Parque Museo La Venta: Experiencing The Legacy of the Olmec

Last Updated on: 22nd September 2023, 12:02 am

Whether you’re visiting ruins built by the Mayans, Zapotecs or Aztecs, you’re almost guaranteed to encounter things like pyramids, ball courts and hieroglyphic inscriptions. But where did this broader Mesoamerican culture originate? Based on our current understanding, it all started with a group known as the Olmec.

For more than a thousand years, the Olmecs thrived along the Gulf of Mexico in what are now the states of Tabasco and Veracruz. But their influence spread far and wide throughout Mesoamerica. And while not a whole lot remains of their original settlements, their awe-inspiring carvings capture the imagination to this day.

One of the best locations to learn about the Olmec and appreciate their art is a place called Parque Museo La Venta in the Tabasco state capital of Villahermosa. Not quite an archaeological site nor your standard museum, we’ll go into what to expect from a visit down below.

Also be sure to check the end of the article for info on reaching Villahermosa and where to stay.

Parque Museo La Venta

Who Were the Olmecs?

Olmec culture is believed to have formed around 1500 BC and their earliest known  settlement was at San Lorenzo in present-day Veracruz. Several centuries later, they’d form another major city at the site of La Venta, current Tabasco, where they’d continue working on their monumental sculptures.

While many aspects of Olmec culture remain a mystery, their influence on the glorious civilizations that sprang up after them is clear. Simply put, it was the Olmecs who first introduced high culture to Mesoamerica.

For example, they were the first to come up with the Mesoamerican ball game that would be played from northern Mexico to Central America for millennia. And it was even the Olmecs who started pyramid building, with their pyramid at La Venta said to be Mexico’s very first!

In regards to religion, the Olmecs created the first depiction of the ‘Plumed Serpent’ deity, also known as Quetzalcoatl. And early forms of various other Mesoamerican gods can be found in their art as well.

And it was also the Olmecs who would create the intricate calendar system that would be utilized by the Mayans and Aztecs until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

The Olmecs were especially fond of jaguars, with the feline making frequent appearances in their art. In fact, they commonly depicted humans with jaguar features to denote royalty.

The Olmecs also controlled a vast trade network stretching across much of modern-day Mexico and Central America. And this is how their influence spread so far and wide. But there was one distinctly Olmec tradition that would never be copied by any subsequent civilization.

Today, the Olmecs are best known for their megalithic sculpted heads which likely depicted former rulers. Thus far, 17 heads have been discovered in total, with the heaviest weighing up to 15 tons. Remarkably, the basalt stone used for the sculptures was sourced in the Tuxtla mountain range, a considerable distance from their main settlements.

As we’ll cover below, four Olmec heads were discovered at the site of La Venta, all of which can now be seen in the city of Villahermosa, Tabasco. Other remarkable Olmec artifacts on display here, meanwhile, include large stone altars and even a tomb comprised of basalt columns.

Olmec culture would thrive up until the 1st century AD until it would mysteriously vanish. But their influence can be strongly seen and felt in Mexico even to this day.

Visiting Parque Museo La Venta

As mentioned, most of the significant findings from the Olmec site of La Venta can now be found at the site known as Parque Museo La Venta. But what exactly is it, and how does it differ from the original La Venta?

La Venta or Parque Museo La Venta?

The archaeological site of La Venta is located at the western edge of the state of Tabasco. It’s believed to have been the largest Olmec settlement with a population of about 18,000, and it was even home to Mexico’s first-ever pyramid.

Established around 900 BC, it was eventually abandoned five centuries later. While La Venta can still be visited today, most of its original sculptures have been replaced by replicas.

Parque Museo La Venta
The lake outside Parque Museo La Venta
Parque Museo La Venta
Carlos Pellicer Cámara

Sadly, much of the original La Venta was damaged by the petroleum industry, hence the need to safeguard the sculptures in an alternate location.

In 1958, Parque Museo La Venta was established in the Tabasco state capital of Villahermosa to display the most significant findings from La Venta. Rather than your typical archaeological museum, the sculptures here are on display within a manmade park, with tree-lined paths guiding visitors to each piece.

There’s nothing else quite like it in Mexico, and before my visit, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Now having been, I can confirm that Parque Museo La Venta is a pleasure to explore and well worth the trip out to Villahermosa to see.

The mastermind of the project was Villahermosa-born artist, intellectual and archaeology-enthusiast Carlos Pellicer Cámara. As we’ll cover below, more Olmec artifacts can be found at the Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology in the south of the city.

