Mexico is home to countless colonial-era towns and cities, many of which have been designated as Pueblos Mágicos (or Magic Towns) by the government. But not all of them are equal, with some consisting of little more than a town square and a church. Orizaba in the state of Veracruz, on the other hand, has so much to do that it will keep you busy for days. In the following Orizaba guide, we’ll be covering what makes the city so special.
Home to over 120,000 people, Orizaba is indeed a proper city, but it still maintains its much of its charm. In addition to its well-preserved architecture, the city is also surrounded by mountains and lush greenery, giving visitors a wide variety of things to do.
While well-known among domestic travelers, very few foreigners seem to visit Orizaba. And that’s likely because of the lack of detailed English-language guides or videos. Even I had skipped Orizaba during my first tour through Veracruz, but it’s now among my top Pueblos Mágicos in the country.
Many of Orizaba’s main sights are situated within the city center, while the attractions along its outskirts are still walkable. Be forewarned, though, that the state of Veracruz is one of Mexico’s rainiest, so be prepared for wet weather regardless of when you visit.
All of the following attractions in this Orizaba guide can be visited over the course of two full days. For more information on reaching Orizaba and where to stay, be sure to check the end of the article.
Note: The city of Orizaba is not the location of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak. While viewable from certain parts of town on a clear day, the volcano is a few hours away by car.
The following guide will solely be focusing on the Magic Town of Orizaba.
El Palacio de Hierro
(The Iron Place)
Arguably central Orizaba’s top highlight, this fascinating Art Nouveau building was designed in the 1890s by none other than Gustave Eifell. The massive steel pieces had to be shipped all the way from Belgium before the building was reassembled upon arrival.
It originally served as Orizaba’s City Hall before it was eventually deemed too small. As is the case with many historical buildings in Mexico which no longer serve their original function, the Iron Palace has since been turned into a museum. Well, several in this case.
THE ORITOUR COMBO TICKET: For just $50 MXN, visitors can purchase a combo ticket that allows access to no less than fourteen museums throughout the city.
The Iron Palace contains about half of them, while the others are located around the center. Conveniently, the tickets themselves feature a list and a small map.
With a single combo ticket, visitors can access all of the museums within the building, along with a few elsewhere within the center. Each small museum has its own focus and most of them have nothing to do with one another.
For example, the Iron Palace is home to a football (soccer) museum, a beer museum, a space museum and an archaeological museum. I didn’t visit them all, instead focusing on the Casa de Leyendas, or the House of Legends, which many consider to be the top highlight.
It’s technically in a separate building called Casa Consistorial, though you’ll find it just behind the Iron Palace. This museum is entirely in Spanish, so you’re going to struggle if you’re just a beginner. In any case, you’ll be treated with some interesting visual aids, while you could also photograph the stories and translate them later.
Introducing visitors to a city through its folklore and urban legends is a really cool concept that more cities should implement. While there are way too many stories to summarize, highlights include ancient legends about the origins of Pico de Orizaba, a story about an abandoned demon baby found on a rainy night, and one about a siren in a nearby lake who turned out to be a monster.
Another details a ‘Devil’s Cave’ situated near Cerro del Borrego, while others are even retellings of ancient pre-Hispanic folklore, including some stories which date back to ancient Olmec times.
It’s also here that I first learned about the giant carved monolith inside the city cemetery, something that hadn’t come up in any of my prior research on the city. But more on that below.
Next I checked out the small archaeological museum on the Iron Palace’s second floor. It contains various figurines discovered throughout the region, some of which are local interpretations of popular Mesoamerican deities like Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl.
While not part of the same Iron Palace complex, the Oritour Combo Ticket will also grant you access to the Museum of Popular Art, roughly a block west.
We’ll also be covering a few additional museums further below in this Orizaba guide.
Catedral de Orizaba
The historic center of Orizaba is home to numerous historic churches, with one of the most notable being the Catedral de Orizaba. You can find it just east of the Iron Palace.
