written by Dennis Jacobs, guest blogger
There I was, walking along the Malecón, minding my own business, when these four guys started flying at me from a pole on a beach next to the Pacific Ocean, while another guy sat on the top of the pole, playing weird music on a flute and a small drum.
Now, this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me every day, and it might have discombobulated me normally, but I had been warned by no less than Mexican President Felipe Calderón to expect their appearance here.
While channel surfing a few days before my trip to Puerto Vallarta, I stumbled upon a PBS program called “Mexico: The Royal Tour,” in which Calderón showed some of the highlights of Mexico, including these pole flyers, to noted travel journalist Peter Greenberg.
As Calderón explained to Greenberg, these five men, known as the Voladores de Papantla, or Papantla Flyers, are taking part in a traditional religious ceremony which dates back 1,500 years. It began with native cultures in central Mexico, perhaps originating in the state of Jalisco, of which Puerto Vallarta is a part. It then spread to the Totonacs, an indigenous people who founded the city of Papantla in the Mexican state of Veracruz about 800 years ago.
An intangible heritage
According to UNESCO, which made the ceremony part of its Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009, it‘s “a fertility dance performed … to express respect for and harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds.”
In this case, fertility refers to the land, rather than people. The ritual was originally performed during a drought in an effort to please the gods in the hope they would send rain. This remains an essential purpose for the continuation of the tradition.
“This ceremony is to ask for enough rain for the crops,” local tour guide Cecilia Rupprechter explained to a group watching the ceremony with me. “In Mexico, we have only four months of rain and eight months of dry season.”
The original ceremony was much longer and more complex than the one presented in Puerto Vallarta, which lasts only a few minutes. An explanation for this was offered by the Mexican authorities who nominated the ceremony for inclusion on the UNESCO list.
“If in recent times some groups have agreed to present an abbreviated version (the flight) of the ceremony to the delight of tourists, this is partly owing to the capacity for adaptation of these ethnic groups,” they wrote. “For example, during the [Spanish colonial period], its practitioners were able to merge the ritual with the newly imposed religion [Catholicism], as evidenced in the Azcatitlan Codex, where we see the voladores (flyers) clad in wings of angels.”
In other words, by adapting elements of the faith of the conquistadors into their own cultural traditions, the Totonacs succeeded in preserving this ceremony during a time when many pantheistic customs where stamped out by the Catholic invaders.
This sort of accommodation began even before the Spanish arrived. Today’s version of the ceremony involves each flyer making 13 trips around the pole. Four times 13 equals 52, representing the 52-year “calendar round” of the Mayans.
The ceremony begins with the five men climbing the 50-foot tall pole to a small, square platform. Each of the points of the square represents a cardinal direction. The platform serves an important logistical purpose, as well, supporting the weight of the flyers on each of the four ropes as they slowly unwind from the top of the pole. The ropes are tied to the waist and ankles of the flyers.
The non-flyer who sits atop the pole playing a flute and a small drum fills an important ceremonial rule. His music is meant to appease the gods so that they will grant safe passage to the ground for each of the flyers.
While the flyers make their descent look effortless, the need for protection from danger is real. One of the most famous voladores, Jesús Arroyo Ceron, known for his controversial training of women to be flyers, died after falling from a pole in 2006.
Even the costumes worn by the voladores reflect the danger of the ritual. They wear red pants and white shirts and embroidered caps. An additional predominantly red cloth worn over one shoulder and across the chest and back symbolizes blood.
The voladores actually attend special schools where they are taught how to carry on this sacred tradition. So, as they say on TV, “Don’t try this at home!” But if you are in Puerto Vallarta walking the Malecón in the afternoon early evening hours, stop by and enjoy the spectacle, which begins on the hour.