I believe each time I leave my home for a trip I will return a changed person. Sometimes I am more changed than others. Recently, I returned from my trip from Veracruz, Mexico and Cumbre Tajín,( pronounced Coombray Taheen) the Festival of Identity, more changed than I expected. Cumbre Tajin which began in 2000 now takes place every year during the week of the spring equinox at Takilhsukut Tematico Park adjacent to the El Tajín Archeological Zone.
As I think back, I should have expected something big because when I first learned of the event I was also told a story by Salomon Bazbaz Lapidus, the event’s director, about a Totonaca shaman. The Totonaca people are guardians of the pyramids at El Tajín, and the true hosts of the Cumbre Tajín festival. The shaman, who was a young man during World War II, said that when it was discovered the Germans had plans to invade Mexico, the Totonaca invited representatives from other indigenous groups in Mexico to gather at the pyramids of El Tajín to hold a ceremony. It is said that they prayed together for the peace of the whole world, not just their immediate surroundings. The shaman who told this story allowed Salomon to look through his journals. Salomon discovered that this ceremony of prayer for peace in the world took place exactly on D-Day.
The shaman’s tale is a beautiful story with superb timing, rhythm and heart, which is exactly what my experience of the festival turned out to be. Over 100,000 people attend the festival each year and the support of such an event requires a small society in itself. I arrived the evening before the festival began and was allowed to explore the park’s grounds as the sun was setting. It was a soft evening and the breeze was perfect as I walked around visiting with some of the organizers and volunteers as they worked on the finishing touches. The park is organized into a series of niches for hosting the mind-boggling number of experiences available to sample. The cooks at the Nicho del Aromas y Sabores fired up their grills and prepared to cook classic recipes taken from local cuisine. The technicians at the Nicho de la Musica worked to perfect the video and sound components that would accompany some of the musical performances and paintings were hung in the nicho occupied by the University of Veracruz. A sweet expectancy hung in the air.
After dark, I went to see Tajín Vive, the laser light and sound tour of the Sacred city of Tajín. The tour consists of a guided walk through the pyramids at night where images of light are projected across the faces of the pyramids accompanied by traditional dances and song. Tajín Vive runs during the Cumbre Tajín festival and a few other select evenings during the year. It’s an unexpected and vibrant way to experience the pyramids and the archeological site, as well as a superb sampling of the music and folk dance that are performed everyday of the festival.
When I arrived at the festival the next morning, I took another stroll around the grounds to see how the first guests were getting along and what to expect in terms of the day’s activity level. I wondered how the park was going to feel filled with people and if I would continue to find it pleasurable. Would all of the little niches of artisans and dancers and cooks and healers waiting for the guests to arrive be overrun? I had American memories of county fairs and the lines for rides at Disney World, and to me Cumbre Tajín shares some of those facets. Although there are international visitors, most of the attendees are local or come from other parts of Mexico. I wondered if the park that had been so peaceful the evening before would transform into a throng of bodies.
People began to trickle into the park, but it was a relaxed stream and even at the height of the day’s activities there was plenty of space and I found no difficulty diving into the events rhythm and wandering without having to create a concrete itinerary to visit the different nichos. I also really had the opportunity to meet the people next to me at the events. I practiced my Spanish and laughed a lot! There was an openness and joy of connection that permeated everything.
Perhaps one the strengths of the Cumbre Tajín experience is that it flows like a river and how each individual takes it in will be distinctly different. Since it’s impossible to convey the entire gamut, the following are my personal highlights, and suggestions as points for diving into Tajín’s stream.
Before I went to Tajín, I didn’t know that men could fly! I was left speechless by the ease and grace of the voladores descent to the earth. The dance consists of five men, one for each of the cardinal points and a piper, who plays in accompaniment. They climb a pole or a tree that has been selected for the ceremony and dive from the top supported only by the rope tied to a leg as they slowly spiral down to the ground. The training for voladores begins at an early age. At Cumbre Tajín there are both the mature voladores and also the boys, who are just beginning the art. These boys were followed not only by their somewhat anxious mothers, but also by the press and a gaggle of young girls.
There is also ample opportunity to see many of the regions traditional dances performed on the ground. The costumes and the children are not to be missed!
El Tajín Archeological Park on the equinox
Although I first visited the site at night to see the Tajín Vive show. I would have missed out if I hadn’t returned to the site during the daytime. The Pyramid of the Niches is worth seeing in the sunlight; and on the equinox people come to the site dressed all in white in order to soak in as much of the pyramid’s positive energy as possible. I wondered throughout the site almost blinded by how bright it was and even made friends with a little Chihuahua puppy whose owners had made him a white t-shirt so that he could better soak in the blessed energy too.
The Nicho de Purificación
Every year alternative healers and massage therapists offer their services at Cumbre Tajín for extremely reasonable rates. It’s possible to experience the temescal (an experience similar to a sweat lodge), to do a cleansing ritual with a healer from the Totonacas, the Huicholes or to have a foot massage, full body massage or even Reiki. In spite of the festival’s constant activity this niche, which consists of small treatment huts and the temescal houses is an area of calm respite. It’s a perfect place to learn more about complementary treatments and to perhaps receive a reading from the famous Rosa Dorada. Rosa is blind but it is said she can see all of the energy within one’s space and is able to tell her clients what to expect and offer some wise bits of insight. Each year that she has been at the festival she has been booked solid since the first day. She gives each of her clients a rose as gift, but she does speak only Spanish. So a little foresight and a translator could be in order to get put on her list for a reading.
The Nicho de la Musica and the Nicho Ritual
Some of the most famous musicians in Mexico have played in the Nicho de la Musica. Alejandra Guzman and Café Tacuba were in the line up this spring. When I was in the mood for a more intimate setting and music I visited the Namaste Experience Ibiza, also known as the Nicho Ritual. The tent is an Alice in Wonderland like lounge that is brought each year from Ibiza, Spain. The lounge has low tables and floor pillows for chilling out between spells of dancing. Hilight Tribe, which also played in the Nicho de Musica played a couple of sets here. There was a proper mix between the large productions of the Nicho de Musica and the more intimate Nicho Ritual.
As I think back on the festival the experience that most enchants me was watching the launch of fire filled hot air balloons on the last day after the sun set. Each balloon filled with a warm orange glow floated up into the air and caught its own current of air to float away lighting the night sky. As we stood together and watched these peaceful lights move out over the dark horizon; I couldn’t help but think of the shaman’s story. It encourages me that people coming together with ideas and intentions have the power to impact the world for the better.
Some Practical Information
Daily tickets to the festival cost about twenty dollars and can be purchased in advance through Ticketmaster. All proceeds from the festival go to an educational fund for the Totanaca children.
It’s possible to camp out at the festival campsite for a nominal fee with the tent supplied. The towns of Papantla, Poza Rica, Tecolutla and Gutierrez Zamora are near by and have hotel rooms. I stayed in Poza Rica at the Best Western, which offered a package with shuttles to and from the park. It also might be interesting to stay at the beach in Costa Esmerelda and come into the festival while enjoying also enjoying the beach.
This area of Veracruz is growing terms of tourist trade, but it would be best to have at least a nominal command of Spanish as there are few people who speak English. For more complete information in Spanish visit www.cumbretajin.com