After leaving Puerto de Veracruz, our next stop was the town of Coatepec, high in the coffee-producing mountains of central Veracruz state. We stayed just outside the town, at Eco-Hotel La Jicarita (hee-cah-REE-tah). The property at La Jicarita is beautiful, planted with native trees and flowers (and shade-grown coffee). You'll find hiking paths, a swimming pool, and delicious Veracruz breakfasts (not included in the room cost). Although the rooms and bathrooms are fairly primitive, the beds are quite comfortable. The rooms are inexpensive and the management works hard to please guests. The photo, courtesy Hotels.com, is the outside of the room where I actually stayed.
Coatepec is just about equidistant between Xalapa (the Veracruz state capital) and Xico (a charming provincial town known for its mole), and was an ideal place to stay in order to visit all three towns.
Before the trip, several friends who are from the Xalapa area recommended with great enthusiasm the breakfasts at the Hotel Mesón de Alférez, in Xalapa. The restaurant is charming and service was attentive, but what we ate left something to be desired. There was nothing exactly wrong with it, but we had hoped, given the high recommendations, that the food would be more regional and of higher quality.
After we finished breakfast in Xalapa, we went to the Xalapa Museo de Antropología primarily to see the display of colossal Olmec heads. The heads, carved of basalt and estimated to date between 1400 and 900 B.C.E., range in height from just under five feet to just over eleven feet and weigh between six and fifty tons apiece. Seventeen--or possibly 18--heads are known to exist. The color variation in the photo is due to the lighting of the displays.
The original Olmec head comes from Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, a town near the Papaloapan River (upper left in the map). The area in the map is the original Olmec territory. According to archeological notes seen in the Xalapa museum, the American archeologist M. W. Stirling and his team found the head face up at the bottom of a canyon in 1938. Some scholars dispute this version of the find, and some say that a Mexican traveler accidentally discovered the first known Olmec head in 1861, but that the find was kept secret until the mid-1940s.
Each of the heads is a portrait of a distinctly different Olmec man; each wears a helmet. Theories about who these men were (warriors, rulers, ballplayers--one now-debunked theorist even believed that they might be Africans) have never been proven. The Olmecs brought the basalt used to sculpt the heads as many as 150 kilometers to the site where carving took place, dragging the raw stone with ropes and rudimentary wheels.
Excavation of a monumental Olmec head. The photo appears to be original, but the website where Mexico Cooks! found it is full of astonishing and probably inaccurate and misleading information. Read at your own risk. Photo courtesy MessagetoEagle.com.
Writing the basic description of the Olmec heads is merely reporting data. The personal impact of standing in front of these giants is extraordinarily moving and difficult to put into words. Once we were on the street, we saw that the faces carved in stone and many present-day faces of the area men and women are the same as these colossals: strong, individual personalities in ancient stone and in modern-day flesh and bone.
While in Coatepec, we had the great pleasure of a visit to Panadería El Resobado, one of the few remaining commercial bakeries in Mexico using wood-fired ovens. The bakery opened for business more than a century ago; its ovens have not been allowed to cool in more than 25 years.
We were completely entranced with El Resobado. The bakery is faithful to its traditions: to make delicious bread with the flour, sugar, and yeast, the basic ingredients. People say that the best breads at El Resobado are the conchas (shells)--and that if you should be stricken with hunger in the middle of the night, don't worry: the bakery is open 24 hours a day!
One of the several ovens at El Resobado, ready for baking the next load of bread. To judge the oven temperature, the skilled bakers stick their hands and forearms in--the bakers' experience is so great that they don't need oven thermometers.
Bread dough, kneaded, shaped, cut, and ready to be separated for baking.
Shelves at El Resobado, loaded with hot, fresh-from-the-oven conchas. We bought a huge bag of many kinds of bread; we were struck by the unusual smokiness of what we tried.
Some of the many cats that live at El Rebosado. We were a group of crazy cat ladies and truly appreciated their gentle feline presence. The bakery is a mouse-free zone! Photo courtesy Pamela Gordon.
Also in Coatepec, we visited Museo El Cafetal to see the process of growing, harvesting, roasting, and grinding Veracruz's high altitude, shade-grown coffee. Museum admission charge is 40 pesos and worth every centavo. Photo courtesy Museo El Cafetal.
Coffee beans against a tree trunk at the Museo El Cafetal. Photo by Mexico Cooks!.
Coatepec also boasts an orchid museum--a private collection in a private home. This photo shows less than a quarter of the collection.
After two nights in Coatepec, we moved on to Casitas, on the Gulf of Mexico. We'd had some drizzle in Coatepec, but we arrived in Casitas to discover that the coast had suffered a tremendous storm the night before. Although we'd been looking forward to sunshine, the beach, and the humid heat that Veracruz is famous for, instead we had grey skies, churned-up Gulf water, and weather unsuitable for swimming.
We settled for driving to nearby San Rafael, which has the reputation of being a French-influenced town due to French settlement there in the 1840s. We asked every adult on the streets about how to find a hint of Frenchness, but nobody knew.
Here's what we did find: a carnicería (butcher shop) with a really wonderful sign. Click on the photo to enlarge it for a better view; the sign painter had a field day with accents! Two charming young women behind the butcher counter let us taste their version of carnitas. Verdict: not bad for Veracruz, but definitely not carnitas from the state of Michoacán, where carnitas originated.
Next week, come with Mexico Cooks! to Papantla, Veracruz, where we investigated regional food and vanilla. We'd planned to stay one night and ended by staying three! We had a marvelous time and truly wanted to stay even longer.
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