Despite the best efforts of the state tourism board, few visitors view the state of Tabasco as more than a transit corridor for Palenque, as most people have to change buses in the capital city, Villahermosa. Crossed by numerous slow-moving tropical rivers on their way to the Gulf, the low-lying, humid region is the homeland of the ancient Olmec, Maya and Zoque cultures. There are numerous archeological sites here, such as Comalcalco, a Maya site north of Villahermosa, and the most important Olmec site, La Venta, west of the capital.
Villahermosa (“Beautiful Town”), the state capital, is often maligned for not living up to its name, but it has some attractive patches, notably the Parque Museo La Venta, a beautifully done outdoor archeological exhibition of the legendary Olmec stone heads, and the pedestrian-friendly historic downtown.
Tabasco’s coast, alternating between estuaries and sand bars, salt marshes and lagoons, is off the beaten track for most visitors. Hwy-180 runs very close to the shore, however, enabling you to reach the beaches with relative ease. Though the sands are a bit buggy, and the views often marred by the offshore oil industry, they do have the virtue of being frequented only by locals, if at all. All have somewhat limited facilities – even the main coastal town, Paraíso, is a tiny place. Much of inland Tabasco is very flat, consisting of the flood plains of a dozen or so major rivers, which proved a hazard when floodwaters washed over the state in 2007 and 2008 – but, impressively, little evidence of these disasters remains. In fact, the state’s borders are largely marked by rivers, and boat trips along the Grijalva and the Usumacinta are the best way to glimpse remote ruins and the region’s abundant birdlife. You can also travel by river into the Petén in Guatemala, leaving from La Palma, near Tenosique, in the far eastern corner of the state and near the Classic Maya site of Pomoná.
In the far south of the state, around Teapa, the foothills of the Sierra Puana offer a retreat from the heat and humidity of the lowlands. Waterfalls spill down from the mountains, and a few small spas (balnearios) have developed. Village tracks provide some great hiking trails and, despite the proximity to Villahermosa, you can enjoy a respite from the well-travelled tourist circuit.
Tabasco cuisine relies heavily on tropical fruits and seafood, as well as the pejelagarto, or freshwater gar, a green-fleshed, pike-like fish that’s usually barbecued and served with chile, lime and a salsa of deadly, caper-size chillies. But Tabasco Sauce isn’t actually a speciality: although Tabasco peppers are named after the state, they don’t grow here, and the celebrated condiment is an American product made from peppers grown in Louisiana.
Little is known about the Olmec culture, referred to by many archeologists as the mother culture of Mesoamerica. Its legacy, which included the Long Count calendar, glyphic writing, a rain deity and probably also the concept of zero and the ball-game, influenced all subsequent civilizations in ancient Mexico. The fact that it developed and flourished in the unpromising environment of the Gulf coast swamps 3200 years ago only adds to its mystery. Olmec civilization began to decline around 400 BC, and over the next thousand years the plains were gradually absorbed by the great Maya cities to the east, an influence most notable at Comalcalco. After the collapse of Classic Maya civilization, Tabasco became something of a crossroads, its great rivers important trade routes to the interior, though its remaining Maya communities were relatively unorganized.
Villahermosa, the state capital, is a virtually unavoidable road junction: sooner or later you’re almost bound to pass through here on the way from central Mexico to the Yucatán or back, especially if you hope to see Palenque. It’s a large and prosperous city, and at first glance it can seem to be subject to as bad a case of urban blight as any in Mexico. The longer you stay, though, the more compensations you discover. Quite apart from the Parque La Venta and sudden vistas of the broad sweep of the Río Grijalva, there are attractive plazas, quiet old streets, impressive ultramodern buildings and several art galleries and museums. In the evening, as the traffic disperses and the city cools, its appeal is heightened, and strolling the pedestrianized streets around the Zona Luz, as the historic downtown core is known, or the lively malecón, where everything stays open late, becomes a genuine pleasure. Villahermosa’s modern commercial centre, Tabasco 2000, 2km northwest of the Zona Luz, is a smart area of government buildings, a conference centre and high-end hotels, where oil-industry business travellers hang out.
