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In recent decades many lost cities have been uncovered by archaeologists or explorers. One of the most mysterious is the ancient city of El Tajín in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. The city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage in the 1990s as all the monuments at El Tajín, including their surrounding landscape, have survived virtually unaltered over the centuries, hidden from man by the tropical jungle.
The Mystery of El Tajín
The city was built and inhabited between 800 BC and 1200 AD by a culture most likely influenced by the Olmecs, although who they were exactly, remains unknown. Some believe that they were the ancestors of the Toltecs or that they were a branch of the mighty Maya people. Some evidence suggests that the builders of El Tajín were the ancestors of the Huastec people, who still live in the state of Veracruz.
Archaeological evidence suggest that the city was wealthy and that it was the capital of a kingdom that dominated much of south-west Mexico. It straddled important trading networks and was a multi-ethnic city.
At its peak, some 20,000 people lived at El Tajín, mainly in the surrounding hills. The city and its hinterland survived the societal collapse of the Classical Period, yet El Tajín continued to prosper. In 1300, however, the city was invaded by a nomadic people known as the Chitimec, who lived in what is now northern Mexico. It was partially destroyed and abandoned, and the residents established another city some distance away. The abandoned city was known to the Toltecs, and the later Aztecs, and they associated the ruins with the supernatural and the realm of the dead. After the Spanish conquest the city was forgotten. This was possibly linked the Huastec people’s collapse due to war and disease.
The Rediscovery of the Lost City Of El Tajín
El Tajín is in a semi-tropical highland and it was soon overgrown by trees. It was hidden in the dense jungle and was only uncovered in 1785 by a government official looking for illegal tobacco plantations.
Scale model of El Tajín (Dodd, G / Public Domain )
News of the discovery of the lost city caused a sensation, but it was only in the 20 th century that the city was excavated. The discovery of oil opened up the area for archaeologists who, along with others, cleared the jungle from the lost city. To date only 50% of the location has been investigated and it was declared a national archaeological park to protect its many ruins.
The Marvels of El Tajín, Mexico
The oldest part of the city is the Aroyo Group, which is a plaza surrounded by an arrangement of step pyramids that have been recovered from the jungle. Situated at the top are temples.
Until the fall of the city, the plaza was used as a marketplace that also featured many statues. Perhaps the most important building at El Tajín is the Pyramid of the Niches. The pyramid gets its name from the many niches in every level and represented caves that symbolized gateways to the underworld. This construction is made from flagstones and is seven stories high. It consists of three sloping sides and one vertical wall, typical of Mesoamerica.
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Pyramid of the Niches, El Tajín ( Public Domain )
What distinguishes this pyramid as well as the smaller ones, is the use of flying buttresses. Many experts believe that the pyramid was once painted red and was topped by a massive statue of a deity. Unlike all the others, the Blue Temple, so called as it was painted with blue pigment, does not have flying buttresses .
Another important area is the Tajín Chico, which is a complex of buildings some of which were administrative. These are all well preserved and also made from flagstones.
El Tajín ballcourt ( Public Domain )
There are at least 17 ballcourts in the city, where competitors played a game that had great religious significance. It is believed that this tradition derived from the Maya as the losers of the ballgame were beheaded and sacrificed to the deities.
How To Visit El Tajín
Buses run from Poza Rica/Papantla to the town of El Tajín and accommodation is available in the vicinity of the ancient city. It is possible to arrange a walking tour of the archaeological park, but visitors can also hire a guide.
There is an excellent museum with many artifacts such as altars. The reliefs from monuments such as the Pyramid of the Niches offer a unique insight into Mesoamerican society and its beliefs. Every year in March there is a festival celebrating indigenous culture and music and the modern town of Tajín has notable landmarks such as the church of Iglesias de la Asuncion.
