Destination Mexico

The Watery World of Centla

The marshes of Centla, on the northern coast of the Mexican state of Tabasco, represent one of the richest and most bountiful aquatic environments in México and Mesoamerica. Panorama of the Americas toured the area, discovering this beautiful and vibrant natural setting that has also served as a backdrop for some of the most significant events in the history of the Americas.

By Juan Abelardo Carles R.
Photos: Carlos Gómez

This area is crossed by the Usumacinta, San Pedro, and San Pablo Rivers and their tributaries. Exceptionally large lakes include El Viento, San Pedrito, Pajaral Primero, Pajaral Segundo, Sargazal, Tronconada, Cometa, Encantadita, San Isidro, Larga, El Quemado, Los Ídolos, Tacual, Guana, Contemo, Paquial, Corcovado, La Puerta, Clara, Pastal, and Puerto Escondido.

If any place bears witness to the aquatic treasures of Tabasco and México, it is the mangrove swamps of Centla, which becomes evident as soon as you leave nearby Villahermosa and take Highway 180 toward the Caribbean coast of this Mexican state. The extensive pastures, which were actually estuaries until recently, gradually give way to the swampy terrain of Centla and its white mangroves (Laguncularia racemosa) and other trees and shrubs, such as Brown’s Indian rosewood (Dalbergia browneii), sea hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus), Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus sp.), silver-leafed buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus), pond apple (Annona glabra), moste or itzimte (Clerodendrum ligustrinum), and canacoite (Bravaisia integerrima), all veiled by vines and thickets.

This is the first chord in a melody of nature, the first hue and strand in a plush green quilt that covers some three quarters of a million acres and serves as a living, breathing passage to the place where the Grijalba and Usumacinta Rivers come together in a vast delta before mingling with the waters of the Caribbean Sea. Belying appearances, this oasis of peace has been the stage of violent episodes in the history of México and the Americas. The seemingly impenetrable green wall outside my car is the same one Hernán Cortés and his men spotted from the blue Caribbean in 1519, and where the Spanish conquistador tried to land. Tabascoop, the Maya lord of Potonchán, rallied his warriors in a failed attempt to repel the landing. Among other reparations, the indigenous ruler offered Cortés a Náhuatl slave named Malintzin, who sparked Cortés’ greed when she described the riches of the Anáhuac Valley where the luminous Tenochtitlán dominated the Sole World.

Cortés departed from here on an expedition that shaped the world we now know. Meanwhile, Centla drowsed in the tropical stupor that has remained essentially unchanged to the present day. After traveling nearly fifty miles on Highway 180, we cross the Enrique González Pedrero Bridge over the Grijalva River and immediately turn right, following the course of the river. Less than ten minutes later we arrive at the Uyojot Ja’ (Casa del Agua or House of Water), the administrative and interpretive center of the Centla Swamp Biosphere Reserve.

The complex consists of five pavilions raised on stilts and divided into exhibition spaces where displays present land ecosystems and the effects of human activity. There are also workshops, auditoriums, and observation platforms. The literal high point of Uyojot Ja’ is the tall observation tower that looks to the south where the Grijalva, Usumacinta, and San Pedrito (actually a tributary) meet. Opened in 2002, the complex sets the stage and provides a gateway to the extraordinary life of the mangrove swamps.

Unlike other sites, where animals tend to hide from visitors, in Centla they seem welcoming, or in any case, indifferent to human presence. I get the impression that feeling safe in the Uyojot Ja’ environment has caused them to lose much of their natural fear of people. Their innocence is a delight, since it allows me to enjoy an infinity of shapes, colors, and songs.

Centla is home to myriad vertebrates, and merely by leaning over the railings at Casa del Agua, you can watch swamp crocodiles and turtles while iguanas scurry along the trails. The astonishing variety of birds includes a number of long-legged wading birds. The reserve teems with thirty-nine species of fish, fifty species of amphibians and reptiles, sixty species of mammals, and 125 species of birds, the majority of which are aquatic and semi-aquatic.

The interpretive center and surrounding paths lie in the heart of the swamp, making the flora here more selective than on the edges of the protected area. Although some parts are dominated by the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), a few promontories host species such as the Thibaud inga (Inga spuria), with long, white-pulped fruit; the bloodwood tree (Haematoxylum campechianum), a key element in the region’s prosperity since Colonial times; and the most significant of all: the imposing ceiba tree, the sacred focal point of Maya cosmovision. The ceiba’s branches are thought to hold up the Heavens (Wakah-Chan), while its roots burrow into the depths of the underworld (Xibalbá). The existence of the human domain depends on the strong trunk of the ceiba, which separates and maintains the space between the realms of the thirteen celestial deities and the nine underworld gods.

The Centla experience is more than a walk along marked trails near Uyojot Ja’. You need to venture out, embrace the salty flows, and get down to the level of the opaque waters. How you do this depends on how much time you have to tour the swamps: you can hop into a motorboat to cover more distance or climb into a kayak or traditional canoe (during the dry season), which are slower but let you see the swamps at your own pace. We took the middle ground by opting for a motorboat and making extended stops.

Drifting quietly is the only way to become one with that “silence” that is filled with the sounds of life, an echoing silence that reigns only in nature reserves. We saw a plethora of resident and migratory long-legged wading birds that nest in the trees and feast on the insects, small reptiles, and mollusks that sidle across the prolific mud flats of the swamp. Elegant tiger herons (Tigrisoma mexicanum), great egrets (Ardea alba), mating ringed kingfishers (Ceryle torquata), and white ibises (Eudocimus albus) were some of the most flamboyant birds to cross our path. Centla is also home to many more winged species, such as the limpkin (Aramus guarauna), the lesser yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes burrovianus), the snail kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis), the aplomado falcon (Falco femoralis), the merlin (Falco columbarius), and the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), to mention just a few of the feathered creatures that rule the tree canopy and the skies.

We board a launch provided by the Boca de Tres Brazos Tourism Services Co-op, one of the community organizations that serve tourism in the Centla region. This area is home to some 15,000 people, mostly racially-mixed groups and indigenous Chontales and Mayas, who make a living from fishing, agriculture, and day labor. Since Centla was declared a protected area in 1992, the tourism sector has grown, strengthening the local economy. Our tour ends at the Frontera Country Market.

It has been a magical day of breathing in the intense, mineral, and slightly fermented smells of the swamp and hearing and seeing the wildlife, protagonists of the eternal cycle of birth, growth, decay, death, and resurrection that prevails in the confines of Centla, where earth jostles with river and sea. The expedition whets our appetite for the famous sea bass ceviche, classic fare in the town of Frontera, as well as for a buffet of dishes made with garpike, an important element of regional cuisine.



Copa Airlines offers three flights a week to Villahermosa (México) from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. From the Tabascan capital of Villahermosa, take Highway 180 toward the town of Frontera. After crossing the Enrique González Pedrero Bridge, turn south along the highway to Mariche de Morfín. The Casa de Agua interpretive center is located 7.5 miles from the bridge.