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El Tajin in the state of Veracruz in Mexico is an impressive archaeological site which originally formed the capital city of the Totonac state. In fact, the name “Tajin” refers to the Totonac deity of thunder, lighting and rain. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is open to the public, although much of it is yet to be excavated.
History of El Tajin
El Tajin was founded following the abandonment of the city of Teotihuacan. Built and inhabited from 800AD to 1200 AD, El Tajin was a thriving city of major ceremonial importance, a fact illustrated by the numerous Mesoamerican pyramids and other ceremonial structures still seen there today.
Despite the fact that it is thought to have been greatly damaged, if not mostly burnt to the ground following an attack by the Chichimecs in the thirteenth century, much of El Tajin is extremely well-preserved offering a great many things to see.
The city was ‘discovered’ by Europeans in the late 18th century, and major archaeological excavations took place in the early 20th century which uncovered more of the city that lay beneath the jungle.
Amongst the most famous attractions at El Tajin is the Pyramid of the Niches, an incredibly impressive six-stepped pyramid which would once have been crowned with a temple. The tiers are full of niches – 365 to be precise – one for every day in the solar calendar. Stone reliefs and friezes around the site offer an insight into the lives of those who lived in El Tajin.
A particular pastime for which the city was renowned in its time was ball games, as depicted in numerous reliefs. 17 ball courts have been discovered at El Tajin: the most at any one site to date. In an ominous twist, the reliefs also seem to show that these ball games were related to human sacrifices which took place at El Tajin, leading some to believe the ball was in fact a decapitated head.
El Tajin today
A visit to the whole site lasts around 2 hours, and guides are available for a small extra fee. El Tajin has an interesting, albeit small museum with explanations in English, Spanish and also – fittingly – in the Totonac language.
El Tajin is often extremely quiet: it lies far enough off the gringo trail to almost guarantee minimal visitors, and with a tropical jungle backdrop, it’s a seriously atmospheric place.
Getting to El Tajin
El Tajin is easily accessible from the nearby town of Papantla: it’s about 10km away. Taxis, buses or colectivos will get you there. You can also catch a bus from the larger city of Poza Rica, which is about 20km away.
After the fall of Teotihuacan around 650 A.D., El Tajin was one of several powerful city-states that arose in the ensuing vacuum of power. The city flourished from about 800 to 1200 A.D. At one time, the city covered 500 hectares and may have had as many as 30,000 inhabitants its influence spread throughout Mexico's Gulf Coast region. Their chief god was Quetzalcoatl, whose worship was common in Mesoamerican lands at the time. After 1200 A.D., the city was abandoned and left to return to the jungle: only locals knew about it until a Spanish colonial official stumbled across it in 1785. For the past century, a series of excavation and preservation programs have taken place there, and it is an important site for tourists and historians alike.
The word "Tajín" refers to a spirit with great powers over the weather, especially in terms of rain, lightning, thunder, and storms. El Tajín was built in the lush, hilly lowlands not far from the Gulf Coast. It is spread out over a relatively spacious area, but hills and arroyos defined the city limits. Much of it may once have been built of wood or other perishable materials: these have been long since lost to the jungle. There are a number of temples and buildings in the Arroyo Group and old ceremonial center and palaces and administrative-type buildings in Tajín Chico, located on a hill to the north of the rest of the city. To the northeast is the impressive Great Xicalcoliuhqui wall. None of the buildings is known to be hollow or to house a tomb of any sort. Most of the buildings and structures are made of locally available sandstone. Some of the temples and pyramids are built over earlier structures. Many of the pyramids and temples are made of finely carved stone and filled with packed earth.
El Tajín is an archaeological site and ancient city of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, located in the highlands of the municipality of Papantla in Mexico.
El Tajín, named after the Totonac rain god and meaning “of thunder or lightning bolt” was first occupied around 5600 BC by nomadic hunters and gatherers that evolved into sedentary farmers.
The first city builders are contested by archaeologists, with some theories suggesting the Totonacs and the Xapaneca, or possibly the Huastec around AD 100. By AD 600, the site had grown into a large urban complex with monumental construction, due in part to El Tajín’s strategic position along the old Mesoamerican trade routes controlling what is now the modern-day Veracruz state.
The city comprises of numerous temples, plazas, palaces, ballcourts, and pyramids, with the most notable being the Pyramid of the Niches (named for the approximately 365 recesses on its four sides).
Most of the city’s inhabitants lived in the surrounding hills, obtaining their produce and foodstuffs from the Tecolutla, Nautla and Cazones areas. These fields not only produced staples such as corn and beans but luxury items such as cacao.
