A park that's heads above the rest

Poet Carlos Pellicer rescued some of Mexico's largest, most ancient artifacts by bringing them to Villahermosa.

Humid, lush, and as hot as the sauce that bears its name, Tabasco is the kind of place that makes you sweat just thinking about it. It's also one of Mexico's most prosperous states, due to its fertile, oil-rich lowlands bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Nowhere are the results of this newfound wealth more evident than in Villahermosa, the state capital.

The Spanish founded Villahermosa ("beautiful village") in the 16th century, but virtually nothing remains of the town's colonial past. These days, Villahermosa is a bustling city that doesn't particularly live up to its name. Most of its architecture is modern, and traffic streams endlessly along its wide boulevards lined with shopping centers and fast-food chains.

Foreigners tend to stop in Villahermosa only long enough to cash a few traveler's checks before heading to the spectacular Mayan ruins at Palenque in neighboring Chiapas or to beaches on the Yucatán Peninsula.

But it's well worth lingering in this steamy tropical city to explore Parque-Museo de La Venta, a one-of-a-kind outdoor archaeology museum, ecological park, and zoo on the outskirts of downtown.

Treasures lost and saved

La Venta Park-Museum is home to a remarkable collection of pre-Hispanic stone sculptures rescued from the ancient Olmec city of La Venta, which is located about 80 miles northwest of Villahermosa.

In 1957, oil exploration threatened to destroy much of La Venta, so a Tabascan poet and preservationist named Carlos Pellicer hauled most of La Venta's stone sculptures by truck to Villahermosa. Among these treasures were colossal Olmec heads weighing between 10 and 24 tons each.

Pellicer arranged the sculptures in roughly the same order in which they were found at La Venta and surrounded them with indigenous flora and fauna. Under a huge ceiba tree, which was sacred to the Olmecs and Maya, a bust of Carlos Pellicer now marks the beginning of a path that winds for one-half mile past 34 displays.

Interpretive signs, plus Pellicer's footprints set in stone, point the way through the sunlight-flecked greenery.

Long-armed spider monkeys can sometimes be seen swinging through the trees, while small spotted rodents called pacas and raccoonlike coati-mundi scurry along the forest floor.

Ancient enigmas

Archaeologists have gleaned what little they know about the mysterious Olmec civilization from stone carvings such as those discovered at La Venta.

Using radiocarbon dating, scientists have determined that the Olmec civilization flourished from about 1200 BC to roughly 300 BC in what are now the states of Tabasco and Veracruz. The Olmec built the first cities in Mesoamerica and apparently devised a complex calendar plus systems of mathematics and hieroglyphic writing that influenced most of Mexico's ancient cultures.

The pieces at La Venta Park-Museum include massive "altars" thought to have served as thrones for Olmec rulers. Cavelike niches etched into the fronts of these rectangular chunks of stone harbor statues of men, possibly kings, seated cross-legged like meditating yogis.

Strange zoomorphic figures incorporating human and jaguar features also line the trail, together with irregularly shaped stone slabs known as stelae covered in intricate relief carvings of what seem to be dignitaries or priests conducting ceremonies.

Some of these artifacts raise more questions than they answer. For instance, one faded stele dubbed "the Walker" depicts a tall man with aquiline features and a goatee, rather than the stocky people with flat faces usually seen on Olmec sculptures.

This enigmatic carving has prompted suggestions that Phoenicians or other seafarers might have visited Mexico in the distant past, a theory that doesn't hold water, according to most archaeologists.

The star attractions of La Venta Park are four giant Olmec heads, the largest of which is eight feet high and weighs about 24 tons. Somehow the Olmec transported enormous pieces of basalt from the Tuxtla Mountains to make these impressive sculptures, which lie 62 miles as the crow flies from La Venta.

Archaeologists think the Olmec may have used logs to roll the immense blocks through the jungle and then loaded them onto rafts for the difficult journey by river and then by sea along the coast.

Seated like Buddhas atop rocky mounds, the giant Olmec heads stare impassively into space with their large almond-shaped eyes. All of the heads - thought to represent Olmec rulers - appear to have Africanfacial features, which has prompted claims that seagoing tribes from that continent at one time populated Mexico's east coast.

But archaeologists point out that people with similar looks could easily have been among the early hunters who crossed from Asia to the Americas on a land bridge that now lies submerged beneath the Bering Strait.

What the Olmecs held sacred

The stone heads wear toquelike helmets embellished with geometric designs. This protective headgear might have been part of the uniform worn by participants of a sacred ballgame that was probably invented by the Olmec and later played in much of Mexico and northern Central America.

To date, archaeologists have unearthed 17 colossal Olmec heads in Tabasco and southern Veracruz. The Olmec buried the heads and most of their other artistic creations, perhaps to hide them from invaders or to offer them to their gods.

In addition to an extensive forest with free-ranging animals, the La Venta Park-Museum contains a zoo with hundreds of species from Tabasco and its surrounding areas, including exotic birds, monkeys, crocodiles, and jaguars.

The Olmec revered the jaguar, which once roamed throughout the jungles of Mesoamerica. Jaguars are now increasingly rare in the region, and they continue to be threatened by poaching and habitat destruction. As disturbing as it was for me to see these magnificent felines in captivity, they serve as reminders that the park's archaeological treasures are not alone in needing protection from human interference.

Today, a walk among La Venta's timeless Olmec sculptures evokes the mystery and grandeur of Mexico's ancient civilizations. I couldn't help admiring Carlos Pellicer's dedication and hard work in creating this unique venue. At the same time, I felt sad to think that these irreplaceable works of art had to be moved from what had been their home for millenniums to make way for parking lots, air strips, and oil wells.

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