January 16, 2019
The flight into Villahermosa from Mérida highlights the great diversity of Mexican topography. In Tabasco one is greeted by rivers, lakes, and swamps as far as the eye can see, in contrast to Yucatán, which is devoid of surface water. This luxuriant landscape has been called the ‘Garden of Eden’ of Mexico for good reason. Not only does it continue to supply a significant percentage of the national food supply, but it is also the cradle of chocolate, vanilla, and coffee production, not to mention the eponymous chili pepper. These are four of Mexico’s greatest gifts to the world! Here we would begin our new adventure traveling with noted anthropologist and archaeologist Marina Aguirre, exploring the past and present cultures of Southern Mexico; here we would discover more about the relationship between chocolate and Tabasco!
Tabasco, as the home state of México’s new president, AMLO, is rather more in the news lately. Villahermosa, the lovely state capital, is a moderately large urban city, bustling with commercial activity. Near the Grijalva riverfront there is a small historic downtown that has not been as well preserved as in other cities, but there is extensive renovation going on in the shopping district. Villahermosa has many beautiful parks, lakes and monuments, and the suburbs have ample hotels, shopping centers and residential complexes.
Arriving a day early, due to limited flights between Mérida and Villahermosa, we made the most of the opportunity to start our exploration of Maya culture before most of our group arrived. Our first stop was the Hacienda Jesús María, an organic chocolate plantation near Comalcalco, fifty kilometers from the city. It was a rainy day as we arrived, and temperatures were chilly for this part of México, but we were warmly greeted by Don Florencio, who spoke excellent English and led us on a tour of the processing and packing facilities.
The name “Cacao” (from the Mayan “kakaw”), is more widely known by the Nahuatl (Aztec) derivative, “xocolatl”. Cacao pods were so highly valued as to be used as currency by ancient Méxican cultures. Pods appear in hundreds of carvings, paintings and glyphs throughout the region’s ruins. The almonds inside the pods are removed and crushed, along with the mucilage, to form white chocolate; or dried and roasted, then ground, to form dark chocolate nibs. Traditionally the nibs were blended with ground cinnamon, pepper, achiote, or other spices, and mixed with water.
The addition of sugar was largely a Spanish innovation. Don Florencio lets us grind and sample some of the roasted cocoa, and leads us out to a specimen garden to see how the cacao plants are propagated, as well as other species raised here, including coffee. The plants are sheltered from the harsh Mexican sun by a high forest canopy. The hacienda ships primarily to France, where over eleven tons of beans were transformed last year into some of Europe’s most prized chocolates. The local production is sold under the “Cacep” label and it is as pure and delicious as any chocolate I have tasted.
The afternoon was occupied with a visit to the nearby ruins, the most western of all Maya cities, and an outpost of the more important city of Palenque. The most unique aspect of the Comalcalco ruins, known historically as Hoi Chan (Clouded Sky), is that the buildings are constructed not of stone, but of fired clay bricks. No other site displays this construction technique. The bricks were joined and covered with shell-based plaster, then carved and painted, so the final visual result would not have been significantly different from other Maya sites. Only a few of the carvings and traces of color remain. Unsurprisingly, Hoi Chan was also a major center of pottery production, and the center of regional cacao cultivation.
The site, first excavated by Frans Blom in 1925, who would figure prominently later in our tour, lies near the Gulf of Mexico, where it controlled valuable trade routes, and thrived from the sixth until the eleventh century. Only a small fraction of the site has been excavated, but there is a balance between residential and ritual structures. Many outlying buildings have only survived as foundations, as the upper portions would have been constructed from perishable woods and thatch. The homes of the elite crown the hilltop, and an elaborate system of fitted drainage pipes were discovered during excavations, a response to the wet tropical climate. The site museum contains an impressive collection of carvings, masks, domestic and ceremonial vessels, jewelry, and even a set of jade-encrusted teeth found in one of the burial chambers.
The next morning we meet Marina and the remainder of our erudite and engaging travelers to visit the archaeological park of La Venta, stepping even farther back in time to see the center of the ancient Olmec culture. The Olmecs, known as one of the world’s “mother cultures” - and foundation of all mesoamerican civilizations - thrived here between the fifteenth and fifth centuries B.C.E.
In addition to being a zoo - with jaguars, crocodiles, monkeys, coatis and exotic birds - here are displayed the famous monumental heads that are one of México’s most iconic images. Carved from basalt, he largest of these, almost twelve feet tall, weighs nearly 55 tons, and would have required over 1500 people more than four months to move from its point of origin in Veracruz State to the La Venta site. The heads have distinctive broad noses and while some feature heavy lips drawn into a scowl, others have a more placid demeanor. They wear helmets and large ear spools. We don’t know if the helmets were part of athletic paraphernalia, battle gear, or just status symbols. The La Venta altars portray gods or rulers emerging from a cave, representative of the underworld, or parents with children.
Olmec accomplishments extend beyond monumental art, however. The great pyramid at La Venta rises 34 meters above the surrounding plains. The presence of jade, obsidian and other distantly sourced stones indicates an extensive trade network. The ball courts, elaborate calendar, religious mythology, and system of glyphs found at La Venta were adopted and expanded upon by virtually all later Mexican cultures.