Valladolid is the first colonial town reached on leaving glitzy Cancun. Many pass through on their way to Chichen Itza, stopping for no more than a coffee. This is a shame because Valladolid is a gorgeous town, small enough to walk around easily, but big and interesting enough with plenty to occupy a few days.
Situated in the centre of the Yucatan peninsula, there is no major historic site or coastal town in the region more than a two hour drive away, so it can act as a very good base for exploration. It has a strong Mayan feel despite 500 years of colonisation with many women still wearing the traditional Mayan dress "huipil", a white cotton dress adorned with bright, flowered embroidery.
The guttural Mayan language can be heard all over town as many still speak Spanish as their second language. Tourism is only recently starting to be felt on the streets of Valladolid, and just a few hotels and restaurants are gearing up for this sector, particularly around the main square and along the chic Calle de los Frailes.
Founded by invading Spaniards in 1543, the town also reflects its Spanish roots - its colonnades, pastel stucco and paving-stone streets give Valladolid an Iberian feel. The central cathedral (built with stones from the demolished Mayan pyramid that used to occupy the central square) is the town's focal point and as in Spain, shops are often closed in the afternoon for siesta.
Perhaps reflecting its relatively nascent state as a tourist destination, the townspeople appear genuinely kind, friendly and helpful, which made our few days there among the highlights of our trip to Mexico.
Where to Stay
There is a developing cosmopolitan feel to the town as a number of expatriates restore dilapidated haciendas as homes, art galleries, shops and boutique hotels or guesthouses. Denis Larsen, John and Dorianne Venator and Ariane Dutzi are among those who made this town their home (see What to Do section below), and today are welcoming visitors from all corners of the globe.
Casa Hamaca Guesthouse
One of these expats, American Denis Larsen, trained in industrial design, but moved to Valladolid in 2006 after some years of regular volunteering with a group that installed hurricane-proof roofs on Mayan houses in the region. After complete renovation and extension of the house he purchased, he decided to open his home as a guesthouse in 2008.
Casa Hamaca has 8 rooms varying from US $80 to 130 depending on the season, a swimming pool and a large veranda with hammocks, plants and Mayan artefacts. It's a wonderful place to idle away the hours surrounded by Denis' lush garden, relaxing by the pool, reading and taking stock.
Our room was very spacious and comfortable, with en-suite bathroom, fans and air conditioning. The room rate includes breakfast of coffee, granola and yoghurt, bread, sweet pastries and orange juice, accompanying a freshly cooked egg dish which varies each day.
Breakfast at Casa Hamaca is an exciting part of the day as guests share a long table in a convivial and friendly atmosphere, with Denis on hand to advise on the best things to do. On my second morning there, we spent nearly two hours talking with Denis and a couple from Texas about Mexico and life in general.
Denis told me that he makes a point of encouraging these morning discussions, and also of taking time to talk with each guest about their likes and interests, so he can better advise them about what to do during their stay. Certainly in my case he was able to send me to the best restaurants in town as well as several eclectic attractions in the region, but seemed equally happy to advise bird watchers, fans of fashion, archaeology or Spanish language. Without him, I am sure my visit to Valladolid would have been much the poorer.
Denis is soon to open a Yucatecan cuisine restaurant at the guesthouse, and currently provides Mayan cookery classes with his cook at Casa Hamaca on request, including visits to the municipal market and hands-on cooking in the guesthouse's gorgeous kitchen.
I enjoyed my stay at Casa Hamaca, and would highly recommend it to people travelling in the region looking for something beyond the business or all-inclusive hotel experiences of Cancun. There are only two significant hotels in the town, and neither is of great quality, so I think Denis' Casa Hamaca Guesthouse fills a significant need.
Where to Eat
The Yucatan peninsula's relative isolation from the rest of the country, coupled with a strong Mayan influence, have resulted in a distinctive Mexican regional cuisine, having ingredients and techniques found nowhere else in the country. Achiote (the seeds from the Annatto flower), Chaya (a shrub also known as tree spinach) and Habanero chillies are some of the regional ingredients, and together with Recados (local rubs or marinades that contain dried chilles, spices, herbs and vinegar and are applied to meats and poultry) are the main pillars of this cuisine.
Pork is the main source of protein for Yucatecans, with cochinita pibil (pork cooked underground in a recado of sour oranges and achiote) being the region's most famous dish. In Maya, pib means a hole in the ground, and cooking al pibil is a technique that has been in use for centuries in the region, to cook all kinds of meat underground, wrapped in banana leaves. Despite its plentiful coastline, fish and seafood sadly do not feature highly in the Mayan diet nor in regional restaurants.
Taberna de los Frailes
Undoubtedly the culinary highlight of our stay in Valladolid was dinner at Taberna de los Frailes, overlooking the beautiful ex-convent of San Bernardino de Siena on Calle de los Frailes. The restaurant building blends Mayan and colonial styles, and provides an atmospheric open-air garden setting for diners. It is also home to one of the town's cenotes (limestone sinkholes), and a limited but well thought out wine list including some Mexican options.
We started with a couple of Margaritas, and Nachos Yucatan (£5), crisp corn chips with pureed black beans, topped with crumbled grilled longanisa sausages and Cheddar cheese, and served with jalapenos and chilli sauce. It was a huge plate of deliciously crunchy tacos and creamy flavoursome beans, chorizo-like sausages and melted cheese - utterly divine comfort food.
This was followed by Pipian de Pollo (£8) - roasted chicken breast in a pipian sauce made from pumpkin seeds, tomato and coriander, served with rice and black beans. The pipian sauce was nutty and delicious, but we felt that the chicken was a tad dry.