Dedicated to the Archangel Michael, it was established by the Franciscans upon their arrival in 1692. The cathedral also sits in front of the popular Parque Castillo.
The Municipal Palace
Another one of the city’s most prominent buildings is the Municipal Palace. Built in the early 20th century, its style mimics traditional French architecture.
While I didn’t end up going inside the main section, like many Municipal Palaces throughout Mexico, it features an elaborate mural.
One side of the palace even contains two museums that are accessible with the combo ticket. One of them, the Salón de la Fama, focuses on various Mexican celebrities and their relationship with Orizaba.
But if you’re a history buff and can understand some Spanish, don’t miss the Sala Histórica de Orizaba.
Much of the small museum focuses on Malinche, the indigenous woman who served as Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez’s translator. Though she eventually had a son with him, the two never married.
After Cortez’s wife arrived in New Spain from Europe, he decided to have Malinche marry another conquistador named Juan Jaramillo. And their wedding in 1524 took place right in Orizaba.
Río Orizaba & Its Zoo
One of Orizaba’s unique claims to fame is that it features a riverside promenade that’s also a zoo! And it’s completely free to access. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of zoos, this is an Orizaba experience that shouldn’t be missed.
The zoo is home to animals like snakes, bears, llamas, tigers, jaguars, hippos, toucans, coyotes and more.
You’ll find animals along both sides of the river, which you can cross via bridges. But considering how long the zoo is, I’d recommend picking a side and sticking with it before walking back along the other.
Conveniently, you’ll occasionally encounter signboards with maps telling you where you are and where you can find particular animals.
Ex Convento de San José de Gracia
Another must-see attraction in Orizaba is the Ex-Convento de San José de Gracia, the ruins of a former Franciscan Monastery. It’s not part of the Oritour Combo Ticket system mentioned above, though entry cost just $30 MXN at the time of my visit.
It was established in the early 19th century, though it would only serve its original purpose for several decades. Many priests were expelled following Mexican independence and the power and influence of the Church was greatly diminished by later Reform Laws.
Thus, like many others throughout the country, the monastery inevitably shut down.
As has also been typical with former Mexican monasteries, it was used for a variety of other purposes, such as a brothel and a jail. But it also served as a Protestant church and Masonic lodge at certain points before eventually being converted to a museum.
Throughout the abandoned complex, you’ll find a refectory, courtyards, latrines and underground storage rooms. Notably, this is one of the only landmarks in this Orizaba guide to feature bilingual signage.
Near the end of your self-guided tour, you’ll get to see part of the fascinating tunnel system. As was common in the colonial cities of New Spain, the Spanish built an underground tunnel system connecting many of the city’s most important areas.
The purpose was to provide safe passage for members of the elite to protect themselves or their belongings from potential harm.
Cerro del Borrego
Another top thing to do in Orizaba is the Cerro del Borrego, a large hill to the west of the city center. One way to reach the top is taking a Teleférico, or cable car, from a station near the Municipal Palace.
It costs around 70 pesos roundtrip, though the price may have risen by the time you read this.
I, on the other hand, decided to hike up. If you choose to do so, you can also pass through Parque La Alameda, considered to be Orizaba’s main park.
The hike has an elevation gain of about 300 m and should last around 45 minutes. It’s a relatively easy – albeit rocky – walk, with some great views of the city along the way.
Cerro del Borrego is also an important local historical attraction. At the top of the hill are the ruins of an old fort which saw action in 1862 during the Second Franco-Mexican War.
In the early morning of June 14th of that year, the French launched a surprise attack on the Mexican military who were stationed here. Tragically, over 2000 Mexican soldiers were massacred as a result. Eventually, however, the Republic of Mexico would emerge victorious about five years later.
Also at the hill is a museum dedicated to the battle, along with a small chapel. You’ll also find various overlooks which offer more great views of the city down below.
Supposedly, this is the best place from which to see views of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak. But as it was cloudy during my visit, I couldn’t see a thing.
Museo de Arte del Estado
To the east of the city center is yet another museum situated in a beautiful historical building. As the name suggests, the State Art Museum mainly focuses on art by artists from the state of Veracruz or that depict parts of the state.