Top image: El Tajín Source: Swigart / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
By Ed Whelan
Uxmal: Lost City of the Dwarf
The year was 1841. Thirty-five-year-old John Lloyd Stephens suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. US President Martin van Buren had appointed Stephens Special Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Central America, a young and struggling country that fell apart while he was stationed there. Stephens, a man who had already explored many parts of the world, decided to take a look around Central America and southern Mexico. He was joined by his friend and former traveling companion, the English artist and architect Frederick Catherwood, who would document their discoveries with intricate illustrations and diagrams. Stephens, chronicled their adventures in two books. In his books, he dazzled the English-speaking world with his descriptions of the fascinating, jungle-encrusted lost city that the locals called Uxmal. Scholars debate the origin of the word, but many believe the name comes from the Maya word, uchmal, which loosely means, “That which is to come.” Others believe that it comes from another Maya word oxmal meaning “three times built.” Stephens documents his second visit to Uxmal with Catherwood in his 1843 book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. The book captivated American audiences. Here is how Stephens describes his return on horseback to the ruined city:
“In ten minutes, emerging from the woods, came out upon the open field in which, grand and lofty as when we saw it before, stood the House of the Dwarf but the first glance showed us that year had made great changes. The sides of the lofty structure, then bare and naked, were now covered with high grass, bushes, and weeds, and on the top were bushes and trees twenty feet high. The House of the Nuns was almost smothered, and the whole field was covered with a rank growth of grass and weeds, over which we could barely look as we rode through. The foundations, terraces, and tops of the buildings were overgrown, weeds and vines were rioting and creeping on façades, and mounds, terraces, and ruins were a mass of destroying verdure. A strong and vigorous nature was struggling for mastery over art, wrapping the city in its suffocating embraces, and burying it from sight. It seemed as if the grave was closing over a friend, and we had arrived barely in time to take our farewell.”
Since the days of Stephens and Catherwood, the main buildings of Uxmal have been cleaned up and restored by the Mexican government, almost to their original splendor. The site has a mysterious history and some of the most unique architecture in the ancient Maya world. In 1996, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – UNESCO – declared Uxmal a World Heritage Site. The city thus joined other famous pre-Hispanic Mexican cities: Chichén Itzá, Teotihuacán, El Tajin, Monte Albán and Palenque.
When the Spanish arrived in the western Yucatán Peninsula in the 1540s, they easily stumbled upon the ruins of Uxmal because the city lies between two major colonial Spanish towns, Mérida and Campeche, in what is called the Puuc Hills. In the 1550s there were still people living there, among the crumbling buildings, although the city’s most important time was five centuries before. Archaeologists are not sure when people started living at the site, although most researchers generally agree that Uxmal’s rise to prominence began around 850 AD. There are two local stories about the development of the city. One claims that Uxmal was founded around 500 AD by a man with five names: Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu. The other story involving the origins of the city’s rise to prominence and its monumental architecture is more fanciful and magical. According to legend, it involves a witch, an egg, a disgruntled king and a dwarf with special powers.
Long ago, an old woman lived on the outskirts of the town of Uxmal which was not big or influential in the region at the time. In fact, it was ruled by a petty king and there were no larger stone buildings in the settlement when the old woman lived there. The townsfolk knew the old woman was a witch and they kept their distance from her because they feared her magical abilities. What the people of the town of Uxmal did not know is that the old witch was very lonely and was sad that she did not have children. One day she found a strange egg in the forest and brought it back to her small house. She put the egg in the corner and waited for it to hatch, wondering what would emerge from the egg. After a few days, a baby appeared, and the old witch was delighted because she would finally have the opportunity to raise a child. The baby was curious, smart and precocious and matured quickly, but he never grew in size. He was ultimately a dwarf. The witch had great plans for her son and thought that one day he would rule over the little town. She prompted him to challenge Uxmal’s king for control of the city. The king was amused by the dwarf and decided to take him up on his little game. The first part of the challenge was to see who could build a straight road between the towns of Uxmal and Kabah. With his magical powers, the dwarf made a beautiful road out of glistening white limestone over the course of the day. The petty king was furious and issued another challenge to the uppity little man. The ruler told the dwarf to build the tallest building in the town and if he didn’t he would be killed. Overnight, he met the ruler’s challenge and built the unique pyramid of Uxmal, known today as the House of the Dwarf or the Pyramid of the Magician. The king was even angrier and issued a final challenge. They would gather up a hard fruit grown in the area called cocoyote and would hit each other over the head with the fruits. Before the challenge, the dwarf returned home and his mother the witch rubbed a magical corn tortilla on his forehead. So, when the king hit the dwarf in the head with the hard cocoyote fruit, nothing happened to him. On the third try of the dwarf hitting the king on the head, though, the king was fatally wounded and died. The magical dwarf was made king of Uxmal and built up the backwater town into an impressive city of stone.