Parque Museo La Venta is located to the northwest of the city center, about 25 minutes on foot from the main bus station. Open daily from 8:00-16:00, the park costs $40 MXN for foreigners at the time of writing, which also includes entrance to a zoo (more below).

The Olmec Monuments

All of the Olmec pieces at Parque Museo La Venta are made from a volcanic stone known as basalt, while most date from sometime between 700-400 BC. While not every single piece on display is covered below, we’ll be taking a look at the most notable pieces.

Parque Museo La Venta
'The Traveler' (replica)
Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology

Beginning along the path, the first piece you’ll encounter is known as the ‘Traveler.’ Oddly, this is the only replica in the park, though you can fortunately see the real thing on display at the museum in central Villahermosa.

The carving depicts a bearded man who seems to be walking somewhere. What’s notable about the piece is that the symbols to the right of the man may be glyphs. If so, then this piece may be the earliest example of writing in Mesoamerica!

Not far away is a sculpture known as the ‘Grandmother,’ which appears to depict a kneeling woman presenting an offering.

'The Grandmother'
Parque Museo La Venta
The Stele of the Bearded Man
Parque Museo La Venta
Parque Museo La Venta

Before long, you’ll reach the ‘Stele of the Bearded Man,’ one of the most evocative pieces discovered at La Venta. It features two main characters facing each other at the bottom, while six additional figures appear above them. 

The upper characters almost appear to be falling from the sky, and some scholars suggest the scene represents a ruler’s ancestors legitimizing his right to rule.

La Venta Quetzalcoatl CDMX
Monument 19 from La Venta, the first depiction of the Plumed Serpent (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)

Notably, in various later Mesoamerican cultures, the god Quetzalcoatl was sometimes depicted as a bearded man. As we know that the Olmecs were also the first to depict Quetzalcoatl in his Plumed Serpent form, could the numerous representations of bearded men in Olmec art have symbolized Quetzalcoatl as well?

Parque Museo La Venta
Tomb of Basalt Columns
Parque Museo La Venta

Interestingly, the Olmecs didn’t just use basalt for megalithic sculptures, but they also carved long pillars out of the volcanic stone. And some of their important tombs were largely comprised of such pillars.

A red powder known as cinnabar was found inside these tombs at La Venta, yet another tradition to have originated with the Olmec. Many prominent Mayan rulers, for example, were later buried with the same mineral.

Parque Museo La Venta
'The Young Warrior' (Monument 3)

Next, you’ll reach your first Olmec head. Notably, it was discovered in a neat row alongside two other heads, and together they marked the main entrance to the city of La Venta.

The sculpture is noticeably eroded and not as impressive as many of the other Olmec heads, but it’s interesting nonetheless. As with all of the other megalithic heads, this one is depicted wearing a helmet.

Most Olmec heads are photographed from the front. But seeing them in person, they’re often much narrower when viewed from the side than one would expect.

Parque Museo La Venta

Before long, you’ll encounter another massive head known as the ‘Old Warrior,’ discovered lined in a row with the head pictured above. 

While partially damaged, the facial features appear more refined than in the previous sculpture. We can also clearly see how he wears ear spools on both ears.

As mentioned above, these heads likely depicted Olmec rulers. But it’s not entirely clear if the individuals were alive or dead at the time of the sculpting.

'The Old Warrior' (Monument 4)
Parque Museo La Venta

In recent years, people have come up with all sorts of wild theories about these heads and the Olmecs as a whole, given their supposed African features. But even today, one can find indigenous people living near the Gulf of Mexico with very similar broad noses.

Again, notice how completely flat the back of the sculpture is. It would seem like the heads were intended to be placed or rested against other structures.

Parque Museo La Venta

What’s known as the ‘Children Altar’ is one of the most striking pieces at Parque Museo La Venta. While labeled as an altar, these types of sculptures may have actually functioned as thrones for rulers to sit on.

In any case, notice the figure emerging from the portal below. It likely a represents a being – possibly an ancestor – emerging from the underworld. But why is he carrying a small child?

Notably, babies and small children were a very common motif in Olmec art – both large and small-scale. And on the sides of this particular altar, we can see carvings of adults carrying children no less than four times.

Parque Museo La Venta
Parque Museo La Venta

While we don’t know for sure, sculptures depicting adults carrying babies possibly symbolized the continuation of the royal lineage.

