Journey to an ancient city near the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and explore a variety of sites along the way.
By Ty and Julie Hotchkiss
Ancient cities that might have rivaled Rome can be found in Mexico. The Mayan ruins in Yucatan speak of mystery, as do the pyramids at Teotihuacan. They beckon those in search of adventure, and so does El Tajin.
El Tajin (“ta-HEEN”) is near the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the Mexican state of Veracruz, a part of the country that tourists travel less often. Yet it is a significant part of the country, and has been for many years. Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez landed his ship along the shore at Veracruz in 1519, and from there commenced Spanish rule over the Aztecs.
The idea of visiting the remains of an ancient city fascinated us, so we decided to search out this unusual piece of history.
The night before we ventured south of the border, we stayed at a campground in San Benito, Texas, where we talked to other RV travelers about their experiences in Mexico. South Texas is a popular place for winter Texans who know Mexico well. They suggested we cross the border at Los Indios, because it wouldn’t be as busy as Brownsville. We took their advice, but we didn’t save much time after all. The crossing station didn’t open until 9:00 a.m., so we took our time getting there, and consequently an RV tour group arrived ahead of us. We were delayed even further because we hadn’t returned our vehicle permit the last time we were in Mexico, and had to get it verified.
Regardless, the weather was warm and pleasant when we left San Benito and crossed the border on February 2 in our 30-foot motorhome. As we headed south on Mexico’s Route 180, rugged mountains rose ahead in the distance. You know you are in a different country right away with burros, horses, and people walking along the road — some carrying loads of sugarcane on their backs or loaded on burros. Children waved enthusiastically, and adults were friendly, too. One young man on horseback gave us a scare when his horse bucked him off, but he got right up and went after the horse he had been leading. Signs for DeKalb seed corn and Simmental cattle along the road were indications of American influence.
In the small towns along this route, it was necessary to watch out for topes. These are big bumps in the road that can rattle your teeth (and your motorhome) if you don’t slow down. Of course, that’s the reason for their existence — to keep vehicles from roaring through. A few towns have reduced the size of their topes, but don’t count on it. Watch out for construction signs, too.
Route 180 will take you directly to Tampico, but since we wanted to stay overnight in Ciudad Victoria, we turned south onto Route 101 toward town.
Ciudad Victoria is a good destination for your first night in Mexico, because the Victoria Trailer Park in town is famous for its hospitality. The nightly fee was inexpensive, and we didn’t need reservations there or elsewhere on this trip. Electrical hookups (most with 15 amps, and a few with 30 amps), and water and sewer hookups are available. Rosie, who owns and operates the park with her husband, Russ, will give you a royal welcome, as well as travel information for your trip, and a Spanish lesson, if you like. They have run the park for several years and know everyone in town. We were having tire trouble, and Rosie got help for us right away, even though it was a Saturday afternoon. A shopping center that is as modern as American shopping malls is situated nearby. The stores take credit cards, and pesos are available from an ATM machine.
On the second day, we left Ciudad Victoria and drove south on Route 85 approximately 120 miles to Ciudad Valles, where the highway meets Route 70. Stopping there makes the drive to Tampico longer, but we had been in Ciudad Valles before and enjoyed it. The Tropic of Cancer is delineated at a landmark not too far south of Ciudad Victoria, so you might want to stop and take a photo there.
The Valles Hotel in Ciudad Valles retains some of the Spanish charm of the old days when it was a favorite stopping place on the Pan American Highway. Space for RVs is available there along a palm-lined lane within the walled property. When we visited one Christmas, a posada procession that included actors depicting Mary and Joseph entered the courtyard near us. They proceeded to the “stable” where they placed baby Jesus in the manger, sang hymns, read passages from the Scriptures, and then had a party where children vied to break a piñata. This time the highlight was finding a roost of malachite butterflies — spectacular green-and-black creatures that are rarely seen farther north.
Tampico was our next destination. We were traveling east on Route 70 when we were stopped by army soldiers who wanted to know where we were going. They asked to come inside our motorhome, so we could hardly refuse. They seemed to be looking for drugs or stowaways as they opened the closets, bathroom door, and drawers. We didn’t speak Spanish well enough to get any details, but we think they also were simply curious. We were stopped several more times along Route 180 south of Tampico, but none of the soldiers gave us a hard time. They didn’t ask for money and were courteous. Although these searches were a bit intimidating, we didn’t feel threatened. If you are ever stopped in Mexico in this fashion, just keep your cool and be polite, and you will have some good stories to tell when you get home.
A toll road around Tampico makes a good bypass and joins Route 180 south of town. The police were generally very helpful when we became lost. In one case, they drew us a map, and in another, they led us to our destination.
