehouses, and the occasional house will have a couple of chained up rottweilers barking menacingly at you as a security measure. The physical location is beautiful, and everywhere we went felt safe and relaxed. The infrastructure is solid - roads are good, beaches are clean, and the parking is closely monitored - which we found out when we got a $10 parking ticket for some infraction that I still don't understand because it was in French. It was a small enough amount to seem as quaint as it did annoying.
Outside of Noumea, the country is notably sparsely populated. Even in beautiful spots that are marketed openly in tourist information centers, it’s easy to find yourself all alone. If you want long quiet walks on a secluded beach, you have plenty of good options.
For an anecdote: at the first campsite we visited - the largest in the area where we were able to camp right on the water and which came with several recommendations - we showed up in the afternoon to a closed gate. We saw that there were a couple of people milling around in the property - two campers, and a guy welding something - so we walked around the gate - there was a clear footpath.
When we got to the back of the property, a startled Frenchman asked us, “What do you want?!” Not angry - just genuinely surprised to see us.
“We want to camp - is that possible?”
“Oh, yes. The gate was closed, right? How did you get in?”
“We walked around it.”
“Oh, did you come in a car or something?” (We were at least 20 miles from the nearest town at this point.)
“Yes, we left it outside the gate.”
“Oh. I see. Do you have any toilet paper? You will need it because there is none here.”
We did, thankfully. He opened the gate and let us in, and drove away in a pickup truck, leaving us by ourselves at the site. Before he left he told us not to worry about paying until the morning. We never saw him again, but we did find someone who I believe was his wife - a Japanese woman who spoke perfect English and spent the morning sitting in a lounge chair, staring contentedly into the mangroves and ocean that the campsite bordered.
It seemed like a nice life.
Outside of Noumea it’s also notably more Kanak, and you’re as likely to experience and enjoy native culture as French. Life closer to subsistence is more visible in the countryside. Especially on the East Coast, it’s the kind of place where it’s most common for houses to be made of corrugated metal, and normal for men to wander the streets with machetes because they’re working their fields.
Tourism sites all say that Nouvelle Caledonie is known for its delicious French cuisine. And it’s true. It’s easy to find a good cappuccino, a fresh baguette, and pain au chocolate even in small towns.
It’s not a cheap place to travel, exactly, but it’s also not ridiculously expensive. I’ve heard prices commonly compared to New Zealand, and I’d say that is roughly accurate - though I think food is slightly pricier in New Caledonia. We would typically pay between $4 - 7 US for a good coffee, $8 - 10 for a national brand beer at a restaurant and $15 - 20 for a meal. If I had to guess, I’d say cost of travel is probably lower than Hawaii or Tahiti - the other two small Pacific Island groups we’ve visited.
And whatever the costs or the quality of their fois gras, most travelers go to New Caledonia because it’s pretty.
It’s surrounded by the world’s largest lagoon, which means that coral reef protects most of the main island from the heaviest waves (There are only one or two beach breaks for surfing in the country because of this). The water tends to be shallow, warm, and swimmable, and there are endless snorkeling and diving possibilities. Boat-based activities are one of the most common pastimes, and you’ll find lots of rental and tour options if that’s your thing. It wouldn’t be disappointing at all to go there and just hang out at the beach. Some of the prettiest we’ve seen anywhere were there, at Poe and Thio, and we didn’t even go to what’s said to be the most beautiful spots, on the Isle of Pines and the other offshore islands.
To our own interests, there is also a developed trail system in the country. The jewel in the crown is the GR1 - a 100k hut to hut hike that cuts through the south of the Island - but there are plenty of smaller trail systems through every type of geography. It was easy to find beautiful places to hike, run or mountain bike on well-maintained trail.
There is a spine of mountains that runs up the center of the main island, which adds to the beauty. The West Coast is quite dry - it looks like Australia, mostly, with dry hills, red dirt and white sandy beaches. The mountains are quite wet. And the East Coast is the way I picture Polynesia - ferns and waterfalls and beautiful coastline and dramatic mountains. It’s largely unpopulated and it’s where much of the best scenery on the main island is, in my opinion.
My personal favorite unexpected perk about the country is that it had what all warm climates should - a network of campgrounds that was as extensive as their network of hotels. Like the one where we found the startled Frenchman with no toilet paper, a lot of these seemed like a family with a bunch of land in a pretty place decided to set up some toilets and let people stay for a few bucks a night. That’s come to be maybe my favorite camping atmosphere - kind of Airbnb in a friendly person’s yard. And it wasn’t expensive. $10 -15 US per person is a bit less that what I’ve come to expect to pay in North America for a similar level of service.