As mentioned, the Olmec revered jaguars as sacred and they often depicted humans with jaguar features to denote royalty. As such, many babies in Olmec art were also depicted with fierce jaguar-like faces.

Parque Museo La Venta
'The Governor'

Not far away is a lone seated sculpture, believed to represent a high dignitary. Notice his elaborate headdress and the X over his chest and stomach – another common motif in Olmec art.

Parque Museo La Venta
'Human-like Jaguar'
Parque Museo La Venta

While, as mentioned, humans in Olmec art were commonly depicted with jaguar features, one particular statue seems to depict a jaguar with human features! 

Were the Olmec implying that certain individuals could go as far as morphing into jaguars and then back again?

Parque Museo La Venta

Of all the sculptures at Parque Museo La Venta, the piece dubbed ‘Monkey Looking at the Sky’ is one that would fit right in at a modern art gallery. 

While simply a charming depiction of a monkey looking upward, the uncarved base of the column suggests that it was once partially embedded into the ground.

Ólafur Arnalds: Woven Song
Parque Museo La Venta

Continuing along the trail, you’ll pass by more basalt columns and smaller sculptures. And throughout your walk, you’re bound to see multiple long-tailed coatis emerging from the forest. But more on them later.

Parque Museo La Venta
'Triumphal Altar'

Soon you’ll arrive at the ‘Triumphal Altar.’ Again, we see a figure emerging from a cave beneath the altar (or throne), while a jaguar-like face has been carved into the side of the lid. 

Notice how the sculpted figure carries a rope which stretches around the entire base and is being held by a figure carved into the left side.

Surely, this imagery was created with deep symbolic intent, though in modern times we can only speculate on its true significance.

Parque Museo La Venta

One of the most unique pieces on display at Parque Museo La Venta is not a sculpture, but a large mosaic offering – one of five discovered at the original site. The Olmecs commonly used precious stones as offerings, and here they placed no less than 485 slabs of serpentine!

While hard to notice at first glance, look closely and you’ll see that the stones form – you guessed it – the face of a jaguar! But these offerings were not intended as public art and were originally buried.

Notably, serpentine does not come from the region but had to be imported from Oaxaca through the Olmecs’ vast trading network.

'The King's Stele'

Originally discovered in La Venta’s Great Plaza, the ‘King’s Stele’ was placed near a large head that probably depicts the same ruler. Notice the ruler’s elaborate headdress and large ear spools.

Six figures hover around him, not unlike in the Stele of the Bearded Man mentioned above.

Parque Museo La Venta
Parque Museo La Venta
Parque Museo La Venta

Discovered nearby in La Venta’s Great Plaza, Monument 1 likely depicts the same ruler as the King’s Stele. Of all the colossal heads found at La Venta, this is the best-preserved and most impressive. 

Discovered in 1925 by archaeologists Oliver La Farge and Frans Blom (whose former house can be visited in San Cristóbal de las Casas), one can only imagine what was going through their minds as they gradually uncovered it from the earth.

Parque Museo La Venta
'The Character With a Banner'
Parque Museo La Venta
'Altar of Dialog'
Parque Museo La Venta
'The Young Goddess'

As you continue toward the end of the path, you’ll pass by ‘Character With a Banner,’ a column remarkable for its depiction of what appears to be a fierce shark at the top. 

Nearby, meanwhile, is the ‘Altar of Dialog,’ a piece which follows the general design of the altars/thrones mentioned above. Obviously, it’s been badly damaged.

And the last remarkable piece along the route is the ‘Young Goddess,’ carved sometime between 700-600 BC. One of the only vertical Olmec monuments, scholars believe that the central figure could be a rare depiction of a woman.

The Zoo

Parque Museo La Venta isn’t only home to Olmec sculptures, but it also features a zoo and an aviary. In addition to a wide variety of exotic birds, you can see animals like jaguars, ocelots, crocodiles, snakes, gray foxes and more.

Parque Museo La Venta

The zoo is somewhat controversial, with many of Parque Museo La Venta’s subpar reviews mentioning the poor conditions of the animals. Personally, it just seemed like any other zoo to me, and the animals didn’t appear to be particularly maltreated or distressed.

While solely coming for the sculptures, I spent a lot more time than expected checking out the animals during my visit.

Parque Museo La Venta

Another animal you’re bound to see a lot of at Parque Museo La Venta is the coati, the ‘Mexican raccoon’ mentioned above. Notably, none of these are caged but have free reign to go wherever they please throughout the park.

