PAPANTLA, 227km from Veracruz, is the most attractive town on the route north, straggling over an outcrop of low, jungly hills. Even so, if it weren’t for the proximity of El Tajín, few people would consider staying here. In addition to being one of the most important centres of the Mexican vanilla industry – the sweet, sticky odour frequently hangs over the place, and vanilla products are on sale everywhere – Papantla is also one of the last surviving strongholds of Totonac culture. You’ll see Totonacs, barefoot and in loose white robes in the markets, and can regularly witness the amazing dance-spectacle of the Voladores de Papantla.
On the edge of the zócalo, the huge Mural Cultural Totonaca depicts the clash between modern and traditional life, with sculpted images of Totonac gods, myths and the pyramids of El Tajín alongside oil rigs and farm machinery (the tourist office has a leaflet describing this in detail). It’s best appreciated in the evening, when floodlights pick out the relief and the zócalo itself is wildly animated; especially at weekends, when there’s often live music and dancing. On the terrace above the mural stands the solid Catedral de la Asunción, beyond which you can climb to the Volador monument, a giant statue affording tremendous views of the town.