Beyond Cardel, where the express highway ends, there’s very little to stop for in the long coastal stretch (about 4hr on the bus) to Papantla. Around 15km north of Cardel is the sleepy village of Villa Rica, the first Spanish settlement in New Spain. Established by Cortés in 1519, it was abandoned in 1524 for La Antigua, and only foundations remain today, close to the normally deserted beach. Some 3km inland are the similarly sparse ruins of the nearest Totonac town, Quiahuitzlán, with the great basalt outcrop known as the Peñon de Bernal looming above. What you can see today is primarily a cemetery, with over seventy small stone tombs, but it’s utterly tranquil and has incredible views over the coast. This exceptionally scenic area of steep, green hills makes Mexico’s only nuclear plant, on the coast at Laguna Verde, just beyond, even more of a shock.
At Nautla, 153km from Veracruz, you pass the largest town en route to Papantla, surrounded by coconut groves. Beyond is the so-called “Costa Esmeralda”. There are hotels, some of them pretty fancy, trailer parks and campsites all the way up here, but they are just metres from the highway, which runs close to the shore. The grey sand is mostly desolate and windswept, and it’s not really a place you’d want to stay.Read More
El Tajín is by far the most important archeological site on the Gulf coast. The principal architecture here dates from the Classic period (300–900 AD); the city declined in the early Post-Classic (900–1100 AD) and by the time of the Conquest it had been forgotten. Our knowledge of it comes entirely from archeological enquiries made since the accidental discovery of the site in 1785 – El Tajín remains one of the most enigmatic of all of Mexico’s ancient cities. No one even knows who built it: some claim it was the Huastecs, others the Totonacs. Although “Tajín” means thunderbolt in Totonaca, experts consider it unlikely to have been built by their ancestors. Most archeologists prefer not to speculate too wildly, instead calling the civilization “Classic Veracruz”. You’ll notice many of its hallmarks at El Tajín, including niches in temple walls and complex ornamental motifs known as “scrolls”, which are most prevalent on items and bas-reliefs associated with the ball-game (look at some of the stone “yokes” in the site museum). Classic Veracruz influence was widespread, and is strongly felt at Teotihuacán, to the extent that some believe that city may have been built by Veracruzanos.
Despite many years of effort, only a small part of the huge site has been cleared, and even this limited area is constantly in danger of being once more engulfed by the jungle: green mounds sprout from the trees in every direction, each concealing more ruins. The site divides broadly into two areas: Tajín Viejo, which centres on the amazing Pirámide de los Nichos, and Tajín Chico, a group of official residential buildings belonging to the city’s ruling class built on an artificial terrace. The site museum, by the entrance, has a model of the site worth examining before you venture in, along with a collection of the more delicate stonework salvaged from the ruins, notably murals and columns, bits of pottery and statues – displays are primarily labelled in Spanish, but there are a few English explanations.
The Voladores de Papantla
The Voladores de Papantla
Although the full significance of the dance of the voladores has been lost over time, it has survived much as the earliest chroniclers reported it, largely because the Spanish thought of it as a sport rather than a pagan rite. It involves five men: a leader who provides music on flute and drum, and four performers. They represent the five earthly directions – the four cardinal points and straight up, from earth to heaven. After a few preliminaries, the five climb to a small platform atop a pole, where the leader resumes playing and directs prayers for the fertility of the land in every direction. Meanwhile, the dancers tie ropes, coiled tightly around the top of the pole, to their waists and at a signal fling themselves head-first into space. As they spiral down in increasing circles the leader continues to play, and to spin, on his platform, until the four hit the ground (hopefully landing on their feet, having righted themselves at the last minute). In all, they make thirteen revolutions each, symbolizing the 52-year cycle of the Aztec calendar.
In Papantla and El Tajín (regular performances outside the entrance to the ruins starting at 11am) it has become, at least partly, a tourist spectacle, as the permanent metal poles attest. In local villages there is still more ceremony attached, particularly in the selection of a sufficiently tall tree to act as the pole, and its temporary erection in the place where the dance is to be performed. Note that performances are nominally free, though if you catch one of the regular shows in Papantla or El Tajín you’ll be expected to make a “donation” of at least M$10 per person – one of the dancers will walk round with a hat.