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.