Escape from the Shawshank Redemption
Pineapple Stands and Shrimp Boats
A Sunday Trip to Alvarado, Veracruz

Photographs and Text By John Todd, Jr.

The Shawshank at 6AM
Work is like "The Shawshank Redemption"
Since returning to the US several years ago, to make money, I've spent my days sitting in front of a laptop in a cubicle on the 7th floor of a large building in Houston.

These days it's what you have to do to make money.

In some of these jobs, I was fortunate to have a window and would look out across the city at the traffic down below.

And during those times, I would remember the times I spent in Veracruz, especially the little Gulf Coast town of Alvarado, Veracruz.
The Shawshank at 6AM
Ever Hear of Alvarado?
On difficult days at the office, sometimes I felt like I was reliving some scenes from the film "The Shawshank Redemption", and I would dream of going back to Alvarado.

Most people have never heard of Alvarado, but it's is close to Veracruz, and when I was living there, I had overlooked it as a place to visit and relax.

One weekend, I had been invited along with some travel experts as part of the practical part of a tour guide course sponsored one of the Veracruz tour guide associations.

Each of us students were asked to prepare a presentation on some aspect of the trip we were to take, and it was interesting listening what the others had prepared.

How to Get There
It was also one of the towns I want to go back and spend some more time.

How to Get There
The Port of Alvarado is a leisurely drive about an hour south of Veracruz.

We left Veracruz around 9 AM, and had time to stop and sample some fresh juice one of the many pineapple stands just south of Paso del Toro.

Pineapples and "Toritos" Stands
On the stretch of highway south of Paso de Toro, it seems like everybody is selling pineapples, honey, and a variety of home made drinks.

It was early in the day and we had the time, so we stopped at one of the stands to stretch our legs and sample some fresh cold pineapple juice.

I enjoy stopping at these little stands to shop and talk to the people. I always try to buy something.
Palapa Selling Pinapples
The Worldīs Largest Producer of Honey
Mexico is the worldīs largest producer of honey. It is for sale in every country town.

In the area around citrus groves the honey has a slight citric taste. A recycled cognac bottle of honey is cheap and costs about $35 pesos and lasts for years.

"Toritos", means "little bulls" and is a fruit and grain alcohol mixture popular in Boca del Rio. It is very potent.

These brown bottles are made from tamarindo prevalent in this area. "Toritos" are also made from other fruit.
Toritos and Honey
Tamales de Elote
Two Kinds of Tamales
In this part of the world, tamales come in all sizes and flavors. They are for fiestas and at major holidays like Christmas and New Years. They taste especially good with hot chocolate when itīs cold.

In Guatemala, they are big. 4-6 inches long and wrapped in banana leaves. One is enough. In Northern Mexico they are small and wrapped in corn husks, and you order them by the dozen.

They are pretty much the same all over, except in the area around Veracruz there are two kinds of tamales, medium sized, wrapped in banana leaves.

Tamales "de masa" and Tamales "de elote". "masa" means dough, and "elote" means corn on the cob.

When I first arrived in Veracruz and was offered tamales, they asked "de masa" or "de elote".

I like corn so I ordered "de elote".
Fresh Pineapples
I took a bite and almost choked! Somebody had added sugar to it!

It wasnīt the traditional tamal I expected. I didnīt know the tamal "de elote" in Veracruz has sugar and is sweet.

If you like normal tamales, be sure to order the tamal "de masa".

Pineapples are Everywhere
In this part of Central Veracruz, pineapples are plentiful and cheap.

The pineapples of Veracruz are especially juicy and sweet.

Several years ago the people over planted, and pineapples and pineapple juice were for sale on every street corner in Veracruz.

One large pineapple sells for about $10 pesos.
A Quiet Day at the Store
Alvarado, Veracruz
After getting our fill of pineapple juice, we climbed back on the bus and continued our trip.

On the way, one of the girls from Alvarado gave us a presentation about her home town.

