The ruined city of El Tajín lies surrounded by vanilla plantations in a hilly region where the warm, moist climate clothes everything in tropical green. The archaeological zone covers some 11sq.km/41/4sq.mi, 40 per cent of which has been excavated in recent years. The city, with a population in its heyday of about 50,000 people, is one of the most important pre-Columbiann sites in Mexico.
How to get there
By air to Poza Rica and from there by car (about 15km/9.3mi); by bus from Veracruz to Papantla (about 4 hours), then by local bus service; by car from Mexico City, taking the MEX 85 towards Teoti-huancán, then the MEX 130 and 132 (the "Vanilla Route") via Tulancingo and Poza Rica to El Tajin (about 300km/186mi in all); from Veracruz, the MEX 180 via Nautla and Papantla (about 240km/149mi).
For a long time the Totonacs were believed to have built El Tajín (Totonac: "lightning"), a view based largely on the fact that they inhabited the area at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The great city had however already been abandoned for at least 300 years before the Spanish arrived. It may originally have been a late Olmec or proto-Mayan settlement, set up in collaboration with the Huastecs. When founded, in around AD 200, its builders were evidently much influenced by Teotihuancán. It took until about AD 600 before an independent culture evolved. El Tajín's own influence then began to spread, in time being felt even in Teotihuancán. The city reached the peak of its development between AD 700 and 900.
The first major buildings, including the Pyramid of the Niches, date from the 4th and 5th centuries. There followed two phases of new building and superimposition of new structures on old, the first in El Tajín between the 6th and 8th centuries, the second in El Tajín Chico between the 9th and 12th centuries. From the 12th c. onwards the architecture becomes manifestly more Toltec in style. El Tajín ceased to exist as a city and cultural centre in about AD 1200, evidence of destruction and burning suggesting it may have been razed by the Toltecs. In the 15th c. the Totonacs inhabiting this part of Veracruz were subjugated by the Aztecs and forced to pay tribute.
In the centuries following the Spanish Conquest (1519-21) El Tajín initially failed to attract much attention. The first person to visit and describe the site was Diego Ruiz in 1785. Others to report later were the German Alexander von Humboldt (1811) and the Austrian W. Dupaix (1836). Systematic excavation only began in 1934 under the direction of the Mexican archaeologist José García Payón. His work was then continued by S. Jeffrey K. Wilkersen. Excavations carried out by I.N.A.H. since 1984 have to date uncovered a further 36
buildings; there are now, in total, 48 well-preserved buildings to be seen.
The style in which El Tajín is built (seen also at e.g. Yohualichán) is unique to this particular area; it is characterised by heavily receding cornices and window-like niches and recessed panels in the pyramid walls. Buildings were painted red, black or blue, occasionally with murals on the exterior.
El Tajín proper and El Tajín Chico are made up of several different areas on a number of levels: the Grupo Plaza del Arroyo; the Zona Central (with the Pyramid of the Niches); the Complejo de las Columnas (with the Building of the Columns); La Gran Greca; and La Gran Xicalcoiunqhui.