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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
Mexico can invoke images of extremes, from the luxury of all-inclusive resorts to the violence of drug cartels. But too often lost in the middle is a whole lot of Mexico that is neither dangerous nor overcrowded with tourists. My favorite is the gulf coast state of Veracruz. Despite next year marking half a millennium since Hernán Cortés first arrived on the shores of Veracruz in 1519, foreign travelers are only just beginning to discover this state.
Veracruz’s western border bisects the Pico De Orizaba volcano. At 18,491 feet, it is the third highest mountain in North America. The terrain rapidly descends east into the Gulf of Mexico. And any time you have mountains, rivers and rapid elevation drop, you have natural beauty and adventure.
Veracruz is also home to stunning architectural ruins and charming lakes, all set against an unspoiled Mexican backdrop. No signs are in English and no prices are in dollars, which is good news for your budget even if you have to work a bit harder to spend it.
Things to Do in Veracruz
Pico de Orizaba
Coscomatepec is the launch point for most of Pico de Orizaba’s adventures. You can drive up to base camp at 14,000 feet and arrange a multi-day expedition to the summit, or you can bike to town down a 10,000 foot elevation drop. You’ll navigate rugged mountain roads and reach top speeds on pavement.
The mountainous terrain also provides options for canyoning, waterfall rappelling and plenty of hiking.
Veracruz’s most established adventure sport is whitewater rafting. In Jalcomulco, four feet of annual rainfall feed the Pescados River, creating prime rapids. The Barranca Grande section of the river is particularly exciting, thanks to its famous “Four IV” rapids. Both day trips and multiday trips are available. Relax afterward (or following any adventure, really) with an ancient sweat lodge ceremony called a temazcal.
The weekend beach destination for inland Mexicans, Chacalacas has sandy, unspoiled beaches and rolling dunes with twisting trails and massive drops. The dunes are prime for both ATV rides as well as sand boarding. Try it out on the steep slopes if having sand for lunch sounds appetizing.
In an area historically famous for its brujas (witches), travelers can find some truly magical hiking. The tranquil area of Lake Catemaco is disturbed only occasionally by the howling of macaques that occupy a small island after an abandoned research project. The jungle surrounding the lake is threaded with trails that lead to waterfalls and natural pools for jumping, swimming and lounging. One local guide even ends his hikes at his family’s home where his wife prepares lunch.
This remote region of southern Veracruz features some seriously unplugged villages and stunning sea cliffs. Travelers can arrange horseback rides to waterfalls, stand-up paddleboarding on rivers or even rappel from a coastal cliff into a cave once used by pirates.
The Ruins of El Tajin
This remote UNESCO world heritage site features impressive Mesoamerican ruins that were lost to all but locals for 500 years. Only half of the site has been excavated, but what has, including the grand Pyramid of the Niches, makes it one of the most important archaeological sites in Mexico. However, due it its inaccessibility, relatively few tourists ever see it.
What You Can Skip
The City of Veracruz
Veracruz city does have a few notable attractions if you find yourself here in transit. The fortress of San Juan de Ulúa, for example, has been transformed into a museum that documents its use as a prison. And the Zocalo is a pleasant area to get dinner and drinks. However, the main appeal of Veracruz is beyond the city, so don’t spend more time here than you have to.
When to Visit Veracruz
The dry and hot season is from March to June, and the rainy season continues through September. October and November are two of the best months to visit Veracruz, but the winter months can be pleasant, too, if you’re not too high up in elevation. Dry season is best for adventures near the volcano, and though whitewater rafting can be done year round, October is the end of rainy season and best for rapids.
While Veracruz is still relatively untouched by foreigners, it is indeed a popular vacation spot for Mexicans. That means it can get crowded with Mexican tourists around the Christmas and Easter holidays, as well as July and August when the kids are out of school.
Veracruz also has a fantastic Carnaval celebration, which has become the largest in Mexico and one of the biggest in the world.
How to Get There
United is the only US carrier that flies directly into Veracruz airport (VER) via a two hour flight from Houston (IAH), so they charge a premium. While these tickets often cost upwards of $500, transferring to a Mexican carrier in Mexico City (MEX) will drop the price into the $300s. Also, flights to Veracruz from within Mexico are routinely less than $50 if you’d like to combine Veracruz with another Mexican destination.
Using points, your best redemption to Veracruz is on Skyteam’s Aeromexico using 12,500 Korean Air miles in economy or 25,000 in business. Also, Flying Blue charges 14,500 points for economy or 36,000 in business. Delta offers this route for 17,500 in economy or 32,500 in business. There is plenty of availability in both classes.
United charges 17,500 miles for their many open seats in economy on their exclusive IAH to VER route. Business would cost 30,000 miles, but I didn’t find any availability on this route. American and Oneworld carriers don’t fly to Veracruz airport. You could also fly into Mexico City and take the five hour direct bus from MEX to Veracruz city.
Mexico’s ADO bus company is among the largest and best in the world. The country is connected extensively by their modern, clean buses that run on reliable schedules. However, there are parts of Veracruz that aren’t reachable by bus, such as the El Tajin ruins. For these, car rentals from Veracruz airport cost about $50 per day, or you can hire a guide to get you around.
How to Book
The lack of foreign tourists means there aren’t many established tour operators within Veracruz. This is particularly true for adventure sports (other than rafting) which don’t cater as much to Mexican tourists. However, Explore Mexico with Mike Vondruska can put together pretty much any trip from birding to mountain climbing to exploring villages or ruins.
Mike, an American, fell in love with Veracruz in the ’90s and has been passionately leading tours there since, many of which are documented on his YouTube channel. He led my personal Veracruz adventure, and it remains the best of my many trips to Mexico.
Without a steady stream of tourists, most of the adventure tours within Veracruz are private and thus fully customizable. While these tours are still cheaper than you’d find in the US, you’ll see the real savings in lodging and food. Price tags in pesos bode well for the American traveler.
And being the only non-Mexican on a patio of plastic chairs and tables with locals scarfing down 25 cent tacos while humming along to the Mexican radio is an experience you won’t easily find in the Riviera Maya.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org !
Feature image courtesy of the author.
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