Our nine hour snooze aboard the “UNO” state-of-the-art sleeper-bus that sizzled non-stop through the night took Jane and I along with our folding bikes from a quiet moonlight Sunday evening in Mérida to the hustle and bustle of a Villahermosa on Monday morning.
The “UNO” bus is ADO’s luxury step above first class featuring huge fully reclining cushy seats, his and hers toilet facilities, always open wet-bar with unlimited hot and cold drinks and a “care-package” containing, ear plugs, ear phones, eye covers, blanket, pillows and even mint candies.
Jane and I are no strangers to Villahermosa, a unique tropical city bounded by the Grijalva, Mezcalapa and Carrizal rivers plus numerous lagoons.
Over the years we have enjoyed the one-of-a-kind city-center jungle park-museum La Venta with its wild monkeys and hoards of colorful parrots that features the mysterious mega-ton carved stone Olmec heads thousands of years old.
The world class riverfront Carlos Pellicer Cámara anthropology museum (Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer Cámara) that links the Olmec and Chantal Mayan cultures which formed the cradle of American civilization is easily worth the trip to Villahermosa by it self.
The other attraction unique to this capital city is its enormous municipal market where Tabasco’s extensive variety of deep tropical bounty is sold fresh daily. Cacao, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, corn, and many strange species of bananas are but a few of the items they sell and are also prepared along with tantalizing seafood delights done in their traditional Tabasqueño cuisine commingling ancient Indian and Spanish customary culinary cookery.
The following story is told with captioned photos:
Upon our arrival in Villahermosa across from the ADO bus terminal several open-air breakfast places compete and the service may vary from one to the other. If you can hold out for the big municipal market your meal will be much better and immensely cheaper.
Our old stand-by Hotel Bilboa, a block from the big market with roll in bicycle parking ultimately got our business and we next took to the busy streets headed for the marketplace on foot. Curious diversions abound.
Going hungry here is not possible if you have a few pesos and are willing to partake of the street food like this coconut vender has to offer.
Where is the beef? Behind Jane is bullfight poster announcing an upcoming slaughter of six bulls and in the shop hangs the fresh unrefrigerated slabs of flesh and sausage, so you don’t have to wait. I have always maintained if you have been in Mexico so long that the beef starts to taste good, you have been in Mexico too long.
Tabasco is chocolate country and has been for several thousand years dating back to the first cultivation by the Olmec Indians and here are the cacao beans in bulk and sold by the kilo. The bag in the middle is called lavabo and the others are fermented, two different processes.
Pozol: Made fresh and a local favorite is this drink concocted of ground corn meal and whole sun-dried and roasted cacao.. It is all natural and when you smack your lips after the drink the cacao butter leaves a lovely lubricating sensation.
The market diversity is utterly amazing and you can’t see it all in just one day.
Fish; fresh, smoked or fried are available by the kilo.
This is not a penitentiary guard tower; however it sure does resemble one. Villahermosa has several of these observation towers around town, including one in the La Venta Park and this one towers over the bank of the Grijalva River which has flooded its banks the last two years in a row. Two years ago the big rivers flowing into Tabasco from Guatemala managed to submerge 80% of the state.
This is one of the numerous city parks that always manage to have venders hawking something to drink or eat and occasionally some trinket you might impulsively buy.
Breakfast? Six eggs and a stack of tortillas will definitely carry you until noon.
Mexico is definitely about food and we just had to try these Yucatecan salbutes that lost a lot by virtue of geographical relocation. They were good but a far cry from the real thing. The cream covered brown things were fried sweet ripe cooking bananas (plátano relleno). This is one delicious thing that Tabasco excels at and shouldn’t be missed.
I must comment about bicycling around Villahermosa; the drivers were wonderful, patient and courteous and we didn’t notice any of the standard neurotic pushy-shovey horn-honking run-you-off-the-road beaverboard we see back in Yucatan. The street conditions however could be life threatening with man-hole covers inset three or more inches, deep slotted holes that could tear a wheel off a bike and diagonal metal storm grates that could dislocate everything associated with your bicycle including you.
After we had thoroughly enjoyed our lovely return visit to Villahermosa Jane and I boarded a colectivo taxi for a small out-of-the-way town that looked in a tourist brochure like the type of place we must visit.
Cunduacán; with a nice intriguing sounding name like Cunduacán, the place just had to be worthy of our holiday stopover.
