Ask your friends who have been to Yucatán where they’ve visited, and they’ll most likely say Cancún, Chichen Itza pyramid and cenote Ik Kil. One is the spring break destination par excellence and the others postcard-perfect tourist magnets. Large and modern highways take you from one to the other uninterrupted, in air-conditioned tour buses.
But hidden in the dense jungle and little pueblos are other wonders, both man-made and nature-made. So we thought we’d start our coverage of our Mexico trip with these lesser-known wonders, and leave Chichen Itza to next week.
Our base is the colonial town of Valladolid, named a pueblo mágico in 2012 by the Mexican Tourism Board, referring to the promotional initiative to recognize uniquely beautiful and culturally-significant towns around the country. Not only is it a charming town, but traveling in and around Valladolid revealed some crazy fun adventures.
Traveling from Nicaragua to Valladolid
Tom Cruise had it easy in the movie American Made. Getting from Nicaragua to our destination of Valladolid was more difficult than anticipated… And we were carrying protein bars, not cocaine!
We left Nicaragua early on a Sunday morning, with a 1-hour layover in Costa Rica. We almost didn’t make it to Mexico, as the plane initially couldn’t land in Costa Rica and circled half and hour around the San José airport. We barely made it to our flight to Mexico, but safely landed a the Cancún airport later in the afternoon. We had booked a rental car with Mex Rent for 35€, but what actually happened proved to be very different and quite a hassle.
First, we couldn’t remember which rental company we had booked, and there was no Internet in the airport. So we went to each car rental counter asking if they had our name in the list. None of them did, but they all tried to rent us a car, advertising great rates. We finally found our printed confirmation with Mex Rent and had to go out of the airport to find the office. We arrived to find a few customers lined up and about 6 or 7 employees at the counter. For unknown reasons, the queue advanced at snail pace, with 5 or 6 employees seemingly ignoring customers. The only employee actively working seemed quite stressed. After waiting over half an hour, we finally arrived at the counter, only to find the 35€ we had booked the car for (and had already paid) were turning to about 120€ (and we couldn’t modify the reservation length from 4 days to 5 days like we wanted).
So we ditched the agency, walked out, and miraculously found the kind lady from Alamo Rental Cars, who had offered us a great deal, walking on the sidewalk. When she saw us calling her from across the street, she smiled knowingly. We followed her to the nearby Alamo office, where service was much much faster and more helpful. We rented a car at the discounted price she had promised, and after a 20 min wait (there were a lot of customers waiting for their cars), we got into our car and drove away. Sidenote: I always use rental car brokers when traveling around the world, and I often end up with Alamo; they’re often the best choice between cheap prices and local availability; they don’t always have the most modern car fleet, but their service is always great, and they offer fair fuel policy.
We had planned to spend our first 2 nights in Valladolid, but this could have ended differently had it not been for our Mexican guardian angels. After driving over an hour on the highway from Cancún to Valladolid, cutting through the Yucatan jungle, we reached a toll. You can imagine our surprise when they said they only accepted cash… We didn’t have any!
I asked -in my best Spanish- if there was any way we could figure out a workaround; we weren’t going to drive back to Cancún to get to an ATM! Almost miraculously, I had a 20€ bill with me. The toll employee said we could stop cars at the toll and ask them to exchange it for local Mexican pesos. I was quite puzzled that anyone would accept; I mean, can you imagine a toll employee asking you, in your home country: “Sorry, but would you mind giving me 20€ in exchange for these 460 Mexican Pesos?” I mean come on! You need your 20€, and WHY would you waste your own time going at a currency converter shop to get your 20€ back?
After a few cars declined, and hope was dimming, our Good Samaritan appeared! A car of 5 kind ladies, amused at our ordeal, kindly exchanged my 20€ bill, and I don’t even think they charged me an interest rate! Gracias angelitas!
So finally we could reach Valladolid, at the ever-so-lovely Casa de Angel, an AirBnB in the center of town (Tip: Book your first trip with our code to get a $40 discount). This place had an internal patio with trees, where breakfast was served, and our big room had hammocks and a fully-equipped kitchen. It was a great base to go to the main square, which we soon discovered was in full turmoil.
Well, turmoil is the impression Central American religious celebrations give unsuspecting tourists like us. As we already covered in Granada, Nicaragua, they look more like civil wars. Here, sirens were blaring as never-ending groups of runners, bicycles and cars adorning statues of the Virgin Mary and colorful flags passed through the city. This curious procession seemed more like an Olympic ceremony than an honoring of the Mother of Christ, with each group having the colors and coat of arms of their parish.
After walking around the square park, we found shelter from the clatter in a lovely restaurant, Las Campanas. Prices were cheap and the food was delicious, so of course, we tried almost everything! It was a perfect dinner spot, so we even returned our second night! I highly advise you check it out, and taste the Queso Fundido Especial: a large plate of melted cheese, mushrooms, ham, sausage, onions, green peppers and potato, which you can put in little tortillas.
Colonial & Mayan Heritage
The history of Valladolid (named after the Spanish’s capital at the time) is one of ruthless colonialism and struggle. Established by Spanish Conquistadors in 1543 next to a lagoon, it was relocated two years later to a less humid and mosquito-infested place. Only thing is, this place was already occupied by a Maya town called Zaci. Without any concern for the Native population, the Spaniards dismantled the buildings and reused the stones to build their colonial town. This led to a Mayan revolt a year later, which was subdued by the Spanish colonists. In 1847, three hundred years later, the Mayan rioted and killed 80 whites, which quickly turned into a general uprising led by a leader named Jacinto Pat. This sparked off the 54-years Caste War of Yucatán of Mayan against the European-descendant population (the “Ladinos”), who quickly left Valladolid (in 1848), a lot of them ambushed and killed on their way out. From the 1850s to 1893, the United Kingdom recognized the Maya free state as an independent nation, but towards the end of the 19th century, Mayan would be forced to cede their land to the state of Mexico, and Valladolid would fall out of Mayan hands once more. Small guerillas would continue in the beginning of the 20th century, but would lead the way to peace treaties.
I write this short history introduction to convey that this town and these colonial buildings are not the “real” version of Disneyland Orlando’s Mexico, but hallowed grounds. Local people were forcibly removed from their homes and people were executed on the public squares.
However, this grim thought can’t help but be replaced by a sense of wonder at seeing this colonial architectural heritage. Starting with:
Convent of San Bernardino de Siena
This is an architectural treasure built in 1552 by the Franciscan order as their seat in Valladolid. Within its walls, it still guards relics used to convert the local population by Christian missionaries at the time.
This very small town 15km west of Valladolid is the location of a Convent Church with quite a unique design. The Iglesia de Jesuscristo De Los Santos De Los Ultimos Dias (that’s a mouthful!) was built by the Spaniars with stones from nearby Mayan temples. Alluding to the violent history mentioned earlier, the Church was practically destoryed during the Caste War, as Mayans tried to eradicated all evidence of Spanish rule. We did see various colonial structures in a state of disrepair around the town.
The church was renovated in 2005, although you can see it has withstood quite a few storms.
On the town square, we met some little kids running around, playing and giggling. I asked the little girl for a photo, and she grabbed her friends (brothers?) and gifted me this beautiful portrait:
The Natural Magic of the Cenotes
Cenotes X’Kekén & Samula
7km (14 min) away from the city center are the Cenotes X’Kekén & Samula, two natural wonders. Cenotes are sinkholes resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock, exposing groundwater underneath the jungle. They were used by Mayans as sources of water or sacrificial sites. Some of them are large open water pools while others are smaller sheltered sites with hardly any water exposed to the surface. X’Kekén & Samula are closer to the latter; they are effectively water caves with stalactites hanging from the ceiling, as a small opening lets in a majestic ray of sunlight.
We went there between 9am and 11am in the morning and had that huge place all to ourselves. You pay around $8 for the entrance and are shown around the ground and led to the cenotes.
And let me tell you: you have to be there to understand the magic of these cenotes! Walking down a staircase heading into the earth, you arrive in a gigantic cave which slowly reveals its beauty as you near the pristine clear water. Your voice echoes against the cave walls, home to bats who fly around between the darkness and the rays of the sun.
As soon as you put your feet in the water, little fishes gather around them and start eating the dead skin. Essentially a natural fish pedicure!
We highly highly advise going to Cenotes X’Kekén & Samula; you can even have birthday parties there! Jarelle’s little sister, know that your big brother will take you there one day! He pinky sweared with me.
Hacienda Selva Maya & Cenote Samaal
Coming out to the main road from the X’Keken & Samula parking, we saw a big sign for an all-you-can-eat buffet, in front of a colonial-style hacienda, named Selva Maya (#BroographyApproved!). We stopped there and entered the humongous restaurant hall, which had a buffet the length of a football stadium, offering delicious local & international buffet food [Video coming soon]. We were almost alone, and could take our pick of the litter. We were pleasantly surprised to learn our ridiculously cheap $10 buffet ticket included the visit of a cenote on the hacienda group, one we hadn’t heard of.
So we filled our belly with about 5 plates of food each, from fish, to chicken, to pork, to beef, to pasta, to rice, to vegetables, to fruits, to flans, and Pina Coladas, while debating if Dwayne The Rock Johnson would make a good US president (unanimous Yes!).
We then walked 5 minutes to the nearby Cenote Samaal included with our meal. We discovered an even more impressive and massive open-air cenote with creepers hanging from the edge, and a freaking waterfall! (say what now?). Judge for yourself:
There are probably other attractions in and around Valladolid that we missed, but we can only recommend that you stay at least 2 days there and explore. It truly deserves its Pueblo Magico denomination. We hope this short history and highlights from our stay there will motivate you to book your plane and go visit. This was only the start of our trip to Yucatán, but it couldn’t have started any better!
Here’s a Google My Map of the locations mentioned in this article: