Few visitors view the state of Tabasco as more than a transit corridor for Palenque. 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. You can see the legendary Olmec stone heads in a beautifully done exhibition in state capital Villahermosa, a city otherwise often maligned for its concrete and chaos, yet boasting a historic, lively and pedestrian-friendly downtown.
Hwy-180 runs close to Tabasco’s coast, alternating between estuaries and sand bars, salt marshes and lagoons. Though the sands are a bit insect-ridden, and the views often marred by the offshore oil industry, they do have the virtue of being frequented only by locals, if at all. Much of inland Tabasco is very flat, consisting of the flood plains of a dozen or so major rivers. Boat trips along the Grijalva and the Usumacinta are the best way to glimpse remote ruins and abundant birdlife. You can also travel by river into the Petén in Guatemala, from the far eastern corner of the state.
In the far south of the state, the foothills of the Sierra Puana offer a retreat from the heat and humidity. Waterfalls spill down from the mountains, and a few small spas (balnearios) have developed. Village tracks provide some great hiking trails too.
Throughout the Maya period, Tabasco was a natural crossroads, its great rivers important trade routes to the interior. But its local Maya communities were relatively unorganized, and when Hernán Cortés landed at the mouth of the Río Grijalva in 1519, he easily defeated the Chontal Maya. But the town he founded, Santa María de la Victoria, was beset first by indigenous attacks and then by pirates, eventually forcing a move to the present site and a change of name to “Villahermosa de San Juan Bautista” in 1596.
For most of the colonial period, swampy Tabasco remained a relative backwater. Independence did little to improve matters, as local leaders fought among themselves, and it took the French invasion of 1862 to bring some form of unity, though Tabasco offered fierce resistance to this foreign intrusion. The industrialization of the country under dictator Porfirio Díaz passed Tabasco by, and even after the Revolution it was still a poor state, dependent on cacao and bananas. Though Tomás Garrido Canabal, Tabasco’s socialist governor in the 1920s and 1930s, is still respected as a reformer whose laws regarding workers’ rights and women’s suffrage were decades ahead of the rest of the country, his period in office was also marked by intense anticlericalism. Priests were killed or driven out (a process vividly brought to life in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory; he covers the aftermath in The Lawless Roads), all the churches were closed, and many, including the cathedral in Villahermosa, torn down.
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, enabling capital to be invested in the agricultural sector and Villahermosa to be transformed into the cultural centre it is today.