Alvarado, Veracruz
The port of Alvarado was named one of the soldiers of Hernán Cortes, Pedro de Alvarado. Alvarado is also known as the bloodthirsty Conquistador who conquered Guatemala.

The port is at the mouth of the Papaloapan river. Papaloapan means "butterfly" in Aztec.

It is a deep water port for medium sized ships and has a large shrimp boat fleet.
Downtown Alvarado
The Culture of Alvarado
Alvarado has a very old culture, of beautiful centuries old buildings and the traditional music of Veracruz.

The people of Alvarado say the culture of Veracruz began here.

Alvarado is well known for its special style of jarocho music and is the pride of the people in their little town.

One of the first songs I remember about Alvarado is Ostiones Alvaradeņos. Itīs about the Oysters of Alvarado.

Sounds simple, but itīs a good song that when you hear it, you almost feel like getting up and dancing a few steps!

Alvarado Home
Downtown Alvarado
Alvarado early in the morning is for walking and exploring the culture of the lower Papaloapan River Basin.

You can see the architecture of the homes and public buildings go back several centuries

They were designed for the tierra caliente or the warm tropical coastal climate.

This style home can be seen in the old downtown areas of the Gulf of Mexico from Tuxpan to Cd. del Carmen.
Alvarado Home
Most of the homes have high ceilings, and floor length windows for circulation of the hot air in the summer time.

The red tile roof is a classic of these homes which are now being replaced with tin roofs which are much less expensive.

Life Outside the Home
As you walk through the narrow quiet streets of Alvarado you can see that people spend a lot of time outside their homes.

Itīs almost as if some people treat their homes like a hotel, and live their days and evenings in the streets.

To spend some time talking with a friend on a bench in the welcome shade is an important daily activity.

It is only in recent years that homes have been painted in bright colors.

There is a real feeling for preserving the 19th century in Alvarado when it was an important seaport along the Gulf Coast of Mexico.
Floor Length Windows and Gargoyles
Dolphin Gargoyle Bells

Floor Length Windows and Gargoyles
I stood for a moment in the narrow street looking up at the gargoyles, which at one time must have been street lights.

Now they donīt need the light bulbs. Maybe originally they held gas lights.

The windows started at the sidewalk, perhaps to catch the coolest breeze from the street to circulate into the house on hottest of days.
La Plaza
A Little History
Alvarado is a very old city, founded perhaps as the northern part of the lost Olmec civilization.

Later it was populated by Totonacos from the northern part of the state of Veracruz. After that, the Totonacos were displaced by the Aztecs.

In 1524, the town was founded by Pedro de Alvarado, one of the generals under Hernán Cortes.

In 1560, Gaspar Rodríguez de Santolalla was sent by the Viceroy to establish the authority of the Spanish crown.

He discovered two Spanish fishermen, Domingo Sánchez and Juan de Llanes, were already living there.
El Ayuntamento
City Hall
La Iglesia
At the Mouth of the Papaloapan River
The Papaloapan River is a long river that cuts through the middle of the state of Veracruz.

It goes all the way to the mountains of northern Oaxaca.

It is wide and deep, and good to use as a port. Fishing and commerce became an important part of the economy from the early days.

Strategically, whoever controlled Alvarado, controlled the center of Veracruz.

It was the site of battles during the time of the Spanish Colonial period.

When you stroll the streets of old downtown Alvarado past the old homes and government buildings, you can feel the centuries of history and imagine what life was like back then.
Attention to Cleanliness
A Place for Morning Coffee
Benches for Sitting
Time to Move On
Benches were everywhere, and we were tempted to sit awhile in the shade.

Alvarado today is a quiet little tropical town, and it is pleasing to walk around the plaza.

It was time to get back to the 21st century and see more of this beautiful little town.

This was supposed to be a 20 minute stop for breakfast, and we need to get moving or time will get away from us.

Even in the tropics, sometimes time is important.

A Shrimp Boat
The Restaurants of Alvarado
We walked a couple of blocks over to the docks to see the shrimp boats.

