Visiting El Tajín
Suitably impressed, I hail a taxi and make for another relic of pre-Columbian Mexican culture, in the form of the remarkable ruins of El Tajín. Expecting the place to be overrun with visitors like Palenque or Chichen Itza, I’m surprised – there’s no one around. Outside the entrance I see another volador pole, but, like the rest of the place, it’s deserted today. I walk into the visitor centre and find three members of staff sitting around, smiling serenely as another of their colleagues stands in the middle dancing with a black Labrador, holding its paws in his hands and swaying back and forth. My surprise at this is surpassed, seemingly, by their shock at having a visitor walk through the door, but they cheerfully tear me off a ticket and I set off to explore the complex.
El Tajín's impressively intact ruins are not nearly as busy as Chichen Itza or Palenque © Daniel Stables
At its peak, between around 800 and 1200 AD, El Tajín was a large and significant city, home to an estimated 20,000 people. More than half of the city is thought to still lie beneath the thick jungle which rises dramatically all around. Were it not for the neatly manicured grass pathways which connect the main sites, and the occasional discreet ‘Keep Off’ sign, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d rediscovered the place yourself. In fact, having been mysteriously and abruptly abandoned after a devastating fire around 1200 AD, the city lay swallowed by the jungle until a Spanish official accidentally came across it in 1785 while searching for illicit tobacco plantations.
The architecture is characterised by impressive step pyramids, many of which are remarkably well preserved – none more so than the city’s centrepiece, the Pyramid of the Niches. Its six tiers are carved all around with square recesses – 365 in all, one for every day of the solar calendar. It’s thought that offerings may have been placed in them, the niches representing passages to the underworld where the gods reside.
Pyramid of the Niches, one of the most well-preserved pyramids in El Tajín © Daniel Stables
The Mesoamerican ballgame
Nobody can quite agree on who built El Tajín. The Totonacs and the Huastecs were once considered candidates, but modern consensus places El Tajín as the centre of its own distinct culture, little understood and known simply as Classic Veracruz. Those mysteries which El Tajín has given up are certain to appeal to anyone drawn to the more macabre face of pre-Colombian culture. The whole site serves as a monument to the apparent obsession of Classic Veracruz with the Mesoamerican ballgame, a wildly popular pastime which combined sport with religious ritual and, it would seem, a bit of human sacrifice thrown in for good measure. So far, 17 ball courts have been excavated at El Tajín, far more than at any other known site of this size. Ornately carved bas-reliefs cover their walls, depicting Death lingering beside a recently decapitated ball-player; it’s speculated, naturally, that the heads were used as balls.
Happily, human sacrifice is no longer on the menu at El Tajín. Instead, the site offers a fascinating glimpse into an enigmatic ancient culture, and a rare opportunity to visit an archaeological site still largely unexcavated. More than anything else, it will see you channelling your inner Indiana Jones as you tramp between its crumbling pyramids, with the jungle steaming in the background and, if you're lucky, barely another soul in sight.
Header image: El Tajín © wayak / Shutterstock