The road south of Tampico heads inland, away from the coast, for several miles. It had some bad potholes, which we were told had been caused by a hurricane the previous autumn. Be cautious when driving in these problem areas, and slow down if necessary.
Route 180 returns to the ocean at the town of Tuxpan, where beautiful beaches await. You can camp next to the ocean in your motorhome for free; however, to us, the Playa Azul hotel in nearby Catemaco, adjacent to the beach, looked safer. This hotel offers spaces for RVs and tents, and a rest room and shower inside one of the hotel rooms is set aside for campers’ use.
Fidel Castro fled to Tuxpan in the 1950s to organize his forces before he attempted to defeat the Cuban government of Sgt. Fulgencio Batista. Riverside Drive is the scenic way through town, and to Santa Barbara Campground to the south.
While in this region we began seeing signs directing visitors to El Tajin, which made it easy to find our way through the towns. The signs were quite distinctive, bedecked with a pyramid and arrows that pointed us in the proper direction through the town of Poza Rica toward the site.
Instead of stopping at El Tajin immediately, though, we decided to visit it on our return trip, and headed for Lago Catemaco, a few hundred miles down the coast, south of Veracruz. We were looking for birds, and Catemaco is one of the best birding areas along Mexico’s Gulf Coast. On the way there, we spent the night at Hotel Playa Paraiso, approximately 10 miles north of Nautla (halfway between Tampico and Catemaco). This hotel offers 15-amp RV sites amid palm trees, with a swimming pool and a pretty beach.
We continued south on Route 180 to the Balneario Mocambo Hotel, on the south side of Veracruz. Its RV sites are located between the hotel and the ocean — a beautiful spot, with 15-amp electrical hookups, water, and rest rooms.
We suggest that you take time at Veracruz to visit the city’s Museum of Art and History, with many Olmec, Totonac, and Huastec exhibits; the Mexican Naval Academy; La Hermita, said to be one of the oldest churches in North America; the Castle of San Juan de Ulua, which was once a Spanish fort; cigar-making businesses; and the Isla de los Sacrificios lighthouse, located on an island and accessible by boat. Exotic restaurants will tempt you, too. After spending two nights in Veracruz, we headed for Catemaco.
In addition to being a good birding area, Lake Catemaco is also a delightful spot to swim and go boating. You can stay at Playa Azul, a hotel with spaces set aside for RV parking. It is situated along the lake, approximately 2 miles from town, and is easy to find. We spent three nights exploring the jungle trails and lake. Fellow bird-watching RVers will especially be interested to know that familiar species, such as redstarts and magnolia warblers, could be seen. But the big thrill was spotting a boat-billed heron, a yellow-winged tanager, and a bat falcon, as well as an egret rookery on an island in the lake. Boat tours are offered on the lake and to an offshore island that is home to Asian monkeys.
From there, we headed back toward El Tajin on the toll road — Route 180D — which stretches from Acayucan to Veracruz (via Route 150D).
The ancient city of El Tajin, located in Papantla, is a fascinating window on early Mesoamerican culture. The entry fee of $3 is certainly reasonable. A museum there provides one with a good orientation of the site. You can take your tour with a hired guide, or tour on your own using a guidebook. Archaeologists are only beginning to uncover the mysteries of the people who lived there.
Various interpretations say that the name El Tajin is a Totonac word that means “place of thunders,” “lightning,” or “hurricane.” Another educated guess is that Tajin means “the sacred city of the dead and of the thunder in storm.” Regardless of which translation is used, when flashing bolts of lightning and ear-splitting thunder exploded from the heavens, it must have sounded to the ancient inhabitants as though the gods were speaking.
The ancient city of El Tajin is approximately 1/2-mile square, and archaeologists surmise that it was at its height between A.D. 800 and 1150. It is believed to have been a religious center for the Mayan-related Huastecs (WES-teks), and it has the highest degree of artistry of any early city on Mexico’s east coast. Despite the city’s early importance, it remained hidden in the jungle for several hundred years.
Many of the buildings are still covered with jungle growth, but the central plaza is most impressive. The 60-foot-high Pyramid of the Niches is one of the most famous and finest pre-Columbian buildings in Mexico. The pyramid has seven levels and a total of 365 niches, or alcoves, that originally were painted black and covered with crimson stucco, although most of the color has now faded. It’s believed that an offering was placed in a different niche each day of the year. In that way, the pyramid functioned as a calendar to keep track of when to plant, when to harvest, and when to pray for rain.
So far, more than 150 structures have been identified at El Tajin, including temples, altars, palaces, and ball courts. Only 20 or so have been restored. Serious excavation of the site didn’t begin until 1992, the year that El Tajin was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Great progress has been made during the past 10 years in bringing this ancient city to light again.
Seventeen I-shaped ball courts have been found. Accounts vary about the game, but apparently it was similar to soccer, in that the hard rubber ball could not be touched by the players’ hands. It had to be driven through a small hole in a stone by hitting it with hips, knees, shoulders, or any other means possible.
