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Dave and Jan's travels, day 309:
Gulf coast

23rd March
Our return journey through Mexico took us through a lot of the places we've seen before in the southern state, before we entered new territory in the Gulf Coast. We took in short stays in the towns of Veracruz and Jalapa, ruins at Zempoala and El Tajin, and the delightful town of Papantla before we hightailed it to the border.

Veracruz is a large town whose wealth is based on oil, a huge commercial port, and weekending holidaymakers from Mexico City. The last of these make for a - by Mexican standards - not particularly attractive town centre. The usual picturesque town square is present, but it's full of balloon sellers, rather joyless and commercial musicians, and more fat people than you'll see anywhere else south of Texas.

Next stop was Xalapa, also known as Jalapa, pretty unremarkable for everything except its rather lovely Anthropology Museum. The Gulf Coast can justly claim the title of "Cradle of Mexican civilisation", for it was here, 3-4,000 years ago, that the Olmec people lived. They invented the zany calendar that was subsequently used by the Aztecs and the Maya. The other large Olmec claim to fame is their sculpture. They left behind several carved heads up to eight or nine feet high, and many other spectacularly proportioned works. The Jalapa museum is beautifully spacious, has oodles of natural light and provides a lovely setting. Some photos at the right should give the idea.

Also nearby are the Zempoala ruins. This city was populated by one of the first groups of locals to ally themselves to Cortes against the feared Aztecs overlords. It's also the spot where Cortes fought and defeated a force of Spaniards set from the government of Cuba to whip him into line. Nowadays there are a few, unremarkable mounds and some odd L-shaped battlements.

The ruins of El Tajin are an altogether more spectacular affair. The main relic of the Totonec people, this city is quite different to most of the other pre-Hispanic civilisations around Mexico. The stepped pyramids have rows of alcoves (see pictures at right) and the largest pyramid had exactly 365 niches. At least, the arcaeologists "think" (read "hope") that it did. I tried to count them but unfortunately some are hidden by later additions. Anyway, it's somewhere between 364 and 367, I'm sure of that.

The other highlight of the El Tajin stop was the Voladores. Voladores basically perform a kind of four man simultaneous slow motion spiral bunjee jump from a terrifyingly high pole, to the strains of pipe music played by their colleague who remains at the top of the pole. And El Tajin is right in the middle of Volador territory. See pictures for more details.

The base for our visit to El Tajin was the small but perfectly formed town of Papantla. A delighful square, colonial architecture, and a vibrant market of various smells and colours. People strolling around and chatting, smiles on all sides, and men in big white stetsons. A lovely last stop in Mexico, and a reminder of all that we liked best about the country.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Olmec head, Jalapa

Voldadores, El Tajin

El Tajin

Town Square, Papantla