Surrounded by corrugated hills and a sea of lush green vegetation, the hidden empire of El Tajin is one of Mexico's defining legacies. At its zenith between AD 600 to AD 900, the ancient ghost town represented the heart of the Toltec kingdom – its Totonac name (meaning “thunder”) impressing a significance that few today can quite grasp. Situated a mere 5.5 km from Papantla (220 km North of Veracruz), El Tajin is completely obscured from any modern day civilized town or settlement, evoking a sense that this is indeed the last “lost city” of Mexico.
Granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1992, El Tajin is purportedly the largest of Mexico's Classic Mesoamerican sites, with a cultural influence that extended far along the Gulf, including the Maya region. El Tajin's crowning glory “Pyramid of The Niches” takes center stage amid the grid-like layout of plazas and ball courts, the epicentral structure of an astronomically aligned series of pyramids. Just how central to the faiths of pre-Hispanic settlers this ceremonial center was, is unknown, however, several aligned sculptures have been uncovered in the immediate vicinity, depicting rites of human and animal sacrifice.
First of the many Mesoamerican structures to be uncovered by Agustin Garcia Vega in 1935, Pyramid of the Niches was so named because of the linked recesses featured on each of the seven stories. Wandering beneath its looming silhouette today, one can marvel at the many impeccably preserved sculptures guarding its base, including two ferocious looking serpents near the South wall. Juego de Pelota Sur (Southern Ball Court) sits slightly South East of the 60-foot pyramid - by far the best preserved ball court to be found in Mexico.
El Tajin encompasses an area of three distinct complexes; a feature distinguished by hugely contrasting examples of architecture. Cut by two streams and a long East facing wall, Tajin lies at the lowest point of the entire complex. Tajin Chico is dominated by 'The Building of Columns'; a huge temple fronted by large, red sandstone obelisks, upon which many reliefs can still be made out. The two closest to the tunnel entrance feature distinct scenes of the Toltec ruler “13 Rabbit”. Visitors may still walk the promenade of tunnels, leading to an almost perfectly intact inner courtyard.
No visit to El Tajin would be complete without stopping off at Parque Takilhsukut, a museum developed in the wake of El Tajin's accreditation as a World Heritage Site. Prepare to relive a rare Toltec honor, as dancers perform the flying 'Danza de los Voladores' at the main gate. Split across two expansive exposition centers, Parque Takilhsukut packs a fascinating array of artifacts recovered from El Tajin, including a huge snake adorned altar rescued from Building 4. The highlight is without doubt coming face to face with 13 Rabbit himself – or rather, a broken sculptured relief of his head. Some say its a fitting tribute, since the emperor ruled with a heart of stone!