Puerto Vallarta is full of attractions, history, and beauty. But there is nothing quite like the Voladores de Papantla — “The Flyers” of Papantla. Every day in Puerto Vallarta you can see the flying ritual performed by the men in their beautifully-adorned costumes.
The flying ritual dates back to prehispanic times. It is an ancient ceremony passed down through the generations from various peoples of Mexico. Some of the peoples associated with this religious tradition are the Nahua, Huastec, Otomi, and Totonac peoples.
A Traditional Ceremony Still Performed Today
According to tradition, there was a severe drought and the elders believed they needed to appease the gods. They decided to develop an elaborate ceremony as a way of asking the gods to bring back the rain. They sent their young men in search of the tallest, straightest tree they could find. They cut down the tree, stripped it of all its branches, and placed it firmly in the ground for the ceremony.
After blessing the site and performing various rituals and prayers, the five voladores (“flyers”) or hombres pájaro (“bird men”) climbed the tree-pole (30 meters high) to get in position to “fly.” The caporal (“priest” who leads the voladores) sat on top of the pole, while the four others sat on the four sides of a frame, each attached to a rope wrapped around the pole. After the caporal played the reed flute (“puscol”) and the small drum (“litlagni”), the voladores leaned backwards head first to begin their descent. With arms outstretched, they look a bit like birds circling overhead, slowly coming down to earth in wide circles. The caporal continued to play his flute, daring to stay on top of the pole with no rope tied to his body. As the voladores “flew” down, they spun around the tree-pole exactly 13 times. 4 Voladores x 13 spins = 52. The number 52 is significant for two reasons. First, it is the number of weeks in a year. Second, and more importantly to the ancient Mayan people, 52 years is one solar cycle, according to the Mayan calendar.
Photos: Daniel Pantaleon
Symbolism and Costumes
There is much symbolism in the ritual. The four voladores who descend represent the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). They also represent the four elements: earth, water, wind (or air), and sun (or fire). The caporal, who performs on top of the pole, represents the fifth direction — vertical. Their performance is to honor the sun god, springtime or fertility god, and the rain god.
“This important religious ceremony dates back 1500 years ago. The ritual started in central Mexico in honor of the God of Sun, for the purpose of boosting that year’s harvest and improving fertility. The ‘flyers’ represent fire, earth, water, and air.”
Puerto Vallarta Official Website
The modern-day flyers are dressed like brightly colored birds. Their costumes include a white shirt, red pants, yellow fringe, and a beautiful sash around their torso. Their shoes are black leather boots. The flyers wear a bandana under a round, ornate hat with a tuft on top that looks much like feathers of a bird. This costume is an important link to the past, honoring this tradition that has been handed down over the past two centuries.
Why You Shouldn’t Miss the Voladores
In case anyone is asking, “Why should I see this flying ritual?” it should be pointed out first that this ceremony is not a circus act. Although acrobatics are involved, it is not the intent of the performers to entertain, as much as it is to carry on an important tradition. The ceremony has deep religious meaning, and even today some of the performers claim to feel a spiritual connection during the ceremony (Check out this video of an American participating. Hear his comments about the spiritual experience starting at 4:14).
The reason you shouldn’t miss this ceremony is because it is so important culturally. In fact, the Ceremony of the Voladores was selected in October 2009 by UNESCO “as an element of intangible cultural heritage of humanity” (gomexico.about.com). So, even though it is a tourist attraction of Puerto Vallarta, and tips might be expected, it is all about preserving the historical traditions of the ancient peoples who have lived in Mexico for thousands of years.
Where to Find the Voladores in Puerto Vallarta
The general location is right on the Puerto Vallarta Malecon. According to one TripAdvisor user’s post, “Their pole is on the beach between Pipila and L. Vicario, . . . They perform every day right now, at least once about 6pm, but if there’s a cruise boat in town, multiple times in the day.”
Where to Stay
Club Regina Puerto Vallarta is located between the Sierra Madre Mountains and Banderas Bay. It is within walking distance of the marina.
Villa Vera Puerto Vallarta is located in Marina Vallarta. All units in the Mediterranean style resort offer pool views and some offer marina views as well.