Papantla is a city located in northern Veracruz, Mexico and is probably best known as a jumping off point for people that want to visit the ruins of El Tajín however Papantla has quite a few worthwhile attractions of its own.
It was founded in the 13th century on a hilly region at the foothills of the Sierra Papanteca mountain range along the Gulf of Mexico by the Totonacs. Papantla is home to thriving Totonac communities who still maintain their native customs and language.
Papantla is a friendly, commercial town filled with history and culture. Here you will see people wearing native clothing, such as men in loose white shirts and trousers and women in colorful, embroidered blouses and traditional capes. And, as in most Mexican cities, Papantla’s important buildings, such as the cathedral, municipal palace, and shops are centered around a park-like main square called Israel C. Téllez Park, where you’ll find live music, dancing, and other cultural events on the weekends.
In 2006, Papantla was nominated to become a Pueblo Mágico. This is a prestigious designation, meaning that the city provides a magical experience to anyone visiting here. However, the nomination process was suspended until some issues that would detract from the city’s otherwise magical atmosphere are resolved, including its many street peddlers, exposed utility lines, and houses that must be repainted.
Papantla is famous for 3 things: vanilla, flying dancers, and the elaborate, large-scale murals of artist Teodoro Cano Garcia.
Papantla is the birthplace and native home to “vanilla”, the flavoring used in many food and drink recipes around the world. The plant has been grown here since the pre-Hispanic era and to this day remains the heart of Mexico’s vanilla-growing region.
There are some interesting, little- known facts about vanilla: it comes from the seed pod of the orchid called “panifolia”; the Totonac people use vanilla (called Xanath in the Totonac language) to make a liquor, which is seldom seen outside of Papantla, and people of Papantla create elaborate figures, such as animals, and other items from the pods that can be purchased as souvenirs in the city’s markets.
Also, let’s not forget the town’s vanilla celebrations, such as the annual “Xanath Festival”. Papantla is also host to the Vanilla Expo, held in December each year.
If you’re visiting the city on a Sunday, you will have the opportunity to see the spectacular “Danza de los Voladores” (Dancing Flyers) performing in the heart of downtown Papantla. The city is famous for this amazing dance that heralds from the pre-Columbian era.
In this dance, four dancers tie onto the top of a pole that extends several meters into the air, and then the dancers leap from the pole, each toward a different direction, and begin “flying” in circles around the pole, finishing when each dancer has rotated the pole 13 times. UNESCO designated the ceremonial dance an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” to help the ritual survive and thrive throughout time.
Papantla is home to the famous artist, Teodoro Cano Garcia, who was a student of the even more famous artist, Diego Rivera. Cano is known for depicting and promoting the heritage of the Totonac people, and several of his beautiful murals adorn the walls of Papantla’s important buildings and monuments.
Among Papantla’s main attractions are:
Municipal Palace – here visitors can view beautiful murals, one of which is by Cano.
Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Church – a 16th century Franciscan church, features a Cano mural on its outer wall depicting the Totonac’s cultural evolution.
The Markets of Hidalgo and of Juarez – here you can pick up locally, handcrafted souvenirs and view a unique mural done by Cano, which is a depiction of the development of the Totonac culture overlaid on the god Quetzalcoatl.
Cristo Rey Chapel – modeled to Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, it features a Cano mural depicting the history of Papantla.
Museo de la Ciudad Teodoro Cano – a small museum with exhibits of Totonacan traditional clothing, artifacts, pieces about the history of Papantla, as well as paintings by regional artists, including Teodoro Cano Garcia.
Casa de la Cultura – the House of Culture is host to art classes and features a permanent exhibit of sculptures and paintings. It is said that Teodoro Cano Garcia paints here.
Monumento del Volador – a large statue created by Cano, located on a hill (also a scenic lookout) in the center of the city.
Museum of Masks – in nearby San Pablo.
El Tajin Archaeological Site – El Tajin is a most important representation of 18th century Mesoamerica in the state of Veracruz. Approximately 200 buildings were found here.
Cuyuxquihui Archaeological Site – a fortress and ceremonial center spanning an area of 30 hectares.
Festivals – the city’s big festival is their “Feast of Corpus Christi”, featuring parades, a host of indigenous dances, cultural events and foods, and much celebrating.
Papantla has much to be proud of, including a heritage that is very much alive and celebrated today. And part of that heritage is found in the handcrafted items found in Papantla’s markets. Here you’ll find a variety of items from hats, bags, and baskets made from palms, to clay figures representing the flying dancers, to items made from vanilla pods. In Papantla, you’ll find many unique experiences – remember it with a great souvenir!