Xalapa: Mexico's best kept secret

The pea soup fog greets you on the road into town. By the time you come to the centro, the city is ghostly and shimmering, car headlights glowing like fireflies as they move through the streets. Elderly gentlemen huddle over steaming cups of coffee in grand old coffeeshops. Vendors in arcades near the zocalo tempt passersby with bottles of fruit wine and peanuts seasoned with dried sardines. Students tuck into used bookstores and pore over dusty volumes. Pedestrians scurry for cover when the drizzle suspended in the early spring air turns into a late afternoon downpour.

Image:Isaac Michán Arzate

Xalapa's understated charm is a mix of beautiful architecture, a hip university scene, and thriving café culture.

Between the urban sophistication of Mexico City and the rumble of the port of Veracruz lies the highland charmer Xalapa (pronounced ha-LA-pa, also spelled Jalapa). Despite being the city that gave the world's most famous chili pepper its name (jalapeño), Xalapa is nothing but cool: misty mornings gazing over lush green hills, a thriving art scene, the hip energy of a university crowd, and a café culture that would do Seattle proud.

Xalapa offers much of what has attracted foreigners to places like San Miguel de Allende or Oaxaca: history, museums (the largest collection of Diego Rivera paintings in the country is here, and the anthropology museum is second only to the one in Mexico City), beautiful architecture and cobbled streets and delicious traditional cuisine. Xalapa also has hints of Caribbean culture and...water! Year-round showers keep the city refreshingly comfortable and green, which can be a welcome change from Mexico's higher, drier west. And though the city's planners fell short in street layout-Xalapa's thoroughfares are a jumble even by colonial city standards-they more than succeeded with landscaping. Jungly parks sprout up all over town, and a series of causeways built around the lake in the centro makes for particularly agreeable strolling.

Xalapa hasn't yet made it onto the radar of most foreigners. "Jalapa Roy" Dudley is a photographer who has lived in Xalapa for more than 35 years. He estimates that though the foreign community is varied and includes many Europeans, it is small, with just 300 to 400 North Americans. "The School for Foreign Students at the [University of Veracruz] is only a block from my home and studio, so sometimes it seems there are lots of foreigners here," he says, noting that the city's overall population has grown much faster over the years than the number of foreign residents.

Yet this is part of the understated charm of being an expat in Xalapa, and brings foreigners closer to the jalapeño way of life. "Having taken pictures of a girl at her first communion, then her quinceaños and wedding, and now taking pictures of her daughter's first communion and maybe soon her quinceaños too, has made me part of the community," says Dudley.

The state of Veracruz is one of Mexico's most diverse, ranging from the tropical heat of the coast to the frigid temperatures of the snow-capped volcano Pico de orizaba (called citlaltopetl in Nahuatl, 18,400 feet). The terrain around Xalapa pleasantly splits the difference: at about 4,000 feet, the Xalapan hills are perfect for growing coffee (Coatepec is known as some of the world's best); the rivers and forests are home to a stunning variety of flora and fauna.

The geography is a boon for the adventurous and outdoorsy. Ecotourism outfits lead expeditions up craggy mountains, through caves and jungles, and down river rapids. A hike to spectacular Texolo Falls, located between the nearby towns of Xico and Teocelo, is a great way to spend an afternoon: start in Xico if you're feeling vigorous enough to walk up to the top; otherwise, take the stairs from Teocelo down the other way.

But if you're in the mood for leisure, don't worry. Xalapa is the perfect place to lose yourself in a hot cup of lechero (coffee with milk, Veracruz-style) and watch the world go by.