Despite its isolated location far from any major city, El Tajín continues to attract hordes of visitors. According to official statistics, in fact, El Tajín was Mexico’s seventh-most visited archaeological site in 2021. As we’ll go over in the following El Tajín guide, the site’s unique and beautiful architecture is surely the main reason why.
El Tajín: A Brief History
Despite its popularity, little is certain about the ancient city’s chronology or even its original inhabitants. While often described as an early Totonac center, El Tajín may have actually been founded by the Huastecs around 100 AD.
The first major construction boom took place between 300-600, though El Tajín wouldn’t reach its peak until around the year 900. At the time, the city was home to tens of thousands of residents.
Mysteriously, however, the city was suddenly abandoned around 1150. Then, after the initial abandonment, new residents began to move in during the Late Postclassic Period (1200-1520 AD). We know for sure that these new settlers were Totonacs, who still make up the majority of Veracruz today.
They largely lived on the outskirts of El Tajín while using the ceremonial center as a necropolis. The most important Totonac cities, meanwhile, were further south, with their capital being Cempoala.
The Pyramid of the Niches, El Tajín’s most famous landmark, was discovered in 1785 by a Spanish official who was searching for an illegal tobacco field. But the local inhabitants had always been aware of its existence, long keeping it a secret from authorities.
The initial discovery prompted a slew of explorers to seek out the beautiful structure throughout the 19th century. Later in 1930s the Mexican government began restoration work, during which people realized how much bigger the original city really was.
Beginning in 1939, archaeologist José Garcia Payón began a career of studying the site for nearly forty years. But El Tajín only became a popular tourist destination once proper roads were built by the Pemex oil company which discovered oil nearby.
The nearest town to the El Tajín ruins is Papantla, about 20-30 minutes away. The largest city in northern Veracruz, meanwhile, is Poza Rica, about an hour from Papantla. While it’s possible to stay in Poza Rica and visit the ruins as a day trip, transferring in Papantla is a must.
Learn more on how to get to Papantla, where to stay and how to reach the ruins from Papantla below.
As mentioned, El Tajín gets surprisingly crowded for such a hard-to-reach location. Therefore, it would be wise to arrive at the ruins just before opening at 9:00. Tour groups already start coming in from around 9:30, while by 10:00 things get packed.
Speaking of tours, there are plenty of on-site guides for hire if you’re interested. But if you’re not, bear in mind that the El Tajín ruins feature NO informational signage past the brief introduction at the entrance! Given the size and popularity of the site, this is quite shocking.
If you don’t want to pay extra for a tour or simply prefer exploring on your own, the following El Tajín guide is here to help. With that said, large portions of the site were blocked off at the time of my visit, so areas like Tajín Chico are absent from this guide.
El Tajín also features an on-site museum, though that was also closed during my visit. But at the end of the guide, you can see photographs of El Tajín artifacts on display at the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
As we’ll cover below, another unique aspect of visiting El Tajín is the chance to see the remarkable Danza de los Voladores, an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony that has survived to the present day.
A Guide to El Tajín
Arriving at the El Tajín ruins, you’ll pass by a series of souvenir kiosks, followed by the large pole used as part of the Danza de los Voladores ceremony. But more on that later.
Your first priority should be buying your ticket ($85 MXN at the time of writing) and getting to the ruins as soon as possible before the crowds arrive.
Walking down a forested path, the site’s first majestic pyramids will soon come into view.
The first area visitors encounter is the Plaza del Arroyo. And this also happens to be, according to archaeologists, the first part of El Tajín ever constructed.
The spacious rectangular plaza is believed to have served as a bustling marketplace in the city’s heyday. And it’s surrounded on all sides by large structures, among the most remarkable of which is Building 16.
Located at the northern end of the plaza, Building 16 will be your first preview of the small niches for which the El Tajín architectural style is known.
And while the building is in a good state of preservation overall, the stones on one entire side of it have become warped, further adding to the structure’s allure.
Moving along, you’ll encounter the Venus Ball Court and the South Ball Court – just a few of many at the site. El Tajín, in fact, is home to no less than eighteen ball courts. That makes it the site with the second-highest number of ball courts in Mexico, behind Cantona’s twenty-four.
Clearly, the ancient Mesoamerican ball game was a huge part of El Tajín society. And the series of bas-reliefs along the interior of the South Ball Court reflects this.
