For Gulf Coast travelers, the Archeological Site of El Tajin is a must-see. This UNESCO World Heritage Site and jewel of Mexico’s Gulf Coast provides a fascinating look at Pre-Hispanic Mexico. If you are headed to Merida, Cancun, or other points south and east you will find this a valuable mid-point stop. You do not want to miss this. At just 18 miles inland from the coast, it’s worth every mile to go off the beaten track.
Shrouded in mystery, even UNESCO states that, “there is still uncertainty concerning the origin of this culture.” The best educated hypotheses point to the Totonacos, an indigenous group that still inhabits the area. We talked briefly with one of the Totonac women on her way home through the site. Mexico is working hard to preserve the agricultural life of this group, even as archaeological work continues. Some archaeologists believe that half of the ruin is yet to be uncovered.
We were immediately impressed by the sheer magnitude of the site. Some archeologists estimate that, at its height between AD 800 and 1200, this settlement housed 25,000 residents. We can only imagine how awestruck were those who made the first outside encounter, recorded in 1785, nearly six centuries after its inexplicable demise. Although the vulnerable ruins were cordoned off, the well-manicured areas gave plenty of room for our young ones to explore and catch an eye-full of antiquity. While ambling along the stony paths, children learn through play and exploration. A sterile classroom and textbook can never compete with hands-on learning.
The ‘Pyramid of the Niches’ is a masterpiece of ancient Mexican-American architecture. It is distinctively constructed with 365 “niches,” one for each day of the year and, presumably, access to the underworld. The unnamed neighboring structure is equally breathtaking.
Our oldest two teens were fascinated by the historical markers and explanatory plaques. Twenty “Ball Courts” have been uncovered (more than any other Mesoamerican site). Three of the ball courts were just discovered in March 2013. Ancient competitors dressed in elaborate costumes invoking the powers of the animal they imitated. Two teams used their hips to bat a solid rubber ball, slightly smaller than a soccer ball, to their competitors’ side. The game ended with one of the players being sacrificed to one of the local deities; it is not clear whether the winner or loser prepared or became the sacrifice.
At the end of the tour we watched an astonishing re-enactment of the Danza de Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). Every hour, four Totonac men, suspended by ropes twisted around a one hundred foot pole, descend to the ground in a trance-like twirl. A fifth man stays at the top persistently beating a hand drum and playing the flute. The men impersonate birds in an effort to appease the rain gods.
For those who have seen these dances elsewhere, this presentation is unmatched in its altitude and pageantry. This is the only place in Mexico to watch the voladores fall from this great a height. Be prepared for an onlookers’ case of vertigo and to tip the re-enactors after their dizzying show.
Street vendors ply the parking lot of El Tajin, waiting to supply visitors with souvenirs, local sweets, or invitations to one of the small eating establishments. At the entrance to the ancient city are more refreshment stands and an informative museum.
Poza Rica de Hidalgo, with its chaotic traffic patterns, is not a particularly attractive city. The Poza Rica Inn, however, is a welcome respite for southbounders. At 13 miles from El Tajin, it’s a best bet for trekkers to the ruins.
As with all of Mexico, prepare for the heat with light clothing, headgear, and beverages. The shadeless ruins magnify the intense jungle heat.
Also, since El Tajin was literally dug out of the jungle, be prepared for insect visitors; our three year-old sustained a bee sting. We had this bee kit along, one of the best little investments we made for our road trip.
We highly encourage a visit to this twelve century old treasure. It will give you a glimpse into history that can’t be gained any other way. Do you have a favorite UNESCO world heritage site? Tell us about it in the comments.