A ceremonial center for the Aztec when Cortés swept through the region, Xalapa is still a city of great importance. Take one look at the impressive Palacio de Gobierno and you know this is a political powerhouse. The presence of the Universidad Veracruzana ensures that Xalapa is a cultural capital as well. Its state theater attracts performers from around the world. In addition, Xalapa is also an agricultural center. This mixed background means that in any café you might find farm workers with their machetes, government workers shouting into cell phones, and students tapping away on laptops.

Xalapa is on the side of a mountain between the coastal lowlands and the high central plateau. More than 4,000 feet above sea level, the city enjoys cool weather the entire year. But the city also has unpredictable weather changes—sun, rain, and fog are all likely to show themselves over the course of a day. Bring an umbrella and a jacket with you, even if there's not a cloud in the sky.

Much of the city seems to have been built without a plan, and that's the source of its charm. The hills here pose intriguing engineering problems, and major avenues tend to make sharp turns, following the landscape rather than adhering to the strict grid system so beloved by the Spanish. In some places the twisting cobblestone streets are bordered by 6-foot-high sidewalks to compensate for sudden sharp inclines. Locals refer to the city as a plato roto (broken dish) because of its layout.

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