The architecture at Uxmal is impressive and probably not because of the influence of a magical dwarf. Most of the larger buildings at the site were built sometime between the years 850 and 900 AD, although archaeologists are not exactly sure. The building tradition found at Uxmal is known as the Puuc style and is named for the surrounding hills and region. According to Wikipedia, the Puuc style is exemplified by:
“Buildings decorated with carefully cut veneer stones set into a concrete core. The lower portion of the façades are blank with a flat surface of rectangular blocks punctuated by doorways, while the upper façade is richly decorated with intricate stone mosaics, often alternating repeated geometric elements with more elaborate figurative sculpture. Long-nosed masks (commonly believed to be of the Maya rain god Chaac) are found on many Puuc buildings.”
The tallest structure in Uxmal is undoubtedly the large stepped pyramid named after the magical dwarf. In Spanish it is referred to as El Adivino. It is unusual in the Maya world in that it has a curved or rounded appearance instead of being straight and angular. The temple at the top of the pyramid makes the structure almost 100 feet tall. The House of the Dwarf was built during 5 separate construction periods. Unlike many other pyramids throughout Mesoamerica, this one has some of its previous layers visible. Construction probably began on this structure around 800 AD. This building was originally painted red and had black, blue and yellow accents. At the top of the pyramid around the frieze of the temple there are 12 elaborately carved masks. Archaeologists originally thought that these masks represented the Maya rain god Chaac, but recent scholarship suggests they are symbolic of 12 sacred mountains located nearby.
West of the House of the Dwarf is another of this city’s impressive structures: Casa de las Monjas or the Nunnery Quadrangle. The building complex was named by Diego Lopez de Cogulludo, a Spanish Franciscan friar who explored the ruins in the 1600s and wrote a book called Historia de Yucatán, or in English, History of Yucatán. Lopez and other early Spanish explorers thought the building complex looked like a convent, with its 74 small rooms and central common area. Archaeologists do not know what function the Casa de las Monjas served but theorize that it may have been a palace and administrative complex where rulers lived and where government officials carried out their various functions. The complex was built in various stages. Researchers found a partial calendar date on one of the buildings indicating that the last edifice was constructed in the year 906 AD. Each of the 4 buildings in the quadrangle has a unique look and was built on a different level. The carved stone designs on the Nunnery are some of the most detailed and beautiful in the entire Maya world. The western building of this complex has the most intricately decorated façade, featuring intertwined stone snakes and numerous masks featuring the hook-nosed Chaac, god of rain.
South of the Pyramid of the Magician exists a long and low-lying building sitting atop a platform called The Governor’s Palace. It has the longest decorated façades in all of ancient Mesoamerica. The decoration of these façades features some 400 glyphs of the planet Venus among the 103 carved masks of Chaac alongside elaborate lattice patterns, cloud figures and human images. Eight two-headed stone serpents slither above the main doorway to this palace. Archaeologists also debate the purpose of this building. With its many Venus glyphs and its curious alignment, it may have had some astrological significance. Others think that in this case the name suits the building and that the Governor’s Palace may have had offices having to do with collecting taxes or serving some other administrative functions.
There are many other interesting buildings at Uxmal while not being so impressive in scale, they do exude their own unique charm. One such building is called La Casa de las Tortugas, or The House of the Turtles. It is a rather small building compared to those previously mentioned, but the ancient Maya decorated the building’s façade with beautiful lifelike carvings of turtles that seem as if they are crawling across the structure. Uxmal also has a ball court which is presently in pretty poor condition. The original rings on the side of the court have been replaced with replicas. The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History was afraid of further exposure to the elements. For more information about the ancient Mexican ball game, please see Mexico Unexplained episode number 53: https://mexicounexplained.com//the-mesoamerican-ballgame/
While much of the grand architecture of this site has been preserved, very little is known about Uxmal’s complex history. Most of the hieroglyphic inscriptions at the site exist among the various stelae, the large stone monoliths found throughout the ancient Maya world that depict the noble deeds and lineages of kings and queens. Some of the stelae at Uxmal were intentionally toppled and defaced, indicating either warfare or civil unrest. The city fell from glory at about 1000 AD when most of the classical Maya world was collapsing. While locals still inhabited the site off and on for hundreds of years later, Uxmal never returned to its former splendor. The “Lost City of the Dwarf” still keeps many secrets and the full story of Uxmal continues to be told.
Pyramid of the NichesView all photos
In the humid jungles of the Mexican state of Veracruz lie the enigmatic ruins of El Tajin, an ancient city built by a mysterious lost civilization.
