I wasn’t planning on going to Tlacotalpan, but I was supposed to end up there.
The original plan was to spend a few days in Puerto de Veracruz so I could visit the Mesoamerican ruins of El Tajín, but I underestimated the difficulty of getting there. First, a local travel agency had a tour going the following day but cancelled at the last minute. Second, the bus schedule was not working in my favor at all. Third, hiring a private taxi was out of my budget.
Assisting me in my deilemma, Cristobal, the front desk associate at my hotel, introduced me to his taxi driver buddy Martín, an affable middle-aged father who had lived in Texas at some point. Martín carried a travel brochure advertising Veracruz’s star attractions, including El Tajín. I tried to express through my child’s grasp of Spanish that I didn’t believe the universe wanted me there since more doors seemed to be closing than opening. Martín got the gist and instead showed me photos of Tlacotalpan, a colorful little town on the river a 2 hour drive from my hotel and I agreed to go.
The next morning, Martín arrived on the dot and we headed out for Tlacotalpan. A proud native Jarocho, he pointed things out and talked about his family and previous life in Texas while switching between radio stations playing traditional Son Jarocho music and 80s English-language ballads.
As we drove through Veracruz’s upscale Boca Del Río district, I found the contrast between the aging luxury hotels and dilapidated seafront properties to be a curiosity.
Driving past the skeletal remains of seaside restaurants with tattered palapa roofs, I felt a hint of familiarity as if I were on a foreboding movie set when an old Radiohead song popped into my head. Doing research I learned that the exteriors of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet were shot in Boca Del Río. Ahh, Fair Verona!
Nestled along the Papaloapan River, Tlacotalpan's main draw is its colorfully painted buildings. The streets were empty except for bicyclists and a slow driving truck broadcasting a recording I couldn’t understand, its ominous voice following me up and down the lanes creating an unexpected soundtrack for the afternoon.
Row upon row of colorfully painted single-and-double-story houses greeted me with whimsical grace while continuously piquing my curiosity. No matter where I turned, colors seemed to explode before my eyes. A couple of senior citizens stopped to chat with me, somewhat curious that a foreigner was visiting their town. Tlacotalpan is actually quite popular with national tourists but remains largely unnoticed by international visitors, understandable given that it is not the most convenient place to reach without a car. I suppose the lack of international popularity helps preserve the town’s charm and character, though it is very much a photogenic destination.
After several hours wandering the colorful streets and plazas, I returned to the parking lot to find a napping Martín for our return to Veracruz. I noticed a large cemetery in the nearby town Alvarado and wanted to make a quick stop as cemeteries in Mexico are anything but plain grasslands dotted with headstones; instead, they contain elaborately built miniature houses, churches, and temples on individual graves depending on one’s economic status. There weren’t any visitors as far as I could see, just stray dogs wandering around and two elderly caretakers sitting in the shade by the entrance.
I would encourage travelers in Veracruz to visit Tlacotalpan for the town’s lovely scenery, and for the drive itself with shining sea views, small towns, and colorful palapa-roofed seafood restaurants dotted along the highway providing a respite from the (admittedly mellow) bustle of Puerto de Veracruz. With less than 24 hours' awareness of this town, I am glad I got the chance to experience this unique, charming, and laid back place.