We found a lot of campgrounds in spectacular locations. If you dream of camping with a beautiful view of turquoise water, but don’t want to worry about getting your rental car down a 4x4 track, New Caledonia had amazing options. In Poe, our $20/night spot was on the same beach, a few miles down, from an impressive Sheraton resort. The views were just as good and it felt just as secluded, and it was easy enough to sneak into the Sheraton for a dip in their pool when we got bored of the ocean. Plus there’s very little chance a wild boar will charge through your room at the Sheraton, and we got to have that experience in our campsite. (Edit: after I wrote this, a local wearing a tusk necklace showed us a picture on his phone of a boar that he saw at the Sheraton that morning, on the golf course. True story.)
Like good hustlers around the world, a lot of these places will also cook you a meal and sell you the basics of what you need if you ask, and some will pick you up from the larger towns nearby if you call ahead.
Here are four photos from places we camped.
9 essential things you need to know
6 top regions and how to get there.
For someone looking for a relaxed, budget tropical paradise, New Caledonia is as good a choice of Pacific Islands as any. Like any Pacific Island, it’s easy to spend money there on luxury and adventure tours. But it’s also an easy place to just exist contentedly - camping at the beach, hiking in the mountains, eating baguettes and charcuterie and drinking cheap beer from the grocery. If you’re a Kiwi or an Aussie, give it a go on your next holiday. If you’re reading this from the US or the UK, to be honest I have no idea how you might end up here, but if you do you won’t regret it.
Just remember to bring your own toilet paper.
If you like out of the way places and adventure on the cheap, sign up for information about our upcoming book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It'll be your comprehensive guide to life, adventure, and living your dreams on the cheap.
Denali to Aconcagua by Human Power: A Treasure Trove of Found Material from an Amazing Adventurer You've Probably Never Heard Of: Sam Skrocke
In Episode 59 of our podcast, we feature a story from Truckee, CA's Sam Skrocke about a jaw dropping 2007 - 08 epic, where he biked from Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina in southern Patagonia, and book ended his trip with ascents of the highest peaks on each continent - Denali and Aconcagua. It was part of an expedition with the nonprofit "Biking for a Better World", and raised $20,000 to fund the construction of a school in Nicaragua, but other than some local press in his native Tahoe area, there doesn't seem to be much about the trip online. We're stoked and honored that he's chosen to share some of his experience here.
Sam sent us 10 pages of previously unshared, densely typed narrative that he wrote up about the trip, and it's adventure nerd gold and the kind of thing that makes us love this process we're engaged in to collect some of the world's best, untold adventure stories. Below you'll find some of the highlights, which I hope will capture the magnitude of this mostly undocumented adventure.
"E.T.", aka Elizabeth Traver, was featured in Episode 48 of the podcast telling her story about formative experiences fishing in Wyoming. This week's podcast features more storytellers from the Laramie event, so we feel like it's a great opportunity to share this great little adventure story by E.T. - one of the craziest job interviews we've heard of. A scientist, ultra runner, world traveler, mountain biker, ski instructor and more, she is just the type of remarkable (but unassuming) character that we love discovering, and introducing to the world.
While white water rafting tends to get lumped in as a low key family vacation type adventure, E.T.'s story isn't about any laid back float trip. Straightforward and almost Melville-esque, I love it as 1) an illustration of ET's amazing spirit and 2) a brief window into the harrowing life of a rafting guide, lived when the rest of us aren't in the boat. It's also an evocative picture of adventure life in Wyoming - with the Tetons, Yellowstone, the Wind River Range, the Snake and Kern Rivers, it's one of the world's great mountain adventure locations that I personally haven't explored enough.
If you'll pardon my gushing for a moment, I'll get to the practical stuff once I have this out: El Camino de Santiago is just the best. If I had to pick 30 days of my life to re-live over and over again, it would be the month that we spent on the Camino Frances (the most popular route between St Jean Pied de Port, France and Santiago, Spain) in 2013. It's my favorite cultural experience in the world, and I'm so glad it exists. If you're here, I'm guessing you have at least a vague sense of what it is, and if not the Wikipedia Camino article will get you up to speed better than I can. But if I had to summarize, I would call it a 500 mile purpose-driven long walk across northern Spain where cheap wine and beer and coffee and croissants rain down like manna from heaven as you wander through picturesque ancient villages. It's really my favorite thing in the world.
