Travel guide for visiting El Tajin archaeological site in Mexico (in 2022)

The Totonac capital


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Papantla, Veracruz, Mexico

GPS: 20.443223594934, -97.37727420432

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Visiting El Tajin archaeological site occurs less than Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza or Tulum, nevertheless it is one of the most important and best preserved archaeological sites in Mexico. Surrounded by green hills, this pre-Columbian city is located in the state of Veracruz, a few kilometres from the town of Papantla. It is the heritage of the Totonac civilisation, which for a long time remained in the shadow of their powerful Aztec neighbours, who were firmly established in the Central Mexican Plateau.

Meaning “City of Thunder” in the Totonac–Tepehua languages, El Tajín is considered to be the centre of Totonac culture in Mesoamerica. Its ceremonial site is said to have been founded at the beginning of the 2nd century and to have reached its peak between 800 and 1200, well after the fall of Teotihuacan (7th century). About 20,000 inhabitants would have populated the city and the surrounding hills. According to archaeologists, El Tajín was abandoned in the early 13th century after being attacked and burned by the Chichimecs (semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer people based in northern Mexico). Unknown when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the city was only discovered by chance in the late 18th century when the site was enveloped by thick jungle. According to historical consensus, the Totonacs and other indigenous tribes (including Tlaxcaltecs, Texconans, Calchas and Otomis) joined forces with the Spaniards led by Hernán Cortés to overthrow the Aztec Empire during the battle of the Fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

The vast ruins of El Tajín are dominated by a pyramidal complex called Pirámide los Nichos (Pyramid of the Niches). This stone building is decorated with 365 square windows on its four sides and contains seven stories. These would represent each day of the year and form a civil calendar with astronomical functions. Archaeologists have recently uncovered nearly 200 new buildings, only a small portion of which can be explored. According to specialists, El Tajín remains largely unexplored and still holds many secrets. No other pre-Columbian site, for example, has so many ball fields. For some years now, the archaeological zone of El Tajín has been linked to the adjacent Parque Takilhsukut, a cultural and musical centre dedicated to the traditions of the Totonacs. A stunning show of flying men is held daily in front of the main entrance to the pre-Hispanic city.

