El Tajín

Around the time William the Conqueror started toward England, the Classic Veracruz city-state of El Tajín reached its apogee. Located in the modern Mexican state of Veracruz, El Tajín was a regional capital that came to power after the decline of Teotihuacan (c. 700 CE). Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site operated by Mexico’s federal National Institute for Anthropology and History. Mexico’s national museums and archaeological sites are rightly world-famous. If you’re in Mexico City, the National Museum of Anthropology is just a metro ride away from many hotels, and day trips to Teotihuacan are standard fare for any English guidebook. El Tajín, however, seems a world away.

Why visit El Tajín? Full disclosure: I’ve done ethnographic research in the communities around El Tajín since 2012, so I’m not objective in this matter. But I can describe what tourists like about the site. First, it’s conveniently about an hour from rustic Veracruz beaches. An itinerary involve a morning at El Tajín and an evening in one of the many beach hotels from Tuxpan to Casitas. Second, the site offers plenty to see in a relatively short time—it takes perhaps an hour and a half to see nearly all of the site, and the famous Voladores de Papantla perform daily. Third, its general tranquility: El Tajín remains remarkably green, and is rarely as crowded as sites like Chichén Itzá; depending on the time of year and time of day, you may be one of just a few tourists in the site. If this is sounds enticing, then allow me to paint a more detailed picture of the site. A map of the specific places mentioned is below:

Top-down map of El Tajín

Located in the semi-evergreen tropical rainforest of Veracruz’s coastal plain, the area around El Tajín has been inhabited for at least the past 8,000 years. The Tajín city-state, however, functioned between roughly 300 and 1100 CE. As a city of 15,000-20,000 residents, it was one of the largest in the region with satellite centers extending across the plains and up into the Puebla mountains (Yohualichan, near Cuetzalan, is a good example of one such center).

Even after its political structure collapsed and its residents dispersed to the countryside, El Tajín was never really lost. The city continued to serve as a burial ground for residents living in the area after its decline. It remained unknown to the Spanish until 1785 when an official of the royal tobacco monopoly stumbled upon the emblematic Pyramid of the Niches. A short account in the Gaceta de México brought news of El Tajín to the broader Atlantic world, and people like Alexander von Humboldt would further help to spread its fame. Thanks to excavations by the National Institute of Anthropology and History since the 1930s, we now know that El Tajín is much more than a single pyramid. There are currently 41 structures available for public viewing, in addition to a site museum and the Voladores de Papantla.

When you’ve decided to make the trip to El Tajín, you’ll want to prepare for your excursion. Between March and October, temperatures of 35º C, or 95º F are common, and the sun and humidity are both strong. Therefore, sunscreen, hats, and water (or even electrolyte drinks) are a must. While the site guards usually keep the site well-fumigated, mosquito repellent is handy to have on hand. If you forget any of these items though, have no fear. Upon entering the site, you’ll likely note the number of informal vendors. Certainly any kind of local snack or souvenir, as well as several comfort and convenience items can be found in what has effectively become a market. Once you’ve strolled through the market, you’ll come across the grey, concrete building at the end of the cul-de-sac that serves as the site entrance (pictured at top).

To your left, you’ll see a semi-circle of concrete shops surrounding a blue pole. This is the setting for the famous ritual of the Voladores de Papantla, sometimes called Birdmen, or similar. Although this precolonial ritual is found across former Mesoamerican territories, the Papantla variant is the best-known. Associated with petitions for rain, the ritual performance is something to see. Four men in ritual dance attire led by a fifth (the caporal) follow a series of steps accompanied by a flute and hand-drum rhythm. They then climb the pole and tie themselves off, preparing to fly down. In Tajín, the Voladores typically perform every hour or so, depending on tourist traffic. It’s well worth the wait! During the flight, one Volador will come and collect donations. This is because these specialists otherwise receive no salary or benefits from the site. Twenty pesos per person is a suggested minimum. As you wait, you might circle around the pole to the shops; each is run by a cooperative of local, Indigenous Totonac artisans and vendors. Embroidered blouses and local ceramic designs make for great souvenirs and gifts.

Entering the site installations, you’ll purchase a ticket at the counter. Since the intermittent internet connection can impact the functionality of card readers, you’re better off using cash. The ticket gets you into the site museum and the site. The site guards may invite you to store larger bags or check them as you enter the site. Note that food and drinks are not allowed in the museum but can be temporarily stored outside. While the site museum is relatively small, it will occasionally feature traveling exhibits on diverse topics related to Mesoamerican archaeology and history. Recent examples include a display of the early colonial Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, documenting Indigenous Nahua soldiers participating in the Conquest of Guatemala, and a display on modern Totonac ceramics. Another can’t-miss feature is the large site diorama which reproduces the site, its landscape, and the distribution of archaeological structures in smaller scale.

The key attraction here is the site itself. Compared with its counterparts elsewhere in the country, tourists appreciate how green El Tajín remains. While the old growth semi-evergreen tropical rainforest has for the most part disappeared, the areas of the site open to the public seem carved out of the jungle; just past the guard post, the causeway towards the site is lined with trees. Walking forward the first structure you see will be the unimaginatively-named Building 16, the southernmost building of the quadrangle known as the Plaza del Arroyo. This is the largest of El Tajín’s plazas.

Entrance to the Plaza del Arroyo, with Building 16 at left.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Sam Holley-Kline

Archaeologist S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson has hypothesized that this area functioned as a market space for the great city whose public spaces are otherwise small compared with cities like Teotihuacan. You might take advantage of the shade to rest or continue on, but I would suggest heading towards your left, across the grass. Across the short horizon, you’ll already be able to see the Pyramid of the Niches—but if you resist the temptation to go around to the front, you’ll be rewarded with a little-noticed phenomenon.