The best part of the Camino experience, in my opinion, is the community. That thin ribbon of Spanish land is populated by interesting, super supportive people of all shapes, colors, ages and nationalities who are there because they want to have a life changing experience - but not in a weird way. It's a rare place in the world where there's a strong sense that a large and diverse group of people are all in it together to help each other succeed and figure out how to accomplish a goal they set and sacrificed to achieve.
We're featuring a bunch of Camino stories on this week's podcast, and in the supportive spirit of the pilgrimage in Spain, I've been thinking about the one key to a successful trip for those who might find their way here who are contemplating it. I don't want to do another comprehensive write up (there are lots of those online), so I want to present the "if you could only write one blog post" principle that describes a successful approach in a nutshell.
I also realize that our readership isn't primarily composed of people contemplating el Camino de Santiago, but is almost exclusively an audience who are interested in various forms of outdoor travel and adventure. And as such, I've also been thinking about what gives the Camino its particular appeal for that crowd - our normal audience of travelers, athletes, and adventurers.
And I think I've got the principle that addresses both crowds:
What's Alex Honnold got to do with Anthony Bourdain? Why are outdoor athletes so frequently also globetrotting world travelers?
I gotta admit, the last year or so I've been feeling a bit like a gordo, because our previous regimen of endurance running and thru-hiking has largely been supplanted by travel - both internationally in Latin America and at our home in the US, for Boldly Went events. While we still get out for a healthy number of runs, hikes, and paddles, most of our energy has been going to learning Spanish and planning road trips.
I know we're not the only ones who share both passions - for outdoor adventure and for international travel - and the question of whether stories from abroad are welcome at our outdoor adventure events comes up in pretty much every city. All of this has me reflecting a bit on why there is so much overlap in the communities: between dirtbag athletes and vagabonds.
What itch is being scratched?
The topic came up for me initially because, sitting on a plane, flying home from Mexico a few days ago, I was thinking about how this year I really want to get back into ultra shape (probably a 50k route we make up ourselves rather than a race) and complete another (shorter) thru-hike on the Colorado Trail after a couple years away from major athletic challenges. When I ask myself why, beyond wanting to stop feeling like an impostor when people ask me about my Cascade Crest 100 hat, I can think of at least 6 things that these kinds of outdoor adventures bring to one's life.
1) A regular, heady, emotional mix of fear, insecurity and excitement.
2) Fun logistical challenges that involve incorporating both mental and physical aspects.
3) A sense of accomplishment for having done things that are on the edge between possible and impossible.
4) A sense of identity that comes from being a part of a tight-knit community, and from doing something that not many people do. Feeling strange, and special.
5) A better sense of one's place in the cosmos - as a small, weak creature in the middle of a big, beautiful world.
6) A sense of being physically healthy, and strong. Feeling like, if you want to do just about anything, you will be capable of doing it (with a bit of training).
While we used to spend almost all of our leisure time on outdoor pursuits, we've gone through several phases, including during the last few years, when travel has taken over a significant amount of that energy and time. Sitting on a plane, thinking about why that's felt like a relatively even trade, it struck me that our drifting around has actually scratched a lot of the same psychological itches that the trails used to. For instance:
1) Stepping off of a plane into the middle of Guatemala City for the first time was a similar feeling to taking the first steps on our PCT thru-hike. It was the fear, insecurity, and excitement that comes along with setting out into an unknown environment to take on a challenge with some actual dangers that you're not sure you're up to confronting. Terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
2) The logistics of international travel are probably even more complicated than the logistics of running 100 miles through the wilderness. While the physical challenge is primarily to avoid putting anything in your mouth that will give you dysentery, when you're traveling every day is a puzzle to be solved - navigating foreign cultures, languages, and bus stations.
3) While social media makes it appear as if travel is just drifting around looking at pretty things (which, in some ways, it can be), in actuality it comes with a strong sense of accomplishment as you see yourself learning new languages and navigating formerly difficult situations more easily. On our recent trip to Mexico, it was still shocking to step off the plane into a foreign culture, but after 5 previous months of Latin American travel, it wasn't scary in the same way. It was a familiar kind of fear that we knew we were capable of navigating. Estuvimos listos.
