El Tajin: UNESCO World Heritage Site

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El Tajin-a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE

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.

El Tajin Entrance

El Tajin Entrance

Ancient History

El Tajin UNESCO

El Tajin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: a pre-Hispanic city at its height between the 9th and 13th century.

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.

El Tajin Stony Paths

The ball fields and stony paths are a playground filled with living history.

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.

Pyramid of the Niches, El Tajin

At its height between AD 800 and 1200, the Pyramid of Niches housed 25,000 residents.

El Tajin, a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE

El Tajin-a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE; the most important centre in north-east Mesoamerica.

El Tajin Pre-Hispanic City Living History

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.

Danza de los Voladores, El Tajin

The Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers)

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.

El Tajin Vendors

Vendors selling donuts, hand-embroidered blouses, and local souvenirs.

Accommodations, etc.

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.

Sunhats, El Tajin

Sunhats help with the intense sun rays.

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.

Sawyer Products B4 Extractor Pump Kit

Bee Sting, El Tajin

The bee sting! Being prepared made the difference.

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.

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Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion, parents of nine (including four children adopted with special needs), 2014 National Geographic Travelers of the Year and the National Geographic Travelers People's Choice Travelers of the Year. They love to laugh, to read and to explore as a family. The secret to their marital bliss is an early morning cup of freshly brewed coffee before the children awake.

4 Comments

  1. Nice tips and information to visit a nice UNESCO site in Mexico.

  2. Tamara says:

    Wow! Thank you so much for posting about El Tajin. I visited there many years ago (maybe 1995 or so?) and have never come across anyone post about it. It truly is an amazing place, and you’re right, well-worth the time and effort to get off the beaten path to see it. You brought back wonderful memories with your descriptions. I remember the Pyramid of Niches, the Ball Courts, all of it very well. Glad you and your family were able to get there to learn and enjoy this place!

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Tamara,
      I am so glad you enjoyed that. It’s always fun to read a story a bout a place where we have been. I am happy that this story brought back the memories of your wonderful trip. Happy travels.

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