Tabasco, Mexico: ultimate travel guide

written by Olga Sitnitsa

updated 15.06.2021

For many years Tabasco was famous for revolutionaries, chilli sauce and little else. This Mexican state is increasingly appearing on tourist itineraries, drawing in travellers with its affordability, magnificent ruins, colonial cities, unique indigenous culture and lip-tingling cuisine. Read our ultimate guide to Tabasco, Mexico.

This article is inspired by our Rough Guide to Mexico — your essential guide for travelling in Mexico.

Where is Tabasco located?

Winding along the Gulf of Mexico, the smaller state of Tabasco is humid, largely flat, and crisscrossed by rivers and swamps. Bordering the Yucatán Peninsula – the most touristy part of Mexico – the state receives few travellers but has plenty of things to offer.

Tabasco sauce, however, is not one of them: although named after the state, the peppers don’t grow there and the condiment is actually a US product made from peppers harvested in Louisiana.

With our tailor-made trip to Mexico's Nature and Beaches, you will explore the nature and wildlife of Chiapas and Tabasco by visiting the Sumidero Canyon and Agua Azul waterfalls before heading off to the Yucatan Peninsula: Chichen Itza awaits to impress you with its magnificent pyramids before ending the trip at the white beaches of Holbox.

The tiny village of Tapijulapa, one of Tabasco's magic towns nestles on the mountainous border with Chiapas, hidden by the jungle © Shutterstock

Tapijulapa, one of Tabasco's magic towns nestles on the border with Chiapas © Shutterstock

What is Tabasco known for?

Throughout history, Tabasco, Mexico served as the most important trade route during the Mayan era. In 1519, Hernán Cortés defeated the Chontal Maya and founded the town of Santa María de la Victoria, which was subsequently attacked and pirated. In 1596, the city moved to its current location and was renamed "Villahermosa de San Juan Bautista".

Despite gaining independence, Tabasco, Mexico remained underdeveloped and divided. The French invasion in 1862 brought some unity but met with fierce resistance from the local population. During the reign of Porfirio Diaz, Tabasco failed to industrialise, and after the revolution, the state depended on cocoa and banana cultivation.

The region’s oil, discovered in the 1930s but not fully exploited until the 1970s, provided the impetus to bring Tabasco into the modern world. It enabled capital to be invested in the agricultural sector and Villahermosa to be transformed into the cultural centre it is today.

Villaheromsa - the capital city of the region

As Graham Greene pointed out when he travelled through Tabasco in the 1930s, Villahermosa doesn’t necessarily live up to the name “beautiful city”. But while Tabasco’s capital may not be the most aesthetically pleasing place, it has some fascinating attractions that you’re likely to have all to yourself.

The highlight is Parque La Venta, which displays relics from the Olmec site of the same name amid a jungle teeming with birds and butterflies and echoing with jaguar growls (which emanate from the adjacent wildlife park). Along with the sculptures, altars and tombs are a series of giant basalt heads for which the Olmecs – the mother culture of Mesoamerica – are famous.

Villahermosa is also the best spot to sample Tabasqueño cuisine, which is rich in tropical fruits and freshwater fish. Keep an eye out for the local super-sweet pineapples, the tasty pejelagarto fish (which is generally barbecued and served with a fiery sauce), and horchata de coco, a rice-milk drink spiked with coconut.

View of the Benito Juarez central plaza of the mexican town of Comalcalco in Tabasco © Shutterstock

View of the Benito Juarez central plaza of the Mexican town of Comalcalco in Tabasco © Shutterstock

Find more accommodation options to stay in Villaheromsa.

"Beyond Villahermosa"

There are some easy but worthwhile day trips from Tabasco’s capital. Some 100km southwest is the rugged Sierra Huimanguillo mountains, home to canyons, waterfalls and the petroglyphs of Malpasito.

Meanwhile 58km north of Villahermosa is the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco, whose temple, acropolis and palaces are distinctively built from kiln-fired bricks.

Yucatán is calling you, and this tailor-made trip to Mayan Heritage is the way to do it; go into the jungle and know it as no one else has ever known it; enjoy incredible food, beautiful sunsets, and the warmth of its communities that will do everything possible to offer you a dream experience. Are you ready?

