If you’d traveled to the Yucatan city Valladolid 150 years ago, chances are you’d have received a very different reception than the one you’ll receive today.
Situated in the heart of Maya land, Valladolid was then the most elitist and race conscious city in the Yucatan.
The city was founded by Francisco de Montejo, who had been gifted all land east of Merida by his ambitious uncle (founder of Merida) of the same name. After Montejo the younger explored the area, he established a base next to the lagoon Chouac-Ha, and named the city that would soon spring up around it Valladolid.
His next move, which would shape events for centuries to come, authorized land grants to well-connected Spaniards, displacing the indigenous Maya who lived there. Then began arbitrary acts of domination: land grabbing, indentured servitude for the Maya, and abolishing water rights, which set the stage for the coming revolution.
In what would become a continuous cycle, the Valladolid Spaniards subjugated Maya tribes and constantly battled them for dominion as they rose up in rebellion. Then they crushed the rebellions and the Maya rose again, culminating in the bloody massacre known as the Caste War of Yucatan.
The Maya rose up in revolt, marched on Valladolid, raping, burning, and pillaging, and pushed back the remaining Spaniards into the convent of Saint Bernardino de Siena, still viewable today, at the south end of the city. Here they waited for troops to arrive from Merida to save them from the marauding masses. Talk about a disastrous history.
The entire city is like a historical footnote to the past, crammed with nail biting tales, charming and brightly painted buildings from another century, and quaint streets that show a bygone era, especially when considering its proximity to Cancun’s marauding masses. Valladolid is 160 kilometers southwest of Cancun.
A trip to Valladolid makes for a modern day adventure to an ancient Maya city that’s transcended its past. But now rather than disruptive elements, diminutive Maya women arm stalls stocked with colorful huipiles, the Maya costume for women still popular in many parts of the Yucatan, and white embroidered handkerchiefs.
Mild mannered vendors sell sodas and balloons from tricycles, and pushcarts offer antojitos (appetizers) and corn on the cob (elote). On weekends giant tour buses line the picturesque square in high season when all-inclusive tourists escape for a day from the Riviera Maya enroute to Chichen Itza, only 30 minutes away.
But if you’ve come to visit Valladolid, chances are you want to settle into the Maya way of life, if only for a day or two. It’s easy to do here. Start with a walking tour of the main plaza, at the landmark Iglesia de San Servacio church that was pillaged during the Caste War of Yucatan.
Its two towering spires reach high in the startling blue sky. Then walk down to the corner where you’ll find the Municipal Palace, a tan-colored government building with double wooden doors. Head upstairs and you’ll discovers frescoes painted by a local artist very much in the style of those at the Palace of the Governor in Merida, but on a more intimate scales. The frescoes represent different eras from Valladolid’s history.
Continue your walking tour past the Bazar Municipal with a variety of fast food restaurants serving local cuisine – salbutos, panuchos, tortas – for pesos. A few funky artisan shops also sell their wares. If you eat here, make sure to have spare change for vendors selling fresh honey (none fresher) or oranges. And save a peso or two for the local blind man who’s led from table to table by his goodhearted grandson who carries his cane and a small ceramic cup for contributions. If you make a “direct deposit,” your karma will shoot up exponentially. Hand to God.
A world apart is the lovely hotel El Meson del Marques next door that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you didn’t grab a bite at the Bazaar and want a more
Relaxed meal, this is the spot. Take advantage of the gorgeous outdoor garden and restaurant with manicured trees and fountain in the center courtyard.
Continue on to Las Cinco Calles (Street of Fives) which will lead you down Calzada de los Frailes, a picturesque street with colonial architecture, heading towards the former convent of San Bernardino de Siena, where the Spanish held off the Maya in 1847. If the priest is around, ask for a tour of the 16th century frescoes behind the altarpiece, and look for the ancient water wheel and gardens out back. This was not just a monastery: This was a walled-in city.
In front of the looming old convent is a lovely grassy park where locals and visitors sit on blankets and eat or chat or while away the day. Life is pretty slow in Valladolid.
When you’ve had enough of monasteries and churches (there are seven total in town), continue your walking tour to the Cenote Zaci. It’s quite a ways from the convent but you’ll meander through Valladolid’s back streets and catch a view of real life in a Maya town, past neat houses, small stores, sleeping dogs, kids playing in the street.
The cenote is behind a stone wall (Calle 36 and 37) surrounded by tall trees, with a wooden walkway all around it and a restaurant perched at the top which offers a full view of the water. If you venture down, wear sensible shoes as the deck gets slippery. At the water’s edge you’ll see stalactites and stalagmites.
And if Valladolid isn’t enough for you, take a short half hour drive north to the pyramids at Ek Balam. It’s a fun drive away from the city. You’ll pass through a couple small pueblos and the site with its acropolis pyramid will awe you.