La Costa Esmeralda

Palm Trees, and Quiet Beaches
The Gulf Coast of Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

The Dead of Winter
The other day a friend from Canada wrote :

"The days are shorter now, and after the first blizzard the range cattle stay close to home. It is where food and water are, and shelter from the cold winds. It is a time in the north when the hearth fire is warm, and home cooked food tastes even better."

"Can you send me some pictures of the beaches in Veracruz and some of the things to do there?"

These pictures are of some of my own "secret" places near Veracruz for my friends in Canada and other places in the world where the weather is cold now.

The Dead of Winter
Ottawa, Canada
Photo Courtesy of JP, Juniper Hills Farm, Canada
The Dead of Winter
"I would like to get away for a couple of days", she said.

"I would like to go to an island in the South Pacific with clear water, blue skies, and palm trees, or spend a week or ten days in South America."

Thatīs when I thought about the Costa Esmeralda. Itīs about 2 hours north of Veracruz.

The Costa Esmeralda of Veracruz is not as glitzy, and itīs not as well publicized as Cancun or Acapulco.

But, it has warm weather, palm trees, and long stretches of quiet beaches.
The Gulf Coast of Veracruz
La Costa Esmeralda
It has what is best about Mexico: a slower pace of life, excellent seafood, and the special courtesy of the people you meet along the way.

La Costa Esmeralda
When I saw the palm trees, I knew what she was looking for.

Just a quiet beach to get out of the cold and snowy weather.

Where you can go outside and walk around without getting bundled up with heavy winter clothing.
Map Gulf
How to Get There
This time of the year on the Costa Esmeralda, there are vacancy signs in front of the hotels along a 19 km. stretch of the federal highway that follows the beach.

You can have it all to yourself, and itīs not that expensive this time of the year.

A 12 Hour Drive to Brownsville
Going north of Veracruz, La Costa Esmeralda is along the highway on the way to Texas.

Since itīs a 12 hour drive from Veracruz, most people whiz through the straight stretch and never stop.

The Costa Esmeralda is too close to Veracruz to stop and spend the night.

Itīs too far to drive up for the day, and drive back that night.
A Walk Around
A Chance Overnight Stop
On the way back to Veracruz last November, I was delayed in crossing the border and got off to a late start.

When it was getting dark, but it was close to the Costa Esmeralda.

I was tired and started looking for a hotel, and didnīt feel like driving the last two and a half hours to Veracruz in the dark.

When I saw the first decent looking hotel, I pulled into the driveway and stopped there for the night.
First Coffee at Dawn
Iīm glad I did. I was the only one there and it was really nice.

First Coffee at Dawn
A good thing to bring along on trips is a a jar of Nescafe instant coffee.

At a lot of hotels in Mexico, especially the small ones, most of the restaurants arenīt up and going when you get up.

Besides, itīs no fun to have to shower and get dressed just to go the restaurant for coffee.
Walking Past the Quiet Bungalows
That morning I took my coffee along to take a look around as the sun was coming up.

There werenīt many people around yet.

The Cool of the Morning
The lady at the hotel said most of the visitors come to the Costa Esmeralda at Christmas and Easter.

They donīt get many visitors the rest of the year.

There was one other car in front of the bungalow down the little cobblestoned street.
Early Morning Beach
By the time the sun had come up, my coffee was finished and I continued the walk around the grounds.

There were no joggers, or people walking along the beach with dogs.

It was nice.

Mornings on the Gulf Coast
By now, my first coffee was finished and I walked back towards my little bungalow to get a refill.

Mornings in Veracruz on the Gulf Coast are peaceful.

Winter on the Gulf of Mexico in Veracruz
La Costa Esmeralda

Testing the Water
Tropical Birds
The tropical birds in the trees, and the coolness of the humidity are a change from yesterday after driving across the border in Brownsville.

Two days earlier, I had been driving into Arkansas after two weeks of below freezing weather, snow, and ice.

It was a world away and difficult to fathom, as I thought to myself, as I made another cup of coffee to take back outside.
Looking for a Better Place
An Early Morning Stroll
By now the sun was up, and I walked down to the beach to take another look around.

A man and his son were the only people on the beach.

Last Nightīs Tide
I walked down the sidewalk from my bungalow towards a wide open grassy area.

It looked like a place where the kids play volleyball.
Quiet Walkway
Some Lounge Chairs
There were some lounge chairs, so I sat down with my coffee, and looked around at the palm trees and the birds in the trees.