Most visitors to Villahermosa head straight out to Parque La Venta, the obvious highlight of the city, but the Zona Luz in the old centre also warrants some exploration. The narrow streets contain several absorbing museums and galleries, particularly the Museo de Historia de Tabasco, housed in one of the state’s most ornate buildings. If you have more time, it’s worth heading out to Yumká, an enjoyable safari park and ecological research centre.
Some 100km southwest of Villahermosa, between the borders of Veracruz and Chiapas, a narrow triangle of Tabasco thrusts into mountains known as the Sierra Huimanguillo. These rugged peaks are not that high, only up to 1000m, but in order to fully appreciate them, you’ll need to do some hiking: not only to canyons and waterfalls, but also to the ruins of Malpasito, with their astonishing petroglyphs. A car, however, is necessary. Although you can get to the ruins by bus, it arrives too late to visit the ruins, and there is no reliable overnight accommodation in the village (a small guest cabin was under repair in 2009; in a pinch, ask in the village for Guillermo Pérez, who rents rooms).
The site and waterfalls
The post-Classic Zoque ruins are overshadowed by jagged, jungle-covered mountains, the highest point in Tabasco. Though the ruins bear a certain resemblance to Palenque, the Zoque were not a Maya group – one of the few things known about them. On the way into the site you pass terraces and grass-covered mounds, eventually arriving at the unique ball-court. At the top of the stone terraces forming the south side of the court, a flight of steps leads down to a narrow room, with stone benches lining either side. Beyond this, and separate from the chamber, is a square pit more than two metres deep and 1.5m wide. This room may have been used by the ball-players to make a spectacular entrance as they emerged onto the top of the ball-court.
But the most amazing features of this site are its petroglyphs. More than three hundred have been discovered so far: animals, birds, houses and more, etched into the rock. One large boulder is covered in enigmatic flat-topped triangles surmounted by a square or rectangle, and shown above what look like ladders or steps – stylized houses or launching platforms for the chariots of the gods, depending on your viewpoint.
While in the area, you can cool off at the nearby Cascadas Las Pavas, a beautiful set of waterfalls, set in a tranquil spot down a path through dense flowering trees, and often surrounded by butterflies. To get here, backtrack along the road to town, and bear left at the fork.
Parque La Venta and the Museo de Historia Natural
Parque La Venta and the Museo de Historia Natural
A visit to Villahermosa’s Parque La Venta could easily fill half a day. The most important artefacts from the Olmec site of La Venta, some 120km west of Villahermosa, were transferred here in the late 1950s, when they were threatened by Pemex oil explorations. Little is known about the Olmec culture, referred to by many archeologists as the mother culture of Mesoamerica.
Just inside the entrance, a display familiarizes you with what little is known about the Olmecs, as well as the history of the discovery of La Venta. The most significant and famous items in the park are the four gigantic basalt heads, notable for their African-looking features. Additionally, there’s a whole series of other Olmec stone sculptures. To conjure a jungle setting, monkeys, agoutis (large rodents) and coatis (members of the racoon family) wander around freely, while crocodiles, jaguars and other animals from the region are displayed in sizeable enclosures. At night, there’s a rather good sound-and-light show that involves strolling from monument to monument, dramatically illuminated amidst the shadowy trees – buy tickets and enter at a second gate, about 250m southwest along Paseo Tabasco.
Parque La Venta is set inside the much larger Parque Tomás Garrido Canabal, which stretches along the shore of an extensive lake, the Laguna de Ilusiones. There are walking trails here and boats for hire, or you can climb the Mirador de los Águilas, a tower in the middle of the lake. Also in the park, opposite the La Venta entrance, the small Museo de Historia Natural features displays on the geography, geology, animals and plants of Tabasco, focusing on the interaction between humans and the environment.