Sitting down for tacos at the on-site cafe, these cute and curious creatures were just as interested in my food as I was in them. While they’re pretty harmless, simply clap a few times to get them to back off.

Parque Museo La Venta

The Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology

As mentioned above, in addition to Parque Museo La Venta itself, you can find even more Olmec artifacts at the Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology in central Villahermosa. 

More precisely, it’s located to the south of the city center, but still walkable and possible to visit on the same day.

Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology

The museum is a great place to see some of the smaller artifacts the Olmecs left behind at La Venta. Other civilizations featured here include the Mayans, Zoques, Chontals and Nahuas, though we’ll be solely focusing on the Olmec pieces below.

Near the entrance is yet another Olmec head discovered at La Venta, known as Monument 2. In contrast to the stern expression of the other heads, this one is smiling!

Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology

In addition to the serpentine from Oaxaca, the jade revered by the Olmecs came all the way from Guatemala. 

As demonstrated by the Mayans, Teotihuacanos and Aztecs, all later Mesoamerican cultures would continue to value precious green stones like jade, both for their material value and religious significance.

Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology
Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology

Another notable piece includes a sculpture covered in symbols related to fertility. This one doesn’t come from La Venta, but from a site in Tabasco known as San Miguel.

Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology
Sculpture with fertility symbols
Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology

You’ll also find a fish sculpture discovered all the way in Mexico state at a site called Tlatilco. 

The Olmecs, in fact, expanded their trading network far into the region of Central Mexico, and a site known as Chalcatzingo in Morelos state remains one of the best places to see Olmec carvings in situ.

Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology
Carlos Pellicer Cámara Regional Museum of Anthropology

Other pieces to look out for include small stone figurines from La Venta that were given as offerings, seated sculptures of men with jaguar faces, a jaguar face inscribed in jade, a fierce-looking head of a figurine, and the original ‘Wanderer’ piece mentioned above.

If you can’t get enough of Olmec art, the other top place in Mexico to see it is the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology in Veracruz.

Of course, you can also see a decent collection of Olmec heads and artifacts at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology.

While not directly related to the Olmec, those visiting Villahermosa should absolutely set an extra day aside to visit Comalcalco, the westernmost city of the Maya.

More around Villahermosa

Frankly speaking, Villahermosa is far from being one of Mexico’s most attractive or charming state capitals. And if you feel like calling it a day after a trip to the two museums mentioned above, you really won’t be missing much.

The city contains few notable landmarks, but for those with extra time and energy, you may want to check out the Lord of Tabasco Cathedral, whose towers can be seen all the way from Parque Museo La Venta.

While Villahermosa hardly contains any colonial-era buildings, one major exception is Casa de Los Azulejos (House of Tiles), a small history museum set in a 19th-century home. Closed Mondays, it costs around $40 MXN to enter.

Villahermosa Guide
Villahermosa Guide

Additional Info

Villahermosa has a small domestic airport with flights coming in from Mexico City, Guadalajara and a few other locations.

But if renting a car is not an option, most people are likely to visit by bus from Palenque, a journey which takes just a couple of hours. If you’re short on time, you can even visit Parque Museo La Venta as a day trip from Palenque, though I’d recommend staying a few nights to see the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco as well.

Villahermosa’s ADO bus station is quite large, and if you’re coming from farther away, you should be able to find direct connections from a wide variety of cities. You can check the ADO website for more details as well as schedules.

Leaving Villahermosa, I took a direct bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a long ride that lasts over six hours.

As most coach buses between San Cristóbal and Palenque now take the long route via Villahermosa due to safety reasons, the Tabasco state capital is a logical place to break up your journey.

Villahermosa is a medium-sized city and the attractions mentioned above are all walkable from the center (or with a quick cab ride). Fortunately, the main bus station is centrally located and is also walkable from the center of town.

If you’re also planning to visit the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco, I’d recommend staying somewhere within walking distance of the main bus station (the Comalli Plus company which runs buses there is just north of the ADO Station).

Top-rated hotels in this general area include One Villahermosa CentroHotel Olmeca Plaza, and Best Western Hotel Madan.

I stayed at an Airbnb called Centric Suite, which was well-located and had fast internet, but was rather noisy at night.

If you’re looking to visit Parque Museo La Venta with a local guide, this tour seems to be one of the only ones available to book online. It seems like it starts and ends in Villahermosa.

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