Huge, hot, noisy and brash as only a Mexican city can be, VILLAHERMOSA – or “Beautiful Town” – could at first sight hardly be less appropriately named. For travellers in this area, though, it’s something of an inevitability, as a junction of road and bus routes. But it’s also a distinct place, and it can grow on you. Quite apart from the sudden vistas of the Río Grijalva’s broad sweep, there are attractive plazas, quiet old streets, impressive ultramodern buildings and several art galleries and museums.
Most sights are in or around the pedestrianized downtown core (called the Zona Luz), though some tourist services are 2km or so northwest, in the modern commercial centre called Tabasco 2000. Between the two areas are the spires of a half-built Gothic cathedral, begun in 1973 – a fine symbol of the city’s new-old aesthetic.
Parque La Venta
A visit to this archeological park and museum 2km northwest of the centre 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.
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. They’re also extraordinary because the material from which they were hewn does not occur locally in the region, so they must have been imported from what is now Veracruz, Oaxaca or Guatemala. 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. Parque La Venta is actually set on the edge of the much larger Parque Tomás Garrido Canabal, stretching 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.
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 subsequent thousand years the plains were gradually absorbed by the great Maya cities to the east, an influence most notable at Comalcalco.