If you continue to the “backside” of the Pyramid (the west façade), you’ll see how the structure relates to the hill on the east flank of the site. The juxtaposition is striking, and indicative of the Pyramid’s significance.

Pyramid of the Niches, west façade, with the Cerro de los Mantenimientos in the background.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Sam Holley-Kline

In many Mesoamerican cultures, mountains and high hills were sacred landscape features, and even today are associated with local deities. Landscape associations like this help to explain why the Pyramid is where it is, and why it’s oriented as such - at a slightly odd angle (to our eyes) and in a rather small plaza for the majesty of the structure. You can fully appreciate the design if you circle around to the east façade. Thanks to the spatial relationship between the Pyramid and the hill, one can observe archaeo-astronomical phenomena during the spring solstice: as the sun rises, the light appears to descend in a zigzag pattern. For a few moments, the Pyramid of the Niches is the only visible structure illuminated at the site. Given the chiaroscuro effect of the building’s niches, the result is quite dramatic.

East façade of the Pyramid of the Niches.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Sam Holley-Kline

As you’re circling around to this view, you’ll want to go through the South Ballcourt. El Tajín is known for its ballcourts: fully 20 at last count, second only to Cantona in Puebla. Some of the largest of these have yet to be excavated, but the South Ballcourt is monumental for a different reason: six engraved low-relief panels detailing a complex series of rituals associated with politics and divine legitimation. It’s worth noting that no two scholars agree completely on the interpretations of El Tajín’s iconography; with no written sources, scholars have to rely on analogies with similar sites from other cultures.

From there, you should continue north, following the paved path around to the area of the site known as Tajín Chico (assuming the site’s occasional staffing issues have kept the area open). So called because it was once thought to be a separate site, Tajín Chico does look markedly different: a collection of rectangular buildings distributed around a central plaza. The highlights here, are Building I, one of the few places where mural painting is preserved in the site, and Building A, where you can see how El Tajín’s builders experimented with a kind of concrete for making flat roofs. Many of these buildings probably had administrative functions, as opposed to the religious and ceremonial functions of buildings in the lower part of the site.

On the way back down, you might circle north towards the Gran Xicalcoliuhqui (or Gran Greca), a monumental stepped-fret of the kind usually seen in miniature and repeated form in places like Mitla. Though not excavated in its entirety, you might stop and get some local food from the Indigenous Totonac vendors who usually set up in the small shelter near the bridge. Bean tamales wrapped in banana leaves, called púlacles, are a local specialty that should not be missed. From there, you might follow the stone path back down to the site installations, where you can exit.

Logistics (costs in Mexican pesos—$)

For the foreign visitor, El Tajín is a bit of a trip: the well-heeled might fly into the nearby El Tajín National Airport, but most will take a bus from Mexico City to the oil-camp-turned-city of Poza Rica. Direct buses from the Central del Norte bus station are recommended, and ADO and Futura lines offer a range of reliable options for the four-hour trip ($400-$800 round-trip). From Poza Rica, a secure taxi (outside the bus station) will take the visitor directly to El Tajín for around $100-$200, while a bus should cost $15.

The site is open from 9 AM to 5 PM, 365 days a year (except in cases of climactic or epidemiological emergencies), although the museum is intermittently closed for maintenance. A full circuit takes perhaps two hours at a leisurely pace. I recommend going in the morning—fewer tourists and cooler weather makes the trip more enjoyable. The site itself costs $80 to enter, with an additional $45 for cameras with tripods or videocameras. If you’d like to see the Voladores perform, $20 per person is a suggested minimum payment.

Guided visits are available in Spanish, English, and Totonac. They can be contracted at the guards’ post just before the site entrance, and I recommend taking advantage of this amenity. The guides are professionals, either residents of the area or with degrees in history or archaeology, and work according to a standard pricing scheme depending on the size of the group (up to $30 per person). Their tours typically last between an hour and an hour and a half, and include plenty of detail not otherwise available at the site. Lack of informational signage is a common tourist complaint in El Tajín, and more than a few have been left wondering at the meanings of the visible building and iconography.

Nearby lodging can be had in Poza Rica and Papantla. The former features smaller chain hotels (Best Western and Fiesta Inn) while the latter is well-known as a more traditional town. It has the designation of Pueblo Mágico, referring to the conservation of vernacular architecture and cultural practices. The Hotel Tajín, for instance, is a mainstay, locally-owned and centrally-located.

Further Reading:

If you’re interested in Mesoamerican archaeology, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz’s Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs is a richly-illustrated and accessible introduction. Susan Toby Evans’ Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History is another good introductory textbook.

For accessible, English-language introductions to El Tajín, S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson’s El Tajín: A Guide for Visitors is a dated but still useful guide to the site. The introduction to Rex Koontz’s Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents is more technical, but offers perhaps the best scholarly synthesis of the current consensus (or lack thereof) on pre-Hispanic El Tajín.

If you read Spanish, Arqueología Mexicana has a recent issue on “Tajín, Veracruz: Guia visual” (often for sale at the site) and Sara Ladrón de Guevara’s El Tajín: La urba que representa al orbe is a good introduction to the site.

If you’re well-versed in Mesoamerican history already, you might know El Tajín for a few long-running controversies over its chronology and the ethnolinguistic affiliation of its builders. The details I’ve noted here follow the regional research of Arturo Pascual Soto and S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson. An alternative view comes from the work of Jürgen K. Brüggemann, Tajín. The archaeo-astronomical interpretation mentioned here comes from Patricia Castillo Peña, “El Edificio de los Nichos de El Tajín. Arquitectura para comunicarse con los dioses,” published in Un patrimonio universal. Las piramides de Mexico: cosmovision, cultura y ciencia.

*    *    *

Sam Holley-Kline