Traditionally a popular stop en route to the Mayan metropolis of Chichen Itza, Merida or the Gulf Coast biosphere reserve of Rio Lagartos, the Yucatan’s second largest city, Valladolid, is a fascinating travel destination in its own right. A civic program has restored many of the city’s colonial buildings to their former glory and the central square bustles with life.On August 30, 2012 it was declared one of the “Pueblos Magicos” by the Mexico Tourism Board and now joins another Yucatecan colonial treasure Izamal in the Pueblos Magicos listing, a collection of magical communities scattered throughout the country that are rich in history, traditions, their craft or culinary heritage, festivals or natural beauty and that no visitor should miss.
Affectionately referred to as the “Sultana of the East” by local people, Valladolid is steeped in history. Attracted by a huge cenote (sinkhole), which was the only source of fresh water in the area, the Maya first settled here during the Post-Classic period (900 – 1521 A.D.), calling the site Zaci or Saci in honor of one of their leaders. Also called Zaci, the cenote still exists and is accessible from Calle 36. With sheer rock walls festooned with jungle creepers and swallows skimming the surface of the green water to scoop up insects, the cenote is reminiscent of the much larger Sacred Well at Chichen Itza. There is a rustic restaurant overlooking the cenote and the view at the full moon is breathtaking.
The Coming of the Spaniards
In 1543, despite fierce resistance from the Maya, Francisco de Montejo El Mozo and his followers overran Zaci, destroyed the temples and founded their own city, laying the streets out around the main square in a grid. During the Colonial Period, Valladolid was the commercial center of the eastern Yucatan and was dominated by a handful of Spanish families.
In 1847, centuries of exploitation and social injustice came to a head and the bloody uprising known as the Caste War exploded in Tepich, a Mayan community to the south, and quickly spread to Valladolid. The Maya attacked the city with such fury that the citizens who survived the initial raid were forced to beat a retreat to Merida.
Strolling through the park in the tranquil central square, it is hard to imagine that Valladolid had such a violent past, yet the paintings by Marco Lizama, which line the balcony at City Hall, depict the Spanish Conquest and Caste War, in addition to Valladolid’s most important native sons. Behind City Hall, the tiny San Roque Museum features displays on city history, including La Chispa, a 1910 uprising against social injustice that was the spark that ignited the Mexican Revolution.
The San Servasio Cathedral (built in 1705 on the site of an earlier church dating from 1545) dominates the main square and the Valladolid skyline, its twin towers visible from every part of the city. As night falls, the bells summon worshippers to evening mass and visitors can sometimes witness the arrival of local brides. Seven other barrios or neighborhoods such as Santa Lucia and La Candelaria have their own smaller colonial chapels and a stroll through the streets and squares to visit them is highly recommended.
San Servasio Cathedral – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico
The city’s other major landmark is the imposing San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent, 1.5 kilometers to the southwest of the square along Calle 41 and 41-A. Founded by the Franciscans in 1552, the San Bernardino complex was the center of missionary work with Mayan communities in the eastern Yucatán. Another cenote lies under the floor of the convent and there is also a network of tunnels from the mission leading across the city. History tells us that they were used in times of strife.
San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico
The convent is now the site of many cultural and community events during the year and the lawn in front of the building is a popular meeting place for local people.
En route to the church and convent, visitors can stroll along the Calzada de los Frailes and see some of the colonial houses that have been renovated as part of the city’s Heritage program. Other Valladolid landmarks include the exhibition of Mayan ceramics in Los Portales on the main square, a perfumery creating fragrances from native flowers and herbs, jewelry and textile workshops. You can even watch chocolate being made using traditional Mexican techniques and cacao grown in the Maya World.
Located at Calle 40, a short walk from the main square is Casa de los Venados or the “House of the Deer.” Built between 1600 and 1620, this impressive casona or hacienda-style house was once the home of the Alcalde or Mayor during the Colonial period. Abandoned since 1964 and crumbling into ruin, it was purchased by American couple John and Dorianne Venator ten years ago and has been lovingly restored. Merida-based architect William Ramirez has blended contemporary architecture with the original colonial features and facade in a way that has won the house awards in architectural competitions in Yucatan, Mexico and in Costa Rica.
In addition to being a private home, Casa de los Venados also houses a collection of Mexican folk and contemporary art, the reflection of a lifelong passion for Mexico. More than 3,000 pieces ranging from giant trees of life, ceramic jaguars and carved wooden masks to Day of the Dead art, Frida Kahlo-inspired tiles and murals by local artists are exhibited throughout the house in what is one of the extensive collections of folk art in private hands, and a joyous celebration of the creativity, color and humor of the country’s artisans. Tours of Casa de los Venados and its collection can be arranged with an advance reservation and visitors are asked to give a 60-peso donation to the owners’ charitable foundation to support local causes such as a clinic and community health programs, education and the arts in Valladolid.
Sightseeing over, spend some time sitting on a park bench or stroll through the main square for a glimpse of life in the Yucatan. Visit the market and the Craft Center to shop for locally made embroidered dresses, hammocks, straw hats, leather, gold filigree jewelry and honey. You’ll also find a good selection of crafts from other parts of the country in La Casona, another colonial mansion restored by the Xcaret Group that is now a restaurant serving delicious Yucatecan cuisine. Be sure to sample some of the city’s culinary specialties: lomitos de Valladolid (roast pork) and longaniza (spicy chorizo-style sausage).
Main Square – Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico
Getting to Valladolid
Valladolid is 160 km/100 miles from Cancun via the toll road and Highway 180. Thomas More Travel offers trips to the town and also to Valladolid and Ek Balamon Thursdays. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. If you would like to explore at your own pace, side trips to Dzitnup Cenote, five minutes to the west of town, Ik-Kil Cenote, 30 minutes away en route to Chichen Itza, and the ancient Mayan site of Ek Balam, 20 minutes to the north on the highway to Tizimin and the Gulf Coast are recommended.