Archaeologists believe that the stakes were high for games during special celebrations, because the ball courts were built with stone art depicting decapitated players. Images of gods that pertained to the dead are depicted in scenes showing them playing the game. However, there is some debate as to whether the game’s winner or loser was actually decapitated. Logic tells us that some games must have occurred without a supreme sacrifice, or they wouldn’t have been so popular.
El Tajin must have been a beautiful city. Water was supplied by wells, and drainage canals dispersed the water to different areas of the site. It is believed that the most elite citizens resided in the high parts of the city, at the “Tajin Chico.”
Today, Totonac men who live in the area of Papantla, just south of El Tajin, wear traditional flowing white pants. Some don slightly different costumes to perform a special “flying pole dance” near the entrance to the site, when a sufficient audience has formed. Four men, wearing red pants, white shirts, bright yellow decorated vests, and cone-shaped hats, climb a single 82-foot-high pole. Each has a rope tied around his waist that is attached to the pole. The men descend the pole, twirling repeatedly. Meanwhile, a fifth man stands atop the pole, playing a flute with one hand and keeping rhythm on a drum with the other.
This ceremony originally was performed to coincide with the vernal equinox, but it is now presented regularly. The audience is expected to show its appreciation by providing a small payment.
Walk down the central plaza, with pyramids and temples on either side, and imagine how it must have looked a thousand years ago. Life probably was good in normal years, but if the gods didn’t bring rain, one can only guess what sacrifices might have been made. Carvings on the panels of the ball courts testify to stories portraying Quatzalcoatl and other gods.
Today local farmers still bring seeds to the Pyramid of the Niches for blessings before they are planted, and loud booms of thunder remind us of the gods that were so much a part of ancient culture.
Our visit to El Tajin was the highlight of our trip, and we hope to return. The real treasures lie in learning more about this mysterious civilization.
The Mexico Tourism Board, (800) 446-3942, provides information about border crossing and travel locations within the country; brochures about specific destinations; and a general brochure. The following Web sites may also be helpful. Using an Internet search engine should yield even more results.
The authors stayed at the following campgrounds. Other facilities are available and may be listed in your favorite campground directory or found in the Traveler’s Guide To Mexican Camping book. The initial phone exchange (in parentheses) is necessary only when phoning from the United States; do not dial it if phoning from within Mexico. Please see the text of the story for descriptions of each location.
Victoria Trailer Park
Blvd. F, Velazquez 1940
Ciudad Victoria, Tampaulipas
Carretera Mexico-Laredo 36 Norte
Ciudad Valles, San Luis Potosi
Hotel Playa Paraiso
Km 86 Carretera
Poza Rica-Nautla, Costa Esmeralda, Veracruz
Balneario Mocambo Hotel
Playas de Mocambo s/n
Boca del Rio, Veracruz
Km 2, Carretera a Sontecompan
Catemaco, CP 95870, Veracruz
Travel In Mexico
Following are many, but not all, of the items you’ll need to consider when traveling south of the border:
Be sure to prepare
Obtain Mexico travel information and maps before you leave. Use guidebooks, such as those listed in the accompanying “Books” sidebar, for your journey. To learn about campgrounds other than those mentioned in this story, check your favorite campground directory or obtain a copy of Traveler’s Guide To Mexican Camping, which provides detailed information.
Crossing the border
If you normally carry a gun in your motorhome, be sure to leave it in the United States. Do not attempt to bring it into Mexico.
If you must take prescription drugs, carry along the medicine in its original container with the doctor’s name printed on the label. It’s best to also bring the actual prescription slip you received from your doctor. Not only does this avert suspicion, but if your medication becomes lost or depleted, you can get a refill.
Bring your birth certificate or passport, your driver’s license (if you have one), proof of vehicle ownership, and proof of Mexican insurance.
Regarding insurance, a Mexican law requires that you purchase accident liability insurance from a Mexican-owned company. This means that your U.S. policy may not cover much, if any, damage that your vehicle might receive if you are in an accident in Mexico. We bought insurance from Sanborn’s Insurance (800-222-0158) in advance for our 30-foot Winnebago Brave motorhome. However, other insurance companies and some RV caravan companies also sell Mexican insurance; some are listed in the Traveler’s Guide To Mexican Camping book. You also may wish to contact companies in the FMCA “Business Service Directory.” Look under the headings of “Insurance” and “Caravans, Tours.”
If you plan to stay in Mexico longer than 72 hours, you will need to present your birth certificate or passport to obtain a tourist card. The cards cost $22 per person, regardless of age.
