If aliens from outer space were circling the globe, and they had a machine that could pinpoint the happiest and most romantic places on earth, chances are the city of Veracruz, Mexico, and its zócalo, or town square, would blip up a storm on their radar. This is a town where — three times a week — the zócalo fills with residents ready to dance the ballroom-style danzón.
Though Veracruz sits on the Gulf of Mexico, it retains its distinctive Caribbean vibe. Dating to 1519, it’s the oldest city founded by the Spanish in Mexico, and instead of having a Colonial-era atmosphere, Veracruz recalls a European Belle Époque city, with a late 19th-century ambience. Its heritage has been graced by many peoples — Spanish, African, Indian and French; perhaps this is why Veracruz is said to have the most beautiful women in Mexico.
True to the city’s love for the arts, one of Veracruz’s heroes is the songwriter Agustín Lara, who penned a song to his adopted city that epitomizes its romantic spirit. Loosely translated into English, the lyrics are:
its nights are full of stars
palms and women.
vibrates in my being…
The Danzón Scene
Danzón was created in the 19th century in Cuba, but Veracruz, being a port city, was always being fertilized by foreign enthusiasm. Danzón caught on and stuck, and today residents of the city convene on the zócalo several nights a week — every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evening — to dance to danzón, accompanied by a live band.
Danzón is usually held for an hour or two. Most of the dancers are senior citizens, and they take the occasion seriously, with the women in dresses with full skirts, and most men opting for white guayaberas (a type of men’s shirt with vertical pleats in the front and back), white pants and a sporty Panama hat.
Around sundown, the danzón couples drift into the main square, where they sit down in folding chairs as the band members make their way onto the bandstand. Anyone is free to join, although it may take a round or two to catch on to the dance steps. A word of advice: Bring your own partner. On most nights, it’s couples who are dancing and couples who are watching.
If you really want to dive into the danzón experience, there are plenty of small stores selling frilly dresses, guayaberas and Panamas, especially walking east toward the city’s malecon, or seafront promenade.
Note: The zócalo is a popular space for special events, and danzón can sometimes be preempted. For those who have their hearts set on the experience, check ahead to make sure danzón remains on the schedule.
Beyond the Danzón
The zócalo offers other forms of entertainment as well. The square is bordered by numerous restaurants and cafes, with most spilling out onto the sidewalk, offering lots of al fresco seating. Depending on the time of year, migrating birds sing in the trees, while sidewalk vendors under the tree’s branches sell all sorts of items, from Cuban cigars to woven textiles.
But the true scene-stealers in the zócalo are the strolling marimba players. These are instruments of a formidable size that are fitted out with wheels. Usually three or more musicians accompany the marimba, playing guitar, standup bass and percussion.
When these musicians hit their groove, it’s not uncommon to see diners getting up from their tables for an impromptu dance. The strolling musicians don’t limit themselves to danzón, and many of the bands break out into salsa, cumbia or Veracruz’s homegrown style of music called son jarocho — the most famous son jarocho tune being “La Bamba.”