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.Read More
El TajínWith numerous substantial structures spread over an extensive site, EL TAJÍN is by far the most important and impressive archeological site on the Gulf coast. It 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 principal architecture at El Tajín 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 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. 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”. 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.
From the site entrance, a track leads through a small group of buildings to the Plaza del Arroyo, the city marketplace, and into the heart of Tajín Viejo. Around the plaza are several ball-courts, the most prominent of which is the South Court, or Juego de Pelota Sur; it looks like a wide avenue between two small pyramids. Seventeen such courts are known here, and more possibly lie unexcavated; it’s thought that the game took on a greater importance here than at any other known site. The superb bas-relief sculptures that cover the walls of the South Court include portrayals of a decapitated player, and another about to be stabbed with a ritual knife by fellow players, with Death waiting to his left. Such bas-reliefs are a constant feature of the site, adorning many of the ball-courts and buildings, with more stacked in the museum.
The unique Pirámide de los Nichos, one of the last to be built here, is the most famous building at El Tajín, and indeed one of the most remarkable of all Mexican ruins. It rises to a height of about 20m in six receding tiers, each face punctuated with regularly spaced niches; up the front a steep stairway climbs to a platform on which the temple originally stood. If you tally up the niches, including those hidden by the stairs and those, partly destroyed, around the base of the temple, there are 365 in all. Their exact purpose is unknown, but clearly they were more than mere decoration: theories include each holding some offering or sacrifice, one for each day of the year, or that they symbolized caves – the dwellings of the earth god. Originally they were painted black, with the pyramid in red, to enhance the impression of depth. Niches are also present on other buildings at the site, some bearing the attributes of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, El Tajín’s most depicted god.
Around the plaza in front of the pyramid stand all the other important buildings of Tajín Viejo. Opposite is Monumento 3, a similar pyramid without niches, and behind it Monumento 23, a strange steep-sided bulk, one of the last structures to be built here. To the right of the Pirámide de los Nichos, Monumento 2, a low temple, squats at the base of Monumento 5, a beautiful truncated pyramid with a high decorative pediment broken by a broad staircase; on the left, Monumento 4 is one of the oldest at El Tajín, and only partly restored.
From the back of Monumento 4 the path continues past the Juego de Pelota Norte, with its worn relief sculptures, onto the levelled terrace of Tajín Chico, home of the city’s elite. From here, you get a great overview of Tajín Viejo. Only parts of the buildings survive, making a rather confusing whole. Estructura C and the adjoining Estructura B are the most impressive remains: Estructura C has stone friezes running around its three storeys, giving the illusion of niches. In this case, they were purely decorative, an effect that would have been heightened by a brightly coloured stucco finish. It also has the remains of a concrete roof – originally a huge single slab of poured cement, unique in ancient Mexico. Estructura A had a covered interior, and you can still see the entrance covered by a false arch of the type common in Maya buildings.
Estructura I (aka Edificio de las Pinturas) is distinguished by a palapa roof protecting its elaborate decoration, including relief carvings and delicately painted murals. Such luxurious decor suggests that this was probably the residence of some major political or religious figure. On the hill above Tajín Chico stood the Edificio de las Columnas, which must have dominated the entire city. El Tajín’s most famous ruler, 13 Rabbit, lived here; bas-reliefs on columns recorded his exploits, and some of these are now on show in the museum.
From the terrace of Tajín Chico you can walk down the stone path to the Gran Greca complex, also known as Xicalcoliuhqui, whose spiral walls contain two ball-courts and more pyramids. It has been only partially cleared of jungle, but you can stroll along the walled edges to get a sense of its vast size. Built towards the end of the city’s life, it is regarded as a sign of growing crisis, Tajín’s rulers becoming increasingly obsessed with monumental projects in order to maintain control over a disenchanted populace.
El Baile de los Negritos
El Baile de los Negritos
Popular at festivals across the state of Veracruz, the frenetic Baile de los Negritos is a Totonac dance dating back to colonial times, when African slaves were imported to work on local plantations, often living and labouring alongside indígenas. Stories abound as to the origin of the dance: the most popular version has it that a female slave and her child escaped from a plantation near Papantla and lived in the dense jungle with local indigenous groups. After her child was poisoned by a snake bite, the mother, using African folk medicine, danced herself into a trance. The Totonacs around her found the spectacle highly amusing and, it is said, began to copy her in a spirit of mockery.
Good opportunities to see the dance are Corpus Christi (late May–June) in Papantla, or in Tlapacoyan at the Feast of Santiago (July 25) or the Day of the Assumption (Aug 15); it’s frequently performed on a smaller scale at other village festivals in the area.
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.
At Papantla (performances in front of the cathedral Fri, Sat & Sun 11am–6pm) and El Tajín (regular performances outside the entrance to the ruins starting at 11am), the ritual has become primarily 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.