The city of El Tajin is believed to have risen to power between 800 and 1200, in the centuries between the fall of the city of Teotihuacan and the rise of the Aztec empire. At its height, it was the most important center of the Mesoamerican northeast, and its cultural influence was felt not only in the valleys and plateaus of central Mexico but also throughout the Gulf Coast and the Mayan region.
The most impressive and emblematic ruin of El Tajin is the Pyramid of the Niches. It rises 20 meters tall, with 7 stepped terraces leading to the top. Each of its four sides is covered with stacked rows of small niches formed from blocks of stone. There are 365 total, suggesting this pyramid was used as a kind of astronomical calendar to track the days of the year.
The identity of the lost civilization that built this marvel has puzzled generations of historians and archeologists. It remains an enigma however the most widely accepted theory is that El Tajin was founded by the ancestors of the Totonac and Huastec indigenous peoples who live in the area to this day. Archeologists estimate that the city once accommodated a population of between 15,000 and 20,000 people. They occupied numerous settlements that are now covered by jungle.
El Tajin filled the void that was left by the fall of the Teotihuacan civilization, and become the dominant trade center of Mesoamerica. Merchants transported locally sourced commodities such as obsidian stone for making weapons, jade for decoration, and food items like vanilla, fruits, corn, and the sacred cacao bean (from which chocolate is derived). In fact, the civilization may have been the first to cultivate the orchids that produce vanilla.
The city’s monopoly on trade routes and abundance of natural resources ensured its economic growth and cultural importance, but it would ultimately spell its doom. The Aztecs were steadily growing in strength after successive conquests in the valleys of central Mexico, and by the 11th century they had a consolidated a formidable reputation and a power base. Due to their relative lack of natural resources, they began to look at expanding the empire into new and richer territories.
It was therefore perhaps inevitable that the Aztec emperors would turn their attention to the famed fertile lands of present-day Veracruz across the mountains. The end for El Tajin came around 1200 when a marauding Aztec army of eagle and jaguar knights invaded and pillaged the area. In the aftermath of the battle, the city was completely abandoned.
Fearing further attack, the population quickly surrendered to the Aztecs and became a subjugated people. The reign of the Aztecs over the dispersed descendants of El Tajin was so brutal that when the Spanish arrived on the shores of Veracruz in 1519, the Totonac and Huastec peoples joined with the conquistadors to exact revenge for their oppression.
Remarkably, the ruins of El Tajin remained unknown to the colonial authorities until 1785, when a Spanish official stumbled upon the site while looking for illegal tobacco plantations that breached the Royal monopoly on the crop. The site then became famous and was visited by many European travelers and explorers over the years, who come to marvel at its sophistication. Today, despite being considered a masterpiece of Mesoamerican architecture, El Tajin is one of the least-visited and most mysterious archaeological sites in Mexico.
Know Before You Go
To get to El Tajin you will need to take an "ADO" bus from Mexico city (bus terminal "Central Norte") to the town of Papantla. It is best to take an overnight bus as the journey is fairly long at approximately 6 hours. Once you arrive in the town you should take a registered taxi which will take around 15 minutes to reach the site and will set you back $60 pesos. Keep a look out for the performances of the famous "Voladores de Papantla" (flyers of Papantla) which are very impressive. If you do see one of their shows, make sure to leave a small donation. Papantla is a very good starting point if you intend to travel further into the state of Veracruz to explore its other attractions as there are plenty of buses that connect to other towns and cities.
The area in which Papantla is found has been dominated by a number of pre-Hispanic cultures. The first known is that of the Olmec, with the Huastecs coming afterward. Evidence of these cultures can be found at nearby archeological sites such as Cempoala, El Tajin, San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes.  The settlement was founded around 1200, by various groups of Totonacs, some of whom migrated here after being pushed south by the Chichimecas and other groups coming from the fallen city of El Tajín. During the rest of the pre-Hispanic period the site belonged to the Pueblos del Totonacapan, dominated by Tuzapan, and paid tribute to the Aztec Empire. 
Soon after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Spanish quickly realized the value of the vanilla bean, which is native to this area. The Totonac town was refounded as Papantla de Santa María de la Asunción with Spanish families moving in. Soon after, vanilla was being sent to European markets.   It was made the seat of the region called Totonacapan, which encompassed the modern municipalities of Cazones, Coatzintla, Coyutla, Espinal, Coxquihui, Chumatlan, Filomeno Mata, Gutiérrez Zamora, Mecatlán, Poza Rica, Progreso de Zaragoza, Tecolutla, and Zozocolco de Hidalgo.  