The states of Chiapas and Tabasco are extremely rich in festivals. Local tourist offices should have more information on what’s happening.
New Year’s Day
(Jan 1). San Andrés Chamula and San Juan Chamula, both near San Cristóbal, have civil ceremonies to install a new government for the year.
Día de San Sebastián
(Jan 20). In Chiapa de Corzo, a large fiesta with traditional dances (including the masked parachicos) lasts several days, with a re-enactment on Jan 21 of a naval battle on the Río Grijalva. The event is big, too, in Chamula and Zinacantán, near San Cristóbal.
Día de la Candelaria
(Feb 2). Colourful celebrations at Ocosingo.
Fiesta de San Caralampio
(Feb 11–20). In Comitán, celebrated with a parade to San Caralampio church, where elaborate offerings are made and dances held in the plaza outside.
(the week before Lent; variable Feb–March). Celebrated in hundreds of villages throughout the area, but at its most frenzied in the big cities, especially Villahermosa. San Juan Chamula also has a big fiesta.
Anniversary of the foundation of Chiapa de Corzo
(March 1). Town fair with kiddie rides, live music and more.
(Holy Week). Widely observed. There are particularly big ceremonies in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Ciudad Hidalgo, at the border near Tapachula, has a major week-long market.
Feria de San Cristóbal de las Casas
(April 1–7). Festival in San Cristóbal de las Casas celebrating the town’s foundation. A Spring Fair is generally held here later in the month.
Feria de Villahermosa
(second half of April). Villahermosa hosts its annual festival, with agricultural and industrial exhibits and the election of the queen of the flowers.
Día de San Pedro
(April 29). Celebrated in several villages around San Cristóbal, including Amatenango del Valle and Zinacantán.
Día de la Santa Cruz
(May 3). Celebrated in San Juan Chamula and in Teapa, between Villahermosa and San Cristóbal.
Día de San Isidro
(May 15). Peasant celebrations everywhere – famous and picturesque fiestas in Huistán, near San Cristóbal. Also, there’s a four-day nautical marathon (variable dates) from Tenosique to Villahermosa, when watercraft from all over the country race down 600km of the Río Usumacinta.
Día de San Antonio
(June 13). Celebrated in Simojovel, near San Cristóbal, and Cárdenas (Tabasco), west of Villahermosa.
Día de San Juan
(June 24). The culmination of several days’ celebration in San Juan Chamula.
Día de San Cristóbal
(July 17). Celebrated enthusiastically in San Cristóbal de las Casas and in nearby villages such as Tenejapa and Amatenango del Valle. This is just one highlight in over a week of festivities.
Día de Santiago
(July 25). Provokes widespread celebrations, especially in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Fiesta de Santo Domingo de Guzmán
(last week of July, first week of August). Comitán’s fair, with concerts, rodeos and more.
Fiesta de San Lorenzo
(Sunday nearest Aug 10). Celebrated in Zinacantán, with much music and dancing.
Día de Santa Rosa
(Aug 30). Celebrated in San Juan Chamula, when the locals don traditional garb and play Tzotzil harps and instruments outside the church.
(Sept 14–16). In Chiapas, independence celebrations are preceded by those in honour of the state’s annexation to Mexico.
Día de la Virgen del Rosario
(first Sun in Oct). Celebrated in San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán with Tzotzil folk music and dances. There’s also a special craft market.
Día de los Muertos
(Day of the Dead; Nov 1–2) The most captivating celebration of the Day of the Dead in Chiapas takes place in Comitán, where the cemeteries overflow with flowers and ornate altars. Families make offerings and hold dances, to the accompaniment of traditional music.
Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe
(Dec 12). An important day throughout Mexico. There are particularly good fiestas in Tuxtla Gutiérrez and San Cristóbal de las Casas, and the following day another in nearby Amatenango del Valle.
Feria and cheese expo
(Dec 17–22). Held in Pijijiapan, on the coast highway to Tapachula.