A couple of ladies were coming back from an early morning walk on the beach to look for what the tide had brought in the night before.

They looked like they were comparing notes on what theyīd found on the beach.
Beach Combing
Beach Combing Results
Beach Combing
Beach Combing Results
Breakfast Room
Time for Breakfast
It was time to get the day going, so I went looking for the restaurant. When I got there, I found I was the only one there.

During breakfast, I began to think about the day ahead, and the last leg of the drive to Veracruz.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I also began to think of some of my pending projects. The Costa Esmeralda might be a great place to come for a couple of days and work.

To take a break, I could take a swim in the hotel swimming pool or take a walk on the beach.
Costa Esmeralda Lighthouse
After Breakfast
After breakfast, I went back to my bungalow and packed up for the drive back to Veracruz.

At the little town of Casitas, thereīs a lagoon that looks like it might have some big bass lurking back in the mangroves. You can probably even find a local fisherman with a boat to take you out fishing.

Passing the lighthouse at the end of the Costa Esmeralda, and you continue on through the sugar cane fields and cattle country towards Veracruz.

Maybe next time I'll stop and take a tour. Iīve never been inside a lighthouse, and the people around here look friendly.
Map Gulf
A Closer Look
This Morning
After receiving the letter from my friend in Canada the other day, I got out a map of the Gulf Coast and looked at the Costa Esmeralda again.

Now I am planning my next trip.

There are quite a few little hotels in the area, and I donīt think need any reservations are needed.

Maybe Iīll spend the night there, and visit El Tajín the next day. Still it's very long day to drive to El Tajín and back.

I havenīt been fishing in a long time, and itīs time to go again.
El Tajín
Other Things to Do
Besides hanging around the beach, I was thinking of other things to do in the area around the Costa Esmeralda.

Papantla is nearby and it would be good to spend some time with José Luis Hernández strolling through his vanilla and orange grove at his Xanath Ecological Park. On each trip, it is a little different.

The pyramids at El Tajín are also interesting. Perhaps there would be time to catch a performance of the Voladores de Papantla.

Just south of la Costa Esmeralda is a little pyramids called Las Higueras.

They found 19 layers of the original paint and the original stones are on display at the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa.
Gulf Coast Restaurant

Chips and Sauces
My "Secret" Restaurant
After you have lived on the Gulf Coast for a while, you find a couple of places you like to keep to yourself.

In my own spare time, I've done some tour guide work for special visitors at the Veracruz Convention Center.

One Sunday I got a call from one of the travel advisors.

"Thereīs a couple who are here for the convention, and theyīve seen everything. Can you help us?"

It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and I wanted to do something different, too.

After talking to the people, I said:

"Letīs go get a shrimp cocktail at my "secret" restaurant. Itīs just up the Gulf Coast, not far from Veracruz."

When we arrived, even though it was a Sunday, there were few people at "my" restaurant.

They probably thought it was their "secret" place, too.

As soon as we arrived, the waiter brought us chips and sauces and took our orders for drinks.
Gulf Coast Restaurant
Gulf Coast Restaurant
A Shrimp Cocktail
Pictures Are Not Enough
Sitting at our table in the shade of the palapa was like sitting in your own front yard.

While we were enjoying the chips, and hot sauce, I realized photographs are rather dry and donīt show what the atmosphere is like. You canīt hear the sea breeze or hear the music in the background.

Then I looked at my camera and found it has an .mpg setting. and took a couple of short video clips which will give you an better idea of the sound and sights of the Mexican Gulf of Mexico:

Three Short Video Clips
Here are three short video clips:

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3
My Personal Palapa
Gone Fishing
Nothing is going on, and itīs is a good time of the year to spend some time in the winter sun exploring the 19 km. of quiet beaches of La Costa Esmeralda.

Maybe Iīll hang it up for a couple of days and go fishing. Right now, itīs hard to believe this is the dead of winter in the rest of the world.

It doesnīt make any difference if the fish are biting or not. I know where you can always get some good seafood this time of the year.

Itīs something you never get tired of. I know itīs not going to be easy to make the drive back to Brownsville.

So, today, I guess I wonīt think about it, and will take another walk around the grounds of my favorite hotel.