El Tajín reached its peak around the fall of Teotihuacan, where many cultures saw a widespread social collapse and migration, resulting in the abandonment of many urban and population centres at the time.
The city began to have extensive influence starting around this time, which can be best seen at the neighboring site of Yohualichan, whose buildings show the kinds of niches that define El Tajin. Evidence of the city’s influence can be seen along the Veracruz Gulf coast to the Maya region and into the high plateau of central Mexico. El Tajín continued to prosper until the 13th century AD, when the city was destroyed, possibly by the Chichimecs that resulted in the city becoming abandoned.
Although most probably known to the local inhabitants of the region, the city was rediscovered in 1785 by Diego Ruiz who stumbled upon the Pyramid of the Niches, whilst looking for clandestine tobacco plantings.
El Tajín was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1992, because of its historical significance and architecture and engineering.
Tajín Corporation, S.A de C.V., a 100% Mexican, publicly held company active in more than 40 countries and focused on the individual has invested years searching for a social project that would encompass four fundamental characteristics:
- Essentially centered on education
- Would have national reach
- Would benefit those most in need
- Would contribute to promoting, nurturing and fostering Mexican culture and traditions.
In 2013 a proposal presented by Dr. David Aceves Barajas met all the criteria and the National School of Ceramics was born giving life to a long-held dream of governments, politicians, intellectuals and artists dating back to the Mexican Revolution.
The National School of Ceramics offers workshops and classes at the present time but a full formal education curriculum offering Bachelors, Masters and P.H.D. degrees in the near future. Headquarters are in Tapalpa, Jalisco, a municipality with abundant deposits of high quality clay and one of Mexico’s Magical Towns that are well worth getting to know.
The campus is being built on the grounds of the Hacienda de la Media Luna (Half Moon Hacienda) referenced in Juan Rulfo’s first novel. It will include residential space, dining room, classrooms, workshops, gallery, museum and retail areas for art supplies and equipment as well as finished ceramics. It will be a world class and unique project in its category.
An Olympia in America?
In addition to its amazing pyramids, plentiful history which helps us better understand a time when the empire of Teotihuacan disappeared and the Aztec empire rose to power, the city of El Tajin can also be considered as a kind of “Olympia” in Mesoamerica.
This is because the city of El Tajin is home to as many as seventeen ball courts, a number which is highly unusual for such a city. This has led some experts to theorize that in the distant past, mayor sporting events took place at El Tajin, which can be compared, in terms of size and impotence, to those at Olympia, halfway around the world in ancient Greece.
Are The El Tajín Ruins Worth Visiting?
We understand, the El Tajín pyramids are a bit off the main tourist path, but if you consider yourself a pre-Columbian history buff or you just want to experience something new & unique, then we think the El Tajín ruins are absolutely worth the effort to visit. Here’s why:
Unique Pyramid Design: If you’ve already visited several others pre-Columbian ruins, you might be thinking that all pyramids look alike. But the architectural style of the El Tajín pyramids were some of the most unique and decorative pyramids we’ve seen in Latin America.
Get Away From The Crowds: Although the El Tajín ruins attract over 400,000 visitors annually and is the most popular archeology site in Veracruz state, it’s still easy to get away from the crowds. By planning ahead and arriving on the right day, you can have El Tajín almost all to yourself. That’s what happened to us!
Experience The Voladores: Though it can feel a bit touristy, El Tajín is one of the few places left where you might get to see the Voladores “fliers” in action, performing their famous ritual circling around a tall pole to ask the Gods to return the rain and soil fertility.
The El Tajín archaeological site is located in the municipality of Papantla, in the north-central region of the state of Veracruz, Mexico, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The name Tajín means "thunder" in the Totonac language. It was originally a great urban center that flourished from around 800 to 1150 ce. The region is currently inhabited by the Totonac people, although their ethnic relationship with the pre-Hispanic peoples who built El Tajín has not been fully established. The architectural features and ceramics found on the site are different from those that generally characterize the Totonac culture, which has been known since the arrival of the Spaniards and whose features are clearly identifiable in Cempoala and Quiahuiztlan. For this reason, archaeologists prefer to distinguish the two, and speak of an El Tajín culture.
The ruins of El Tajín were discovered in 1785, then excavated from 1938 to 1963 by José García Payón, who restored some of the buildings and set up the bas-reliefs of its South Ball Court. In addition, between 1984 and 1992, Juergen Brueggemann uncovered and reinforced fifty of the approximately two hundred structures that make up the site. Murals were found in both ceremonial and residential buildings. The city was laid out on a natural slope. Its central area was reserved for ceremonial activities, and is made up of pyramid-shaped buildings that served as a base for temples lined up in sets, forming plazas, along with seventeen ball courts. The higher ground was most likely used by the elite to live and work.
