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Private day tour in central Tabasco

Arriving at the Viva Villahermosa Hotel by tax Tuesday evening after the OCC bus dropped me in central Villahermosa, I was quickly checked in and then shown to my room on the next (third) floor. Despite arriving via the multi-lane circular road into an area with multiple international chain hotels, I was uncertain about going out to find a restaurant, so I ate at the hotel. With a Dos Equus Amber and shrimp Tabasco style, I journaled my impressions of the ride.

“Please shoot me before I ever take another 6+ hour bus ride, particularly in Mexico.” That’s my first sentence for the entry at the hotel dining room. While the drive through Chiapas towards the Vera Cruz-Tabasco border could be called “God’s country” because of its natural beauty, I failed to find a reason for the bus not taking the main numbered roadways. The bus was warm, full, and continued full onward after a 20-minute layover. I was unable to see if the Palenque-destined riders had to change buses, before the driver continued into Campeche State.

Probably every time the bus moved mobile service from one tower to the next my phone had beeped me to say there was voicemail. When in the room I used WiFi calling and cleared that one message, a birthday congratulations from my Florida neighbors Bob and Patty: it was actually my housesitter Joan’s birthday, and her friends had decorated my garage door. At least the notifications stopped!

With no caffeine in my system, and after a rough night from too much cacao at dinner the night before, I slept comfortably in the slightly warm room. With my ToursByLocals guide Alex notifying me of traffic delays, I used the time to book my shuttle trip to the airport for Friday morning. I plowed through some of my news emails, and realized that I’d spent much too much time looking at the 100+ emails I might get daily. A task is to start unsubscribing before the next trip.

Alex arrived about 9:20, and we set out exploring parts of Tabasco. I’d booked “Cocoa, Gastronomy and Mayas from Comalcalco Full-Day Tour”, modified to start in Villahermosa. I’d emailed Alex, a very pleasant and knowledgeable young man of 32, and he’d planned some variations to address my obsession with cathedrals.

Our first stop was at La Morena Jalpaneca in Jalpa de Méndez. The proprietress took a real liking to me, bringing out a fried plantain filled with chese and cream, and three additional types of sausage for us, and then accompanying us to the church in the town’s center.

Dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, this large modern church is the culmination of work and efforts of the townspeople. With a huge dome with a cupola filled with stained-glass representations of the apostles, it is light, bright, airy and stunning. It was larger than some cathedrals I’ve visited, and is one of several (albeit the principal) churches in Jalpa. I was particularly impressed with the woodwork – the carvings at the entrance were spectacular. We brought “my girlfriend” back to the restaurant, where I purchased a half-kilo of Maygal sausages. She gifted me a gourd her brother had embellished, which now sits on my coffee table at home.

A bit behind his schedule, Alex next took me to Cupilco. There he showed me two churches, examples of how the locals brightly paint and decorate both the exterior and interior of their houses of worship. The first, dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, has yellow and blue ornamentation on the domed towers and bell towers at its entrance. A white ceiling supported by lime green arches over dark wood pews drew the eye to the seven sheets of marble backing the main altar, which actually sits to the side, opposite the lectern and celebrant’s chair.

At the second Cupilco church, three gold crosses stand at the top of the two side towers and central bell tower with clock, painted in an orange-yellow on the columns, with green and blues as accents. The nave is covered by a wooden ceiling, leading up to the main altar, covered in floral arrangements. At the center is a statue of the virgin with a crown placed there by Pope John Paul II on his May 1990 visit to Mexico. The stained-glass windows, a work in progress, are in a simple realism style, with the unfinished ones being paintings on glass. I admired the capitals of the striped columns. The church is dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Onward to the Hacienda Cacaoteria Jesús Marìa in Comalcalco. There I was given a three-part tour: we started in the factory, where no photography is permitted, and head coverings are added to the masks we already wore. Inside the warm building we saw the ovens for roasting the washed and soaked beans, the mills to grind them, the industrial-sized mixers to create cocoa of varying percentages of chocolate/cacao, the molds where bars and disks of varying sizes are filled and cooled, wrapping area, and finally the quality control section. By the time we left the enclosed building, I was high on cocoa fumes.