In 1785, the nearby ruins of the pre-Hispanic city of El Tajín were accidentally discovered by Spaniard Diego Ruiz, while he was looking for clandestine plantings of tobacco. This site became famous around the world soon after due to the writings of Alexander von Humboldt and others. During the Mexican War of Independence, Serafin Olarte and his guerrillas actively fought in the area from 1813 to 1820, until Olarte was captured by royalist forces and executed.  The municipality was created in 1880 by decree. In 1910, the settlement gained city status with the name of Papantla de Hidalgo. The official name was changed to Papantla de Olarte, in honor of Serafin Olarte.  As during the War of Independence, indigenous peoples of the area rebelled against the regime of Porfirio Díaz in the late 1890s, just prior to the Mexican Revolution. A number of clashes were also fought here during that war. 
In 1922, the city of Papantla became the seat of the Diocese of Papantla when it was created from territories that had belonged to the Dioceses of Veracruz and Tampico. 
One of the most famous people to come from Papantla is artist Teodoro Cano Garcia, who was a disciple of Diego Rivera. During much of the 20th century, this artist worked to promote Papantla's native Totonac heritage. He is responsible for most of the sculptures and other public art works that can be seen in the town today. Some of these include the “Evolution of the Totonac Culture” mural on the side of the main church, the “History of Papantla” mural which is on the side of the Chapel of Cristo Rey and the Monumento del Volador, a giant statue which is on a hill in the center of the city. 
The city was nominated to become a Pueblo Mágico in 2006. However, the process has been suspended. Problems to be resolved include the large number of street peddlers, the need to bury telephone and electrical lines and the need to paint many of the houses in the historic center. 
Papantla is the heart of the Totonacapan region. When the Spanish refounded the town, they laid it out in Spanish style with a central plaza surrounded by the most important buildings, such as the main church and the main government building. The Municipal Palace still faces the main plaza, marked by the classic-style pediment over the main entrance. This building contains two murals: one about the Totonacs by Teodoro Cano Garcia and the other by Xolotl Martinez Hurtado de Mendoza. The construction of the building dates from 1810 although it was destroyed by forces associated with Pancho Villa in 1915. The building was reconstructed in 1929, with remodeling done in 1979 and 1999. The plaza is officially named the Israel C. Téllez Park, which contains grass and a number of trees. In this plaza are weekend events such as the Danzón Fridays as well as live music on Saturday and cultural events on Sundays. On the underside of the kiosk is a mural by Teodoro Cano Garcia which depicts the indigenous concept of creation, as a world with four suns. 
The Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción was constructed between 1570 and 1590 by the Franciscans. Originally, the church did not have a bell tower as the bell was located on the nearby hill which is now the located of the Monument al Volador. The bell tower was built in 1875, and the clock which is there was installed in 1895. The church is in the form of a Latin cross and has an entrance flanked by Roman style pilasters. Across from the main facade are the principal markets, called Hidalgo and Juarez.  On the atrium wall is a sculpted mural by Teodoro Cano Garcia which depicts the evolution of Totonac culture superimposed on the body of the god Quetzalcoatl. 
The city has a total of eleven murals on public buildings as well as private houses. The Fernando Gutierrez Barrios Auditorim has a high relief mural depicting sports in the Totonacapan region.  The Chapel of Cristo Rey is located on Madero Street and is modeled after the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. It contains a mural by Cano about the history of the city of Papantla.  In addition to the murals, the Monument to the Voladores is located on a hill in the center of the city.  This hill also serves as a scenic lookout and contains a mural which narrates the ceremony from the cutting of the tree to the execution of the descent. 
The city is home to the Universidad Pedagógica Veracruzana, as well as a number of museums.  The Museo de la Ciudad is located on Pino Suarez Street and contains exhibits from the pre-Hispanic, colonial and post- Independence periods. The Museo de las Mascaras contains a collection of over 300 masks from Totonacapan and other parts of Mexico, located in the community of San Pablo. It was founded by Simon Gomez Atzin who collected masks and ceremonial dress for many years.  The Teodoro Cano Garcia Museum contains works by this artist as well as some of his protégés. It also contains archeological pieces and elements of Totonac culture such as dress.  Other museums include the Museos del Totonacapan and the Casa de Cultura's permanent collection of paintings and sculpture. 