4) There's also a strong sense of community and identity that comes along with meeting other international travelers. Beyond finding people who love the same places you do, there's a bond that comes with sharing the same types of experiences I've been talking about here, and of feeling like you're all the same kind of weird.
5) And there's no reality check that better helps you to understand your place in the world than being dropped into the middle of a foreign country, where you don't speak the language, and where you no longer understand how things work. You're small. The world's big.
Maybe those sets of psychological needs help explain why some of us are more drawn to adventure than others. But definitely, somewhere in that overlap is the reason that when we travel, we repeatedly run into people who are into the outdoors: as with our recent random connection through AirBnB with Edy, in Coatepec, Mexico, who has traveled widely and also happens to be a mountain guide. And when we meet people in the outdoors community, they are very frequently travelers as well - as when we met Chad Guenter in Canmore, Canada through a SUP boarding connection, and it turns out he'd previously lived in Jalcomulco - a town not too far from Edy's in Mexico.
So, I think that there genuinely is a shared psychology - a dirtbag DNA if you will - that defines people who are driven to explore, whether that's through outdoors pursuits or international travel. We're all after the same sorts of things in life - curiosity to see what's around the next literal or proverbial bend, sure, but also a shared desire for the types of growth that come along with both types of experiences. Maybe as a group we all get bored easily and need a challenge, or maybe we need to set ourselves apart as different in some way or another. Or, conversely, need to feel that even though we are a bit different, there are a lot of other people who are different in the same way.
And so, yeah, of course we let it slide at events when a storyteller wants to talk about a travel adventure that only peripherally involves the outdoors.
One itch travel doesn't scratch, unfortunately, is the need for physical fitness. So while the trip to Mexico that we just returned from was great, sitting around drinking cerveza and eating sweet, delicious mole poblano doesn't get you in ultra shape on its own. So I'm going to head out for a run. But we're going to keep it kind of short: we have a road trip to pack for tomorrow.
If you want updates when more blogs like this come out, or updates on the weekly podcast featuring stories of outdoor adventure (with the occasional travel experience mixed in), our upcoming book, or all of the other cool stuff we're up to, we hope you'll sign up for our weekly newsletter here!
And if you find what we're creating useful and entertaining, consider being more involved with our network and join us on Patreon.
This is the fourth in our series on Mexican travel, which started with an article on why we love Mexico and aren't afraid of her, and was followed by an attempt to cut through some fear by being real about the challenges and offering some practical advice for travel here. The third entry focused on our favorite part of the country, the sorely underrated Veracruz State. With this post I want to close by speaking from the heart, about what makes Mexico feel like more than just a travel destination to us.
Creating community that creates adventure
For the second year in a row, Angel and I find ourselves vortexed in Coatepec, Mexico. After popping in four days ago with plans to move on quickly, we're posting from the same family's AirBnB that we were sitting in this time last year when our day trip turned into a week. Once again, we're stuck here, with no plans to leave until our plane tickets force us to.
We didn't intend to be here, and I didn't intend to finish this series on Mexico out with this particular post, but there's something about Coatepec that consistently changes our direction.
A year ago, the first entry we ever made on this blog was about Carlos, our AirBnB host who opened up a world of fantastic connections and experiences in Coatepec. I've thought a lot this year about how our experience with him, and with his family, captures the spirit of what we hope to do with Boldly Went. As I've tried to summarize that spirit in a phrase, what I've come up with has been "creating the community that creates adventure."
It's no coincidence that being back in the house, reconnecting with Carlos and his family, has us thinking again about that dynamic, and in truth we've made a series of connections on this year's trip that have felt like creating community that then evolved into adventure.
On our first stop, in Orizaba, we were warmly received by the local trail running group - the Alameda Runners - and they took us out on our best outdoor experience there, a 10 mile run through the local national park.
In Catemaco, we wanted to go on a hike, so we booked something that was ominously and (we learned) appropriately called the "extremo" route in a local eco reserve with Tour en el Pariaso, where we spent 6 hours alone with our guide Arnulfo, off trail through the jungle, on a route that concluded with a river crossing dicey enough that Angel prefaced it by making her peace with death, in pure sincerity.
