Travel guide for visiting El Tajin archaeological site in Mexico

The Totonac capital


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Papantla, Veracruz, Mexico

GPS: 20.443259527545, -97.377092052253

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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 people lived in 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, a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer people from northern Mexico. It is not known when the Spanish conquistadors arrived and the city was only discovered by chance in the late 18th-century by which stage the area 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 the Pyramid of the Niches, (Pirámide los Nichos). This 20m-tall stone building has 365 small niches forming types of “windows” on its four sides and has seven stepped terraces. The 365 “windows” suggest that the pyramid represented an astronomical calendar used to track the days of the year. Archaeologists have recently uncovered nearly 200 new buildings, only a small portion of which can be explored by visitors. According to archaeologists, El Tajín remains largely unexplored and still holds many secrets. No other pre-Columbian site has so many Pok-A-Tok ball fields, an ancient ball game played by the Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs more than 1,000 years ago. For some years now, the archaeological zone of El Tajín is linked to the Parque Takilhsukut, a cultural and musical centre dedicated to the traditions of the Totonacs. A stunning show of trapeze artists 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)is 20m-high and constructed over seven stepped terraces; the play of light and shadow created by the network of niches on the building’s façade indicate that the pyramid was used as an astronomical calendar
  • The Palace of Tajin Chico and the Building of the Columns
  • The numerous ruins of the archaeological site – temples, houses and residential complexes – are well preserved
  • 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 Pok-A-Tok ball courts were uncovered and their arena shape made it an ideal site for ritualistic human sacrifices
  • A visit to the museum with archaeological artefacts and ancient objects
  • The daily spectacle of the Totonac dancers performing the “Dance of the Flyers” (Danza de Los Voladores)
  • The Cumbre Tajin Festival, a musical and cultural event held every 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, indigenous inhabitants of the Americas from the Gulf Coast. It would have prospered because of its vast plantations of cocoa beans used as currency in pre-Hispanic times.
  • This ancient people were major cultivators of vanilla and today are renowned for the fascinating religious ritual called the “Dance of the Flyers” (Danza de los Voladores), an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony.
  • The sacred practice of Pok-A-Tok, the ballgame, involving human sacrifice in Mesoamerican civilisations, is believed to be a legacy of the ancient Olmec people. 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.
  • Until the arrival on the Gulf Coast of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th-century, the 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 the Aztec, 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, 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 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. 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 area 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 (ruins 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)