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Valladolid, Yucatan

The second-most important city in Yucatan state, Valladolid lacks the tourist infrastructure of Merida, Yucatan state’s capital, as well as the glitzy hotels and sugary beaches (or any beaches, for that matter) of Cancun. But Valladolid is an excellent option for travelers looking to explore a typical Mexican town away from crowds and traffic, those who don’t mind missing the action of more sophisticated cities. Centrally located in the north-central part of the peninsula and the eastern part of Yucatan state, this is a good base for visiting the archaeological sites at Ek Balam, Cobá and Chichén Itzá. A longer day or overnight trip takes you to the wildlife reserve at Río Lagartos, famous for its pink flamingos.

A supply center for surrounding farms and cattle ranches, laid-back Valladolid is home to shops selling the necessities of daily life---mouse traps and machetes, hammocks and hardware. Many of these family-owned stores surround the ancient main plaza: a good place to people-watch and keep an eye out for the town’s limited action. Petite Maya ladies stand in the shade selling embroidered cotton huipiles: the typical, squarish dress of the region. When evening brings cooler temperatures and a respite from the strong Caribbean sun, families congregate on benches surrounding a quirky fountain of dancing frogs.

Today a tranquil if sultry town of 35,000, Valladolid was one of the earliest Spanish settlements. It was built from the stones of the conquered Maya city of Zaci, which in Mayan means “white hawk.” Many churches were built to accommodate the Christian converts who grudgingly accepted the Christian faith while still retaining many of their Maya traditions.

A City of Churches

La Iglesia de San Gervasio faces the main plaza; several long blocks away are the church of San Bernardino de Siena and the adjacent Franciscan monastery. Along with Valladolid’s other important religious and civic buildings, these were sacked during the War of the Castes. This extremely bloody revolt of the Maya against their Spanish overlords began in Valladolid in 1847.

Today the downtown churches----as well as the facades of surrounding homes---have been restored to their original luster. The walkway along Calle 41 between San Gervasio and San Bernardino de Siena churches is lined in paving stones and fronted by homes in a palate of pastel hues. Ask the monks at San Bernardino’s 16th-century monastery for a peak at the old-fashioned kitchen and the back garden, mostly gone to seed.

Major Attractions: Sinkholes Large and Small

Just a few blocks from the main plaza, Cenote Zaci is one of the largest and most majestic cenotes on the peninsula. Accessed by several flights of stone steps, the deep, seafoam-green sinkhole provides a nice respite from the heat on a blistering hot day. Don’t let the legions of local boys playing Tarzan discourage a dip; this is truly one of the Yucatan’s great landmarks. For those who prefer to admire the cenote from above, a good restaurant serving regional dishes overlooks the scene.

A five-kilometer taxi ride outside town, Cenote Dzinup is hidden within a cave. Swimming here with fish bumping up against you in the dark water can be somewhat unnerving. A chink of light from the top of the grotto barely lights the pool, making for a spooky or mystical experience.

The new toll road between Cancun and Merida is easy to drive. The free road is fine too, but since it passes through lots of small towns, driving it takes a little bit longer. Either way, Valladolid is roughly 150 km (90 mi) between the two tourist enclaves, and definitely worth a visit. Just don’t expect it to be “Hollywood-movie-set” pretty; its charm lies in its relaxed atmosphere and relatively quiet streets. Spend a few nights, taking side trips during the day and unwinding in the plaza at night. It’s hot, so relax; move slowly. That’s what the locals do.


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