In Coatepec, our first AirBNB host was a guy named Eduardo. I don't know how we always manage to do this here, but he is also a mountaineer and climber who is partners with Jorge Salazar Gavia, one of Mexico's best alpinists, who is currently preparing to lead a group up Everest. Eduardo took us out to a spectacular but rarely visited local waterfall - La Granada - that he'd been visiting since he was a child, and now routinely visits with his son. And, he took us to a spot that he said he believes no gringos have visited before, a climbing crag hidden behind a long bushwhack and scramble on an acquaintance's property.
And today, as I'm writing, we're just back from the small town of Jalcomulco with Antonio and Carla, who run Ruta Verde, and who are Carlos's daughter and son-in-law. We met them last year, and today we went to check out the property that they have set up for independent, off-grid living. (My favorite thing about it is their security system for when they're away, which is a series of honey bee hives placed in the entryways to their small cabana.)
Creating adventure that creates community
All of those experiences fit the category of "community creating adventure", because they involved people we've met taking us to places we wouldn't have been otherwise.
But being back in Coatepec at Carlos' house has felt more than just another chance to have new adventures. It's been more like a family reunion after our great experience here last year. And to bring things full circle, in this way, actually, while it's been an important lesson we've learned in the past that community is the means through which we can have better adventures, the most valuable thing this year's trip has highlighted is that the reverse is also true - that adventure is a means through which people with real differences can build real community.
All of the experiences I've mentioned were great because we saw beautiful things and had some intense experiences, but they will stick with us because we developed a sense of connection to the people we went with.
The Orizaba running group left us with the sense that the city was a place we could live, because there are clearly a large number of like minded people - trail and ultra runners, and a larger active outdoor community.
And after our shared struggle with Arnulfo through the jungle in Catemaco, we sat in his house - a primitive affair with a packed dirt floor and only partial walls - shared a meal, and talked about the particular struggles Mexican environmentalists face due to pressure from oil and gas developers and government with other priorities. At one poignant moment on the outing, clearly pleased that we seemed to be enjoying the experience, he told us, "This place is my life. They say if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." By the end of our time together, we were laughing, hugging, and exchanging contact information.
Similarly, when we went out with Eduardo, he took us to see places that he clearly valued, not just because they were beautiful, but because they were hidden treasures near his home, and places he'd been visiting since he was a child. He's traveled widely in Mexico and abroad, but we got a sense of the roots he's developed in Coatepec, and the locals love about the place. It's the kind of experience that makes you feel connected by proxy - to the place, but also to the people here.
And Antonio and Karla: we met them last year at Carlos' recommendation, and hired them initially as guides. This year, coming back, we've hung out with them because they're our friends - like-minded Mexican dirtbags figuring out how to live an adventure-filled, environmentally-connected, unconventional life - not entirely dissimilar to our own.
So, a thing that has to be said is that we love Mexico more because we've made these connections than because it's full of pretty, interesting places. But our quest to access those beautiful places by finding locals to take us there has been the means to the end of feeling at home here, in a place and a culture that's very different from our own.
And being back in Mexico generally, and Coatepec specifically, has been a great reminder that it's that magic, in the interplay between community and adventure, that we really want to tap into with the things we do at Boldly Went - in our storytelling events, and through our podcast and writing. We think that's the transformative part of adventure: the human connections that both help you to redefine yourself, and that help you recognize a shared humanity with people who otherwise might seem foreign.
And, of course, the best value comes in actual face to face interactions, and from the beginning it's been our goal to help make those real, human connections happen. So, if you're interested in experiencing the outdoors, and the outdoors community in Mexico, and you have anything you want help figuring out, please shoot us a message. Better, if you want us to hook you up with some local connections, or make some recommendations, get in contact with us. We know people and feel connected to the place, and we've seen some really amazing places here - we want to help you do the same!
The goal of our Navigator Network is to facilitate both these types of adventures and these types of relationships with people who are experts in their local communities. If you're traveling and are interested in figuring out how to connect with locals, get out on more hardcore adventures than the average tour experience, or get to places that are off the normal tourist radar, along with Mexico we have connections in Guatemala, the Canadian Rockies, Chile, Nepal, and the Pacific Northwest. You can check out the Navigator Page here, but if you don't find what you're looking for, please send us a message directly, because we're developing that part of the project and want to see how we can use the connections we've gathered all over the world to help people like you!
If you want updates when more blogs like this come out, or updates on the weekly podcast, the Navigator Network, our upcoming book, or all of the other cool stuff we're up to, we hope you'll sign up for our weekly newsletter here!
And if you find what we're creating useful and entertaining, consider being more involved with our network and join us on Patreon.
