Everything You Need to Know About the Danza de los Voladores

Which is most spectacular? The backdrop or the voladores?
Which is most spectacular? The backdrop or the voladores? | © Larry Lamsa/Flickr

Northern England Writer

Modern day Mexico is home to an ancient and spectacular ceremony that still succeeds in astonishing its lucky witnesses. It’s known by various names, including the Danza de los Voladores and the Voladores de Papantla. Here’s everything you need to know about this magnificent Mesoamerican marvel.

Origins

The Danza de los Voladores is a ceremony with deep spiritual and ritual significance originating from the Mexican state of Veracruz. The tradition ultimately spread across Mexico and down as far as Nicaragua. While it is now most closely associated with the Totonac peoples of Veracruz, in particular in Papantla, (hence once of its names), this intriguing danza was likely the invention of the Nahua, Huastecs, and Otomi.

The flyers preparing to jump

The original significance of the Danza de los Voladores was, like many other Mesoamerican rituals, connected with fertility, corn, and the harvest. According to Totonac myth, the Danza de los Voladores originated as a way to appease the gods and end severe drought. This theory perhaps explains why the ritual is most closely associated with rain and solar gods such as Tlazotlteotl, Xipe and Totec, as well as notable solar events such as the Spring Equinox.

The Danza de los Voladores has been significantly revived in recent years (albeit mainly for commercial purposes) and nowadays, it’s so important to the cultural heritage of Mexico that it was recognised by UNESCO in 2009.

Climbing the pole

What is the Danza de los Voladores?

As anyone who’s seen the ritual will know, it makes for an unforgettable experience. Typically, five men dressed in striking red and white outfits—bedecked with mirrored elements and rainbow headdresses representing the sun and rainbows, respectively—shimmy up a 30-metre high pole, before four of them proceed to tie themselves to the top of the pole with rope. The fifth member, known as the caporal, either plays the flute, bangs on a drum, or sings at the top of the pole. The four voladores (representative of the earth’s cardinal directions and elements) then launch themselves backwards from the pole, beginning their elegant (but terrifying) descent towards the ground. While it may look rather ill-calculated, a total of 13 rotations are completed each—totaling 52—and cleverly mirrors the years in the Aztec calendar’s ‘century.’

Although the modern-day performance is close to what the original iterations would have been like, there have undoubtedly been modifications throughout the years. While early versions began with the felling of a tree that would become the central pole (a process known as tsakáe kiki), it’s now far more common to see permanent metal poles used instead. Furthermore, the ritual was once far more complex, involving meditation and the impersonation of birds, whereas in Nahua and Otomí cultures, there is no pre-pole climbing dance. Other iterations feature six voladores, rather than five.

The flyers throw themselves right from the top of the pole

Controversy

A few years ago, Jesús Arroyo Cerón, who passed away in 2006 after falling during a performance, became one of the first men to train female voladores. His death was interpreted by some as retribution for his ‘transgression’ (women are strictly prohibited from taking part in the Danza de los Voladores). Even so, Cuetzalán, Puebla is home to several women voladores, although men by far outweigh women in this profession. And profession it is, as evidenced by the school for voladores in Veracruz, where the criteria for entry includes speaking Totonac and not being female.

Where can I see the Danza de los Voladores?

Nowadays, the Voladores de Papantla are a popular tourist attraction, with shows being performed regularly in tourist destinations across the country, such as Puerto Vallarta, Playa del Carmen, and Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. However, there are plenty of other more off-the-beaten-path places to catch a glimpse of the famous ‘flyers, ’including at the annual Encuentro de Voladores at El Tajín, Veracruz, the historic centre de Papantla, Veracruz and Cuetzalán, Puebla. Alternatively, you can catch the Guatemalan take on the Danza de los Voladores—which is known as the Palo Volador—in Joyabaj, Chichicastenango or Cubulco on specific days of the year.

Which is most spectacular? The backdrop or the voladores?
culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider

Hanna

women sitting on iceberg

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?

2 years.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?

It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.

WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?

I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.