El Tajín inherited the traditions of Teotihuacan design, such as its use of slopes and panels, and added niches and cornices to create its own recognized style. Its most outstanding buildings are the Pyramid of the Niches, decorated with 365 niches, and the Great Xicalcoliuhqui, a wall that encloses a series of pyramidal platforms and whose layout resembles a squared spiral, a theme that is repeated throughout the entire site. Equally notable are the bas-reliefs that illustrate mythical scenes and rituals in panels and friezes, as well as the historical and epic tales sculpted in its columns. These scenes each name a relevant character, among them 13 Conejo (rabbits), who appear in the garb of a governor and as a ball player.
This archeological site is presently under the care of INAH (Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History), and the region has an infrastructure that is adequate for tourism.
Frequently Asked Questions about El Tajín
The site is surrounded by a lush green landscape.
Where is El Tajín?
El Tajín is a pre-Hispanic archeological site in the central Mexican state of Veracruz, 50km inland from the Gulf of Mexico. El Tajín lies around 10 km west from the city of Papantla, 255 km northwest from the city of Veracruz, and around 285 km northeast of Mexico City (by road).
How big is El Tajín?
The core site of El Tajín covers around 10 square kilometers (4 square miles), though smaller houses (as yet unexcavated) may have existed far beyond these boundaries. The area open to tourists today is around 146 acres. At its peak some 20,000 people would have lived here, but the site is uninhabited today.
What is the history of El Tajín?
El Tajín was founded in the 1st century AD by a civilization known as “Classic Veracruz”, though little is known about the people who built it most theories point to the Huastecs or the Totonacs. The city flourished between 600 and 1200 AD, ruling much of the current state of Veracruz. El Tajín is thought to have been destroyed in the 13th century by fire, likely the result of an attack by the Chichimecs. Papantla was established by the Totonacs soon after, and El Tajín was gradually abandoned to the jungle. The Spanish “rediscovered” the ruins in 1785, but large-scale excavation and jungle clearance only began in the 1930s.
How do I get to El Tajín?
Most tourists visit El Tajín from the laid back city of Papantla, 10 km west – it’s a smaller but far more pleasant place to stay than industrial Poza Rica, which is 18 km northwest of El Tajín. Minibuses run between Papantla and the ruins (around 15 pesos) from Septiembre 16, behind Hotel Tajín. Taxis are also plentiful in Papantla and will wait at the ruins for an extra fee.Unique pyramid details.
There is a small airport at Poza Rica, 30 km north of El Tajín, which in the past has been served by Aeromar with one daily flight to and from Mexico City – with the likely bankruptcy of Aeromar there are no plans for flights in the near future. Taxis from the airport will charge at least 350 pesos just to get into Poza Rica, and a lot more to El Tajín. Otherwise the nearest airports are at Veracruz and Mexico City – take a bus from either of these to Papantla. First-class buses from Mexico City take around 5 hours from Veracruz it’s around 4 hours.
Taking an organized tour (with transport by bus included) is possible from Veracruz, but given the driving time, not recommended. It’s far better to travel independently and stay over night in Papantla.
What about Uber?
Uber is unavailable in the El Tajín and Papantla area – negotiate with regular taxi drivers instead.
Can I drive to El Tajín?
Driving from the US is possible – it’s a straightforward 460-mile (740 kilometers) journey from Brownsville, Texas. However, care should be taken choosing a route, as the Mexican border states suffer from high levels of drug violence – driving at night should definitely be avoided. Foreign vehicles also need a Mexican “Temporary Importation of Vehicle Permit”, arranged at the border. It’s also possible to rent a car in Veracruz, and drive up from there (around 4 hours non-stop). Veracruz state is generally safe for tourists, but renting a car is not recommended for first-time Mexico drivers.
Do I need a car in El Tajín?
No. The site itself is pedestrian only and small enough to explore on foot.
The Pyramid De Los Nidos, with 365 windows, serves as a sun calendar with a temple on the top.
When is the best time to go to El Tajín?
December to April, when the weather is warm and relatively dry. El Tajín has a tropical climate – it’s very hot March to May, and humid and rainy June to October. The site can be busy during Mexican holidays or over the winter months – especially on Sundays – but this is still one of the least visited Mesoamerican sites in the country.
Where should I stay in El Tajín?