The Veracruz adventure guide the internet needs, but was afraid to ask for.
This is the third in a series on Mexican travel, which started with an article on why we love Mexico and aren't afraid of her, and was followed by some advice on how to cut through some fear by being real about the challenges and offering some attainable solutions. This entry focuses on our favorite part of the country, the sorely underrated Veracruz State.
A year ago, on our first visit, we didn't know we weren't supposed to fall in love with Veracruz, but we did.
A year later, together again, we've picked up on what people have been saying. We know the internet thinks she's industrial, polluted, and "the most dangerous place (for journalists) in the entire Western Hemisphere". Our neighbors are scared of her, and our friends think she's troubled.
But we're here to say screw you internet, you don't know her! This post is here to throw down the gauntlet. Veracruz isn't (just) what you say she is.
We think that, beyond her trumped up and over-exaggerated flaws, Veracruz is a jungle-covered, ruins-dotted, cascade-carved, volcano-capped, rugged-but-accessible, culturally rich, super affordable adventure capitol, full of some of the warmest, friendliest people in the world.
And it's one of the best places in the world for a traveler to live out romantic Paul Theroux dreams and feel like a real backpacker - drifting around on cheap buses "discovering" incredible places, well-known to locals, that are somehow still off the beaten gringo path. It's Costa Rica, but cheaper, with better food. With all of the Totanac pyramids and giant stone cabezas, it has a nouveau Indiana Jones vibe. And somehow, it has the third highest peak in North America thrown in for good measure.
So if people are going to publish articles that subtly imply that every bad thing that happens to her is her own fault, we're going to write the response: that Veracruz has way more good qualities than bad. We want to give our audience, and the English-speaking internet more generally, something that it inexplicably doesn't seem to have: a rundown of Veracruz's best features and an argument for why other people will love her too, if they just get to know her.
A brief explanation of structure
.For the sake of pragmatism, let's kill the cohesiveness of this piece and drop the relationship metaphor and talk concretely about what we're doing here.
What I hope to provide are snapshots of our favorite parts of the state - the concrete reasons we love Veracruz after a couple of months of travel. We've experienced these areas as people interested in the outdoors first and culture second, so our highlights will skew towards naturaleza. And I've tried to present things in a way that can guide travel planning, so this article is organized into regional groupings that could be explored enjoyably, roughly speaking, in about a week each.
You can get to a lot of these places by booking tours. If that's your thing, go for it - just please, please, please book with a local agency rather than paying someone who's based in the U.S. or Europe an exorbitant amount. You'll pay less. Mexico needs your money more than they do. Everyone wins.
Personally, our preferred travel style is via bus and local taxi, so I've also included the bus connections to catch to get to each of these areas.
International flights come in to Mexico City and Heroica Veracruz (the official name for the big port city on the Gulf Coast), and depending on where you're coming from, where you're going, and whether you are short on time or money, either can be a good option for accessing these spots. Mexico City almost always is the cheaper flight option, Veracruz almost always is the closest airport. For more detailed information, Rome2Rio.com is, in my opinion, the best online resource for planning bus travel details. For general information on getting around in Mexico, this is the best English language resource I've found, on Mexperience.com.
With that, let's jump right in to the places that we think will make you fall in love with Veracruz too, in no particular order.
1) Xalapa region, including Coatepec, Jalcomulco, and Xico
What it is: Coffee country, a pleasant climate, and outdoor opportunities. And I'll admit it - my favorite.
What to do there: Xalapa is a university town and the capitol of the state, and as such has museums, a nice arboretum, good food, and culture. But the best base for a traveler might be Coatepec, which is close by. It's one of the oldest colonial coffee towns in Mexico, home to a million really good cafes, some fantastic, cheap, beautiful hotels, romantic ambiance, and some of the warmest people we've encountered anywhere. It's a clean, safe town where you can go for a run, climb a tiny volcano right in the middle of town, and easily catch affordable tours or public transit to local highlights. Things you should really do from here include negotiating with a taxi to take you to El Descabezadero - an incredible, lightly visited "nace el rio" (birth of a river) where the Actopan originates by gushing out of the side of a cliff forming waterfalls and the type of clear, tropical pools you daydream about when you daydream about such things.
Xico is a smaller town within taxi distance with another spectacular waterfall (featured prominently in the film Romancing the Stone for all of you who remember the '80s or wish you did), a bullfighting museum, and a large bullfighting ring and culture.
