The main attractions west of the city is a series of isolated ruins, the most famous being the Olmec site at La Venta, although, with the best pieces now residing in Villahermosa, the site itself is a bit empty. The little-known ancient Zoque people also flourished in this area, and the ruins at Malpasito reflect that unique culture.
This small town on the border between Tabasco and Veracruz, 128km from Villahermosa, would be of little interest were it not for the nearby archeological ruins. This ancient city, the name of which remains unknown, was occupied by the Olmecs between 1200 and 400 BC and is regarded as their most important centre. Most of the finest pieces found here, including the famous basalt heads, were transferred to Villahermosa’s Parque La Venta in 1957 and 1958. The museum at the entrance to La Venta itself (800m north of the bus station) has a model of the grounds, as well as glass cases with rather confusing displays of unlabelled pottery.
The site itself retains some replicas of the sculptures and heads now displayed in Villahermosa, and a few weathered steles and monuments, but the highlight is the huge grass-covered mound, about 30m high, clearly a pyramid, with fluted sides believed to represent the ravines on the flanks of a sacred volcano. The climb up is worth the effort for the views and the breeze. Paths below take you through the jungle – fascinating for its plants and butterflies, but haunted by ferocious mosquitoes.
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 appreciate them fully, you’ll need to do some hiking: not only to canyons and waterfalls, but also to the ruins of MALPASITO, with their astonishing petroglyphs.
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 facts 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 2m 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.