El Tajín

El TajinEl Tajin

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.

Plaza del Arroyo

Closest to the site entrance is the Plaza del Arroyo (Square of the Stream), surrounded by recently excavated pyramids. The finest of these structures, Edificio 16, was evidently over-built three times. Behind it two new ball courts (17/27 and 13/14) have been uncovered.

Pyramid of the Niches

Near the Pyramid of the Niches in the Zona Central stand Monuments II, III and IV. Monument II and the adjoining Monument V are of particular interest. The remarkable Pyramid of the Niches (Pirámide de los Nichos) rises to a height of 25 m (82 ft) on its square base, the sides of which are 35 m (115 ft) in length; the pyramid was dedicated to the Rain or Wind god.
Construction of the seven-storeyed pyramid (seven counting the temple at the top) began in the 4th c. and was probably completed in the 7th c. As is often the case with Old Indian buildings, it was superimposed on an older pyramid already there.
Each storey of the building is embellished on all four sides with a row of relatively shallow niches, square in shape and surrounded by a projecting stone "frame". The niches total 365 in all, symbolising the days of the year. At first it was thought they were intended to house figures, but archaeologists now believe their purpose was simply decorative. At one time the entire structure was clad in polychrome stucco, even the niches being painted in bright colours. The intention may perhaps have been to create a mystical effect using the interplay of light and shade. Up either side of the 10 m (33 ft)-wide stairway run broad alfardas (lateral balustrades) with a decorative stone mosaic of meandering fret design. The centre-line of the stairway is interrupted by five platforms, regularly spaced, each having three smaller niches. The stairway was a later, and almost certainly purely functional, addition.
From the plaza a track runs northwards to the Plaza El Tajín Chico in the least ancient part of the city. Here the architecture is rather more Mayan in character, with roof-combs, columned entrances and corbel vaulting.

Building of the Columns

The Complejo de las Columnas, the highest section of the site, is dominated by the extraordinary Building of the Columns (Edificio de las Columnas or Palacio del Gobierno) standing on a mound 45 m (147 ft) in height and in part artificially raised. Glyphs discovered here recount the history of a ruler known as "13 rabbits", who probably lived in the 10th c. Once again niches are a major feature of the building, in this case decorated with meandering motifs. The cornices are so constructed as to appear to defy the laws of gravity. Equally astonishing is the fact that the solidly built stairway was apparently added purely for decoration, access to the upper chambers being by ladder. The creators of the building certainly possessed some unique skills, covering the roof, for example, with slabs made from a cement completely unknown elsewhere in Meso-America.
At the base of the structure can be seen the stumps of several huge columns 1.20 m (4 ft) in diameter. These were once part of a gallery running along the front of the building. The stumps are covered with bas-reliefs depicting warriors and priests, human sacrifices and hieroglyphs. Panels with cross-shaped reliefs embellish the east side of the upper storey. From the top of the building a magnificent view unfolds of the entire area.

Surrounding Ruins

Lower down from the Building of the Columns stands Building I where polychrome paintings of zoomorphic deities were recently discovered. Below the steps is the Central Ball Court, with six panels depicting among others the deities Tláloc, Quetzalcóatl and Macuilxochiti. To the north of the ball court rises "La Gran Greca", a platform of dimensions unique in Meso-America which served as a base for several buildings. Further north again can be seen "La Gran Xicalcoiunqhui" (Nahuátl: "great stepped meander"), a huge serpentine wall associated with Quetzalcóatl.

El Tajín Ruins Museum

There is a fine new museum near the site entrance where excavated finds are put on display, including rare drum-shaped columns. On Sunday mornings the "voladores" perform their flying act at the car park.


Papantla, Mexico

Papantla (290 m (952 ft); population: 90,000; fiestas: New Year, Corpus Christi, Fiesta de Vainilla beginning of June, All Saints), 15km/9.3mi south-east of El Tajín, is an attractive town set in hilly country carpeted with dense tropical forest. Spread out all around are the most extensive vanilla plantations in America.


However Papantla's fame rests chiefly on the "voladores", whose flying act is traditionally performed here on major holidays (in particular during the eight day Feast of Corpus Christi). The origins of the ceremony can be traced back to a ritual drama based on the mythological story of the new maize, pre-Hispanic interpretations of which survive in hieroglyphic form. A musician sits playing on a small platform at the top of a tall mast, from which four "flyers" ("tocotines"), secured by a rope to a revolving frame at the masthead, glide earthwards head first. As they circle the pole the ropes progressively unwind until they reach the ground. Although associated principally with the Totonacs, the tradition survives among the Huastecs and Otomís as well. The Chorti in Honduras and the Quiché in Guatemala also perform similar flying acts.

Castillo de Teayo, Mexico

19km/12mi north-west of El Tajín lies the industrial town of Pozo Rica (60 m (197 ft); population 224,000), 15km/9.3mi north of which in the direction of Tihuatián a road branches off to Teayo (Huastec: "in the stone tortoise"; a further 22km/13.6mi). The main plaza of the village is dominated by the excellently restored Castillo de Teayo Pyramid, a triple-tiered structure almost 13 m (43 ft) high, on the upper terrace of which are the remains of a rectangular temple. Stone carvings discovered near by, mainly of Aztec origin, can be seen displayed in a small museum. Similar sculptures are found in the vicinity of Zapotitlán and La Cruz. Until recently archaeologists assumed that the pyramid was constructed by the Aztecs in the 15th c., serving as their base in the Totonac region. Now it is thought to have been erected at least four centuries earlier, probably by Toltenacs from Tula. Tunnelling work is planned which is expected to reveal a Huastec core. The countryside around the pyramid was not generally settled until 1870. The villagers used materials from part of the Old Indian structure to build their homes.

Tecolutla, Mexico

40km/25mi south of Papantla, on the MEX 180, Tecolutla (population: 30,000) is a family resort with a flat sandy beach, set in an area of lush subtropical vegetation. It is popular with the Mexicans.

Tuxpan, Mexico

The port of Tuxpan (population: 135,000) lies on a river, 58km/36mi north of Poza Rica and 10km/6mi inland from the coast. Famous for its splendid sea and river fishing, it is also the venue of popular angling competitions held every year in late June/early July.
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