The Costilla 'Kéek'em (£8) - pork ribs marinated in a Mayan red-spice recado baked in leaves of maculam and aguacatillo (two regional plants), served with black beans and corn chips. The meat was tender and well flavoured, a really delicious dish.
We ordered a bottle of Mexican Chenin Blanc - L. A. Cetto, 2011 from Valle de Guadalupe at £16, which was straightforward, crisp and refreshing. The service at the restaurant was impeccable.
Hosteria del Marques
Lauded as the best restaurant in town, the Hosteria del Marques has fallen off its perch in the eyes of many lately. On our visit, however, we had a perfectly adequate Yucatecan lunch. The setting is lovely, by the main square, in the inner garden courtyard of the eponymous hotel.
We shared two main dishes of Zac Kol de Pollo (puree of corn with spices, tomato sauce, raisins, olives, capers, almonds and chillies) (£6), and Plato typico (grilled pork, quesadilla, taco, guacamole and tortilla chips)(£7). Both were simple but well made and flavoursome. To accompany, we had a dark beer called Leon, priced at £1.80 each.
What to Do
Visit to Chichen Itza
Valladolid is a great base to visit any of the sites within the peninsula, and the archaeological sites of Chichen Itza and Ek Balan are within relatively easy reach.
Chichen Itza is the most famous and best restored of the Yucatan Mayan sites containing many ruins including the famous pyramid or El Castillo, and is a major international draw for visitors to Mexico. We were aware that Denis can arrange transport and guided tours of Chichen Itza, but having arrived via the main bus station, we had already purchased bus tickets (£3.00 return) to the site the next morning. We shared a private guide with three other visitors, for US$15 each, which we thought was well worth the outlay. One word of advice though, is to try to arrive early (the first bus leaves at 8.15), as dozens of coaches from Cancun start to arrive from around 11am.
Casa de los Venados (House of Deer)
On Calle 40, just next to the main square, Casa de los Venados is a sensationally restored colonial mansion, the private residence of an American couple, John and Dorianne Venator, who now live in Valladolid. Having spent 35 years building a collection of over 3000 pieces of contemporary Mexican folk art, they then spent nearly 10 years on a spectacular restoration of a derelict mansion to house it (and themselves). Since 2010, they have been accepting visits by individuals or small groups each morning at 10am for tours in English or Spanish (no appointment necessary, just turn up and ring the doorbell).
Tours last about an hour, and take in the whole house and garden, swimming pool and private living quarters except for the upstairs rooms. The front part of the house is meticulously restored, and laid out as a series of guest rooms facing a central courtyard.
The rear of the house is in a contemporary style, including an eye-popping bridge over a very inviting looking swimming pool. Almost every inch of the house is covered with contemporary Mexican art, pottery and sculpture. I loved it, and if you look at the pictures below, you may see why.
Tours of this privately owned home are free, but participants are asked to make a minimum donation of 60 pesos (£3.50) which goes to local charities. A must-do for any visitor to Valladolid.
Unique to the Yucatan peninsula, cenotes are a geological feature named after the Mayan word D'zonot, meaning water filled cavern, formed by the erosive effect of rainwater drilling down through the porous limestone. An estimated 3,000 of these limestone sinkholes dot the landscape, and it is from here that the Mayans derived their fresh water, while today's visitors are able to enjoy their crystalline waters for swimming and snorkelling. There are dozens around Valladolid, and many are suitable to visit or swim in. The Cenote Sagrado at Chichen Itza, is one of the largest, but is not suitable for swimming. It is impressive nevertheless and many Mayan artefacts, gold and jewellery as well as human bones have been recovered from its base over the last 100 years. It is now known that in Mayan times, all sorts of people including children, the elderly and sick, were obliged to take an eternal swim in its depths.
Around the town
On Calle 42, Dutzi Design is the boutique where German expat Ariane Dutzi runs her own line of locally handmade bags from vintage burlap and raphia designed by her but made by Mayan women in Valladolid. I bought a cool iPad cover from the shop for £15.
Xtabentun is the local Mayan beverage known as the liqueur of the gods, and two doors away from Dutzi Design on Calle 42, is the shop Sosa, where you can have a tasting of this aniseed and honey-flavoured drink, and purchase a bottle if you wish.
On the increasingly swish Calle de los Frailes, Coqui Coqui Perfumes is the place where you can sip coffee with the beautiful people. Opened by a former Argentinian model, Coqui Coqui is a perfumery, artisanal shop and vintage coffee house, and has a single room for holiday rentals which is apparently almost always busy. Susanna, the manageress, was a delight to speak to, and the setting is exquisite.
Parque San Juan, Calle 49 N 202-A x 40, Valladolid, Yucatan, 97780 Mexico
Mob: +52 (985) 100 4270
Home: +52 (985) 856 5287
Taberna de los Frailes.
Calle 49 x 41-A, Barrio de Sisal, Valladolid
Reservations:+52 (985) 856 0689
E mail: email@example.com
El Meson del Marques,
Calle 39 #203 x 40 y 42 Col. Centro, Valladolid
Tel: +52 (985) 856 2073/3042/3571
Fax: +52 (985) 2280
Casa de los Venados (House of Deer)
Calle 40 #204 x 41 col. Centro
Valladolid, Yucatan Mexico
Tel: +52 (985) 856 2289
Calle 42 No. 217, Valladolid
Tel: +52 (985) 856 2021
Coqui Coqui Valladolid Residence & Spa
Calle 41a #207a Col. Sisal, Valladolid.
Tel: +52 (985) 85 65 129