Parque-Museo La Venta
La Venta is one of the great Olmec communities, built on an island in the middle of the vast Río Tonolá marshland about 129 kilometers (80 miles) west of present-day Villahermosa. Archaeologists believe that it was founded around 900 B.C. and functioned primarily as a ceremonial center until it was abandoned around 300 B.C.
The main structure was a 34-meter-high (111.5-foot-high) pyramid made of clay. The stunning cache of jade figurine burial offerings discovered there are now on display in Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología.
But La Venta is probably best known for the presence of massive stone heads measuring more than two meters (6.6 feet) tall and weighing more than 15 tons each. No one has yet figured out how the Olmecs managed to move these giant pieces of rock without the use of the wheel, since the raw material comes from an area almost 100 kilometers (62 miles) away.
Frans Blom—an archaeologist famous for his work with the Lacondóns in eastern Chiapas—first investigated the ruins in 1925. It was the intrusion of the PEMEX oil drills, however, that brought the Olmec ceremonial center back to national attention. A local poet named Carlos Pellicer Cámara arranged to have virtually the entire complex moved to a park on the outskirts of Villahermosa. There the artifacts were laid out in the precise configuration in which they were found.
Today, Pellicer Cámara’s vision is the lovely Parque-Museo La Venta (Blvd. Adolfo Ruíz Cortines s/n, tel. 993/314-1652, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sun., US$3), a combination outdoor museum and zoo that lies on the peaceful Laguna de las Ilusiones. A self-guided tour—brochures with explanations are available at the entrance—leads visitors through the thick trees and tropical foliage to numerous Olmec sculptures; in addition to the famous heads, look for large stones with finely carved deities and animals like dolphins and monkeys.
If you have time—and the inclination—the park also presents a sound and light show at 7 p.m., 8 p.m., and 9 p.m. (US$9.50 pp, 1 hr), where visitors can admire the sculptures in the evening, which is an entirely different experience. Use the park entrance near the fountain, rather than the main one.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition