By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
Seen from above, Villahermosa, capital of the Mexican State of Tabasco, appears to be embraced by water. The urban landscape is sprinkled with lakes that are bordered by paths, parks, and public green spaces. In fact, Tabasco possesses 33% of all the fresh water in the country. The majestic Usumacinta River, the country’s longest, empties into the ocean here. The history and legacy of this region and its people are indeed rooted in water, which has bestowed both blessings and challenges.
I muse on this while leaning on the Solidarity Bridge, part of a scenic lookout point over the Grijalva River, and one of the architectural landmarks of Villahermosa, a city founded by Diego de Quijada on June 24, 1564 under the name “Villa Carmona.” The bridge, topped with a sturdy tower, links the city’s old quarter with the eastern neighborhood of Gaviotas. On the western side lies the main square, which is bordered by some of the most important government buildings in the city and State: the neoclassical statehouse (built in 1894), the Congress, and the Courthouse (both more modern). There is also a small plaza with water features set against the backdrop of the city’s original cathedral, the Church of the Conception, dubbed “La Conchita.” The church stands in the first part of town to be settled, a historic fact marked by an obelisk in Bicentennial Square, between the statehouse and Avenida 27 de Diciembre.
I am ashamed to confess that I knew very little about Villahermosa before Copa Airlines announced the city’s incorporation into its route network. Villahermosa’s paucity of colonial constructions in comparison with similar cities in México may have something to do with its relative anonymity. This is a surprising lacuna considering that nearly fifty years before its founding —in 1519— the Gulf coast north of here was the site of one of the defining events of Mexican history: Hernán Cortés penetrated Mesoamerica along the same waters of the Grijalva River that I see running through the city and under the bridge.
A statue in the city center commemorates Taabscoob, the Maya lord of Potonchán, who was one of the first chiefs to resist the Spaniards and also one of the first to be defeated. Several young women were handed over as part of the tribute demanded by Cortés. One of them, Ce Malinalli, better known as La Malinche, tempted the European conquistadores into a march toward Tenochtitlán, the capital and heart of the Sole World (Cem Anáhuac); their footfalls sounded the death knell for the grandeur of the Mexicas.
Villahermosa replaced Santa María de la Victoria, the region’s first capital. The city changed names several times over the centuries before receiving its current name in 1916. The location has likewise shifted around. Assaults by indigenous peoples, pirates, and even the river itself, which overflowed its banks every few years, forced the inhabitants to move to the few elevated spots nearby. The city’s old quarter followed the same pattern. If we leave the Main Square, take Avenida Madero to Juárez Park, turn toward Avenida Zaragoza and then go south again from the corner of Avenida 5 de Mayo, our steps will have traced a line around a sector of architectural wonders and hidden corners that whet a visitor’s appetite for the city.
A must-see is the Casa de los Azulejos, where a frieze depicts the daughters of the original owner, and which today houses the Tabasco Museum of History. Calle Narciso Sáenz, now a pedestrian street, exudes the tranquility of a traditional town on the Mexican Caribbean. It is also the birthplace of the great poet, intellectual, and outstanding citizen of Tabasco, Carlos Pellicer Cámara, not to mention the site of the Siempre Viva and Jaguar Despertado houses, both now art galleries. This enclave is popular with tourists and Villahermosa residents. Although people stream down Madero, 27 de Febrero, Reforma, and Lerdo de Tejada avenues, Plaza Juárez seems to be a vortex drawing in those out and about. Take a seat in the courtyard of one of any number of restaurants and savor a mug of beer while listening to a marimba group. You can end your downtown wanderings at the Cathedral of the Lord of Tabasco, which stands on high ground on the far western edge of the Esquipulas neighborhood. Consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1990, it boasts two of the tallest (nearly 200 feet high) church towers in México.
Villahermosa supplies clues to México’s colonial past and it also takes us back to the mists of civilization in Mesoamerica. Highway 180, shortly after it crosses Paseo Tabasco, brings us to the large green expanse of La Venta Museum-Park, created in 1958 through the vision and efforts of Carlos Pellicer. The Park spreads over some seventeen acres of forest, through which winds an interpretive path that connects thirty-three monoliths from the mysterious Olmec civilization, mother of all the Mesoamerican cultures. In earlier times, Olmec sites were raided by looters who sold their finds to universities and museums in the United States and Europe. Alarmed by this, Pellicer led a drive to recover many of the pieces from the La Venta archeological site —almost on the border of the neighboring State of Veracruz— thus preserving them for future generations. Villahermosa showed its gratitude to the philanthropist by naming the Regional Museum of Anthropology after him; the museum exhibits mostly Olmec and Maya artifacts, but it also houses pieces from the Teotihuacan, Totonac, Mixtec, Zapotec, Toltec, and Mexica cultures, many of them donated by Pellicer.