There are lots of seafood restaurants in Alvarado, and most are family businesses, but not all could handle a group of 20 without previous reservations.

When we got to a good restaurant, with one of the other guys in the group, and I decided to look for a fonda or a smaller restaurant that could handle two people. The service would be better.

No matter where we went, we knew the food would be good.
The Restaurant
A "Fonda"
The Shrimp Boat Fleet
Empanadas de Queso
When you are on the road, you need to be a little careful about what you eat. Itīs not that the food is not good, itīs my stomach.

I donīt like going around with a gurgling stomach with an aftertaste of the previous meal.

Some of the "safe" things are shrimp cocktails, and empanadas. The the fried ones with cheese in the middle are especially good!

You need to ask what size first, because sometimes they are large, and one is enough.

I ordered 3 medium sized empanadas and along with a half liter of Coke, they were delicious.
Drying Shrimp

Later we took a walk back to the docks to look at the boats.

Built on Shrimp
Alvarado is a town built on the shrimping industry.

There is even a shipyard to build shrimp boats as well as a packing house.

I stopped for awhile and talked to a man drying shrimp on top of the wheel house of his boat.

Inside a Shrimpboat
"Shrimp Boats Are A Coming!"
Walking down the dock past the shrimp boats, I remembered the excitement of one of my favorite childhood songs:

Shrimp boats are a-cominī, their sails are in sight
Shrimp boats are a-cominī, there's dancin tonight
Why dontcha hurry hurry home,
Why dontcha hurry hurry home,
The Shrimp boats are a cominī, There's dancin tonight.

The song was about Louisiana, and as a child I had never seen a shrimp boat before.

I could only imagine what they looked like.
My Childhood Dream
Now I was walking past 50 shrimp boats realizing my childhood dream, quietly humming the song to myself, hoping nobody would hear.

Maybe the nets look like sails, hanging on each side.

These shrimp boats didnīt have sails, but diesel engines.

Stereos for Shrimp
The Gulf Coast is rich in shrimp.

Most of all the Southern Gulf of Mexico around Campeche, in Mexican territorial waters.
At one time, US shrimpers from Texas and Louisiana could go freely to these offshore waters and come back with their boats loaded.

To protect the local shrimping industry the Mexican government stepped in to enforce a 200 mile territorial limit on shrimping.

For a time the US shrimping industry suffered a slump.

One spring vacation on South Padre Island in Texas, I heard the US shrimpers were back in business.

They had found a way to cope with the problem.

They were loading stereos and TVs in Texas to "go shrimping" as they said.

Real Possibilities
Outside the International Limits
Outside the territorial limits they would trade with the Campeche fishermen for shrimp at prices that were less than their own operations costs.

And they always came back loaded with shrimp.

The Campechanos sold the appliances at much higher prices at home because of high Mexican import tariffs.

Everybody was happy.

NAFTA came along and Mexico lowered importation taxes on appliances, and "business" came to an end.

Real Possibilities
In December the weather is cool and pleasant in Alvarado.
The African Queen
It must have been the weather or maybe something I had for breakfast.

Walking down the dock, I saw a real possibility to have my own shrimp boat!

Remembering the Shawshank Redemption
It didnīt have to be big. When I finished with it, people would say it is a Real Classic! Just look at the details of this old river boat!

On the weekends I could explore up river towards Tuxtepec. And my mind went on and on.

The rest of the day I wondered how much the guy probably wanted for the boat.
One More Sueņo Guajiro
My Own River Boat in Mexico
Iīll bet I could hire some local guys to help me, and even make a little money river shrimping. People do that all the time.

It would even pay for itself! I could name it the African Queen, and would buy a captainīs hat.

Then the rest of the group came back from breakfast, and it was time to get back on the bus for Tlacotalpan.

Maybe Iīll come back to Alvarado another day to see how much they want for the little boat. Iīll bet it wouldn't cost that much.

Alvarado is my idea of an escape from the Shawshank Redemption.

Oops! My boss just sent me an email, and I realize I need to stop daydreaming, and get back to work!

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