The top recommendation for our people is Jalcomulco, a nearby adventure town in a beautiful canyon surrounded by mango farms and natural beauty. It's become an international, but off the beaten path, white water paddling and rafting center because of its location along the Rio Antigua, and functions as an all purpose adventure hub for locals. It is possible to rent mountain bikes, rappel down waterfalls, go canyoneering or hiking, or run a local trail race depending on what you're into. One of the craziest Airbnbs we've come across anywhere is there, in some guy's cave on the side of a cliff that you have to rope up and climb to in order to access. The town's full of that type of thing - dirtbags trying to scrape together a living doing what they love - and it feels like a real discovery for someone into the outdoors: like a Mexican Moab before Moab was Moab. If you go, get in contact with Ruta Verde. They speak English, and are internationally qualified paddling guides as well as experts in the local ecology, and can set you up with any type of outdoors outing you're interested in. (We're friends with them, but have no financial ties, in case you're wondering!)
To get there: Catch a regional bus from Veracruz or Mexico City to Xalapa, then catch local transit to Coatepec (taxi or bus) or Jalcomulco.
2) Orizaba region, including Fortin de las Flores, Cordoba and Zongalica
What it is: A beautiful, historic colonial town with easy access to the local mountains and a strong trail running and climbing culture. By local (and internet) accounts, it has improved dramatically in recent years. When we visited at the end of 2017, we loved it. Also kind of our favorite.
What to do there: Don't confuse the town with the mountain - it's actually not the standard or best jumping off point for climbing the famous peak (see more below if that's what you're looking for). But it is appropriately outdoorsy. On one side of town, you can climb a mountain to a well-maintained eco park, while on the other you can walk right into a small national park. There are two climbing shops that can supply gear and direct you to the best local crag, and there are 1800 members of the local trail running Facebook group. (They're super friendly and welcome visitors to daily runs.) It's a developing scene and the local ultramarathon in March is on its third year, and it's one of the most interesting races in Mexico that will get you points for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. (The race is called the Ultra Maraton de las Altas Montanas if you want to check it out.) Bonus points because it also has a great coffee culture and a beer shop with selections from all over the world where you can get a decent IPA. Also bonus points because it's just a few hours by bus from Puebla - one of the coolest big cities in Mexico. If we ever move to Veracruz, it will probably be to Orizaba.
As for the other places listed I personally think of as side trips, and Zongalica is probably the most interesting. Accessible by local bus, it's an indigenous community in the mountains with access to a massive cave that you can rappel into, and purportedly hiking trails. Cordoba is a larger city adjacent to Orizaba with all of the normal big city trappings (but from what we've heard less of Orizaba's charms). Fortin is a small town with a pretty square and a cool Bonsai museum. It's good for a rest day, but don't expect a lot of aventura there.
To get there: Take a big, nice bus directly from the airport or (more frequently) TAPO bus station in Mexico City, or from the main bus station in Veracruz. Or, if you fly into Mexico City, you can also catch a bus from the airport to Puebla, then a connecting bus from Puebla to Orizaba.
3) Catemaco and Las Tuxtlas
What it is: A lakeside outpost on the edge of real, dense, undeveloped jungle, and the northernmost tropical rainforest in the Americas. Parrots, monkeys, toucans, crocodiles (they don't usually bite, we're told) and actual, practicing shamans set the ambiance. A great place to have a quintessential international backpacker experience, and feel like you're somewhere totally weird, exotic, and beautiful that none of your gringo buddies even know exists.
What to do there: Some of that weird, exotic, and beautiful feeling is there by design, because Catemaco is a popular weekend trip for Mexicans. That means that there are a lot of local tour operators (i.e. cab drivers and boat captains who will take you to see the sites for a very reasonable price), which makes it an easy place to explore. It also is a place where it's easy to feel remote. The lake has a remarkably undeveloped vibe as a whole for as big and scenic as it is. It's the kind of place people hack out portions of jungle to create eco-communes, and you suspect the uber wealthy might have hidden compounds only accessible by helicopter or submarine. There's a rare opportunity to tent camp at one of the properties on the lake, and tours can get you out hiking, canyoneering, and rapelling down waterfalls. There's an annual trail race called Trail del Brujo, so there must be a lot of potential trail to explore, but we were advised against going out without a guide by locals because of safety concerns. Safer, it seems, is to explore the lake by boat, and if you brought a kayak it would be an amazing place for an extended paddle. Sit on tops are available for rent, and while they aren't the fastest or most comfortable, we found it hard to argue with the $3 per hour price tag.