This was unquestionably a back road out of the tourist loop kind of spot that we often times find charming and very fascinating. After all, we were the only tourists in town and the competition for services was nearly non-existent.
Without dragging this story on too long I will tell you the only accommodation in town was more than just sleazy…it was deplorable.
The market at my initial glance appeared clean, spacious and neat. I went in and at my first turn into the main market area discovered that it was a children’s gaming parlor like a mini Las Vegas with a noise level that was designed to blast out ear-drums. Before noon we made our escape and boarded a bus to Comalcalco, a few minutes away.
In the pleasant and clean food court at Comalcalco’s main market our favorite is still Doña Alma’s cocina económica with its super attention to customer satisfaction and elegant culinary presentation. As we entered the food court the friendly and attentive waitress parked our bicycles and smiling took our order. (Note our bikes nearby.)
This is a good reason just to come to Comalcalco and Doña Alma’s liter sized pozol heavily frothing over with cacao cream is the best we have sampled in Mexico.
This is the lovely lady that makes the best food in town with a lovely little tote-bag presented to us as a reminder of her cocina económica that makes the claim; “we are not the only ones but just the best!!!” As far as we can tell Doña Alma is correct.
Honey and jalea real, or royal jelly an expensive delicacy extracted from bee hives all come from this enthusiastic mans own garden…from the private producer directly to you in the market. The Comalcalco market still sells products predating the Spanish invasion.
From the numerous waterways of Tabasco live crabs are bundled and oysters shelled and bagged. This is as fresh as it gets without any refrigeration.
Speaking of fresh, white corn on the cob and live turkeys and chickens await customers.
The corn, maiz and turkeys,( guajolote or pavo, are indigenous to America but the Spanish brought chickens, pollo to the New World.
Neatly presented in corn husk wrappers is a local product called; panela, brown sugar, which here in Tabasco is nearly unrefined and made into cakes like disks. These disks are packed four to a wrapper. The flavor is mild but has sweetness similar to caked maple syrup. The market holds many mysterious products sold in intriguing ways and used here differently than other places in Mexico. Your adventure will be on-going.
Authentic pre-conquest food is here. These fresh milled corn bread cakes were literally steaming hot when I arrived. The dark ones contain beans, and one is what a field worker would normally take as a days ration. I absolutely love these energy packed cakes that you can sink your teeth into and don’t require any topping. They do however go quite well with the fresh fried fish sold at the adjacent stall.
This is cacao fruit, this is not just any cacao, but the original strain developed by the ancient Olmec Indians thousands of years ago called, almendra blanca and kept in limited production at a small hacienda named La Joya. Jane and I were first made aware of unique this place by our bicycle tour friends Basil and Alix, www.bikemexico.com
There are no road signs and we had to find this obscure out-of-the-way place using latitude and longitude coordinates and a print off from Google-earth. These people do not have to advertise their product because they have probably the most exclusive chocolate product in the world and it commands the very highest price everywhere it is sold.
This is where it grows and these cacao trees are overshadowed by a huge canopy jungle.
This is how it grows, directly attached to the main trunk.
This is Doña Clara Maria Echeverria, the proud owner and operator of the La Joya cacao hacienda that has been in her family and producing almendra blanca cacao for nearly three centuries. Heaped to overflowing the wagon load of recently picked cacao will next be opened and the precious seeds extracted, fermented and sun-dried before being processed.
Working in conjunction with the areas best processor and marketer, CACEP cacao http://www.cacep.com/ , (which we write extensively about in our TABASCO; THE CHOCOLATE ROUTE BY BIKE AND BUS) a one kilo bar is now being produced.
This is as good as it ever gets!
Our time in Comalcalco was again not enough but we had an enjoyable stay at the bicycle-friendly Pat-Mal Hotel, visited the CACEP cacao reserve and ate as much of the lovely local foods as we could possibly hold.
Because we were so close to the end of the year holiday season we had a hard time getting seats on the bus back to Mérida and had to lay over an extra night and then shuttle back to Villahermosa to catch a direct bus home.
We returned heavy laden with cacao in various forms, beans, bars, cakes, powder and sticks. What a lovely addictive substance cacao is!
Recommended hotel in Comalcalco:
Morelos No. 606
Centro C>P. 86300
Tel. 933-334-0982 and 933-334-1792
For bus information:
Tour Cacep, http://www.cacep.com