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  • The Pyramid of the Niches (Pirámide los Nichos), an 18-metre-high and seven stories stepped building; the play of light and shadow created by the network of niches on the building’s facades (which were once covered in coloured stucco)
  • The Palace of Tajin Chico and the Building of the Columns
  • The numerous ruins of the archaeological site (temples, houses and residential complexes) in a good state of conservation
  • The series of plazas (Plaza del Arroyo, Plaza Menor and Plaza de las Columnas)
  • Stone sculptures, geometric friezes, bas-reliefs and wall frescoes; representations of sacred gods and animals among the Totonacs
  • The 20 or so ballcourts discovered and used for ritual purposes including human sacrifice
  • A visit to the museum with archaeological artefacts and ancient objects
  • The daily spectacle of the Totonac dancers performing the Danza de los Voladores (“Dance of the Flyers”)
  • The Cumbre Tajin Festival, a musical and cultural event held every year in March; exhibitions, conferences, workshops and events held throughout the year
  • In 1785, an emissary sent by the Kingdom of Mexico (a province of the Spanish colony of New Spain) in search of illegal tobacco plantations discovered the site of El Tajín.
  • The Totonac civilisation may have had links with the Maya related to the Huasteca culture (of the Huastec people, indigenous inhabitants of the Americas from the Gulf Coast). It would have prospered thanks to vast reserves of cocoa beans used as currency in pre-Hispanic times.
  • This ancient people, a major producer of vanilla (caxixanath), is today renowned for its fascinating religious ritual called the Danza de los Voladores (“Dance of the Flyers”). This is a spectacle in which four men throw themselves from a pole some tens of metres high, their feet hanging from a rope.
  • The sacred practice of ballgame, involving human sacrifice in Mesoamerican civilisations, is believed to be a legacy of the Olmec people who flourished several centuries before our era (it was also of great cultural importance to the Maya).
  • The latest analyses seem to indicate that a local form of concrete was used in the construction of the buildings of El Tajín (no other place in Mesoamerica presents this type of material in the architecture of pre-Columbian civilisations).
  • Experts believe that the Pyramid of the Niches was once covered with red pigment and topped with a large statue of a deity. This building was erected in honour of the sun and marks the arrival of the equinox, an astronomical phenomenon that occurs twice a year when day and night have the same duration (this marker allowed the Totonacs to best organize their harvest and sowing). At the winter solstice, the night lasts longer than the day, while at the summer solstice, the day lasts longer than the night.
  • Until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century on the Gulf Coast, this region was controlled by the Aztecs and marked by numerous armed conflicts between different ethnic groups. Together with the Acolhua and Mexica, they formed the Triple Alliance, a prosperous and militarily powerful organisation based on the Nahua Amerindian group who spoke the same language (Nahuatl). This coalition ruled the largest empire in Mesoamerica in the post-classical period, with Mexico-Tenochtitlan (or Tenōchtitlan) as its capital. The main rivals of this three-headed empire were the Tarascans (or Purepecha) who settled a little further north. Under Aztec rule, the Totonac allied themselves with the Spaniards to rebel against their main enemies, to whom they regularly had to pay taxes in various forms: by offering children as slaves, people to be sacrificed to the gods, or vanilla pods (the Totonac were the world’s leading vanilla producers). Despite their contribution to the final victory over the capital Tenōchtitlan after a three-month military siege marking the end of the Aztec Empire, the Totonac were betrayed by the Spaniards. They suffered epidemics of disease (including smallpox imported from Europe), were evicted from their lands, looted of their wealth, forcibly converted to Christianity and enslaved in the agricultural fields.
  • Created in 2000, the Cumbre Tajín Festival honours the intangible heritage of the city of El Tajín. It is held in Takilhsukut Theme Park, the Mexican town of Papantla de Olarte and the archaeological zone of El Tajín. This event takes place over five days at the time of the spring equinox (in march) through a sustainable approach. It is the flagship of pre-Hispanic artistic practices and ancestral traditions of the indigenous populations of Mexico and America. By contributing to the ecological awareness of the general public, Cumbre Tajín promotes environmental education for young people, encourages exchanges between visitors from different cultures, defends the management of local resources, protects age-old practices and works to transmit knowledge. Its actions cover many areas including art, music, culture and entertainment.
  • Due to the limited information available on site, a guided tour is the best way to learn about the mysteries of this city, which is linked to the Amerindian people of the Totonacs.
  • The Arroyo sector, with a group of four stepped pyramids arranged around a square, is the oldest part of the city. The Tajín Chico sector is made up of a series of well-preserved buildings whose main function was administrative.
  • Do not hesitate to explore the part still buried by the jungle to see the last remains of El Tajín uncovered by archaeologists.
  • The festival programme of Cumbre Tajín brings together a wide variety of activities mainly related to the Totonac culture and increasingly welcomes international artists. It includes ritual ceremonies, manual workshops and alternative practices. You can learn about astronomy, spirituality, ball games, cosmogony and traditional medicine. Massage techniques, tastings, sensory experiences, regional products, handicrafts, concerts, dances, choreographies, acrobatic acts, sound and light shows, films, lectures and exhibitions are organised throughout the event in March.
  • Other interesting archaeological sites can be visited around the city of El Tajín: Cuyuxquihui (remains to the southeast), Las Higueras (a fine collection of murals on the coast), Castillo de Teayo (a Mesoamerican pyramid to the northwest), Vega de la Peña and El Cuajilote (ruins further south).

Where to eat

  • Tajin Chico
    (simple and tasty)
  • Nakú Restaurante Papanteco
    (typical and traditional)
  • Plaza Pardo Restaurante
    (superb location)

Where to go

  • Parque Takilhsukut
    (the heart of totonac culture)
  • Eco Park Xanath
    (in contact with nature)
  • Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la...
    (church with a long history)

Where to stay

  • Hotel Provincia Express
    (in the centre of Papantla)
  • Rio Vista Inn
    (modern and comfortable)
  • Hotel Paris FC
    (spacious and well-equipped)

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