Another of its main exhibits, however, is dedicated to Diego Rivera, showcasing numerous rare pieces from his early career.
The museum is free to enter, though you will be followed by a museum staff member throughout your visit. While I find that this can sometimes hamper the visiting experience, the staff in this case acted more like a guide, sharing interesting tidbits about some of the art.
The Municipal Cemetery
One of the most obscure yet fascinating destinations in this Orizaba guide can be found within the Municipal Cemetery, officially known as Panteón Municipal Juan de la Luz Enriquez.
Cemeteries in Mexico are often colorful, featuring a wide variety of tombstones and mausoleums. They could often be considered destinations in their own right. But Orizaba’s Municipal Cemetery features something you won’t encounter at any other.
Housed under a modern structure is a massive monolith which measures out to about six by eight meters. Locals call it the ‘Stone of the Giant.’
While the stone is indeed gigantic in size, it also features a carving of a giant in its center.
While very faint, a helpful illustration hanging above the stone will help you spot many of the details. For example, a shape on the giant’s chest seems to represent a crescent moon, while ropes across his right leg seem to represent a ladder.
On either side of him, meanwhile, are a large fish and a rabbit. But what does all this mean?
Archaeologists have determined that the circles around the animals symbolize a specific date, and that the image as a whole depicts a particular agricultural rite held during each spring equinox.
But the Stone of the Giant is more than just symbolic, for it’s believed that captives were tied up here and sacrificed to the god Xipe Totec for that very festival!
The carving is believed to date to 1450 AD at the height of the Aztec Empire, though it was likely carried out by local tribes.
About 4.5 km east of the city center is an interesting destination that’s a favorite location amongst locals, simply known as 500 Steps. And after admiring some views of Orizaba’s lush green surroundings, you’ll encounter the long concrete staircase for which the site is named.
Oddly, I only counted around 250 steps, so the number is surely derived from the roundtrip journey. You’ll start by descending, leaving you no choice but to return the hard way.
But before walking back up, there’s plenty more to explore. Once at the bottom, you can even take an easy and short hike over to a green area known as Los Sifones, which features a small lake.
To my disappointment, after braving a downpour and making it to the well-manicured park, I arrived only to find it locked up. There was no indication of a schedule, either.
But the area was beautiful nonetheless, and I had no regrets about making the journey.
With that being said, given its distance from the city center, the 500 Steps and its surroundings is probably the least essential destination of this Orizaba guide.
But if you have the timer and love to walk, the journey from the city center should last about an hour each way. Otherwise, you’ll have to take a local taxi or bus. Unfortunately, Orizaba has yet to adopt Uber or other ridesharing services at the time of writing.
The best way to reach Orizaba is by bus, and the city is relatively well-connected. From Mexico City, the journey lasts about 4 hours and from Puebla about two and a half. The city of Tehuacán in Puebla state, meanwhile, is just two hours away.
From within Veracruz, the journey from Veracruz city is about three hours and from the state capital of Xalapa it’s over four. Orizaba happens to be just about twenty minutes away from another popular colonial city called Cordoba.
While Orizaba is relatively close to Oaxaca, the buses from Oaxaca were only departing late at night during my visit.
In my case, I came from Puebla. As mentioned, the journey was supposed to take less than three hours. But due to some type of accident on the highway, it ended up taking us eight! (While a very frustrating situation, I was quite impressed by the patience demonstrated by the other passengers.)
I don’t know how common such traffic jams are on that particular highway, but you might want to mentally prepare yourself for the worst.
Fortunately, the main Orizaba bus station is an easy walk to the historical center.
As mentioned above, despite its status as a Magic Town, Orizaba is indeed a proper city. But it’s still compact enough that most of the locations in this Orizaba guide can easily be accessed on foot. In regards to location, the main thing you want to check is that you’re close to the city center.
Overall, Orizaba is considered quite an affordable city. But if you’re looking to splurge, a popular option is Gamma Orizaba.