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  Los Voladores de Papantala

Los Voladores of Papantla
Los Voladores , Veracruz
Los Voladores
In colorful thousand year old costumes, the voladores, the flyers, of Papantla appeal to the gods by performing a traditional, highly symbolic dance at the base of a tall, tall pole reaching high toward the gods in the sky.

Four flyers carrying long ropes and a fifth, their leader, with his flute and small drum begin the long upward climb. Atop the pole is their platform, a disc for the leader and slabs like one-by-fours making a square for seating.

Slowly the flyers rotate their platform and wind their ropes, four ropes side-by-side, around the pole. When there's no slack left, and with the free ends of the ropes tied well around the waists of the flying-men, the leader appeals to the gods once again.

High atop the pole he plays his flute, and beats a cadence on his tiny diameter drum. Standing he dances to the four cardinal points.

Los Voladores make their ascent
Los Voladores make their ascent
And then, ever continuing to play, he sits. And the flyers fall-fall over backward from their seats.

We gasped and jumped to our feet. We were the first-timers in the crowd. The pull on the rope turned the platform, and the platform spun the fliers in long slow circles around the pole, the lower they came the wider the circle.

Suited in white shirts and red pants and trimmed in bright colors, as they have done for more than a thousand years, the flyers, heads downward or sailing birdlike on their sides, spun their traditional 13 circles from the sky to the ground.

This religious ceremony now turned commercial used to happen throughout Mexico, and in Central and South America. The pole we faced was at El Tajin, the most magical ruins in the State of Veracruz. The flyers, the voladores, are Totonacs. And although only five climb the pole, we found out that there are six voladores per group.

Los Voladores make their descent
Los Voladores descending
The sixth volador passes through the crowd asking for a donation of a dollar or two. Sometimes the sixth volador is rudely treated by foreigners who've forgotten that in Mexico making a living is not easy and today flying is an important supplement to a voladores income.

Long ago, so the story goes, terrible drought and famine descended upon Totonacapan, the land of the indigenous Totonac peoples. Five brave men set out looking for their chance to appeal to Xipe Totec, the god of fertility. They went to ask that the rains return and the land turn green with crops to feed the hungry people.

A long journey deep into the rugged forested land brought them to the tallest, straightest tree, a tree reaching almost to the sky. They wished the tree's spirit to carry their words to Xipe Totec. They prayed and fasted and stayed the night high in the tree's branches. And the next morning they felled the tree.

Without letting the tree touch the ground, they carried it to the people, to the heart of Totonacapan with its temples and pyramids and ball courts and dwellings, and deciding upon the perfect spot finally the five brave men let the tree touch the ground.

They stripped the tree of its branches and returned the tip of the tree to the sky sinking the bottom of the trunk into the earth.

Voladores receiving applause
Costumed in bright plumage that would attract the attention of the gods, they climbed the pole, and as we had seen, they wrapped their lines (long thick vines in days so long ago) around the tree. They sent last prayers and music to the gods, and then from high in the sky, they set themselves flying.

The rite of the flyers, as we always hear talking to our Totonac friends here in the City of Veracruz, reminds them and tells us who they are; a brave and daring people deeply respectful of their past and highly proud of their present. Every loving retelling of the story of the fliers is a little different from every other retelling we've heard. And every retelling yet to come will be a little different.

Today the city of Papantla, is the center of Totonacapan. The region is famous for its production of Mexico's rich, highly aromatic vanilla. Close to Papantla is El Tajin, the greatest cultural center of the Totonacs. El Tajin is a large ruins with pyramids and temples, and ball courts and housing. Not as large as Teotihuacan or Palenque, El Tajin has a more human scale, and one feels an almost mystical communication with those who were there a thousand years ago.

Papantla and El Tajin are especially safe places to visit. Not many locals speak English, but plenty speak a little "Spanglish". Any tourist knowing just a bit of survival Spanish can enjoy the voladores, the pyramids, the culture, the close-by ocean, and warm and friendly people of Veracruz.

Story and Photos provided by Eric and Linda Langner
The Language Immersion School, Veracruz, Mexico

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