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.
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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.
Relatively little is known about the Olmec culture, referred to by many archeologists 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) word “Olmecatl”, meaning “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. After emerging around 1200 BC, and eventually spanning across northern Central America and much of central Mexico, the 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.
South of Villahermosa
South of Tabasco's capital, the foothills of the Sierra de Chiapas are heavy with banana plantations, while higher up, thick forest remains and the roadside pools and wetlands are as wild as ever. The highlights of this region include numerous caves and grottoes, as well as several accessible spas, created by tectonic activity, in the main town of Teapa.
Fifty-nine kilometres to the south of Villahermosa, the small, friendly town of TEAPA is a lovely base for visiting nearby caves and hot-spring spas. The springs are sulphuric but soothing, and popular on weekends; during the week, they’re often empty. At the spectacular Grutas del Coconá, 4km northeast of Tepea, eight chambers are open to tourists, as is a small museum displaying pre-Hispanic artefacts found inside. A stroll through takes about 45 minutes. The caves are surprisingly humid, and lined with oddly shaped stalactites and stalagmites.
To escape the humidity of the lowlands, head up the valley of the Río Oxolotán to the Sierra Puana, Tabasco’s “hill country”. This is an extraordinarily picturesque area, with quiet colonial towns set in beautiful wooded valleys, and a turquoise river laden with sulphur. The main destination is TAPIJULAPA, a beautiful whitewashed village with narrow cobbled streets that could, at first glance, be mistaken for a mountain town in Spain. Dubbed a Pueblo Mágico by the federal government, it’s celebrated for wicker craftspeople, who have workshops all over town, and it’s the starting point for a beautiful natural park. From the edge of the village, the main street, López Portillo, leads downhill to a pretty little plaza. At weekends, local women serve exceptionally delicious tamales and other inexpensive food in the large civic building.
West of Villahermosa
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.
A taste of Tabasco
The food of Tabasco state relies heavily on seafood and tropical fruits such as pineapple and passion fruit, which are both cultivated here, along with coffee and cacao. A freshwater fish, the skinny pejelagarto, is particularly prized: the green-fleshed, pike-like fish is usually barbecued and served with chile, lime and a salsa of deadly, caper-size chiles. Other typical dishes to look out for include smoked oysters, coconut tortillas, banana bread, and chirmol, a rich mole sauce flavoured with pumpkin seeds and local herbs that works particularly well with fish. In terms of drinks, hot (or cold) chocolate and iliztle, a sugar-cane alcohol flavoured with pear or peach, are popular. But note that 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 in fact an American product made from peppers grown in Louisiana.