While there are six panels of reliefs in total, with much of the court off-limits, visitors can now only see two from behind the rope. But here’s a brief description of what the entire series conveys:
The first scene shows a ball player donning his traditional uniform, followed by depictions of the God of Death. Later on, the opposing payers meet, after which one player gruesomely stabs the other with a flint knife! But that’s not where the story ends.
The dead player then makes a descent to the underworld, where he consumes pulque in the presence of the gods. After that, the pulque vat is replenished.
Archaeologists believe that the series of scenes represent the traditional Mesaomerican view on sacrifice, in which humans must give up something (including human life itself) to receive continued sustenance from nature.
Just north of the South Ball Court is Building 5. Its unique shape consists of a sloped base with two large terraces at the top. It sits in front of a plaza known as Plaza del Dios Tajín, which features a large altar in the middle.
Looking around, you’ll find yourself surrounded by numerous other structures. Archaeologists believe that the reason El Tajín is so packed is because during the city’s apex, city builders simply started building new temples in the middle of existing plazas.
Just past Building 5 is El Tajín’s main claim to fame: the Pyramid of the Niches. It’s also known as Building 1, as it was the first structure discovered here.
But even after years of thorough excavations around the area, it remains El Tajín’s most elegant and interesting structure.
The beautiful pyramid consists of seven tiers into which hundreds of small niches have been placed on all sides. In fact, there are exactly 365 of them, which was surely no coincidence.
Either side of the main staircase, meanwhile, has been decorated with stepped fret motifs that remind one of the patterns found in Mitla, Oaxaca.
Archaeologists believe that the niches were depositories for sacred offerings. And locals still carry on the tradition today to some degree. Despite being the first visitor at the site, I came across a fresh offering placed at the pyramid’s base.
Admittedly, I wasn’t quite sure I was at the right structure when I first encountered the Pyramid of the Niches. While I’d seen plenty of photographs before my visit, the structure was much smaller than I’d envisioned.
That’s partly because of my previous visit to Edzná, Campeche. That Mayan site on the other side of the country is home to the Building of the Five Stories – arguably Mexico’s most similar-looking structure to the Pyramid of the Niches.
It stands at around 32 m high and is also much wider, and I’d pictured the Pyramid of the Niches as being around the same size. Anyway, after getting over the surprise of its small stature, I was able to appreciate its intricate details.
Continuing northward, you’ll encounter yet more plazas and ball courts – many of which can only be viewed from a distance.
The North Ball Court is 26 m long and much like the South Ball Court, is decorated with a series of six relief panels. These ones are damaged and much harder to make out, but the subject matter appears to be more or less the same.
In the distance, I could see the area known as Tajín Chico, or Little Tajín. But a sign and some rope made it clear that I couldn’t proceed any further.
The area is believed to have been a residential area for the elite, complete with various lodgings and temples. Remarkably, the terrace on which it was built was largely man-made. Perhaps Tajín Chico will appear someday in a future update to this El Tajín guide.
The northeast portion of the site is occupied by a massive and unique structure known as the Great Xicalcoliuhqui, or Great Enclosure. Its longest side is 360 m, consisting almost entirely of large niches atop a sloped base.
The Great Enclosure may have been the spot for rituals related to the many ball games that were taking place in the city, but little seems to be known about it. As one can tell, the top remains unexcavated and covered in overgrowth.
The predetermined route (at least at the time of my visit) has visitors loop back around to the south, but this time along the eastern edge of the site.
More huge structures line either side of the walkway, while certain vantage points allow for some excellent views of the Pyramid of the Niches in the distance.
You will also be surprised to see how different some of the structures look from the back than from the front.
Having been to dozens of archaeological sites in Mexico, I can say that El Tajín has an architectural style like no other. It’s no wonder, then, why so many visitors flock here.
Before my trip, I had not been expecting so much of the site to be off-limits, and I finished my loop around the ruins in well under an hour. But having put in the time, money and energy to make it out to Papantla, less than an hour at the ruins wasn’t going to cut it.
I went for one more loop around the site – even slower this time – before checking out the Danza de los Voladores.
While only getting to see roughly half the site was a bit anticlimactic, I hope to return sometime in the future when I can be certain it’s fully open.
La Danza de Los Voladores
Aside from the stunning ruins, another highlight of visiting El Tajín is getting to see Danza de los Voladores, a ceremony which takes place every hour or so just outside the site entrance.
The ceremony is believed to have started in Central Mexico before spreading throughout the region. So while it may not have originated here, El Tajín is now one of the most common places to see it, as the Totonacs performed it often as part of rainmaking rituals.
