The extensive ruins of El Tajín—from the Totonac word for "thunder"—express the highest degree of artistry of any ancient city in the coastal area. The city was hidden until 1785, when a Spanish engineer happened upon it. Early theories attributed the complex, believed to be a religious center, to a settlement of Mayan-related Huasteca, one of the most important cultures of Veracruz. Because of its immense size and unique architecture, scholars now believe it may
have been built by a distinct El Tajín tribe with ties to the Maya. Although much of the site has been restored, many structures are still hidden under jungle.
El Tajín is thought to have reached its peak between AD 600 and 1200. During this time hundreds of structures of native sandstone were built here, including temples, double-storied palaces, ball courts, and houses. But El Tajín was already an important religious and administrative center during the first three centuries AD. Its influence is in part attributed to the fact that it had large reserves of cacao beans, used as currency in pre-Hispanic times.
Evidence suggests that the southern half of the uncovered ruins—the area around the lower plaza—was reserved for ceremonial purposes. Its centerpiece is the 60-foot-high Pirámide de los Nichoes (Pyramid of the Niches), one of Mexico's loveliest pre-Columbian buildings. The finely wrought seven-level structure has 365 coffers (one for each day of the solar year) built around its seven friezes. The reliefs on the pyramid depict the ruler, 13-Rabbit—all the rulers' names were associated with sacred animals—and allude also to the Tajín tribe's main god, the benign Quetzalcóatl. One panel on the pyramid tells the tale of heroic human sacrifice and of the soul's imminent descent to the underworld, where it is rewarded with the gift from the gods of sacred pulque, a milky alcoholic beverage made from cactus.
Just south of the pyramid is the I-shape Juego de Pelotas Sur (Southern Ball Court). This is one of more than 15 ball courts, more than at any other site in Mesoamerica, where the sacred pre-Columbian ball game was played. The game is somewhat similar to soccer—players used a hard rubber ball that could not be touched with the hands, and suited up in pads and body protectors—but far more deadly. Intricate carvings at certain ball courts indicate that games ended with human sacrifice. It's believed that the winner of the match won the opportunity to ask a question of the gods in exchange for his sacrifice. Depending on the importance of his question, his sacrifice could be anything from minor body mutilation to his very life. It is surmised that the players involved in these sacrificial games were high-ranking members of the priest or warrior classes.
To the north, El Tajín Chico (Little El Tajín) is thought to have been the secular part of the city, with mostly administrative buildings and the elite's living quarters. Floors and roofing were made with volcanic rock and limestone. The most important structure here is the Complejo de los Columnos (Complex of the Columns). The columns once held up the concrete ceilings, but early settlers in Papantla removed the stones to construct houses. If you're prepared to work your way through the thick jungle, you can see some more recent finds along the dirt paths that lead over the nearby ridges.
You can leave bags at the visitor center at the entrance, which includes a restaurant and a small museum that displays some pottery and sculpture and tells what little is known of the site. Excellent guided tours are available in English and Spanish and cost about $20 per group. A performance by some voladores normally takes place at midday and sometimes up to five times daily. Start early to avoid the midday sun, and take water, a hat, and sunblock. To get here, take a shuttle bus. Head down Calle 20 de Noviembre until you hit Calle Francisco Madero. Cross the street and wait in front of the gas station for an "El Tajín" shuttle bus. The $1 trip takes about 20 minutes.