Valladolid, Mexico: The Pearl of the Yucatán
The air in Valladolid sizzles with a hint of magic. Perhaps its multiple crystal-clear cenotes, charming cobblestone streets, and proximity to the iconic ruins of Chichén Itzá are in part why this colorful city seems to tug at your heartstrings.
Valladolid was the final colonial town of our Mexico circuit as we rounded the Yucatán Peninsula. The friendly people, relaxed atmosphere, and natural attractions made our week-long stay extraordinary. I didn't want to leave!
Below I've assembled a list of our top experiences with a separate section for day trips. I guarantee a visit to this Pueblo Mágico (magic town) will make you fall in love with Mexico.
The historic center is a tourist hotspot and a captivating area to explore. Begin with a walk around the Parque Principal Francisco Cantón Rosado. Rest your feet at one of the several white benches surrounding the beautiful fountain with adorable frogs. The symmetrical twin towers of Iglesia de San Servacio will definitely grab your attention.
The picturesque square also features spectacular shows highlighting Yucatán culture. Every afternoon around 4:00 PM, you can watch a traditional jarana tap dance performance. The handmade ternos (white dresses with intricate lace and multicolored flowers) are mesmerizing!
If you desire to learn about the city's history, join a free walking tour with a local. Look for the guides holding red umbrellas by the Mestiza Fountain. Free Walking Tour Valladolid departs every day at 10:00 AM, 5:00 PM, and 7:00 PM. Tours last about an hour and are available in English and Spanish.
Calzada de los Frailes
My favorite street in all of Mexico is Calle 41A (Friars Causeway) which connects the historic center and Sisal neighborhood. The quaint three-block section is adorned with eclectic shops, cafés, boutique hotels, and restaurants. The colorful buildings, potted palms, and Volkswagen beetles add to the splendorous effect.
Parroquia de San Bernardino de Siena
This former convent, built by the Franciscan Order in 1552, is a grand example of colonial architecture. The stone exterior features an arched walkway with a series of battlements. Inside the chapel is a Baroque gilded wooden altarpiece.
The best way to appreciate this complex is at night. A dazzling free sound and light show covering the history of Valladolid takes place Tuesday-Sunday, at 9:00 PM (Spanish)/9:25 PM (English).
Valladolid has a wide variety of restaurants for every palate. Some must-try Yucatán dishes include cochinita pibil (slow roasted pork served with corn tortillas and pickled onions), sopa de lima (chicken broth with lime juice and seasonings), and pavo relleno negro (turkey in an earthy dark sauce with tortillas). Check out some of my favorite picks below.
• Breakfast - X-Mahana serves authentic and hearty food in a cozy space. Try the chilaquiles verdes (tortilla chips bathed in a tomatillo-based salsa) with either chicken or fried eggs. The portions are huge so come hungry! If you are in search of healthy fare, order up a fresh juice or smoothie at Le Kaat. The beautiful garden setting is a tranquil place to fuel your body.
• Lunch - Is it possible to ever be tired of tacos? I don't think so! I have two recommendations on opposite sides of the spectrum. First up is the BBQ tacos at Don Gato y Su Parilla; a no-frills joint run by Damien who will entice your patronage with a sample of whatever is on the grill. Grab a seat at the only table and strike up a conversation with the muchachos (guys). My other pick took me by surprise. The grilled salmon tacos with carrots and greens at Conato Valladolid were seasoned to perfection. The bohemian atmosphere and cocktails are reason enough to visit.
• Dinner - Agustín Gusto is a great place on the main plaza to sip margaritas and people watch. Try the fresh aguachile (poached shrimp in a chili citrus sauce) and savory sikil p'ak (ground pumpkin seed with roasted tomato, onion, garlic, and fresh herbs) served with tortilla chips. Another wonderful dinner option is Restaurante Ahal. Share an order of guacamole followed by the black mole chicken enchiladas and pork panuchos (fried tortillas stuffed with refried black beans). The warm string lights add to the romantic ambience.
Valladolid is an ideal launch point for exciting day trips. Grand Maya ruins, flamingos, majestic cenotes, and idyllic towns are only a few hours away!