Las Tuxtlas (the name of the region as a whole) is beautiful and generally undeveloped, and it's lined by beaches, rivers, and jungle. Easy day trips from Catemaco will get you to massive, spectacular Eyipantla Falls near the town of San Andres de Tuxtla, the biggest Totanac/Olmec Head ever found in Santiago de Tuxtla, and the beaches and mangroves of Sontecomapan, where you can catch a lancha (boat) to a beautiful beach on the Gulf.
To get there: Buses run directly from the Veracruz main station, and also from Xalapa. If you're in Catemaco trying to get to the other areas take local truck transport called a pirata, local bus transport, or a taxi.
Bonus! Tlacotalpan. Between Veracruz city and Catemaco is Tlacotalpan, a river town that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique colonial architecture. There's not a ton happening there in terms of tourist activities, and it's not on the main highway between destinations, so it's a side trip, but it's a gorgeous, unique Mexican town that's worth a visit if you have an extra day and you're headed to the Tuxtlas area. Buses run directly from Alvarado or from Veracruz.
4) Beaches and Ruins: Veracruz North
What it is: Mexico is covered in spectacular Mayan ruins, and Veracruz is no exception. If you want to see the best of them, it's generally agreed that Tajin is Veracruz's finest example. It's a major, well preserved complex near the town of Papantla, in the northern part of the state.
What to do there: You could complete an amazing archaeological trip by bus by hitting Tajin, then heading back down the coast to Quiahuiztlan, another spectacular ruins which is also conveniently located a pleasant walk away from Villa Rica, a stunning, sleepy beach town and the site of the first Spanish landing in the Americas. And then you could finish out the route with a stop at Zempoala, another important site located an easy trip from Playa Chachalacas - a completely underrated beach town dotted with cheap, beautiful resorts and surrounded by miles of massive sand dunes that are great for running, hiking, and feeling like you're on the moon.
We didn't go there so I can't vouch, but you can also easily access La Antigua along this route - one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Mexico, and a purportedly interesting place to hang out for an afternoon.
To get there: Direct buses go from Veracruz or Xalapa to Papantla. That's straightforward. Getting to the other spots is a little more tricky, but Cardel is your key hub and transfer point. Quiahuiztlan/Villa Rica is along the same bus route that you'll take between Veracruz and Papantla. If you're headed north, you have to ask the driver to let you off after Cardel in Villa Rica and walk in (about a kilometer, I believe). If you're headed south, you have to ask them to let you off before Cardel in Villa Rica. Cardel is also your key for both Zempoala (also spelled Cempoala) and Chachalacas. There are bus transfers to both places there. It's not much of a tourist town beyond the bus station, so plan lodging elsewhere.
5) Pico de Orizaba
What it is: the third highest peak in North America, and the highest in Mexico at 18,490 ft.
What to do there: While not to be treated lightly (people die there every year), Pico de Orizaba is a technically straightforward climb by the most common route, so it is great place to climb your first high mountain. It's also a great place to dink around at lower elevations hiking, biking, canyoneering or climbing.
This is a little out of scope, because most of these peaks aren't in Veracruz, but they're close by. And anyway, whatever - this would be awesome: a classic mountaineering trip to Mexico involves ascents of La Malinche, Nevado de Toluca, Itza/Popo, and Orizaba - all of which are over 14,000 feet, relatively straightforward climbs, and are clustered within a few hours of Mexico City. Some people tag them all in two weeks for what must be an incredible way to experience the country. We've only been to Malinche and Nevado de Toluca. You should do more.
There are two Mexican climbing organizations with great reputations that can get you up one or all of these peaks, including guiding and covering transport, or they'll just rent you gear and give you beta if that's what you want. One is Servimont, and the other is Nomada. Both organize other activities in the mountains beyond just climbing, so if you want some other kind of curated outdoor adventure they are great, local options.
Getting there: If you just want to climb Pico de Orizaba, transportation is straightforward. You can catch a bus from the Mexico City TAPO bus station to the most common starting point, in the town of Tlachichuca, and head up from there. If you want to do the others independently, it's probably best to rent a car. Personally, if I were going to do it, I'd just book a tour because the transport logistics are complicated enough to cause headaches, and I'm not an experienced alpinist.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.