Comalcalco archaeological site

The Classic-period site of Comalcalco is an easy, very worthwhile trip from the city. The area’s lack of building stone forced the Chontal Maya to adopt a distinctive form of construction: kiln-fired brick.

As if the bricks themselves were not sufficient to mark this site as different, the builders added mystery to technology. Each brick was stamped or moulded with a geometric or representational design before firing, with the design deliberately placed facing inwards so that it could not be seen in the finished building.

Many of these astonishing designs are on display in a museum; there are also restrooms and a small café at the site.

comalcalco-mexico-shutterstock_1107981893

Ruins of Comalcalco, Tabasco, Mexico © Bernikpriz/Shutterstock

The Olmec culture

Relatively little is known about the Olmec culture, referred to by many archaeologists as the mother culture of Mesoamerica. Its legacy, which includes 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 name Olmec comes from Nahautl (the language of the Aztecs) the word “Olmecatl”, means “rubber people”. This is a reference to the Olmecs' practice of extracting latex from trees growing in the region and mixing it with the sap of local vines to produce rubber.

The fact that the Olmecs developed and flourished in the unpromising environment of the Gulf coast swamps 3200 years ago only adds to their mystery.

Olmec big basalt head - Villahermosa, Mexico © Shutterstock

Olmec big basalt head - Villahermosa, Mexico © Shutterstock

The Cacao Route

The Cacao Route is a cultural and historical route that explores the rich legacy of cacao in the region. Tabasco, Mexico has a long history with cacao, which was an important agricultural crop for the ancient Mayan civilisation. The route takes you through different cacao plantations where you can learn about the farming and processing of cacao beans and even participate in the traditional chocolate-making process.

In the area around Comalcalco, several cacao haciendas have opened their doors to visitors. One of the most famous is Hacienda La Chonita, where you can visit in your own car and stay if you want to explore the region. There is also a small chocolate factory where you can learn about chocolate making.

Fresh tasty cocoa fruit © Shutterstock

Fresh tasty cocoa fruit © Shutterstock

Villa Luz Ecological Reserve

You probably won’t make it far in Tapijulapa before you’re accosted by kids offering to take you to boats for this natural park with its spa pools, cascades and caves. The park’s outstanding feature – not least for its powerful aroma – is the stream running through it, which owes its cloudy blue-white colour to dissolved minerals, especially sulphur.

Where it meets the Río Oxolotán, it breaks into dozens of cascades and semicircular pools. Thousands of butterflies settle on the riverbanks, taking nourishment from dissolved minerals, and jungle trees and creepers grow wherever they find a foothold – a truly primaeval sight.

With our tailor-made trip to Eastern Highlights of Mexico, you will explore the wide depths of Sumidero Canyon in Chiapas, and the fascinating archaeological site of Palenque in Tabasco, Mexico before moving on to the Yucatan to explore Merida, Chichen Itza and the peaceful island of Cozumel.

Waterfalls in tropical forest - Villa Luz, Tapijulapa, Tabasco, Mexico © Shutterstock

Waterfalls in tropical forest - Villa Luz, Tapijulapa, Tabasco, Mexico © Shutterstock

Centla Biosphere Reserve

If you want to experience the diverse flora and fauna in Tabasco, Mexico head to Centla Biosphere Reserve. Here you will find a variety of bird species, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

The reserve also serves as a source of maintaining the ecological balance in the region. Local wetlands help prevent floods and act as natural filters to improve water quality.

Among other things, the reserve offers extensive opportunities for eco-tourism and outdoor activities. Here you can explore the wetlands, and watch birds on guided tours while respecting the delicate ecosystem.

Explore more places to enjoy the local wildlife with our guide to where to go wildlife spotting in Mexico.

Best beaches in Tabasco

A weekend escape for Villahermosa residents, Paraíso is a sleepy place, with some beaches nearby – pleasant enough if you need to wind down, and a better place to spend the night than Frontera, 77km east on the way to Campeche. The nearest beach, Playa Limón, where locals go for picnics on weekends, is a short combi or taxi ride north of Paraíso.

Ten kilometres east of Paraíso, the road passes through Puerto Ceiba on the shores of the Laguna de Mecoacán. There’s a parador turístico here offering boat trips (for up to fourteen people) and a restaurant serving regional dishes and fish straight out of the lake.

The road then crosses Laguna Santa to the east, and there are turn-offs for several decent beaches before it meets Hwy-180, 50km or so north of Villahermosa. The first beach is Playa Azúl, where you can rent boats and jet skis. Playa Pico de Oro, 6km or so further on, is more tranquil. If you’re travelling light you could easily camp at any of these and get back to the main road in the morning.

Sunset in the tropical rainforest of Tabasco in southeastern Mexico © Shutterstock

Sunset in the tropical rainforest of Tabasco in southeastern Mexico © Shutterstock

Tabasco weather & climate

The climate in the state of Tabasco, Mexico, is tropical, with high temperatures and humidity all year round. The rainy season lasts from May to October, with peak rainfall in September, sometimes leading to flooding. The best time to visit Tabasco is during the dry season, which lasts from November to April, with little variation in temperature.

The average temperature ranges from 25-30°C (77-86°F). Tabasco is exposed to hurricanes during the Atlantic hurricane season from June to November. The climate contributes to the lush vegetation and agricultural output in the area.

Planning to visit Mexico? Read about the weather in Mexico and when is the best time to visit.

How to get to Tabasco, Mexico

There are several options for how to get to Tabasco, Mexico:

  • By plane: The easiest and most convenient way to get to Tabasco is to fly into Carlos Rovirosa Pérez International Airport in Villahermosa, the capital of the state of Tabasco. This airport handles domestic and a limited number of international flights, so if flying from abroad you may have to travel via major Mexican cities such as Mexico City or Cancun.
  • By bus: Tabasco is well connected by regular bus services with other regions of Mexico. Several long-distance bus companies operate routes to Villahermosa and other major cities in the state. Buses are an economical option and may take longer than flying, but you can enjoy the landscape as you travel along the way.
  • By car: If you are travelling from neighbouring states of Mexico, you can get to Tabasco by car. Major highways and roads connect Tabasco to neighbouring states, making it accessible by road. Be aware, however, that travelling long distances can be time-consuming and require planning.
olmec stone altar in the La Venta archeological park in Villahermosa Mexico © Shutterstock

Olmec stone altar in the La Venta archeological park in Villahermosa Mexico © Shutterstock

Safety Tips

Despite soaring crime rates and dismal-sounding statistics, you are unlikely to run into trouble in Mexico if you stick to well-travelled paths. Even in Mexico City, which has a dangerous reputation, the threat is not that much greater than in many large North American and European cities.

You may be asking yourself, "Is Tabasco, Mexico dangerous?" We hasten to reassure you, in general, Tabasco is considered relatively safe for tourists, especially in touristy places like Villahermosa. However, it is absolutely necessary to take measures to ensure your own safety:

  • Ensuring the safety of valuables: Petty theft and pickpockets are your biggest worry in Mexico, so don’t wave money around. Try not to look too obviously affluent, don’t leave cash or cameras in hotel rooms, and deposit your valuables in your hotel’s safe if it has one (make a note of what you’ve deposited and ask the hotelier to sign it if you’re worried).
  • Choosing safe places to live: Choose hotels with a good reputation or located in safe neighbourhoods. Check guest reviews and ratings to ensure a comfortable and safe stay.
  • Avoid risky areas: Although Tabasco is generally a safe region, there may be some neighbourhoods or areas with high crime rates. Avoid travelling to such areas, especially at night. Stick to well-lighted and populated areas.
  • Learning basic Spanish: Learning some basic phrases in Spanish can be helpful as it will help you to communicate better with locals and navigate situations more efficiently.
  • Use official transport: When travelling in Tabasco, use licensed and official transport. Do not take unmarked taxis on the street. If possible, book transport in advance.
  • Emergency contact information: Save important phone numbers, including those of the local police and your country's embassy or consulate, in your phone or write them down in case of emergencies.

Ready to start planning your trip? Check out the Rough Guide to Mexico and read our guide to the best things to do in Mexico.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Mexico without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

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Olga Sitnitsa

written by Olga Sitnitsa

updated 15.06.2021

Online editor at Rough Guides, specialising in travel content. Passionate about creating compelling stories and inspiring others to explore the world.

  • Activity
  • Off the Beaten Track
  • Nature & Wildlife
  • History Culture Heritage
  • Central America & the Caribbean
  • Mexico
  • Villaheromsa
  • Tabasco
  • Inspiration
  • See & Do

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