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Introducing Comalcalco

Comalcalco, 51km northwest of Villahermosa, is typical of the medium-sized towns of western Tabasco – hot, bustling, quite prosperous and spread around a broad, open central plaza (Parque Juárez).

What makes it especially worth visiting are the impressive ruins of ancient Comalcalco (admission M$35; 10am-4pm), 3.5km north. This Maya site is unique because many of its buildings are constructed of bricks and/or mortar made from oyster shells. Comalcalco was at its peak between AD 600 and 1000, when ruled by the Chontals. It remained an important center of commerce for several more centuries, trading in a cornucopia of pre-Hispanic luxury goods: cacao, salt, feathers, deer and jaguar skins, wax, honey, turtle shells, tobacco, chilies, manta-ray spines, cotton, polychrome ceramics, copal, jade and greenstone hachas (flat, carved-stone objects associated with the ritual ball game).

The museum at the entrance has a fine array of sculptures and engravings of human heads, deities, glyphs and animals such as crocodiles and pelicans.

The buildings within the site have information panels in both Spanish and English. The first building you encounter is the great brick-built, tiered pyramid, Templo 1. At its base are the remains of large stucco sculptures, including the feet of a giant winged toad. Further temples line Plaza Norte, in front of Templo I. In the far (southeast) corner of the site rises the Gran Acrópolis, with views from its summit over a canopy of palms to the Gulf of Mexico. The Acrópolis is fronted by Templo V, a burial pyramid that was once decorated on all sides with stucco sculptures of people, reptiles, birds and aquatic life. At Templo V’s western foot is Templo IX, with a tomb lined by nine stucco sculptures showing a Comalcalco lord with his priests and courtiers. Above Templo V is the crumbling profile of El Palacio, with its parallel 80m-long corbel-arched galleries, probably once Comalcalco’s royal residence.

The site is 1km (signposted) off the Comalcalco–Paraíso road. Vans to the turnoff (M$5) stop outside Comalcalco’s ADO terminal. A taxi to the site costs around M$20.

Hacienda La Luz (334-11-29; Blvd Rovirosa; 1hr tour per person M$35; 10am-4pm), one of several local plantations making chocolate from home-grown cacao, is just 300m from Comalcalco’s central Parque Juárez: walk 250m west along Calle Bosada to its end at Blvd Rovirosa, turn right and you’ll see the hacienda’s white gateposts across the road. The tour (minimum two people) takes you round the beautiful house, gardens and cacao plantation, and shows traditional methods of turning cacao beans into chocolate.