One of the altars on exhibit in La Venta Park shows an Olmec warrior dragging a noble prisoner to be sacrificed. Our guide explains that the features of the captive clearly identify him as a Maya. Olmecs ruled the surrounding peoples, including the proto-Mayas, to whom they were related, between 1300 and 200 B.C. The Mayas took up the mantle of the civilization after the Olmec culture declined. Thirty-seven miles from Villahermosa sits the Maya archeological site of Comalcalco, which flourished between 700 and 900 A.D., and is perhaps the westernmost outpost of that civilization. A curious fact about Comalcalco is that, unlike its eastern sister cities that are built of stone, this settlement is made of brick even though there are no nearby quarries.
The prosperity of Comalcalco was based largely on the cultivation of cacao, that delicious fruit that continues to sustain a dynamic cluster of plantations, including some near the ruins of Comalcalco, such as the Hacienda Jesús María. This century-old farm has been in the current owner’s family since 1917. The estate produces cacao products, from drinking chocolate to eating chocolate, including semi-sweet and white chocolate. It also offers tours of plantations of “cacao almendro,” a local variety the estate is trying to revive. The tour concludes at the main house, where the staff demonstrates the traditional method of processing cacao. Tourists can even produce and carry away their own souvenir bag of ground artisan cacao. Another Comalcalco plantation, La Luz, serves up a “Chocotour” in a charming minibus. The visit includes a walk through the hacienda house (currently inhabited by the owners), and a stop at a museum exhibiting tools used to harvest cacao from the pre-Colombian era to modern times. Another draw is watching a chocolatier making bonbons and other chocolate candies.
But humans do not live by chocolate alone; Tabasco also lays out an extraordinary gastronomic spread. In Comalcalco itself we were able to taste the stylings of chef Vidal Elías Murillo, whose Tavola restaurant serves an unusual Italian menu with a local accent. The cuisine of Villahermosa and its surroundings benefits from the ebb and flow of people from around the world, as is common to cities on the water, be it a river or the sea. The city’s restaurant zone, Plaza City Center, brings together some of the most innovative restaurateurs in Villahermosa, including Ernesto Aguilera Rodas, owner of Tierra Criolla. He served us a fantastic menu of classic recipes adapted to modern techniques. Lovers of more traditional food can head for El Puchero on the Carlos Pellicer Beltway for authentic Tabasco dishes such as puchero (a soup of meat and root and other vegetables) and a pastel de elote (corn cake) that knocked the socks off this humble writer. The blending of traditional and modern cuisine has taken the Tabasco restaurant scene by storm, as demonstrated by Adán Tejeda Delgado, whose La Choza de los Pérez in the town of San Román delighted us with an incredibly varied buffet centered around pejelagarto (tropical gar), a fresh water fish that abounds in the area.
San Román is close to the swamplands of Centla, an iconic natural gem of Tabasco. Named a Biosphere Reserve in 1992, the protected area spreads over some three quarters of a million acres along the delta complex of the Usumacinta and Grijalva Rivers. The east bank of the river, north of where the rivers join, is the site of the park’s interpretive center, known as Uyotot-Ja (House of Water), where visitors learn about the importance of water, the process that led to the creation of such lush surroundings, and the role of humans in maintaining the environment. After visiting the center, tourists can walk the nearby trails. The variety, proximity, and relative tameness of the resident fauna is simply amazing: alligators, lizards, raccoons, and birds are common sights, especially on a boat tour, which is a highlight of the tour options
Tabasco is essentially flat, sea-level land, but there is a small mountainous section. Our last trip through the State takes us to the Tabasco mountains. The pleated hills and mountains hide treats such as the Coconá grottoes, near the town of Teapa. Discovered in 1876, Coconá features an accessible path about a third of a mile long that runs through eight otherworldly caverns. A spring, some 115 feet deep, is home to species that are unique to the grotto. You can finish with a flourish by rappelling back to the starting point. Another attraction in the mountains is the tourism complex of Kolem Jaá, near the former residence of Tabasco politician Tomás Garrido Canabal, where tourists can visit a museum dedicated to his memory, relax in the spa waters and waterfalls, and practice nature-oriented and adventure sports. Tapijulapa, near Kolem Jaá, is considered one of México’s “magical towns,” and is famous for its vegetable fiber crafts. We have now worked our way through this tasting menu of the tourist draws of Villahermosa and Tabasco, but you will have more opportunities to savor the attractions once the city is connected to the rest of the Americas through the Hub of the Americas in Panama City, beginning this August.
Starting on August 3rd this year, Copa Airlines will offer four flights a week to Villahermosa from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean, through the Hub of the Americas in Panama City. The outbound flight leaves Panama City Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 12:26 pm, arriving in Villahermosa at 3:11 pm. Return flights leave the same days at 5:11 pm and touch down in Panama City at 8:02 pm. For further information, visit www.copaair.com.
This feature was made possible by support from the Tabasco Convention and Visitors Bureau. For further information on Villahermosa and the State of Tabasco, visit www.visitetabasco.com.