The Voladores de Papantla may very well be one of the most interesting sights one can see in modern-day Mexico. It is certainly one of the most spectacular.
Los Voledores – meaning ‘those who fly’ – are extraordinarily courageous men who climb to the top of a very tall pole, then ‘fly’ back to the earth with a rope tied around their waist to keep them attached to the pole.
The ritual begins when the group of Voladores enters the circle around the pole and performs a dance on the ground. One of the performers, a musician or caporal, plays a flute and a small drum as the group circles the pole dancing.
After paying tribute to the gods, four flyers begin their climb to the top. Originally, the pole was a tall tree, but has been replaced nowadays with a metal pole with footholds to make it easier for the Voladores to reach the top.
When all four performers have reached the top and each has taken his seat on a thin board, they work together to wind four ropes around the pole. Carefully and precisely, they spin around and around while winding the rope into a large coil around the very top of the pole.
The caporal is the last performer to climb up, and he starts his ascent once the ropes are in place. Climbing through the others, the caporal takes his seat on top of the pole itself, where he proceeds to create the haunting sounds of the flute and drum. Perched on a small platform 75 feet in the air without rope or safety net, the caporal performs an elaborate dance while playing his music. He leans far out to each direction, hops on one foot, and performs other acrobatics – without missing a beat in his plaintive tune.
Once the caporal has taken his seat atop the pole once more, the four flyers pitch themselves backward off the pole to begin their flight to the ground. It’s an incredible sight to watch four men gracefully “flying” upside down from a 75 foot pole secured only by a rope tied around their waists. The flyers spin around the pole as they gradually make their way down to earth.
Los Voladores de Papantla perform daily at the entrance to the El Tajin Mayan ruins.
History of Los Voladores de Papantla?
Although much of the original information about the ceremony of the Voladores has been lost, anthropologists and historians have been able to recontruct at least part of the story of the ancient religious practice.
The story, according to Totonaca myth, is that there was a time of great draught. Food and water were so scarce that five men decided to send a message to Xipe Totec, the god of fertility, in the hope that the rains would come. They went into the forest looking for the tallest, straightest tree they could find.
When they found the perfect tree, they cut it down and carefully carried it back to their village without allowing it to touch the ground. Once they found the perfect spot for the tree, they set it down, stripped it of branches, and ‘planted’ it in a deep hole so it would remain upright.
The men then decorated their bodies with feathers so that they would appear to be like birds to Xipe Totec – as a way of gaining the attention of the god. They climbed the pole, wrapped vines around their waists, and made their plea through their flight and the haunting sound of the flute and drum.
In Mesoamerican times the ritual of the Volador was performed throughout much of Mexico and extended as far south as Nicaragua. It was performed once every 52 years at the change of the century, and the brotherhood of the Voladores was passed from father to son.