Monday, June 17, 2024

Why it’s easy to love Xalapa like Ulysses S. Grant

Despite its volcanic mountain ranges, virgin beaches, cloud forests, coastal sand dunes, tropical savanna, and a seemingly unending list of nearby ecological features, this college town that was once dubbed the “Athens of Veracruz” is barely on the map from an international tourist perspective. Former U.S. president and commander of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant once referred to this town as “decidedly the most beautiful place I ever saw in my life” and its climate as “the best in the world.” 

We’re talking about the birthplace of the king of peppers — the mighty jalapeño — Mexico’s hidden gem, Xalapa! There’s a sense of kinetic energy as you stroll the downtown colonial streets, with the scent of locally grown coffee pulling you up, down and around this mountainous city. 

Between the coffee, chile peppers, and centuries of history, Xalapa has played an important role in the development of Mexican culture. (Ayuntamiento de Xalapa)

I’d like to share why this place has captured so many people’s imagination, including my own.

Start your morning with the famous latte-like lechero from La Parroquia, sure to warm you up on a foggy xalapeño morning. When walking through Xalapa’s streets, you’re treading on cobblestone streets steeped in history. 

The city’s heart beats around the Anthropology Museum, home to some of the world’s most significant pre-Hispanic Olmec artifacts. These colossal stone heads, mysterious in their origin and awe-inspiring in their execution, are only the beginning of what’s on offer here. 

Xalapa is a place where history isn’t just stored behind museum glass but is lived in the festivals and markets, in the music that spills from the local jazz university’s windows and in the stories locals are more than willing to share if you ask.

The Anthropology Museum is a hub for the city and showcases the long and rich cultural history of Veracruz. (Museo de Antropología de Xalapa)

Who’s hungry? Xalapa’s culinary scene mirrors its cultural diversity. Here, food is a narrative of Indigenous roots and Spanish influence, all served with a side of fresh, locally grown ingredients. You might find yourself savoring a breakfast of antojitos (literally “cravings”) at Cerro Gordo just outside of town. Their wood-fired tortillas make for the most flavor-packed enchiladas you can find anywhere — thank me later. 

Or try some huachinango a la Veracruzana — red snapper, Veracruz style — at La Perla oyster bar. This dish features a whole snapper cooked in a sauce made from tomatoes, capers, olives, and herbs. It’s a testament to the Spanish influence on the region’s cuisine. 

Another must-try is mole xiqueño. Coming from the Pueblo Mágico of Xico, a town near Xalapa, this variation of mole is less known than its Oaxacan cousin, but highly cherished in the region. It’s made with a variety of chiles, seeds, nuts, chocolate and spices, offering a complex and slightly sweeter flavor profile than most moles.

Xalapa’s natural surroundings could fill the pages of a nature journal with tales of misty walks through lush cloud forests that cling to the slopes of nearby mountains. These forests, shrouded in perpetual fog, create an almost mythical setting where epiphytes hang from every tree and the air is perpetually cool and moist. 

The nearby Pueblo Mágico of Xico combines dazzling nature and an inventive twist on classic mole. (Gobierno de México)

It’s a stark contrast to the tropical imagery often associated with Mexico, offering a haven for those who find solace in the quietude and greenery. Don’t miss the Clavijero Botanical Garden; it’s on the way to the neighboring coffee capital Coatepec, a town that is also a must-see. 

Looking for a unique night out in Xalapa? A few miles past the botanical garden is restaurant Futuro Primitivo, found on the second level of a reclaimed quicklime factory. While you’re there, stop by Calera, a powerhouse of a restaurant whose sole cooking fuel is wood. It perfectly combines traditional methods with new and locally inspired flavors. Head over to their disco floor, with a rotating roster of live DJs, to dance off the hearty meal you just devoured, and enjoy a cocktail or two.

Another excellent option if you’re staying downtown, is Mexican wrestling-themed restaurant and bar Doña Lucha, which is is always full an eclectic mix of college students and regulars. Order the sharing-sized cazuela de mezcal, served in a glorious clay jar with no pretense, just pure, unadulterated enjoyment.

Xalapa’s Futuro Primitivo offers incredible local cuisine and great mezcal. (Futuro Primitivo/Facebook)

Perhaps the most compelling reason to visit Xalapa is its people. Xalapeños are known for their warmth and hospitality and for their willingness to share a piece of their world with you. In this city, you’re not just a spectator; you’re a guest. You might find yourself drawn into a discussion over a game of chess in the beautiful Parque Juárez that overlooks the urban hillside or offered a taste of something unfamiliar and delightful at the local Mercado Jáuregui.

Xalapa doesn’t clamor for attention or have the polished grandeur of bigger tourist spots. Instead, it offers a chance to dive into an experience that feels more intimate — a slower pace of discovery that’s spiced just right, not unlike their famed jalapeños. Here, every corner offers a story, and every meal is a conversation. 

So, why visit Xalapa? Because in the quiet moments between the bites and beats, you’ll find something unexpectedly profound. This is a city for those who travel not just to see but to understand, to immerse themselves in a place’s essence. 

Dare to venture off the beaten path, make a visit and get wrapped in the feeling of discovery — like the surrounding mountains wrap this hidden gem of a place called Xalapa.

Stephen Randall has lived in Mexico since 2018 by way of Kentucky, and before that, Germany. He’s an enthusiastic amateur chef who takes inspiration from many different cuisines, with favorites including Mexican and Mediterranean.

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