The smell of vanilla hangs thick in the air over Papantla, a bustling hill town in the jungly northern reaches of the Mexican state of Veracruz. The prized aromatic has been cultivated here since pre-colonial times, by the same Totonac people who still live here, speak their own language, and practice a brand of Roman Catholicism infused with pre-Christian ritual; visit during planting season and you might see the blood of sacrificed chickens being scattered on the fields. Few foreign tourists make it to Papantla, but those who do, come to roam the ruins of one of Mexico's most important, yet enigmatic, Mesoamerican cities: El Tajín.
I’m sitting on a restaurant balcony overlooking the zócalo, Papantla’s lively main square, feeling very pleased with myself after seeing off some tacos al pastor and a bottle of the local brew, Totonaca Pale Ale. Speakers flanking a huge stage in the middle of the plaza crackle into life, playing bass-heavy mariachi-infused pop which pulses through my chest and sends birds and dogs scattering in all directions. Preparations are afoot for Mexico’s Independence Day, which will be celebrated with some zeal beginning the next evening.
First, though, and with the soundcheck over, I’m treated to one of the most vivid expressions of Mesoamerican culture which still survives in Mexico: the gravity-defying dance of the voladores (or flyers in English). According to tradition, a severe drought in Totonaca led to the creation of this unique ceremony asking the gods to return the rain and fertility to the soil. Five stout men dressed in red trousers, white shirts, and ornately embroidered cloth caps gather at the bottom of a 98-foot-tall pole which stands in front of Papantla’s golden-domed cathedral. With surprising agility they ascend the pole and expertly knot a few ropes. While one of them sits on the top and strikes up a tune, holding a flute in one hand and banging a drum with the other, the other four launch themselves headfirst towards the earth. Each of the four is thought to represent the four points on a compass, as well as the elements fire, earth, air and water. The men descent the pole hanging by their feet, spinning in ever-widening circles as their ropes unravel, before righting themselves at the very last moment and landing upright as if they’d just jumped out of bed.
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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.
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.
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