Jump into one of the many freshwater cenotes around Valladolid for a unique nature experience. Cenotes are natural limestone sinkholes with exposed groundwater. The Maya considered cenotes sacred and often performed ritual sacrifices in the water to appease the gods. As the only source of freshwater in the Yucatán besides rain, cenotes were essential for Maya prosperity.
There are four types of cenotes: open air (similar to lagoons), semi-open (with a small skylight), closed (cavelike), and deep open (cylindrical with vertical walls). Most tour companies include a stop at a cenote in combination with other attractions, but I highly recommend renting a bike or car to explore at your own pace.
We spent an afternoon riding approximately 60 minutes roundtrip to three cenotes: Samulá (semi-open), Xkekén (closed), and San Lorenzo Oxman (deep open). There is a paved bike path most of the way beginning just outside the city. The rain didn't wreck our enthusiasm since we planned to get wet anyway!
All three cenotes have adorable small catfish eager to investigate your presence. The sheer size of the cenotes and clarity of the teal water will make your jaw drop. My favorite was the San Lorenzo Oxman cenote with its rope swing, lush fauna, and dangling tree roots.
TIP: All of the aforementioned cenotes are cash only and lifejackets are mandatory. Check out the X'Canché cenote (deep open) next to the Ek Balam Maya ruins if you want to swim without a lifejacket.
One of the most emblematic and popular Maya ruins is Chichén Itzá. This must-see site is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World! Its main pyramid, the Temple of Kukulcán (El Castillo), is renowned for the phenomenon of a descending shadow serpent during the spring and fall equinoxes.
Chichén Itzá was a prominent Maya site between 600-1200 AD. The Puuc and Chenes styles are seen in ornate façades with masks and glyphs. Notable structures include the Great Ball Court (the largest in Mesoamerica), Skull Platform, Observatory, and Temple of the Warriors (featuring a statue of Chacmool).
Brad and I visited Chichén Itzá in 2014, during our first trip to Mexico. I can't attest to its current state, but touring the site was a spectacular experience. We opted for a tour guide, but with a bit of research I believe Chichén Itzá would be an enjoyable DIY site as well.
TIP: Chichén Itzá is open every day, 8:00 AM-5:00 PM. Tickets cost $533 pesos ($26 USD) per person.
The biodiversity in Mexico is extraordinary. If you desire to see wildlife in a natural setting take a boat ride from the town of Río Lagartos to the nearby Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve.
Our excursion with MexiGo Tours was a blast! We saw crocodiles, flamingos, herons, gulls, ospreys, and even a horseshoe crab. Plus the mud bath (white clay with salt) was a fun way to rejuvenate our skin.
The main reason I wanted to go was to see flamingos in the wild. My only other encounter was at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada during our combined bachelor and bachelorette parties. Luckily flamingos are always present in the reserve, but high season is between March-June.
Ready to discover a small town bursting with rays of vibrant sunshine? Izamal, nicknamed the Yellow City, has colonial buildings painted in various shades of yellow with white accents. Wandering the monochrome streets will make you feel as if you stepped into another realm!
The best way to approach Izamal is without a plan. Slow down and admire the beauty as you soak up the warm glow. Sample Yucatán cuisine, take a ride in a horse and buggy, and give your camera a workout.
So why yellow? Apparently the locals wanted to impress Pope John Paul II during his visit in 1993, since yellow is the primary color of the Vatican flag. Another theory is early inhabitants wanted to honor the Maya sun god, Kinich Ahau, with the hue.
Completed in 1561, the Convento de San Antonio de Padua is a gorgeous monastery with an arcaded courtyard and faded frescoes. There is also a pretty stained-glass window of the Virgin Mary.
TIP: I recommend to spend at least three hours exploring Izamal. If traveling by bus, be sure to plan ahead and check timetables.
In a Nutshell
You can't go wrong with Valladolid. The city has everything at your fingertips including nature, adventure, ancient ruins, nightlife, and tasty restaurants. Authenticity prevails even with the influx of tour buses on their way to Chichén Itzá.
Merida, Valladolid's neighbor to the west, often takes the spotlight for travelers. I was at odds with Merida's modernity during our two-week stay. We enjoyed the movie theaters, casinos, and shopping malls, but Valladolid's charming character was a welcomed sight. If I had to pick only one to visit, Valladolid would be the winner!