Located on the Gulf of Mexico and 265 mi/425 km east of Mexico City, Veracruz is a good place to go for Caribbean atmosphere (marimba music echoes through the streets at night), colonial architecture (though, as a port, the city has its share of ugly container facilities) and good seafood.

The beach is not the draw there—the sand, volcanic in origin, is gray, and there is little surf. The zocalo, or main square, is one of the most animated and raucous in the country. Attractions include historic forts (San Juan de Ulua and Baluarte de Santiago), a naval museum and an impressive aquarium with 25 species of sharks.

Mexico's most feted Carnival takes over the streets in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, with costumed dancers, music and revelry. This is also the center for "Son Jarocho" music and the cuisine of Veracruz is known for using different spices than the rest of Mexico, plus crossroads ingredients such as almonds, capers and olives. Don't miss the excellent local coffee served at historical cafes in town.

Try to avoid the town when nortes (northern winds) are about to descend, because winds can roar up to 40 mi/60 km per hour. Being on the Gulf of Mexico, it's also a place to avoid during hurricane season.

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