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In Papantla, the shady zócalo built of ceramic tile is where couples and families come in the evenings to sit or stroll. The large wall below the church facing the zócalo is covered with the image of El Tajín and a modern depiction of Totonac carved reliefs.

The Ruins of El Tajín

The city lies among some low hills clothed in thick tropical forest. The views are lovely, but climbing on the pyramids is forbidden; your best view is from a high terrace that supports the Tajín Chico buildings toward the back. The city is divided into Tajín Viejo and Tajín Chico -- the old and new sections. Of the 150 buildings identified at the site, 20 have been excavated and conserved, resurrecting their forms from what were grass-covered mounds. At least 12 ball courts have been found, of which 6 have been excavated. The most impressive structure, in the old section, is the Pyramid of the Niches, which is a unique stone-and-adobe pyramid with 365 recesses extending to all four sides of the building. The pyramid was formerly covered in red-painted stucco, and the niches were painted black. Try to imagine how that must have looked. Near the Pyramid of the Niches is a restored ball court with beautiful carved reliefs depicting gods and kings.

The most important building in the Tajín Chico section is the Temple of the Columns. A stairway divides the columns, three on either side, each decorated with reliefs of priests and warriors and hieroglyphic dates. Many mounds remain unexcavated, but with the reconstruction that has been done so far, it's becoming easier to visualize the ruins as a city.

In a clearing near the museum, a group of local Totonac Indians called voladores (flyers) performs the acrobatic and religious ritual. This is a traditional, solemn ceremony that dates back centuries. The Totonac perform the unusual ritual in honor of the four directions of the earth. There's no set schedule for performances; the sound of a slow-beating drum and flute signals that the voladores are preparing to perform. Five flyers, dressed in brightly colored ceremonial garments and cone-shaped hats with ribbons and small round mirrors, climb to a square revolving platform at the top of a 25m (82-ft.) pole. Four of the five flyers perch on the sides of the platform and attach themselves by the waist to a rope, while the fifth stands atop the pole and plays an instrument called a chirimía. The instrument is a small bamboo flute with a deerskin drum attached. The performer plays the three-holed flute with his left hand and beats the drum with his right hand. When the time is right, the four flyers fall backward, suspended by the rope, and descend as they revolve around the post.

The small but impressive museum is worth seeing as well. A small snack and gift shop and small restaurant are across from the museum. Admission to the site and museum is 50 pesos. The fee to use a personal video camera is 35 pesos. If you look like a professional photographer, the authorities will ask you to get a permit from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City. If you watch a performance of the voladores, one of them will collect an additional 25 pesos from each spectator. The site is open daily from 9am to 5pm.

To El Tajín from Papantla, taxis charge about 225 pesos, but it's easy to take a local bus. Look for buses marked CHOTE/TAJIN, which run beside the town church (on the uphill side) every 15 minutes beginning at 7am. Buses marked CHOTE pass more frequently and leave you at the Chote crossroads; from there, take a taxi for around 50 pesos. From Veracruz, take Hwy. 180 to Papantla, then Route 127, a back road to Poza Rica that runs through El Tajín.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.