Just One More Walk Before Itīs Time to Go...
La Costa Esmeralda

Map Gulf
How to Get There
Driving from Houston
to the Costa Esmeralda

This article was written a year or two ago, and I have been in the States for awhile working on a large engineering and procurement project for the booming oil business in the Galleria area of Houston.

My part of the project is over with and now it will good to take a break of several months until the next project starts.

It's good to have some time off.

Now at last, it's time to head back south again, and about noon I turned the last of the reports in to my now former boss.

He shook my hand and wished me luck, somewhat enviously perhaps, because he knew I was going home again.

It felt almost as if it I knew someone warm and special would be waiting for me once I reached the Rio Grande River at Los Indios, the next little town up from Brownsville.

I knew it would be the same as it always has.

As the traffic began to thin out on the Southwest Freeway, I took one last look at the skyscrapers of Houston in my rearview mirror and head into the flat coastal plains that were once known as Austin's Colony, named after Stephen F. Austin.

I thought for awhile about how Santa Anna had encouraged these small colonies in order to keep the French from moving into Texas.

The November weather is cloudy and cold and I am looking forward to the drive back to Veracruz.

Looking for the Phelps Plantation
On the weekends living in Houston, I'd had some time to do some exploring around the old Fannin Colony that he called Washington on the Brazos, and later looked for the Phelps Plantation where Santa Anna had been tied to a tree "like a dog" for 4 months, until Dr. Phelps asked the US government for permission to allow him to be under house arrest inside his home and where he could enjoy his meals with the Phelps family.

As time passed, Santa Anna and the family became good friends, and years later, when Phelps's son was captured and marched 800 km. to the grim prison at Perote, Veracruz in the "Black Bean Expedition". Later Dr. Phelps wrote a letter to Santa Anna who was once again President of Mexico asking for his intervention.

Santa Anna himself rode from Mexico City to Perote and released Phelps's son, and hosted a magnificent dinner in honor of the Phelps family who had saved his life when he was chained to a tree. The next day, he personally escorted the boy to the docks at Veracruz where he booked passage on the next steamship to Galveston.

"Please send my kindest regards to your family," he was reported to have said. Santa Anna was like that. He never forgot a favor.

Soon, I passed the road towards the Phelps Plantation, and mentally put that on my list of places to continue my search when I return again to Houston.

Accordions, Saxophones, and Santa Anna
The highway to Victoria and on to Corpus Christi is good, and I enjoy listening to the small town radio stations. Approaching Refugio(pronounced Re-fyurio by the local people), I can faintly pick up some of my favorite music on "La Mexicana" in Tampico at 660 on the AM band.

The time goes quickly, and around Kingsville, I start looking for "La Consentida" at 590 AM in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, just across the border. It plays a lot of old border polka music by "Los Alegres de Terán" and other songs I remember from my first trips to Mexico.

I especially like the Northern Mexican way they play the accordion, saxophone, and sometimes you can even hear a clarinet. This kind of music was introduced by the Polish, German, and Czech settlers invited by Santa Anna to colonize Texas. I donīt know about you, but it makes my blood flow again.

Around Raymondville, you officially enter The Valley, and I start looking for a WhataBurger sign at one the the next towns. Depending on the price of gas, I gas up in The Valley, or wait until I get to the Mexican border area on the other side where itīs sometimes cheaper.

After having used most of the border crossings over the years, Iīve found the best place to cross is the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios/Los Ramirez. Driving the four-lane through Harlingen you watch for the sign Free Trade Bridge and take a right. Itīs just on the south side of town.

Then in about 15 minutes you are at the bridge!

Border Formalities
For me the border formalities are brief because I have all the paperwork done ahead of time, except for the copies of car papers which are done right there.

Be sure to get car insurance for Mexico. For years Iīve used Sanbornīs Mexican Insurance because of the many good maps and tailor made travel guides they give you for free. Itīs good for hotel listings and getting through difficult places like Tampico. But, donīt take your car into Mexico without Mexican insurance. Be sure to get liability insurance.

A couple of tips. I try to avoid driving at night. The worst thing that will probably happen is that youīll have a flat tire out in the middle of nowhere. But, if you have to drive at night, take it easy and try to find a bus or truck to follow. They will show you where the traffic bumps and potholes are.

In Mexico Again!
As I leave the border station towards Valle Hermoso, "La Consentida" is on the radio, and now it "feels" like I am in Mexico again! It is so good to be home and feel alive again!