Once outside, we walked through the forest, where pods at varying maturity were hanging from the cacao trees, and the vanilla vines were bare, following the December-January harvest. By this time both Alex and I were being targeted by mosquitos, so I brought out my “juice” and we were handed grass swishes to attempt to keep them away. The plantation appears to be wild, with the necessary canopy (cacao requires 60% shade) from native tall trees. There were a few examples of both Arabica and indigenous coffee plants, as well as the tree varietal which produces the round gourds that my gift came from.

Then we walked through the hacienda, where the original owners lived. Similar to other haciendas I’d seen in the Yucatan, there are many antiques demonstrating life a century ago. After passing through the worker’s dwelling, we came to an open-air kitchen, which included a hand grinder. Provided with pre-measured amounts of roasted cacao beans, cinnamon and sugar, I was tasked to grind them all into a paste. Once I completed the task, I had to knead the mix by hand, until it achieved a required consistency and our guide packed it in foil for me to take home.

We returned to the shop and I purchased several CACEP bars of chocolate, including a sampler packet with varying percentages of cacao. I got into a bilingual conversation with an older gentleman there regarding whether “white chocolate” was really chocolate – he said yes, I didn’t. We agreed to disagree.

Alex had heard about my interest in cooking, and the failed attempt at a cooking class. He hoped to at least whet that dream with a stop to Cocina Chontal, where I could experience home-style cooking in an outside kitchen. When we arrived, it was closed with no one around. We walked back into the kitchen and I got pictures of kitchen setup.

Seriously behind schedule, at 3:30 we pulled into the entrance to an ecological park that Alex wanted us to visit, which had a closed gate. Closing was supposed to be at 4, but we were denied. He thought of an alternative nearby, but it too was unavailable. So we drove on to Paraiso and Puerto Ceiba, on the Gulf of Mexico. We passed the new oil refineries which were bringing industry and pollution to the area, before we stopped at Club Palmas, an open-air restaurant on the water for a late lunch. I had a Michelada with Negra Modelo, and ordered the mixed fish and shrimp ceviche to share.

Seated with a view of the single roadway bridge over the mouth of the Mecoacan, the body of water below our feet, I watched pelicans roost while we nibbled on the complementary starter, an empanada and two chips filled with barbecue-flavor shredded smoked fish. The large platter of ceviche arrived, including tomato, avocado, cucumber, parsley and leaf lettuce. To continue our run of ill-fate, first Alex spilled the dish of green salsa, and a few minutes later I dumped the red on the table.

As we left, the Club’s entrance had a “big head” on display. Obviously not an original, I took a photo just in case I missed the real examples on the morrow. Heading back to the capitol, we did a quick detour to circle one more ornate church – one that I described as “Disneyland”. Alex felt that traffic was heavier than usual, which delayed his plan to stop at the La Venta park to see the birds settling in at sunset.

We advanced to the cathedral, hoping that the building would be lit as it had been regularly in the past. Well beyond dusk, only ambient street lighting was evident. Alex checked with a street vendor, and learned it was the second night without lights on the towers. We circled around and he dropped me at the hotel.

Not feeling particularly hungry, I went into the bar at the hotel for a beer, and spent a half hour updating my journal. I returned to the room, nibbled on some nuts and bits I’d brought as airline food, and drank lots of water, trying to rehydrate. Planning out my next day, I knew I could sleep in, and once the other hotel guests (a mix of American and Mexican voices, to my ear) parted to their rooms for the night, I went lights out. By the way, here’s my review of my tour: “Alex timely collected me at my hotel and began a fascinating day touring Tabasco. His knowledge of his region, as well as his adaptability to switch focus to my interests, as well as deal with the surprises of a closed venue, kept me rapt for an entire day, and allowed me to learn much about cocoa/cacao, the cuisine of the area, and the history of the region. A delicious lunch on the water, nightfall at the cathedral. A splendid guide to a wonderful day.”


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