Regional specialties include frijoles in alchuchut, tashuayahun and zacahuil. 
On December 7, there is a tradition called the "Dia del Niño Perdido” (Day of the Lost Child). On this day, lighted candles are placed on doorjambs and windowsills. However, the major festival for this city is the feast of Corpus Christi, which features processions, and indigenous dances such as the tocotines, guaguas, negritos, Santiagueros and voladores.  The first feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated in Papantla sometime between 1550 and 1560, sponsored by the encomendero of the area, Placido Perez. Until very recently, the celebration was strictly religious with processions and liturgy. In 1957, a more secular event called the Festival of Corpus Christi was added to run concurrently with the religious rites. In that year, a livestock, agriculture, industrial and cultural fair was added. In 1958, the celebration of “Juegos Florales” (flower arrangements) and the Festival Xanath began to distinguish the event from others in the area. The Xanath Festival was begun by Mariano Torres Carreño and Hector Ventura de Castro with the aim of presenting Totonac culture to the city and make the residents proud of their heritage. The festival has indigenous art exhibits, traditional dance, costumes and music. The dances are choreographed into a single spectacle which is reworked each year. 
Like the rest of Mexico, Papantla celebrates Day of the Dead but has some local variations. “Ofrendas” (altars to the dead) can be set up on tables or on board which are suspended from the ceiling.  The altar is called a pachau and the lack on one in the home can bring on social rejection for violating community norms.  These are decorated with palm fronds, bananas, oranges, limes, anis and chocolate figures. Food stuffs include mole, candy, tamales, local breads and other regional specialties. A glass of water and “renio” (a type of local alcohol) are also placed.  Day of the Dead celebrations begin on 31 October for those who had died of natural causes. On 1 November, the souls of deceased children (called Laqsq’at’an) are welcomed. Later on 1 November and 2 November the souls of adults are said to return. It is believed that the souls come in the form of insects to eat the meals laid out in offering. It is also believed that this food needs to be freshly prepared and hot. During the nights, groups of living children go house to house singing traditional songs. 
For religious and secular events, two dances are definitive of Papantla. According to Totonac myth, the gods told men “Dance, and we shall observe.” The Danza de los Voladores is one of these events that was originally meant to please the gods. The ceremony involves five participants who climb a thirty-meter pole. Four of these tie ropes around their waists and wind the other end around the top of the pole in order to descend to the ground. Each rope is wound around the top of the pole thirteen times, which by four equal 52 and corresponds to the Mesoamerican ritual calendar. The fifth participant stays at the top of the pole, playing a flute and a small drum. The flute represents birdsong and the drum the voice of the gods. The four who descend or “flying men” represent the four cardinal directions. The flautist begins by honoring the east, from which life is believed to have originated.  This dance or ceremony has been inscribed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO 
The Dance of the Guaguas (also spelled Huahuas) is mostly performed by Totonacs but also by some groups of Nahuas and Huastecs who live in this area. It is a variant of the Dance of the Quetzales. The dance represents a survival of beliefs based on agricultural and the solar year. One essential element of the dance is the construction of a wooden cross which turns in a vertical position, representing the basis of creation and the genesis of cosmic life. Dancers dress in red pants, which have been elaborately embroidered, white shirts and a decorated cloth that goes across the chest. But the most distinctive apparel is the headdress, which is a large circle of woven ribbons with loose ends hanging around down the back. The dance movements involve the stomping with the boots that dancers wear. 
Papantla is the heart of Mexico's vanilla-growing region, called Totonacapan and the spice has been grown and trade here since well into the pre-Hispanic period. According to legend. The Totonacs have lived and grown vanilla since they came to this area after the downfall of Teotihuacan. The origin of the plant is said to have come from the death of two young lovers. The young woman, Tzacopantziza, was the daughter of a king named Tenitztli. She was so beautiful that her father consecrated her to the goddess Tonacayohua so that no mortal man may have her. However, a young prince by the name of Zkatan-Oxga, kidnapped her. This angered the gods and send a monster to terrify the people. The priests found the couple hiding in the mountains and decapitated them both. Where their blood spilled, a plant began to grow, which soon began to give the people their fragrant flowers and seed pods. 
