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.