Visit Mayan Ruins, White-sand Beaches, and Unrestrained Rain Forest in Mexico's Next Eco-tourism Destination

Tabasco, Mexico, may fall under the radar of most travelers, but its historic capital city, jaw-dropping natural wonders, and archeological sites make it a destination worth exploring. 

Temple at Palenque historic site in Mexico
Photo: Getty Images

Tabasco, located in southeastern Mexico, is home to a blossoming ecotourism industry, thanks to its white-sand Gulf coastline, mountain villages, and unrestrained rain forest, home to parrots, monkeys, and Mayan ruins.

But as Tabasco's tourism sector fortifies, so, too, may industrialization. It is the home state of Mexico's populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the site of two large-scale development projects: a new oil refinery for Mexico's national petroleum company, and the Tren Maya, a rail line intended to connect the country's five southernmost states.

For now, at least, Tabasco remains somewhat under the radar, making it an up-and-coming tourist destination to visit before it booms. Here's where to go and what to see.

Villahermosa

View of the city of Villahermosa, Mexico; a colossal Olmec head at the Parque Museo La Venta
From left: iStockphoto/Getty Images; The Image Bank/Getty Images

Fly into the state capital of Villahermosa, just a short hop from Mexico City or Cancun, and book a stay at Hotel Boutique Menta & Cacao, housed in a government-protected, century-old, robin's-egg-blue building. It's located in Villahermosa's historic downtown, just a short drive from the open-air Parque-Museo La Venta. More of a garden than a museum, the museum-park houses a collection of colossal heads made by the Olmecs, the first known civilization of Mesoamerica. Sculpted out of enormous basalt boulders, the heads are believed to date as far back as 900 BC.

Villa Luz Ecological Reserve

Villa Luz waterfall in Tabasco, Mexico
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From Villahermosa, it's a 90-minute drive to this park, home to the Cascadas de Villa Luz waterfalls. Swim in the crystal pool at the bottom of the falls, or take a walk across swinging suspension bridges shrouded in dense greenery. Later, retire to one of the brightly painted bungalows at the nearby eco-retreat Kolem Jaá, which also offers ziplining, rafting, and climbing excursions. The neighboring mountain village of Tapijulapa — known for its white houses with red tile roofs — is one of 132 towns across Mexico that has been designated a "Pueblo Mágico" (magical town) by the ministry of tourism.

Cocina Chontal

One of the world's best restaurants, Cocina Chontal, is located just outside the archaeological site at Comalcalco, the westernmost city built by the Mayans. (And it's worth the 50-minute drive from Villahermosa!) This traditional restaurant cooks authentic fare over an open fire, and serves huge portions. Come hungry, and relax in one of their hammocks as you wait to be served.

Chiapas

Palenque, Mexico - Temple XIX relief carving
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It's also worth visiting the archaeological site Palenque, historically known as Lakamha, or "big water," located in the neighboring state of Chiapas, just two hours by car from Villahermosa. This impressive Mayan city-state was one of the most powerful of the Classic Maya period, reaching its peak population in the 7th century. An overnight stay in nearby El Panchan, where hostels are a dime a dozen, can break up the trip.

Also in Chiapas, but not far from Tapijulapa, sits El Chichón, an active volcano that makes a magnificent day hike. Those who reach the top will be rewarded with views of the emerald-green crater lake in the volcano's center.

Tours

Local adventure-travel outfit Jungla Experience, which operates in Tabasco and Chiapas, can create a custom ecotourism itinerary. Their standard offerings include a three-day tour of Chiapas and Tabasco, a three-day tour of the Mayan ruins, including Palenque, Yaxchilán, and Bonampak, and two days of hiking the Chichonal Volcano and Pico de la Pava, the highest peak in Tabasco.

You can also take a one-day city tour of Villahermosa with Mexitours, which includes a stop by Museo La Venta and Yumka, an ecological reservation, complete with wetlands, savannahs, and lakes.

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