With a view of making a visit to the Olmec heads, my parents and I made a brief stop last week in the Mexican town of Villahermosa. As mentioned, the town itself is a dirty, urban dive of dark concrete and 70s style high rises.
Even La Venta park, the new resting place of the Olmec heads and other Olmeca artefacts, was a slight disappointment. The heads and other irreplaceable pieces of Mesoamerican history, some dating back to as early as 850BC, are left year in year out in the scorching tropical sun and torrential tropical rain. Yet these pieces are only in La Venta Parque because they were “saved” from the original site which was deemed unfit for their continuing preservation.
The highlight for me however, was that La Venta Archaeological Park shares the same acreage as Villahermosa zoo. As with the town, it is a bit run down and some of the animal’s exhibits could do with an overhaul, but it is the zoo’s un-caged, wild residents that make it worth a visit.
An ever inquisitive troop of coatis patrol the paths and cafes here, hoping to score a dropped crumb, or sly donation (feeding the animals is strictly prohibited…)
Finding some left over airline biscuits, the only fare offered on Mexicana short haul flights, we were immediately inundated by eager paws and claws.
Close relatives of the raccoon, coatis are inquisitive by nature and seemed to have little or no fear in approaching us. I was even able to hand feed a couple of willing participants.
Elsewhere in the zoo, I managed to locate my favourite Latin American natives, the kinkajous, who were hanging out in their water bowl.
The kinkajous were the animals I most doted upon in El Arca during my fateful trip to Ecuador (I handfed their breakfast bananas every day!), and I always keep my eyes peeled for their fluffy little faces whenever I visit a sanctuary or zoo now.
With blonde hair and green eyes, however and being somewhat tall, by Mexican standards at least, I was quite the tourist attraction myself. A group of some 50 primary school children of varying ages were walking around the park at the same time as us. When we reached the cafe at the end of the route, they weren’t shy and didn’t hide the fact that they were staring at me. A brave girl of around 11-12 was the first to approach me in her neat, navy blue school skirt and shirt, holding up her mobile phone and bashfully asking if she could, “hago un foto?” I laughed and posed dutifully, and all of a sudden was surrounded by a crowd of children and adults. The pioneer had succeeded, and now everyone wanted a go; more phones and cameras appeared and group after group approached me, giggling and sheepish. Some too scared to approach, tried to take sly photos without me seeing, looking away red-faced when I caught them in the act with a smile. For a brief time, I knew what it felt like to be famous, I must have been in at least 40-50 photographs, all the while my parents looked on in hysterics.
A couple of girls even requested a close up of just my face, which was rather embarrassing, and another small boy of around 6 or 7, prompted by his mother, cheekily put his arms around my waist, much to the delight of the crowd!