El Tajin is a pre-Columbian archaeological site, that was at its height between 800 and 1200.
It is the best preserved and most thoroughly excavated pre-Hispanic town of its period (after Teotihuacan fell into decline).
El Tajin was the capital of the Totonac state. The site's most famous building is the Pyramid of the Niches, which shows the astronomical and symbolic significance of its buildings.
Map of El TajinLoad map
The reopening of El Tajin in mid-February prompted me to rearrange the final days of my 2022 Mexico / Central America trip. Instead of flying home from Cancun, I returned to Mexico City and took a 3.5h bus for an overnight stay in Poza Rica. From Poza Rica, a taxi took me to El Tajin: it is only 18 kilometers and it takes half an hour. I paid 200 pesos on the way up there, and 180 on the way back. Beforehand I did some desk research on buses/collectivos as well: they apparently leave from terminal El Parador, just south of the city center.
Only 500 visitors per day are now allowed (they’ve extended the numbers and opening hours a bit since Shandos visited), but that doesn't stop the souvenir sellers from unpacking all their stalls. They might as well be with 100 people as well.
I got there a little after the opening hour of 10 a.m., and there were already about 50 other visitors. Of the three parts the site consists of, Tajin Chico and the Group of Columns are not accessible at the moment. The small museum is also closed. The Tajin Complex, which can be visited, is the most monumental though.
With the exception of a few "normal" pyramids at the beginning of the site, the buildings with the niches that are so typical of El Tajin stand out. The niches are made of stacked flagstones. Why they were added to the designs is a bit of a mystery, they probably weren't filled with statues or anything. They may depict caves and the entrance to the underworld.
The inhabitants of El Tajin loved the Mesoamerican ball game. Or maybe they once organized the Precolumbian Olympic Games? No less than 20 courts have been excavated here, in a city that had a population of about 15,000-20,000. At the corner of one of these fields is a frieze showing a ball game player about to be beheaded (photo).
Some of the ruins still have remnants of their original red color. There is also one with light blue paint residue.
When you walk here, it really feels like a city: it is densely built up and there are streets connecting those ball game courts. The archeological remains comprise the administrative and ceremonial center of the city; the common people lived on the surrounding hills. The two most beautiful buildings stand side by side at the far end of the site – the stately Building #5 and the Pyramid of the Niches. The latter has no less than 365 niches. It looks a bit unstable as if a major hurricane would topple it. But that slight imperfection makes it all the more interesting in my opinion.
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After a long closure due to Covid and a hurricane, reports came in early February 2022, while we were still in central Mexico, that El Tajin had re-opened. Not that you could tell from the government website, which still said it was temporarily closed. But reviews on Google Maps clearly showed recent visitors, as well as providing the information that the site was only open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm, with a maximum of 300 visitors per day.
When arriving at the site, the impact of the hurricane couldn't be seen, although whether due to the hurricane or Covid, the area of the site that you could visit was smaller than for previous visitors. After working out only one person per group could line up at the ticket office, we then followed a set circuit route around the site, ropes and signs restricting access. (Even the Unesco plaque was outside the roped path...)
After visiting numerous pre-Hispanic cities in central Mexico, the lush green grass and forested surrounds of El Tajin made for a picturesque change. The two highlights of our visit were the Pyramid of the Niches and the panels on the side of the Juego de Pelota Sur depicting an imminent beheading. However, access to Tajin Chico was completely restricted (maybe there was hurricane damage up there?) and in only an hour we wrapped up our visit.
To access El Tajin, we made a three day trip from Mexico City via public transport. It's probably possible in two depending on bus timetables (at least if you stay in Poza Rica), definitely if you have a private car. After initially planning to stay in the city of Poza Rica, we switched to staying in the smaller town of Papantla, closer to the site and more atmospheric according to previous visitors.
There were also clearer instructions on where in Papantla to catch a bus to El Tajin, but we discovered that it of course wouldn't be so simple... After discovering the information was incorrect, we received various instructions (that were difficult to understand with our limited Spanish) on where to get a bus or collectivo (or probably a more expensive taxi). We eventually found the collectivos to El Tajin (shared taxis with a "Tajin" sign in the front window) on Artes, just west of the park. It cost us 80 pesos for two people to El Tajin, then 100 pesos to return.
At least it's true that Papantla is a lovely small town. During our visit multiple festivities occurred, whether in preparation for the upcoming Festival Cumbre Tajin or just part of regular Sundays (and Mondays!), including a Voladores performance, other traditional dances, and some kind of concert. In Papantla you'll likely stay at the suitably named Hotel Tajin, one of the few hotels in town on Booking dot com. While centrally located and with a pool, we found it rather overpriced and dated.
El Tajin may not be amongst the most famous of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic WHS but is well worth a visit unless you have surfeited on the others! Its location near the Gulf coast means that the vistas behind the inevitable pyramids are of tree clad hills rather than semi desert and the atmosphere is likely to be hot and steamy!
As you enter the site you will pass a high “Voladores Pole”. You have a chance here to see this spectacular ritual performed (photo 1) – you will be accosted and told when the next performance is (a “donation” is expected if you stay/return)! The pole here is metal and the event set up for tourists but it is better than nothing if you are not in a village where it is performed with a wooden pole as part of a local fiesta (We saw preparations such a performance over Semana Santa in the “Popocatapetl Missions” WHS of Tetela del Volcan). There are also performances across from the entrance to the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico DF.
El Tajin was the only site in Mexico where I was able to get my “over 60’s free entry” –everywhere else it has been limited to Mexican citizens and registered overseas residents. Otherwise entrance is 48 pesos (c US$4.5 in Mar 2008).
The site and museum take around 2-3hrs to visit at a fairly leisurely pace. The site’s “peak period” lasted between around 300-1100 AD and it was unused by the time Cortes landed some distance down the coast towards Vera Cruz. The usual ball courts and pyramids are well represented. The route for visiting, shown in our 1990 Michelin guide, was no longer open and, in common with all Mexican pre-Hispanic sites other than Teotihuacan, the climbing of pyramids has been forbidden. Similarly the “underground passage” in “Building D” was closed. The most famous sight is that of the “Pyramid of the Niches” (photo 2). It is one of the structures used by Mexico generally to advertise its pre-Hispanic past and has appeared on its (and Panama’s!) stamps – so you may “know” it! There are supposed to be 365 “niches” (we didn’t count them!) with of course an astronomical significance. There are also some interesting and historically quite important (for understanding the rituals of the game) carvings on the walls around the “South Ball Court”. Large parts of the site haven’t been excavated and it is worth going across to the “Gran Greca” area where the jungle is still partly in control!
The peoples who built El Tajin were Totonacs and the notices around the site have explanations in the local language as well as Spanish and English (Monte Alban was the only other pre-Hispanic site we saw on this trip to do the same for its local language). We asked a nearby guardian and she said that she spoke very little Totonac but nearby Papantla is the tribe’s stronghold and the Voladores come from there.
Arriving early on a Tuesday, I was nearly alone as the fog created an atmosphere of magic that increased as I moved through the site. The birds were still singing as I entered the ball court with base relief images. I continued to be astounded when I arrived at the pyramid of the niches. Walk up the hill and image a busy day centuries ago as you look down upon the religious site. Stay as long as possible before reentering the 21st century outside the gates.
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