Sparsely populated and wedged between the states of Veracruz and Campeche along the steamy Gulf of Mexico, the State of Tabasco is known for its wide rivers, deep lagoons and as a headquarters for Mexico’s oil industry. Tabasco attracts few foreign tourists, despite offering all the modern amenities you'd expect in its capital city of Villahermosa, and a fascinating array of cultural attractions and outdoor pursuits. It has enjoyed anonymity as a tourist destination, yet has set in place a number of programs and facilities to begin hosting visitors like never before.
Measuring a mere 330 by 195 kilometers, the state is known for its high levels of humidity and the wetlands and intense tropical greenery that result. Several large rivers (including the mighty Usumacinta and Grijalva) drain from nearby mountains and tropical jungle into the Gulf of Mexico. Flat coastal plains give way to undulating foothills that eventually rise to become the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range. Lagoons, estuaries and marshes dominate the landscape. In fact, during the peak of the rainy season (September-October), nearly half the state is covered by water! Not surprisingly, Tabasco is home to over 2,200 plant species, some fabulous eco parks, and one of Mexico’s most delightfully untamed biosphere reserves.
Tabasco’s 190 kilometers of coastline has no resort development, but boasts several charming seaside villages spread along estuaries, salt marshes and lagoons – worth a visit if you've a taste for the rustic rather than the all-inclusive. Some of Tabasco's many inland attractions include stunning archaeological sites, sprawling cacao plantations, quaint colonial towns, and the revitalized state capital city of Villahermosa. Tabasco may be one of Mexico’s smallest states, but it is also one of its wealthiest. Its fertile plains support abundant year-round agriculture, while vast offshore oil fields bring waves of foreign and Mexican business travelers. This has created an air of relative prosperity in Tabasco, especially in the outlying districts of Villahermosa. Humid and warm all year round, the state’s climate can be extreme (heavy rains from May-October; more temperate climate December-March), so do come prepared – insect repellent is a must!
In defiance of these conditions, Mesoamerica’s earliest civilization – the Olmecs – thrived along Tabasco’s western border with Veracruz. Settling around 1500 B.C., the Olmec people developed Mexico’s first non-nomadic culture, while the Maya came to settle later among the highlands of neighboring Chiapas. Both cultures built great ceremonial centers that, to this day, are counted among Mexico’s most treasured archaeological sites. Interestingly, Tabasco served as the “border” between the Mayan and Aztec empires, handling trade and other relations between the two cultures. As such, Mexico’s three major indigenous cultures have influenced the region’s unique development, and the presence of all three can be felt in the state's complex historical character.
Today, the two largest indigenous groups are the Chontals (Mayans) and the Zoques. The Chontals have occupied this region for some 2,000 years and are heirs to the ancient Chontal Maya legacy. They preserve ancient traditions and lifestyles which can be witnessed in their communities even today. They reside in western and central Tabasco, living in small and self-sufficient fishing, cacao and ranching communities. The Zoques, the State’s second largest group, are direct descendants of the Olmecs. A few communities survive today, mostly in far western Tabasco, preserving many typically Olmec cultural traditions. Visitors can use Villahermosa as a convenient base for exploring the state. It's home to a whole range of modern hotels, U.S.-style shopping malls, and a host of interesting museums and cultural centers (most with English signage, so you won't have to stretch your Spanish skills too far). One of Mexico’s most fascinating zoological and archaeological parks, La Venta, is located here, along with glorious boat rides along the Grijalva River, and the unique Yumka safari park – unmissable if you're traveling with kids.