True vanilla comes from a seed pod of an orchid called Vanilla planifolia. This plant grows as a vine on host trees and is native to this area. The pods are green when harvested, and turn black when dried. In the Totonac language, vanilla is called Xanath and is used to make a liquor which is almost never seen outside of the Papantla area. These people have used vanilla for centuries as a flavoring, a perfume and as medicine. In the early colonial period, the Spanish quickly exported vanilla to Europe and a number of cultivators became wealthy.  The name "vanilla" comes from the Spanish "vainilla" which means little seed pod.  The growing of vanilla remained a monopoly of Mexico until hand pollination methods were developed that allowed the plant to grow in other parts of the world, devastating the industry here. Today, Mexican production of vanilla trails behind production in parts of Africa and Asia.  In spite of this, the Academy of Sciences and Gastronomic Arts in Paris in 1921 chose to pay homage to the Totonacs who discovered vanilla. 
Outside of Papantla, real vanilla is difficult to find in Mexico because of its cost.  Within the Papantla area, elaborate figures, such as animals are made with the pods.  The Xanath Festival, which is held concurrently with Corpus Christi, also honors vanilla. In addition, Papantla holds a Vanilla Expo in December.  
The Pyramid of Niches
The most prominent pyramid of the city of El Tajin is thought to have been completed in the 8th century CE. It features 365 symmetrically positioned square niches—each of which is 60 centimeters deep. Each of these niches, together with the heavy scroll carvings, create a constantly shifting play of lights and shadows when the monument is struck by sunlight. Archaeologists believe that the pyramid’s niches, and the structure in general, are deeply connected with the solar year.
The pyramid is a step pyramid consisting of seven superimposed structures and rises 20 meters in height. Each of its sides measures 26 meters and a beautifully-decorated stairway leads to a small temple-like structure at its summit.
Intriguing Ancient Ceremonial Site Of El Tajin In Mexico
El Tajín, Prehispanic City is a site with great significance for Mesoamerican archaeology because it is one of the best preserved and most thoroughly excavated examples of a pre-Hispanic town from the Epiclassic and early Post Classic period, the time between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of the Aztec empire.
It was previously thought that occupation of the El Tajín pre-Hispanic settlement took place in three phases, between 100 B.C. and 1200 A.D. However, recent research has shown that there was only one phase of occupation lasting from 800 to 1200 A.D. El Tajín was abandoned and partly destroyed after 1200 A.D., when the region came under the rule of the powerful Aztec empire.
The site is exceptional in that its urban layout is based on the form of the Xicalcoliuhqui (the schematic representation of the cross section of a marine shell) and uses the different levels of the terrain to differentiate access to certain areas. The architecture mirrors the skyline of the surrounding hills.
In the above photo you can see round columns which don’t appear to relate to the other structures found at El Tajin, which are largely composed of rectangular stones. Were the round columns created for a unique purpose during the conventional time period of the site, or were they recycled from an earlier work not recognized by archaeologists?
And in the structure above, we can clearly see that the large stones in the foreground dwarf all others used in the construction. Was this the result of poor rebuilding efforts by archaeologists in the 20th century? Or does the site have a megalithic core which the builders of the 8th to 12th century A.D. chose to recycle into their work?
We will be exploring this area in early 2015 in order to expand our awareness of the wonders of the pre-Colombian world, and also to expand our tours beyond Peru, Bolivia and Egypt.
Our present tours for 2015 are the following, starting with our third annual Lost Ancient Technology Tour of Egypt. Full details HERE.
The first ever Elongated Skulls tour of Peru and Bolivia HERE.
Our June tour with Andrew Collins and Hugh Newman HERE.
6. Peng Jiamu
Perhaps the most famous example of a modern lost explorer is Peng Jiamu, a Chinese biologist who vanished during a desert expedition in 1980. One of China’s most beloved adventurers, Peng began his travels in the late 1950s. He participated in multiple scientific expeditions to northwestern China’s Lop Nor desert, often described as one of the driest places in the world. In 1980 Peng led a team of biologists, geologists and archeologists to Lop Nor to conduct new research. But several days into the journey, he abruptly disappeared from his camp after leaving a note saying he was going out to find water.
The Chinese government launched a massive search of the desert, but no sign of Peng was ever found. According to those familiar with the dangers of Lop Nor, the famed biologist was most likely buried alive by a freak sandstorm or crushed by an avalanche of loose soil. But while as many as six skeletons have been recovered from Lop Nor since his disappearance, none has been proven to be Peng.
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