Papantla is a vanilla-scented town whose name means “Place of abundant loud birds”, founded by the Totonac civilization. Papantla lies in the mountainous zone of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the northern area of the state of Veracruz. Exotic food, breathtaking archeological sacred sites and art in every possible expression are some key highlights of this town with cobblestone streets and colonial façades. The central plaza is surrounded by Papantla’ principal buildings, like the Chapel of Cristo Rey that features an impressive mural by Teodoro Cano García, displaying the history of the city. Across the façade of the Cathedral are two main markets, Hidalgo and Juárez, where you can purchase multiple arts and crafts native to the region.
The main square is a place brimming with life, famous for its danzón Fridays, where all kinds of people get together to dance in pairs, who also enjoy the live-music Saturdays with musicians performing son jarocho and danzón as well. If you want to learn more about Papantla, you can visit the Museo de la Ciudad (“City Museum”) with extensive pre-Hispanic and colonial exhibits. Also, the Museo de las Máscaras (“Mask Museum”) has an astonishing collection of more than three hundred masks from Totonacapan, Veracruz and other parts of Mexico. There are several archeological attractions near Papantla, but the most important ones are Zempoala, El Tajín, San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes, the birthplace of Olmec civilization. Located only six miles west from Papantla’s downtown, El Tajín is a place to experience one of Mesoamerica’s most distinctive religious centers, famous for the Danza de los Voladores (“Dance of the Flyers”).
In Tajín there are two hundred buildings and pyramids and seventeen juego de pelota (“ballgame”) courts. These ancient courts were used to play a traditional game in the pre-Hispanic era in Mesoamerica that was an important part of their religious rites. It was played with a heavy rubber ball weighing ten kilos, representing the sun, that had to be kept off the ground using only the forearms, hips, elbows and shoulders. A later addition was a stone circle with a hole in the center, attached to the courtyard wall, through which the players had to introduce the ball, thus winning the game.
It is still uncertain whether the winner offered himself up as a sacrifice to the gods, considering it an utmost honor, or if it was imposed upon him, or the loser. Vanilla is Papantla’s most famous traditional product, and you can bask in its aroma wafting through the air as you walk down its streets. Baskets, fans, hats, bags and sandals are elaborated with palm tree leafs and vanilla pods. Other exports are coffee, beans, oranges, bananas, chiles and sesame seeds used to prepare all kinds of delicious dishes. The typical gastronomy of Papantla includes mole with pork, chicken or turkey, bean tamales, zacahuil (a giant pork-based tamal) and tasty tomato or pipián enchiladas that you definitely shouldn’t miss on your visit to this beautiful town!