The Papantla Flyers: Four Lessons on What Makes Travelers Tick

by Steve Gillick
The Papantla Flyers: Four Lessons on What Makes Travelers Tick

Papantla Flyers performing in Puerto Vallarta. Photo:

Puerto Vallarta’s Malecon (the oceanside boardwalk) is a feast for the senses. As you walk north toward the downtown area and the “romantic zone,” you have Banderas Bay on your right and the squawking, splashing sounds of brown pelicans diving into the water for fish. On your left, you have bars and restaurants intermingled with souvenir shops selling hats, t-shirts, beach ware, and the usual tourist chachkas. And along the way, you encounter the city’s iconic sculptures, as well as the colorful Puerto Vallarta sign for those perfect poses and photos.

And then, you notice that, on the sand between the Bay and the Malecon, there is a 75-foot metal pole, and way up at the top are five men in colorful traditional garb. While the one at the very top of the pole plays the flute and drum, the other four lean back and, with a rope secured around one of their ankles, they fall backwards like scuba divers, and as the ropes unravel, they “fly,” upside down, through 13 revolutions, before landing on the sand below. They acknowledge the applause and coins of the spectators, climb the pole, and repeat the performance.

These are the Papantla Flyers – members of the Totonaca tribe – from the city of Papantla in Mexico’s gulf state of Vera Cruz. While some tourists may see the Papantla Flyers as buskers or entertainers, the Flyers are actually performing a 900-year-old ritual that imparts some valuable lessons to travelers and travel advisors alike.

1. Don’t judge a book by its cover. 
Some tourists travel with preconceived notions about what they see around them. They’ve been to countries where locals approach them, selling trinkets or chewing gum or asking outright for money.  And some travelers have been to destinations where they’ve been tricked into visiting a friendly taxi driver’s brother’s souvenir store (where they are not allowed to leave without buying something) or by a local who offers to take their photo and then runs off with their iPhone. 

While experience is the best teacher when it comes to travel smarts, open-mindedness is also a crucial component. Not every destination holds evil intentions. Not every local has your wallet top-of-mind.  Travel smarts means that you keep your wits about you, know where your valuables are at all times, don’t flaunt your wealth, but at the same time, enjoy every opportunity to explore and learn and connect with the destination.

The Papantla Flyers collect money to bring home to their families. There is no hard-sell here. If you choose to donate for the eye-popping ritual you have just witnessed, then so be it.

2. Colorful clothing is not always tourist bait.
Outside one of the shops along Puerto Vallarta’s Malecon is a bench on which sits a life-sized La Calavera Catrina Doll (a skeleton dressed up in women’s clothing, relating to the Day of the Dead). The tourist couple kept checking to see if anyone was looking before the husband sat down quickly while the wife took the snapshot and then they walked away thinking they had put one over on the storekeeper. 

The store uses La Calavera to draw in customers, to treat others to some of the intriguing customs and mythology of Mexico and to offer a friendly, no-pressure, photographic opportunity. While the couple now have a story to tell their friends about how they ingeniously stole a possibly forbidden photo opportunity, they’ll never know that they could have had a conversation with the store owner, learned about La Calavera, shared some laughs, sampled some tequila, and perhaps even bought a small souvenir to remember the encounter. Sure, there are countries where you see someone in traditional clothing, you take the photo, and then the person demands money from you. Not all destinations are created equal.

The Papantla Flyers dress in traditional, colorful clothing (it’s clothing, not a costume) to align their actions with the 900-year-old tradition where they were imitating birds to get the attention of the god, Xipe Totec, in hopes that he would put an end to the severe drought that was killing their crops. They are always happy to tell their story to those who ask.

3. Each traveler personalizes what they encounter and there are no ‘traveler templates.’
While the four Papantla Flyers flew around the pole 13 times, representing the calendar year of 52 weeks, a small crowd gathered and every individual seemed to have their own reaction. There were looks of awe as some people shielded their eyes from the sun and stared at the Flyers. Others took pictures or video from their camera or iPhone, and at least one couple watched for a few seconds, pointed to the spectators, smirked and then strolled off. No reaction was correct or incorrect. 

The analogy would be a situation where four travel advisors on a fam trip stay at a luxury resort.  Afterwards, based on their personalities, personal special interests, specific client needs, and the need for general knowledge about the destination, each travel advisor customizes the experience. One resolves to promote the five resort swimming pools. Another sees the chapel facilities as top-notch for destination weddings. A third can’t get her mind off the championship golf course, while a fourth sees the grilled lobster and the talented mixologist at the beachfront restaurant as the strongest argument for recommending the resort to his clients.  

Similarly, every client that visits the resort experiences their own ‘take-away.’ This is why it’s so important to establish a relationship with clients, to qualify them and discover needs, dreams, and how they define words like “relaxation,” “vacation,” and “value.”

4. Travelers want ubiquitous serendipity.
Serendipity refers to a happenstance where a discovery (usually a pleasant one) is totally unplanned.   Ubiquitous refers to something that is always present (e.g. the ubiquitous blue, sunny sky in the Caribbean). So, you can’t really have “ubiquitous serendipity.” (In fact, some would refer to this as an oxymoron, two words that contradict each other).

But travelers sure want it! They seek opportunities where pleasant surprises happen all the time and every day is one endorphin-thrill after another (endorphins are those chemicals in your brain that give you a feeling of happiness, euphoria and, “Wow, I’m having such an amazing time”). 

Discovering the Papantla Flyers, seeing their colorful clothing, and learning about the ancient flying bird ritual was one of those serendipitous discoveries during our visit to Puerto Vallarta. Then again, for me, the brown pelicans were serendipitous (we don’t have them in Toronto), as was my meeting with La Calavera. Everything in perspective.

Travel advisors can facilitate ubiquitous serendipity for their clients by visiting the destinations they sell, making lots of local contacts with tour guides, store owners, restauranteurs, hoteliers, wedding planners, and all the other people who have the talent and the connections to make things happen. 

The result? The clients are thrilled and the travel advisor feels great that they have been able to put together an amazing adventure for the client. It’s totally win-win. And now, just like the Papantla Flyers, it’s time to climb up that 75-foot pole again and repeat the astounding ritual.


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