Since itīs about a 5 hour drive to Tampico, I probably wonīt get there before nightfall so I set my sights on Soto la Marina. If I canīt make it, I stay at the Hotel Avenida in Valle Hermoso (which is neither in a Valley nor is it "hermoso".) where the people are nice. I also like the fried chicken at "HIB" about 5 blocks south of the Hotel Avenida.

Soto La Marina
But my sights are on Soto la Marina, and pass through the small border checkpoint about 5 miles south of Valle Hermoso. The government is building a new huge customs complex further down the road where you join the main Matamoros-Cd. Victoria highway, and I shudder when I thing about the long lines of people waiting to be processed. But itīs not open yet, so I pass by the empty buildings.

Soto la Marina is a great little cowboy town where the people are friendly. I always try to stay at the Hotel Chicago which is almost catty corner from the main plaza about 2 blocks off the highway. They have internet service in the lobby and good air conditioning. Be sure to ask for a downstairs room, because at night the noise of the taco stand guy next door tapping away at chopping onions will keep you up half the night.

For dinner, I recommend the Tampico Restaurant on the highway with the large red Corona sign. Itīs only about 2 blocks from the hotel and itīs good to walk and wind down from the days drive, and soak in the small town evening atmosphere.

At last, you realize you are back in Mexico again where people sell delicious smelling tacos on the sidewalks, and you can hear music in the streets. It is simply a different world.

Wireless Internet at Breakfast in Aldama
In the small towns in Mexico, not many restaurants get going until around 8AM, and it's best to leave early, just after sun-up. A good breakfast is also good, a a little jar of Nescafé Clasico really helps you wake up and get going.

The next town after Soto La Marina is Aldama, and itīs not a bad place to have a good breakfast, with fresh orange juice. I donīt remember the name of the restaurant but it is one of the last clean looking restaurants on the right just as you leave town. The last time I was there I was surprised to find they have wireless internet, so I checked the morning email while waiting for breakfast to be served.

Navigating Through Tampico
Navigating through Tampico isnīt all that hard. Just take your time, follow the signs, and go with the flow of the traffic.

Up ahead watch for a Shrimp Boat off to the right. You will see signs the point to Veracruz. DONīT take this exit and continue on in the middle lane. Before the high bridge was finished about 15 years ago, this was the quickest way to bypass Tampico and not take the downtown ferries across the Panuco River.

Now itīs best to take the high bridge. Now, watch for the Airport signs. After a couple of more miles you will want to take a left over an overpass towards the airport, and not go downtown.

Now you will have to pay attention. After passing the airport you will go generally downhill for 2 or 3 miles. There will be several stoplights, but look for an intersection and across the street from the stoplight is a building with SPA written on it and get in the right lane as soon as you can.

When you get to this intersection, you will take a RIGHT and follow it for another 3 or 4 miles past the Seguro Social Hosptial, then several large grocery stores. Then up ahead you will see the exit to the toll bridge. Take a right here and pay the toll after your cross over the Pánuco River into the state of Veracruz.

Another 4 or 5 Hours to the Costa Esmeralda
Youīll notice that the scenery changes dramatically from the deserts of Tamaulipas to banana trees and a more tropical look in the countryside. Itīs short sleeve shirt weather now, quite a change from Houston in November.

The highways in the state of Veracruz arenīt as good as in the state of Tamaulipas and you will have to watch out for unmarked traffic bumps, potholes, and construction areas. Take your time and follow a truck or bus that will show you where the road hazards are.

A Toll Road and a Short Cut
After about another 2 and a half hours you will go through the orange groves of Alamo, then over the low mountains to Tihuatlan. Just after Tihuatlán watch for the toll road that will save you about an hour. Itīs a bypass around the oil town of Poza Rica, and Papantla. Itīs a real time saver.

Just follow the signs towards Tuxpan onto the good highway, and after about a mile or two, take a right onto the toll road toward Veracruz.

The Best Barbeque in All of Mexico
When the toll road ends, take a left and go on to Gutierrez Zamoraīs toll bridge. For the best barbeque in all of Mexico watch for Darioīs II restaurant off to the left about 5 miles after the toll bridge. You might also buy a kilo or two to take along with you.

In another couple of miles you will hit the Costa Esmeralda and have plenty of small beach style hotels to choose from.

As for me, I will drive on another two hours along the coast and home to Veracruz.

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