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Far Corners: Papantla and the Papantla Flyers

Updated on May 31, 2013

The Papantla Flyers, the Voladores

Los Voladores in Papantla, Mexico.
Los Voladores in Papantla, Mexico. | Source

Far Corners takes a look at some of the lesser-known travel destinations. Papantla is a Mexican city whose history stretches back to Pre-Columbian times. In fact, the town was founded in the 13th century by the Totonacs, Indians native to the area. Its best-known attraction comes in the form of the ruins at El Tajin. Visitors also come see the Voladores, the Papantla Flyers.

Important Dates of Papantla and Mexico

Date
Event
~1200
Totonac people found Papantla
1519 to 1521
Spanish Conquest
1785
Diego Ruiz discovers El Tajin
1810 to 1821
Mexican War of Independence
1813 to 1820
Serafin Olarte, Totonac Indian, fight in the Papantla rea
1910 to 1920
Mexican Revolution
1910
Papantla becomes Papantla de Hidalgo, a city
1915
Pancho Villa's forces destroy The Municipal Palace
1935
City renamed Papantla de Olarte

A Brief History

The area of Veracruz where Papantla is now located has hosted several pre-Columbian cultures. The Olmec peoples dominated for a time, followed by the Huastecs, the possible architects of El Tajín. When the Totonacs, possibly being pushed south by the Chichimecas, arrived, they founded the city of Papantla. During the remainder of the pre-Hispanic years, residents paid tribute to the Aztec Empire.

The vanilla bean has always been a prime crop native to the area. The Spanish quickly realized the value of the vanilla bean's abundance there. They migrated to the area, re-founding the town as Papantla. Diego Ruiz discovered the ruins of El Tajín in 1785.

Papantla went through turbulent times for a century. From 1813 to 1820 Serafin Olarte and his guerilla troops fought in the area during the Mexican War of Independence. Just before the Mexican Revolution, the indigenous people of the area rebelled against the regime of Porfirio Díaz. During the Mexican Revolution, several battles took place in the area.

The settlement gained city status in 1910, first being called Papantla de Hidalgo then, to honor Serafin Olarte, Papantla de Olarte. Papantla became the seat of the Diocese of Papantla in 1922.

A Cano statue depicting Tzacopontziza and Zkatan-Oxga, from the Totonac legend about the origin of vanilla in Papantla, Veracruz.
A Cano statue depicting Tzacopontziza and Zkatan-Oxga, from the Totonac legend about the origin of vanilla in Papantla, Veracruz. | Source

Totonac Culture in Papantla

There are still communities of Totonacs who maintain strong ties to their language and culture. Teodoro Cano García, a native artist, created several large-scale murals and sculptures to honor the Totonac culture.

There are eleven such murals on public buildings and private houses. For example, the Chapel of Cristo Rey features a Cano Garcia mural depicting the history of Papantla. A mural celebrating sports in the region graces the Fernando Gutierrez Barrios Auditorim. A very large mural decorates the side of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.

In addition to Teodoro Cano García's artwork, the city has several museums with exhibits on Pre-Hispanic or Pre-Columbian peoples. Visitors to the Museo de las Mascaras may view 300 masks from the region. Bothe the Museos del Totonacapan and the Casa de Cultura contain permanent exhibits related to these cultures, as does the Museo de la Ciudad. For visitors who want more of the city's most celebrated arts, the Teodoro Cano Garcia Museum features more of his work.

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción | Source

Vanilla

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One of the restaurants overlooking the main plaza.
One of the restaurants overlooking the main plaza. | Source

Main Plaza of Papantla

The town's name, Papantla, comes from the Nahuatl word that means "place of papanes," a bird endemic to the region. Besides visiting El Tajin, visitors can find sites worth seeing in Papantla. The Spanish re-founded Papantla and laid it out in the manner of a Spanish town, meaning the most important buildings of the town surround a central plaza. In Papantla, these buildings include the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, the main government buildings, and several restaurants. The Israel C. Téllez Park serves as the center of the plaza.

  • Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción: Built by the Franciscans between 1570 to 1590, the church did not get a bell tower until 1875 or a clock until 1895. It is constructed in the form of a Latin cross, in the traditional manner of cathedrals. The atrium wall is decorated by a sculpted mural by Teodoro Cano Garcia. The mural shows the body of the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl with the evolution of Totonac culture over it.

  • The Municipal Palace: The colorfully-painted Municipal Palace overlooks the main plaza. One of Cano Garcia's murals decorates the palace as does another by Xolotl Martinez Hurtado de Mendoza. The palace was built in 1810 and destroyed by Pancho Villa in 1915, or by his forces anyway. The town reconstructed the palace in 1929.
  • Hidlago and Juarez Markets: Overlooked by Cano's Quetzalcoatl mural, these markets offer hand-crafted souvenirs typical of the region. An item to look for comes in the form of Barro Pintado pottery. Ceramicists paint landscapes with birds, flowers, and daily life in vivid colors. They offer a valuable look at Nahuatl folk paining.
  • Cristo Rey Chapel: The church offers another chance to see Teodoro Cano Garcia's work, another look at Totonac cultural evolution. The chapel was modeled after Notre Dame in Paris.
  • Museo de la Ciudad Teodoro Cano: This small museum naturally features pieces by its namesake artist as well as other regional artists. Visitors can also view exhibits featuring the traditional clothing and artifacts of the Totonacs.

The Papantla dancers preparing to climb the pole from which they will fly.
The Papantla dancers preparing to climb the pole from which they will fly. | Source

Voladores, the Papantla Flyers

Papantla is famous for hosting the Danza de los Voladores, the Dance of the Flyers. The display does not look like a dance so much as a feat of acrobatics. It starts with a central pole that rises 80 to 90 feet into the air. There are five participants: an Indian priest and four dancers, each one representing one of the elements (fire, water, earth, air) as well as the four directions. One-by-one the five climb the pole. The dancers secure themselves to the pole with a rope tied to their ankle. The priest stands on a small platform measuring 9 inches. He plays a flute and drum. With a surreal calm the four dancers dive backwards. Without seeming to guide themselves they fly in circles around the pole. The dance ends when they have flown around the pole 13 times. UNESCO has designated this ceremonial dance as an example of "Intangible Cultural Heritage."

The number is significant in that 13 multiplied by 4 dancers represents the 52-year time span of the Pre-Columbian cosmic cycle. The belief at the time was that a new sun would be born then and life would begin again. In fact, Totonic myth states that the gods told the men, "Dance, and we shall observe." The rite is thought to date back 1,500 years as a prayer to the God of the Sun; the participants and the people were thanking the God of the Sun for fertility and a good harvest. Indeed the Danza de los Voladores looks similar to the American Indian Sun Dance Ceremony (although those participants actually secured themselves to the pole via their own pierced flesh).

In Papantla, the Voladores perform every Sunday.

The Papantla Flyers

Vanilla

Vanilla is a central aspect of Papantla, which serves as the birthplace of this New World food. People have grown vanilla in the area since Pre-Hispanic times. Papantla still serves as the heart of Mexico's vanilla production. Some souvenir opportunities include vanilla beans, real vanilla extract, dolls made out of vanilla pods, and vanilla liqueur, a Totonac specialty.

Visiting Papantla

When I visited Papantla, we drove up the Veracruz coast, staying beach-side along the way. If you can rent a car and visit this way, it is a beautiful drive – just watch out for the iguanas crossing the road in the jungle, not to mention the tope (speed bumps). However, ADO runs buses to Papantla from Vera Cruz, and taxis in town are very cheap. Veracruz is little-visited by Americans but hosts many Mexican tourists. Traveling to this far corner of the world will be a memorable experience. Tope!

Where is Veracruz?

A
Papantla, Veracruz, Mexico:
93400 Papantla, Veracruz, Mexico

get directions

Do you wonder, "Where is Veracruz?" Veracruz is an eastern state in Mexico. Papantla is located in the northern end of Veracruz.

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