Most visitors stumble upon the small town of Papantla on their way to the Totonac pyramids of El Tajín. But the northern Veracruz town of Papantla, surrounded by mountains and lush vegetation, has its own charm and should not be overlooked.
In 2006, Papantla was named one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos or Magical Towns by the nation’s Ministry of Tourism. Small Mexican towns that preserve their historical, cultural, and religious significance are bestowed the prestigious title of a Pueblos Mágico.
But it’s Papantla’s vanilla that has put the town on the world map. The town sits in the center of Mexico’s vanilla-growing region and is home to the Totonac Indians. The Totonac people were the first to cultivate vanilla during pre-Hispanic times. Papantla’s high-quality vanilla is now known throughout the world.
Papantla’s recently renovated main square or zócalo should make other Mexican towns jealous. Scenes of Papantla, its history, and cultural events are depicted through colorful mosaic tiles throughout the zócalo. It’s peaceful vibe, manicured garden, and attention to detail makes Papantla’s central square the perfect place to hang out under the palm trees.
The zócalo also features a unique kiosk with a beautiful mural inside its dome that represents man’s relationship with the destruction and destiny of mankind. But the true highlight of Papantla’s zócalo is a massive three-dimensional concrete mural that honors the Totonac culture. It visually tells the story of Papantla’s history from pre-Hispanic times until today.
Where to Buy Quality Papantla Vanilla
Visitors can buy quality vanilla products in several places throughout the Birthplace of Vanilla such as:
- Mercado Hidalgo — Check out the natural vanilla extract and whole vanilla beans
- Artisan shops on the zócalo — Check out the authentic vanilla liquor, vanilla sticks and powder for baking
- Restaurants on the zócalo — Taste some of the vanilla liquor after a good meal
Voladores de Papantla or Papantla Fliers
Voladores de Papantla, also called “bird men” perform a traditional ceremony that honors the Totonac people of Veracruz with a ritualistic dance. Voladores twirl off of a pole up to 100 feet in the air and slowly descend circling the pole.
The awe-inspiring ceremony begins when five men in their colorful, traditional volador outfits circle a tall pole while a designated man plays a flute. They climb up the pole to a wooden, spinning platform and the flute player dances on the wooden plank turning to the four directions. The men are secured only by a rope tied to their waist as they fly upside down.
Ancient Totonac legends say the dance of the voladores was a way to communicate to the gods and was a way to honor fire, water, air, and earth.
Today, Papantla’s ornate 16th century cathedral, Our Lady of Assumption, features an 82-foot pole in the cathedral’s courtyard honoring the Voladores de Papantla. A giant statue of a volador also overlooks the town. Visitors can climb up to the statue and enjoy the great view.
El Tajín Archeological Ruins
Mexico boasts some incredible archeological ruins from Teotihuacán near Mexico City to Tulum near Cancún, but El Tajín is definitely a top contender for most beautiful for its lush setting, mystique, and unique pyramids.
Plan on spending several hours here, and don’t miss the Voladores de Papantla perform at the main entrance. Vendors outside the ruins serve some fresh seafood meals.