It is the night before the spring equinox. The way to El Tajin is thronged with thousands of pilgrims and though the scarlet sun has sunk low, the stultifying heat of the day still radiates relentlessly from the soil. Flushed and sweating, Susana, Deborah and I press forward through the crowd, in a miasma of warm vapors exuding from the sea of bodies surrounding us.
The approach to El Tajin would surely qualify as one of Dante’s nine circles of hell. In the 21st century remake, we must navigate a fiendish gauntlet of stalls bursting with white clothing and tee shirts, temporary tattoos, rattlesnake skins, sunglasses, cheap jewelry, woven straw hats, plastic bottles of fake vanilla, synthetic Chinese silk parasols, magic light-up sticks. And there is a glut of food hawkers urging us to devour hot cakes with pineapple syrup, wedges of red papaya thick with glistening seeds, bags of chile- and salt-crusted peanuts, roasted pistachios and fried plantains, dayglo-colored cotton candy, syrupy mango, lime and coconut ices…
But it is too hot to eat. The irony is that this infernal path leads to one of Mexico’s most spiritual archaeological sites. Tomorrow, on the equinox, thousands of pilgrims and tourists will bask in the first rays of the sun and receive cleansings from traditional healers. The ceremonial pyramids, ball courts and palaces of El Tajin were built over 12 centuries by various cultures, but by the time Cortez arrived in 1519, the city had been abandoned. (In the Totonac language, tajin means “place of thunder.”) It was the Totonacs, growers of sacred vanilla, who pledged 50, 000 warriors to help the Spaniards overthrow Moctezuma—and it was the Totonacs who presented La Malinche, now universally reviled as a traitor to Mexico, as a slave to Cortez.
At last we debouche into an open plaza and I can breathe again. Up ahead the voladores are flying upside down in the starry sky–arms stretched like wings, eyes closed, smiling beatifically, tethered to a 100-foot pole only by ropes tied around their waists. This is an ancient ritual, a plea to the gods for rain, born in the 13th century during a great drought. Four “fliers” climb one by one to the top of the pole; each winds a rope around the shaft, then ties it to his waist. At a signal, the four men fall backwards and begin to soar gracefully around the pole, gradually descending to the ground. Each volador makes 13 revolutions, for a total of 52, the number of weeks in the year. It is a mesmerizing sight, at once uplifting and terrifying. Especially when one contemplates the fifth volador, the Caporal, who dances nonchalantly on top of the pole, 100 feet in the air, playing the flute and drum for this celestial dance…
The lines to enter the archaeological zone are interminable. We inch forward for what seems like hours; suddenly we are handing our tickets to a guard. We walk down a long, dimly llt, open air corridor lined with pots of young vanilla vines. Then, darkness. Gentle voices murmur welcome,and guides step forward with flashlights, offering steady hands, taking care that we do not stumble on the rough ground.
We arrive at a narrow stone bridge. Curanderos, healers, are swinging braziers of copal incense and we are enveloped in choking clouds of fragrant smoke. An old woman dips a small branch into a pail of water and gently slaps my chest, back, arms and legs with the wet leaves, then sprinkles cool water on my head, intoning soothing blessings in a language I cannot understand…
And now, purified, we step onto the sacred grounds of El Tajin. By night, it is utterly mysterious. Pools of light reveal dreamlike tableaux separated by vast expanses of blackness. The crowd seems thin now and the site feels limitless. We come upon a shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe, the altar illumined with votive candles, adorned with offerings of flowers and bottles of honey. A flat, round, woven metal headdress behind the Virgen glitters in the flicking light. Two old men in white are muttering prayers. Further on, a long-haired man plays eerily atonal music on ancient instruments–rattles, sea shells, clay pots.
This night has been billed as a sound and light show, but it is more magical than we expect. We float from one terraced pyramid to the next. Colors dissolve into each other, now magenta, now green, now blue. Ancient symbols are projected onto golden stones. We seem to hear the sound of water slapping against a wall, then down a long corridor that leads to a ball court, the roar of a long-dead crowd. Around each corner, there are dancers celebrating the cultures of the region: quetzals, birds of fire, with feathered headdresses, then bufoonish peasants and conquistadors chasing each other on hobby horses. Fragments of carved stone murals are spotlit, revealing ritual games and sacrifices.
A cooling breeze blows.
Editor’s note: This was a simpler version of the award-winning sound and light show designed by Yves Pepin for El Tajjin in 2002. A wizard with color, light and sound effects, Pepin is perhaps best known for the Eiffel Tower Millenium fireworks display. To glimpse his design for El Tajin, go to Pepin’s website, www.eca2.com, click on “References” at the top and scroll down to “Luz y Voces del Tajin, Mexico.”