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NELLES GUIDE TO MEXICO
by Bob Brooke

Excerpt

THE GULF COAST STATE OF VERACRUZ

Veracruz is one of Mexico's most populous states. Set along much of Mexico's Gulf coast and bounded by seven other states, it's landscape is full of variety. Between the rugged Sierra Madre Oriental and the long beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, coffee plantations alternate with fields of maize, industrial towns with great expanses of vanilla, and oil fields with primeval tropical forest. Originally the homeland of the Olmecs, who established the New World's first civilization around 1000 B.C., the state is now populated mainly by mestizos, along with descendants of Negro slaves and Totonac Indians.

Jalapa, or Xalapa(Pop. 280,000), 70 miles north of Veracruz, is the capital of the state of Veracruz, and is built on a number of hills in a garden-like region a the foot of the Cerro de Macuiltepec. It is surrounded by high mountains, including the Cofre de Perote or Nauhcampatepetl and the Pico de Orizaba or Citlaltepetl(a pre-Hispanic name meaning Star Mountain), Mexico's highest at 18,551 feet. Thus, the area receives abundant rainfall and is often clouded over, promoting a luxuriant vegetation. The locals call the rain ‚chipichipi. The town, itself, is often called the "Flower Garden of Mexico" due to its profusion of flowers and fruits in its parks and gardens.

Once a former stronghold of the Spaniards and a stagecoach stop, Japala's old town is a maze of narrow streets and lanes lined with colorful houses and lush gardens, left over from the Spanish colonial period. This is in striking contrast to the broad boulevards and modern buildings in the newer sections of town.

One notable building of the colonial period is the massive late 18th century Cathedral, which has been restored. This stands near the attractive Parque Juarez, on the other side of which is the long light-stoned colonial-style Government Palace containing interesting frescoes and faced by ornate fountains. The adjacent Morelos Garden offers a fine view of the city. Other attractive parks are the Parque Hidalgo and Parque de los Berros.

However, the main attraction in Jalapa is the magnificent Museum of Anthropology, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, and a part of the University of Veracruz. This museum contains an impressive collection of Olmec heads, Aztec and Huaxtec stone sculptures, as well as a large selection of stelae and cult objects, pottery vessels and figures and articles made from semi-precious stones. It brings together for the first time collections of artifacts that were formerly stored around the state.

The museum's landscaped atriums show giant Olmec heads in natural settings and an 18-level orientation hall explains exhibits and puts it all in context. the cultures shown in this museum influenced future cultures throughout Mesoamerica.

The Jardin Lecuona, a botanical garden with more than 200 species of orchids, is located nearby in the garden city of Banderilla, four and a half miles northwest of town.
                                                
El Tajin, a short ten miles northwest of Papantla and eleven miles south of Poza Rica, is one of the most important pre-Columbian sites in Mexico. It marked the height of the Totonac culture around 800 A.D. Covering an area of four square miles, only a small part of which has been excavated, it's remarkably well preserved. Unknown invaders from the north sacked it about 1200 A.D. The sculptural decorations are typical of the Veracruzan civilization of the Classic Period, with interlocking scrolls and the "stepped fret" the dominant motifs. The ruins feature ten overgrown ball courts, and it is believed that El Tajin was the center of the ball game which originated on the Gulf coast. At the ends of the impressive South Ball Court are panels of bas-reliefs, lying between horizontal friezes of stylized serpent motifs. There are four principal scenes--the dedication of a young warrior; a ball-player being held on a sacrificial altar by one priest while another plunges an obsidian knife through his heart; two players conversing with one another being watched by gods; and the dedication of a ball-player to ‚tlachtli, the god of the ball game.

On the west side of the main plaza is the main structure, the unique Pyramid of the Niches, 82 feet high on a base 115 feet square, whose 365 niches mark the days of the year. The pyramid, built between the 6th and 7th centuries has seven stories, including the temple. Around the sides are 365 shallow niches symbolizing the days of the year. The exterior was originally faced with colored stucco and the niches were painted in bright red and blue. The steep staircase on the east side was added latter and features four rows of three niches. The entire structure was built on a previous one, as was the custom of the time.

To the rear of the site is the Plaza El Tajin Chico or Little Tajin. The finest structure in this area is the Building of the Columns(Edificio de las Columnas), which covers an area of 42,000 square yards. Standing on a small mound, it reaches a height of 150 feet and also features niches and a grand staircase, although it is believed that the stairs were not used for climbing but just for decoration. Huge columns forming a gallery decorated the facade of the building. These were decorated with bas-reliefs depicting scenes involving warriors and priests, human sacrifices and hieroglyphs. nearby is the Tunnel Building (Edificio de los Tuneles), from which two underground passages lead to a large courtyard. Presently, only sixteen structures have been excavated.

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