There is no accommodation in or around El Tajín itself, so staying in Papantla makes the most sense, in order to get an early start and have the site to yourself. There’s not a lot of choice however, with the best option Hotel Tajín (hoteltajin.mx/en), with city views, a small pool and decent restaurant. The Provincia Express (at Juan Enríquez 103-A) is a cheaper and convenient, if a little basic, alternative, right on the main plaza with a/c and wi-fi.
What are the best things to do in El Tajín?
There’s one main reason to come here – the ancient Maya ruins of El Tajín (officially “Zona Arqueológica El Tajín”), some of the most pristine in Mexico, though you can also check out the famous “voladores” just outside the main entrance. These “flying men” climb to a small platform atop a 30-meter high pole before four of them spiral back down to earth on ropes while the fifth plays a flute and drum. It’s an ancient Mesoamerican ritual that’s well worth watching – the shows are free but expect to give a 20 peso tip.
What are the facilities like?
The main entrance to the site features an avenue of souvenir and handicraft shops, as well as plenty of places to eat and drink (vendors also roam the main site, but stock up on water before entering, just in case). The toilets are also here – there are no other restrooms in the site itself.
What currency is used in El Tajín?
The Mexican peso (often pre-fixed with a “$” sign) is the currency of Mexico and used in El Tajín – vendors in and around the site may accept US dollars (albeit at poor exchange rates), though entry to the site itself will be paid in pesos.
Bring lots of peso cash for small purchases like bottled water and snacks.
Is El Tajín safe?
Yes. Veracruz state and El Tajín itself has avoided the drug violence that has affected other parts of Mexico, and is generally free of petty crime.
El Tajín: Photographs and Drawings by Michael Kampen
Aug 1, 2018 – Mar 10, 2019 | El Tajín is a UNESCO World Heritage archeological site located in northern Veracruz, Mexico, one of the largest and most important cities of classical era Mesoamerica.
Interested in seeing this exhibition? Purchase a ticket to visit both of our locations.
About The Exhibition
El Tajín is a UNESCO World Heritage archeological site located in northern Veracruz, Mexico, one of the largest and most important cities of classical era Mesoamerica. It is home to hundreds of carved sculptures which have deteriorated over time due to acid rain and wind erosion. Drawings created by Dr. Michael Kampen, now a retired professor emeritus of art history, are the best representations in existence of the site sculptures at El Tajín.
The black & white photographs he took range from views of the entire site to individual sculptures. Due to the damaged nature of the sculptures, photo representations were not ideal for scholarly examination. Kampen scaled the photographs and from the photographs he created meticulous ink on vellum line drawings, enabling the imagery in the weathered sculptures to become more identifiable. There are over 250 drawings and while many are fragments like the sculptures themselves, a substantial number illustrate remarkable figurative imagery offering the opportunity to explore the culture and civilization of El Tajín. This installation focuses on a selection of drawings and photographs created by Kampen and used to illustrate his doctoral thesis The Sculptures of El Tajín.
Dr. Kampen taught art history for many years at UNC-Charlotte, has authored numerous art history texts including Art Beyond the West, a standard text in non-Western art, and currently lives in Asheville, N.C. His book, The Sculptures of El Tajín, has been the sole source for scholars of his meticulous drawings. This exhibition allows some of the drawings their first public viewing in their actual size.
This exhibition will be provided in English and Spanish.
The library’s Kampen exhibition was created by library intern Stephen Garza as an internship project for credit towards his BA degree from UNC-Charlotte.
If you’re interested in Mesoamerican archaeology, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz’s Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs is a richly-illustrated and accessible introduction. Susan Toby Evans’ Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History is another good introductory textbook.
For accessible, English-language introductions to El Tajín, S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson’s El Tajín: A Guide for Visitors is a dated but still useful guide to the site. The introduction to Rex Koontz’s Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents is more technical, but offers perhaps the best scholarly synthesis of the current consensus (or lack thereof) on pre-Hispanic El Tajín.
If you read Spanish, Arqueología Mexicana has a recent issue on “Tajín, Veracruz: Guia visual” (often for sale at the site) and Sara Ladrón de Guevara’s El Tajín: La urba que representa al orbe is a good introduction to the site.
If you’re well-versed in Mesoamerican history already, you might know El Tajín for a few long-running controversies over its chronology and the ethnolinguistic affiliation of its builders. The details I’ve noted here follow the regional research of Arturo Pascual Soto and S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson. An alternative view comes from the work of Jürgen K. Brüggemann, Tajín. The archaeo-astronomical interpretation mentioned here comes from Patricia Castillo Peña, “El Edificio de los Nichos de El Tajín. Arquitectura para comunicarse con los dioses,” published in Un patrimonio universal. Las piramides de Mexico: cosmovision, cultura y ciencia.