You also will need to buy a vehicle permit. If you own your motorhome, bring the original registration or ownership title. If it is leased or being financed, bring the vehicle registration as well as a letter from the lien holder (lessor, bank, or finance company) giving you permission to temporarily import your coach to Mexico. A letter on official company letterhead looks more impressive. To be safe, it is a good idea to have the letter notorized.
If you are towing a car or another vehicle, even if it’s only a motorcycle or ATV, you must present the above documentation for that vehicle, too. And only one vehicle per driver is permitted. If a husband and wife in a motorhome bring along a towed car, for example, both of them would need to have a valid driver’s license. One person’s name would be registered for the car and the other’s name for the motorhome.
The vehicle permit costs $22 per vehicle. Both the tourist card fee and the vehicle permit fee may be paid with a VISA, MasterCard, or American Express card (other credit cards, including Discover cards, are not accepted). Return your vehicle permit — and the sticker that’s affixed to the windshield — when you reach the U.S. border again, so you won’t have trouble, as we did, if you later return to Mexico.
New computers have been installed at all border crossings, so this should speed up the process in the future, but it does take time. Be patient and don’t get anxious.
If you have further questions or concerns about border crossing, consult the Mexico Tourism Board at (800) 446-3942 prior to your visit, or check the Web sites noted under “Further Info.”
Stock up on water before you go, and buy bottled water in Mexico if you don’t want to suffer through a bout of “Montezuma’s Revenge.” Bring along your favorite foods, as you may not find them on your trip. While in Mexico, it is wise to avoid lettuce, vegetables, and fruit that can’t be washed or peeled. Mexican bakeries have delicious bread, cookies, and pan dulce (sweet rolls), so you can enjoy these goodies. Beer, soft drinks, and other bottled items are safe.
RV sites in Mexico are outfitted with 15-amp electrical service, if at all; 30-amp and 50-amp service can be hard to find. Also, voltage is known to fluctuate widely, which could damage onboard appliances and electrically powered devices such as microwave ovens, air conditioners, and computers. To avoid a potential problem, some RVers carry a 15-amp electrical cord, and run higher-wattage appliances with a generator. The voltage supplied usually is sufficient to keep the motorhome batteries charged and to run a few lights and other low-wattage items. Grounded outlets are rare also, and reverse polarity is not uncommon, so it’s best to test an outlet before hooking up. Also, most of these campground outlets are equipped with two prongs, so to correct the polarity problem, turn your plug upside down.
Driving in Mexico
Gas stations are run by the government, and you will find them at the outskirts of most towns. Two grades of unleaded gasoline, sin plomo, are offered. Purchase the premium grade, dispensed from red pump handles. Diesel fuel also is available.
All stations are full-service. Be sure the gas station attendant resets the pump to zero before beginning to pump your gas, and be sure you are given correct change. It is customary to tip the station attendant.
However, you may want to check with your appliance maker concerning whether butane can be substituted. Butane is readily available in Mexico, since the country does not get the cool weather that prevents its use. Just be sure to use all of it before you return.
As you travel in populated areas, at some point (usually at a traffic light) you’ll probably be surrounded by young boys or men rushing over to wash your windshield. If you are not prepared to hand over some money, simply say “No.”
Do not travel at night in Mexico. Daytime travel is already somewhat hazardous, because animals and people walk alongside the road. They become very hard to see after dark. Take it easy, and enjoy your trip in daylight.
If you encounter mechanical trouble while traveling in Mexico, phone the Green Angels, who are trained to assist stranded motorists. From within Mexico, the number is (800) 482-9832. Another reason not to travel at night: the Green Angels patrol from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Mexico Travel Books
Following are some of the many books that can help you plan and enjoy any trip south of the border. Publisher and ordering information phone numbers are included; however, most books also are available in bookstores and from online booksellers.
- Traveler’s Guide To Mexican Camping by Mike and Terri Church (Rolling Homes Press, 445 pages, $19.95; 888-265-6555, www.rollinghomes.com). These RVers have traveled to Mexico several times. The book provides details about campgrounds, facilities, toll roads, sight-seeing suggestions, and much more.
- Mexico By RV, A Step-By-Step Guide To RVing In Mexico by Kathy Olivas (SunSeeker Publications, 181 pages, $19.95; 866-743-9624; www.sunseekerpub.com). Provides practical information about RV travel, shopping, and restaurants. Also includes suggested intineraries and a large glossary.
- The AAA Mexico TravelBook, free to AAA members. Contact your local AAA office for information about obtaining this guide, which rates and lists restaurants and hotels; includes sight-seeing suggestions; and provides border-crossing information.
- Mexico Handbook, by Joe Cummings and Chicki Mallan (Avalon Travel Publishing, 1,220 pages, $21.95; 510-595-3664, www.moon.com). This guide includes an overview of Mexico’s geography, climate, culture, people, and history, as well as information about attractions.