The Voladores, or ‘flying men,’ start by walking out to the ceremonial circle to the accompaniment of music. Dressed in traditional costume, they then begin their ascent up the 30 m-high pole.
Reaching the top, they tie their feet to the square atop the pole, slowly descending head first. They begin twirling around the pole in sync with one another, going faster and faster the lower they get.
It’s quite an incredible ceremony, and well worth sticking around for. Just bear in mind that a viewing of the performance is not included in your basic ticket.
At some point, a man will come around and ask for 50 pesos from everyone watching. And no, it’s not an optional donation. While one can’t expect the Voladores to be risking their lives in front of tourists for free, the lack of transparency about pricing at the site is puzzling.
For those staying in Papantla, the Danza de los Voladores also takes place regularly in the town center.
El Tajín at Museums
As mentioned in the above El Tajín guide, the on-site museum was closed during my visit, and apparently has been for several years. But for those visiting the main anthropology museums in Xalapa and Mexico City, you’ll be able to spot some original El Tajín artwork there.
What follows are some notable highlights:
The Xalapa Museum of Anthropology
As mentioned in the El Tajín guide above, Papantla is the closest town to the ruins. While accommodation options are lacking (more below), it’s the best place to stay if you want to get to the ruins at opening time.
If you’re coming from Veracruz (the city), you can find hourly direct buses that will get you to Papantla in around 4.5 hours.
But if you’re coming from just about anywhere else, expect to transfer in Poza Rica. Poza Rica is quite well-connected, so you should probably find a direct bus from wherever it is you’re coming from.
In regards to reaching Papantla from Poza Rica, the ride just lasts 45 minutes. Buses leave hourly throughout the day, apparently from outside the main bus terminal. When arriving at the station, it would be a good idea to ask someone to confirm.
When leaving Papantla and heading onward to Poza Rica, you can find frequent buses leaving from a terminal right in the town center.
Unfortunately, there are very few accommodation options in Papantla. If you’re a budget traveler, your only option at the time of writing is OYO Hotel Totonacapan.
The rooms are fairly spacious and feature a private bathroom. But there is no internet access in the rooms – only in the downstairs lobby.
I paid around $350 MXN per night (before taxes), which I thought was a bit overpriced. Furthermore, I didn’t like how the hotel staff could not give me specific directions on how to reach El Tajín from town.
If you’re not a budget traveler, consider a furnished apartment, such as Departamento Vintage, which goes for $1000 MXN per night (before taxes).
From Papantla, one can find colectivo (shared taxis) that run directly to the ruins. These should cost no more than 15-20 pesos.
But where does one find these taxis? That’s the tricky part, and I still don’t have a definite answer.
As mentioned above, my hotel was useless when it came to basic info on reaching the ruins. “Just go out and ask someone,” the manager told me.
Before my visit, I’d read online that one can find these taxis for the ruins lined up outside of Hotel Tajín. And so I went there in advance upon my arrival in town to check it out. I asked a driver waiting there if I’d be able to find colectivos for the ruins the following morning, and he told me no.
Instead, he directed me to the Coppel (electronics store) down the street, telling me that the taxis should arrive at a stand across the street. And so I went there and asked a driver at one of the local stops. And he told me that yes, I’d indeed be able to find an El Tajín-bound colectivo in the morning.
And so that’s where I went the next morning. But I waited for fifteen minutes or so, and of the taxis had El Tajín written on them. A local woman noticed me waiting there for a while, and I told her where I was headed. Then when her colectivo showed up, she asked the driver if he’d also be headed toward El Tajín, and he said yes.
And so I hopped in, and we first drove to the other town where the woman lived. After that, the driver took me to El Tajín. But I made the mistake of not confirming the price when first getting in.
The driver then wanted to act as if I’d just taken a long-distance private taxi, and he wanted me to pay 100 pesos! (Worst of all, another local woman was still in the car, and she said nothing.) Just wanting to get on with my day, I was able to bring it down to 40, knowing that I was still being ripped off.
Leaving the ruins, I easily found a colectivo back to Papantla, and the driver only wanted 15 pesos.
So where is one supposed to find the colectivos from Papantla to El Tajín? I still have no idea!
And unfortunately, locals don’t either. Considering how many tourists pass through Papantla solely to see El Tajín, one would think they could put up a simple sign somewhere in town.
Your best bet will simply be to walk around and ask various drivers, and always be sure to confirm the price before getting in any vehicle in Papantla.